By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Nope, it’s not a character study about the famous Lakota chief. Nor is it a drama about a spooked runaway steed.
Crazy Horse is, instead, a backstage/onstage documentary about a nudie Parisian cabaret. Make that the nudie Parisian cabaret.
But before you dismiss this backstage visit to a legendary, chic, semi-nude Parisian nightclub as sexploitational, know that it comes from distinguished American documentarian and virtual anthropologist Frederick Wiseman, who has delivered nearly 40 feature-length, cinema-verite documentaries over the years, including explorations of a wide array of mostly American institutions (High School, Law & Order, Welfare, Zoo, Public Housing, and Boxing Gym), inevitably letting his audience draw its own conclusions.
So, with this examination of “the place where the naked ladies dance,” Crazy Horse, which completes his French cultural trilogy of iconic high-art institutions of Paris (La Comedie-Francaise ou L’amour joue and La Danse — The Paris Opera Ballet) with a ten-week observational excursion throughout Le Crazy Horse de Paris, a landmark that has been billing itself since 1951 as the “best nude dancing show in the world” as it offers two shows a night, seven days a week.
And oh, yes, the ensemble of beautiful young women, most of them trained in ballet, who perform in Crazy Horse are what might be described as “tastefully naked.” To describe their costumes as skimpy would be just plain silly, though. They passed “skimpy” last Tuesday.
I, um, hardly noticed.
Crazy Horse is not, its staff would quickly explain, a strip club. The audience is not men only but also women and couples, and the exacting artistic standards in lighting and choreography and other production values are admirable and obvious.
As for the women performing, they are chosen for their startlingly similar physiques, appearing as if they are painted objects on an artist’s canvas, part of an entertaining and geometrical — and uniform — sensual (as opposed to sexual) illusion.
Which makes it appropriate, then, that Wiseman never allows any of the dancers to emerge and make herself known to us in any individual way. But that curious omission also makes the work seem unfinished or incomplete somehow.
As is his wont, master documentarian Wiseman eschews voiceover narration — no commentary, no questions, no talking-head interviews, no grandstanding on-screen appearance by the director — and instead simply roams around backstage and insinuates his way into the dressing rooms and meeting rooms and onto the nightclub stage as the struggle for one form of perfection or another continues.
And during each performance, we get the best seat in the house.
He shoots on high-definition video and gives us polished and complete stage routines, carefully choreographed and thoughtfully designed, that are sort of an erotic burlesque: Busby Berkeley meets Bob Fosse meets Cirque du Soleil.
What they are currently working on and trying to perfect as we drop in is a new show called “Desire,” to go along with routines like “Evolution” and “Upside Down.”
Wiseman takes his time (too much time, it turns out — the editing is on the slack side) with his impressionistic visual essay, and we eventually miss the lack of a more pointed narrative structure.
But we appreciate that Wiseman neither condemns nor champions. He merely respects, regards, and records for posterity. Whatever he finds interesting, we find interesting.
Sometimes his fly-on-the-wall style provides us with privileged moments, other times it denies us answers to the questions we can’t help but wonder about.
Whether this is, when you get right down to it, simple voyeurism or naughty escapism, whether it’s ultimately prurient or titillating or erotic, is left up to the viewer. Either way, it’s a celebration of the female form and the enjoyment we get, of one sort or another, looking at it.
So we’ll saddle up 2½ stars out of 4 for the diverting dancing-with-desire documentary Crazy Horse, which offers plenty of skin but not enough skinny, plenty of show but not enough tell.