Crazy Horse, a documentary about strippers, is one of the most beautiful films you’ll see this year. Beauty isn’t the word that immediately springs to mind when thinking of nonfiction films, particularly ones made in the wonderfully obdurate method of Frederick Wiseman. With five decades and 39 features under his belt, the nonfiction legend has stayed resolute to an unobtrusive, purely observational shooting style; his subjects uniformly say they never know he’s there.
Yet Wiseman has always been adamant about distinguishing his methods from mere “fly-on-the-wall” filmmaking. He’s against mere objectivity, believing reality exists to be manipulated into art. (A notion that differs from the Mike Daisey style of simply lying.) His latter-day work has even strived for a pictorial beauty his classic, grittier works (Titicut Follies, High School) by necessity avoided. With Boxing Gym, he shot in strikingly cramped spaces with B&W video. In La Danse and Crazy Horse , both about Parisian dancers, it’s the element of performance that summons his lurking stylist.
Granted, the majority of Crazy Horse is classic Wiseman: an exposition-free hang-out that offers the usual Wiseman-esque view of an institution as a precarious balance, in this case between art and commerce. Set at the Crazy Horse, Paris’ most esteemed nude cabaret, it’s a mix of performances and rehearsals, menial labor and tense meetings. Every now and then, it stops dead to preserve on record the joint’s elaborate numbers. Boasting bold colors, these performances fall somewhere between art and kitsch: a space ballet with dancers wearing little beyond helmets; blocks of women in ’60s go-go silhouettes; body parts teasingly reflected in a horizontal mirror; a woman, nude save a pube-shield, caught in a pas de deux with a wandering spotlight.
It’s here that Wiseman is no longer a fly on the wall but intent on capturing the performance from the ideal angle. He even includes a shot, late in, that’s simply a sea of bare asses, gorgeously lit to resemble sand dunes in the moonlight—the people we’ve spent time with now reduced to mere objects. It’s the kind of moment most would write off as too abstract, but Wiseman knows that documentaries aren’t journalism. They’re cinema.