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In Frederick Wiseman's bawdy Crazy Horse, unclothed Parisian showgirls enlist as "soldiers in the erotic army"

Horse de Combat

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It's fitting, however ironically, that The Belcourt was showing the bawdy trailer for Crazy Horse before Steve McQueen's Shame. McQueen may unveil Michael Fassbender naked in his very first scene, but the movie means to exterminate any pleasure or desire a spectator might feel. Crazy Horse, by contrast, is a cinema vérité trip to a famous Paris burlesque club, cheerfully up-front and unembarrassed about its fascination with casual nudity.

More striking still, it's the work of Frederick Wiseman, the master documentarian who has spent a lifetime examining the world's social institutions, from asylums and high schools to ski resorts and fishing towns. As powerful as Wiseman's work generally is, little of it could be called "fun" or "entertaining." Crazy Horse is the exception that proves the rule. Apart from La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, which turned into a minor arthouse hit a few years ago, it's the closest he's come to making a backstage musical.

Lit with garish, stylized colors, the centerpiece of the Crazy Horse, which has been running since 1951, is a revue called Desir. Wiseman's film depicts the club during a period when choreographer Philippe Decoufle tries to revamp the hoary revue, suggesting that the Crazy Horse be shut down for a period to enable him to work out some kinks. That suggestion doesn't fly with its management. Crazy Horse alternates this behind-the-scenes drama with the theater's main attractions: suggestive songs and risqué dance numbers such as "Baby Buns."

Inspired by Truman Capote's "nonfiction novel" In Cold Blood, Wiseman made a joke years ago about his films being "reality fictions" rather than documentaries. The term stuck, perhaps because there's not a more convenient description for what he does — unfold narratives through close, unadorned observation and accumulation of detail. His tendency to hide his own directorial presence has led some spectators to act as though his films are the product of a nonjudgmental fly on the wall, but his immense skill is clear from the way he frames and edits the Crazy Horse performances. Shooting on HD video without using additional light, the director makes the most of the club's lush design, which rivals Dario Argento's Suspiria for color-saturated spectacle.

Wiseman may not editorialize, but one can always tell what he thinks of the institutions he depicts. While he seems to approve of the Crazy Horse, though, his treatment is no mere pat on the back. Several acquaintances have described Crazy Horse as "a dirty old man's movie"; leaving aside the dubious benefits of combating sexism with ageism, this putdown ignores the lengthy sequence devoted to dancer's auditions at the club. The women who aspire to join the Crazy Horse troupe are talented dancers and singers, but the club's management regards them only as bodies — or more precisely, commodities. Clad only in panties and shoes, they're told to line up in a row onstage, for inspection of merchandise.

Of course, we, like Wiseman, are watching too. Yet through the director's unwavering gaze, it quickly becomes apparent how narrow and objectifying the Crazy Horse's ideal of beauty is. The club quickly rejects a transgender dancer — "We don't hire transsexuals" — and all of its dancers appear to be white. And unlike Shame, the club features no male nudity. It's as vanilla as erotic fantasy gets.

But Wiseman sees much to admire in the performers' unabashed frankness, their embrace of their playfully candid exhibitionism, and their attempt to subvert their exploitative roles with artistry and creativity. The revue's songs portray the Crazy Horse dancers as "soldiers in the erotic army," and if Wiseman celebrates the club's eroticism, he's far from uncritical of it. Crazy Horse shows how much work goes into winning the battles of the erotic army, even if the real warfare is going on behind the curtains.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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