Interview: Director Frederick Wiseman Pays Visit to Parisian Cabaret in ‘Crazy Horse’

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CHICAGO – Frederick Wiseman doesn’t pretend to be an expert on the locations that he explores in his documentaries. It’s his meticulous attention to detail during production that makes the audience feel as if they are truly immersed in the environment of Wiseman’s films. Only during the editing process does the director find the meaning within the images.

Wiseman’s approach to nonfiction cinema is utterly organic and often very revealing. His formidable filmography, comprised of 37 documentaries and two fiction works, began with 1967’s “Titticut Follies,” which took a brutally frank and vital look at the abuse inside the Massachusetts Correctional Institution Bridgewater. The director’s repeated study of disturbing subject matter led some of his peers, such as Errol Morris, to deem his work “misanthropic,” but Wiseman insists that’s not the case. His latest film, “Crazy Horse,” pays exuberant tribute to the dancers of the titular parisian cabaret led by acclaimed choreographer Philippe Decouflé. Hollywood Chicago briefly spoke with the legendary director about his lack of preparation prior to shooting, his dismissal of the term “cinema verité,” and why he chooses not to conduct interviews. What inspired you to make three films—“La Danse,” “Boxing Gym” and “Crazy Horse”—that are focused primarily on the creative process of artists within their respective institutions?

Frederick Wiseman: Simply an interest in the subjects. Many of my films deal with different aspects of the body. “Domestic Violence” [was about] violence towards the body; the military films “Basic Training,” “Missile” and “Manoeuvre” [were about] the body at the service of the State; “Titticut Follies” [was about] the incarceration of the body; “Model” and “The Store” [were about] the aestheticisation of the body for commercial purposes. The three films in your question all have to do with the control of the body either for aesthetic purposes or in the case of “Boxing Gym,” also the control of aggressive instincts.

Frederick Wiseman
Frederick Wiseman
Photo credit: Gretje Ferguson In what ways do you consider “Crazy Horse” your most abstract film to date?

Wiseman: Because of the great difference between the specific images and what they cumulatively suggest about eroticism. What was your collaboration with cinematographer John Davey like? Was there much discussion about how to photograph the performance footage?

Wiseman: We work together very closely. There is a lot of discussion. The performances were repeated twice a night and three times on Saturday. This gave us a chance to shoot the performance in different ways and evaluate the result by looking at the rushes. This gave me a wide choice in the editing. One of my favorite aspects about “Crazy Horse” is the way in which its lingering gaze and extended running time enables even the most prudish viewers to appreciate the beauty and the elegance of the art form. Generally speaking, do you feel the French have a more mature view of human sexuality than Americans?

Wiseman: I am bad at cultural generalizations but I would venture to say that by a wide margin there is less hypocrisy about sex in France than in America. What are your thoughts regarding the term “cinema verité,” and why don’t you feel that it applies to your work?

Wiseman: It is a pompous French term. I do not think that my films or films by any other filmmaker represent “THE TRUTH.” I do not feel the need to categorize my films or anyone else’s. Is it true that you often begin a project with little to no preparation? If so, what are the benefits of this approach?

Wiseman: Yes. I consider the shooting of the film the research. I do not like to at the place and not be prepared to shoot whatever is going on that interests me. When I am not there, I don’t know what is happening and therefore cannot regret missing something that I did not know happened. In advance, I just like to get a sense of the geography of the place and some sense of the centers of power as well as the daily routine. Usually, I can do this in a day or two. To what extent do you feel a talking head interview is manipulative? Have you ever felt the desire to interview one of your subjects, such as the dancers in “Crazy Horse”?

Wiseman: I do not use interviews because I think they are manipulative. Filmmakers like Marcel Ophuls and Errol Morris are great interviewers and make brilliant films. I do not like to use material that interferes with the viewer having a sense of participation and presence in events as they occur. I think interviews and narration distance the viewer from the subject matter. It is just a question of personal taste not an issue of a right or wrong way to make a movie. I have never felt the desire to interview one of the subjects of my films.

Dancers from The Crazy Horse are featured in Frederick Wiseman’s Crazy Horse.
Dancers from The Crazy Horse are featured in Frederick Wiseman’s Crazy Horse.
Photo credit: Crazy Horse Productions What inspired you to use excerpts of Danny Elfman’s score from “Edward Scissorhands” for the shadow puppet sequences that bookend the picture?

Wiseman: That was the music used in the illusionist’s act and is synchronous with the performance. In the overall context of my movie it may have an additional significance that was not intended in the original act. Why did you decide to include the audition of the transsexual dancer in the final cut?

Wiseman: It amused me in the context of the The Crazy Horse and I thought the comments of the people running the audition relevant to the themes of the film. Were “La Danse,” “Boxing Gym” and “Crazy Horse” intended to be a trilogy? What are your overarching thoughts about the films?

Wiseman: I did not think in terms of a trilogy. One film at a time. The subject of the different uses of the body interests me. All three films, and [1995’s] “Ballet” is a fourth, deal with the training required to control the body and put it at the service of an aesthetic and in the case of professional boxing, a commercial goal.

’Crazy Horse’ was directed by Frederick Wiseman. It opens Feb. 24 at the Music Box. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

Staff Writer

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