Though 44 years have elapsed between Frederick Wiseman’s first film, Titicut Follies, and his 40th, Crazy Horse, some things haven’t changed in the venerable filmmaker’s eyes.
Back in 1967, when Titicut Follies was first shown, viewers were outraged by scenes that showed inmates from the State Prison for the Criminally Insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, naked.“A lot of people were very upset by the nudity in that movie,” said Wiseman. “That was particularly odd because they weren’t upset that they (the inmates) were being kept in those conditions. But they were upset that it was shown. I found that a bit hypocritical.”
The documentary was banned for decades because Massachusetts’ Supreme Court ruled that it had violated inmate privacy. It was not seen again in public until its 1992 PBS broadcast.
Of course there’s an element of stripping down in all Wiseman’s films. We’re invited to be a fly on the wall while his subjects transition into natural and unselfconscious behavior. And without the usual talking heads, inter-titles and voiceovers that accompany too many documentaries, there are no distractions to follow Wiseman right along. He’s bared many subjects over the decades, including hospital workers (Hospital), high school students (High School, POV 2001), domestic abuse victims (Domestic Violence), and more recently, the members of a boxing gym (Boxing Gym).
In the case of the Crazy Horse, a club whose musical revue involves naked dancers, the fact that the girls are undressed is almost beside the point. It’s their costume, really, like those nurses, lawyers and ballet dancers of his other films. Of course, there is less focus on buttocks in those other films.
“I mean the whole thing about nudity I find really strange,” said Wiseman. “Everybody knows what men and women look like naked. It’s no surprise to anybody. You grow up seeing brothers and sisters. You might see your parents. Eventually you see your lovers. I don’t understand why it’s such a big deal.”
I wasn’t quite buying the whole cerebral approach, though. I watched the movie and I don’t care of you’re straight, gay, male or female, the movie is sexy. I found myself getting aroused on a number of occasions. What about the filmmaker? While he looked through his lens, did he get turned on at all?
“Oh, yeah,” said Wiseman. “Sometimes I actually found them more attractive in rehearsal than in the performance. Because in the rehearsal they aren’t wearing the makeup and the wigs. They looked more like attractive young women, whereas during the performance, sometimes their individuality was lost. So, I personally found them sexier in the rehearsals.”
Wiseman was recently lauded at the Cinema Eye Honors, an awards show for nonfiction filmmaking where he was given the Legend Award for Titicut Follies. The gala took place only days before the opening of the new film. I asked him about a remark he made during his acceptance speech where he expressed appreciation for the recognition.
I asked, “After all these years, does that recognition still mean a lot to you?” While I thought we had bonded over a conversation about Dionysian aesthetics, the filmmaker didn’t want his words misinterpreted.
“I meant that it was nice the film was recognized.”
Crazy Horse has begun a theatrical run at Film Forum in New York City, and it will start screening in other cities starting today. Check the film’s Facebook page for information on show times.