By Christopher Campbell | Spout January 17, 2012 at 7:57PM
It may be sacrilege to say this as both a devout Frederick Wiseman fan and a heterosexual male, but “Crazy Horse” doesn’t really do a whole lot for me. This latest documentary from the man behind such nonfiction classics as “Titicut Follies,” “High School” and “Welfare” takes us to the eponymous Paris cabaret, at which nude women perform tacky, cheeky dance routines that seem appropriate for an early ‘90s Playboy video, if only they weren’t so kitschy. With a faux fly-on-the-wall perspective, we look in on the making of the club's new show, Désirs.
Of course “Crazy Horse” is a Wiseman movie, and I can’t really say it’s a bad film any more than I can say he’s a bad person. Neither is true, and I can tell you my interest was greater during my first viewing back in September at the Toronto Film Festival. Perhaps it just lost it's spectacle appeal with another go around. There are Wiseman films that I can watch over and over again, such as “Welfare”and “High School,” and there are those I can’t, such as “Titicut Follies”and “Domestic Violence,” though usually the latter is because of difficult material.
There is nothing in “Crazy Horse” that makes me cringe, yet some of the songs come close. My main disappointment is that I can’t pinpoint any favorite character or scene with this work, like I can with most Wiseman films. There is not much at all that I find memorable outside of the dance sequences, which mostly stuck in my mind because they’re catchy and run a lot longer than I’d expect of any moment captured by Wiseman’s camera.
The bits I do like a lot include an ironic scene in which stylist Fifi Chachnil has difficulty undressing a mannequin, a routine featuring the tap-dancing twins Roman & Slava and anything involving shadow play, especially the film’s bookending hand shadows, which I could watch forever, especially if continually set to Danny Elfman’s “Edward Scissorhands” score (I do wonder if Wiseman has seen that film). There's also a running theme in both the dance numbers and the doc itself regarding illusion, which is fitting for the films of a director who so many people mistake for being genuinely vérité.
Speaking of the Wiseman magic, I also always appreciate the ways in which Wiseman manages to get exposition material through interviews not conducted by him or directly for his film. This time there’s some quick trickery with artistic director Ali Mahdavi seemingly partaking in a conventional documentary interview, but moments later it’s revealed that he’s talking to a reporter, part of a montage of press interviews conveniently accessible to Wiseman’s eavesdropping camera.
The problem for me at least are that I’m rarely that interested in what we’re eavesdropping on. The funny thing about getting a peek into the dancers’ dressing room is that you already get to see them naked on stage anyway. The frustration with many of the behind-the-scenes meetings is they’re just very talky without saying much at all. And the dances themselves, while recognizably talented, clever and chic are a little too predominant for anyone who doesn’t enjoy them.
I understand a film about the Crazy Horse without the show itself being the dominant focus would be, well, crazy. However, after such a terrific year of dance films, from the 3D “PINA” to the young ballet competition doc “First Position,” I’m just not that impressed. And compared to the incredible audition process seen in fellow Toronto doc “Girl Model,” the body-focused auditions at the Crazy Horse appear quite generic.
Not that any of those things are the fault of Wiseman, or even necessarily of the cabaret. I do think this particular film is more dependent on us liking what the documentary is capturing more than how it is being filmed. It’s pretty clear that Wiseman does like what he’s shooting. And obviously the Crazy Horse is liked by millions of other people and is a historical institution that has been the subject of other documentaries and specials and spin-off shows in its sixty years of existence. I’m glad I was introduced to the place through Wiseman’s eye if anyone's, but I just can’t say that even he can make me love what I see there.
It’s not easy to admit to disliking a Wiseman film, less so to myself than to my readers. As I even discussed with the filmmaker last fall (in an interview posted this morning) I think it’s very hard to review Wiseman’s films because they’re all expressions of his experience of the subject. They look like objective works but they are extremely subjective, and it really doesn’t matter if I’m disappointed with “Crazy Horse.” Like other Wiseman docs it is exquisitely crafted, admirable since this is his first fully digital endeavor and it looks downright beautiful. It’s just not my cup of champagne, I guess.
Feel free to tell me I'm crazy.
"Crazy Horse" opens at Film Forum in NYC tomorrow.
Recommended If You Like: Frederick Wiseman; nude cabaret