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The Ass and the Meaning of Life

I adore Crazy Horse, Frederick Wiseman’s documentary about the Crazy Horse Saloon, the Parisian nude revue putting on a show called, appropriately, “Desirs.” Like many of Wiseman’s earlier films, this one uses shadows to illuminate its subject—in this instance, the intense anguish and the fantastical, melancholy, delicious illusions underlying carnal love. Shot in ten weeks in 2009, Crazy Horse is full of stunningly lit, mostly naked female bodies, especially asses, which the French call “les fesses,” and which are the object of a basically untranslatable (though Toni Bentley’s The Surrender contributed significantly to the genre in English) philosophical, historical, artistic, and sexual obsession. “When we speak of les fesses, it is ourselves of whom we speak” is an epigram from a book titled La Face Cachée des Fesses, summing up the French attitude towards the ass. Our bodies, ourselves!

Yet although Wiseman’s film communicates the Crazy Horse’s reverence towards the female rear, some of its most haunting moments do not include nudity. “Crazy Horse” begins and ends with hand shadow-puppet numbers from “Desirs,” scored to the sad music of Edward Scissorhands, a movie about a man with shears for fists who falls in love with, and must forsake, a teen-aged girl. In the last shadow-puppet number, Wiseman begins by showing the real puppeteer behind a screen; then he sweeps around to the audience’s point of view, so that we can see the puppeteer’s creations, as he makes two lovers from his hands, who kiss tentatively and then passionately, and then become a dove and then fly away. Thus Wiseman alludes to the poignant wish for mystery in sex, and concedes that we rush to know what is behind the mystery. But he sagaciously concludes that the latter never satisfies, that the truth about the reality cannot compete with the reality itself. This film is very wise about its subject; its maker is well-named.  

The shadows animating the themes of Crazy Horse are not found only in “Desirs.” They lurk in the past of Le Crazy, as the club is known: the specter of Alain Bernadin, the formidable impresario who founded the club in 1951 and who once described his work as “paint[ing] with light on buttocks,” looms over the revue. “Desirs” includes the first new material since Bernadin’s death in 1994, and what tension exists in the film—Wiseman is never that interested in traditional dramatic tension—centers on the creative teams’ anxiety about whether their numbers are sufficiently Bernadinesque—but also sufficiently of our moment. Also, shadows were at the heart of the first striptease acts in Paris in the 1890s—called “undressing acts” to endow them with a deliciously innocent flavor: the audience watched as a woman behind a screen “accidentally” took off her clothes for some pedestrian reason like getting ready for bed.

Although undressing acts first appeared in Paris, striptease was born here. Energized by the new music, dances, and morays of the Jazz Age, it moved to the proscenium stage and became an homage to—and sometimes a parody of—seduction and sex. Shadows were less important in striptease, which remained popular until the1960s, when pornography and feminism unwittingly combined to make it obsolete. Since then the trend has been, to an even more shadowless, striptease-less sexuality, pace Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes: A Book of Raunch, where everyone is cheerfully, untormentedly, proudly fucking. 

Since Crazy Horse is a Wiseman film, it has attracted some suggestion that this is an inappropriate subject for the man who in his early years was considered a reformer. All these asses, from the camera of an 81-year old!! And Le Crazy’s unironic idea of the eternal feminine: it is out of touch, no? The performers are robotic, the numbers creaky. But such objections miss the point; a film that wittily examines erotic life in its place (as opposed to distorting it, politicizing it, theorizing, it or treating it as a feminist icon or as a male right or as just plainly amoral), that considers desire as an unalterable and even delightful fact, should be required viewing for all young people, not to mention all elected officials, or formerly elected ones, especially those that have been kicked out of office for offenses such as tweeting their genitalia.  

Wiseman neither romanticizes nor vilifies Le Crazy’s worshipful stance towards sex. Sure, he spends plenty of time lingering on undulating body parts, and he zooms in on asses more frequently than he zooms in on faces. But this is neither dehumanizing nor prurient. It just expresses the human wish—I believe it is more just a male wish—to watch beautiful female bodies in motion, which is why Le Crazy exists in the first place. In one of the film’s most gripping scenes, Andrée Deissenberg, the General Manager, tells a journalist who has come to interview her that she personally subscribes to Bernadin’s elegant and old-fashioned definition of seduction. As she says: “it happens through the imagination and through frustration … the ultimate thing is to suggest … without offering oneself.” And, she adds, through dreams. In other words, Le Crazy, a mixture of didacticism and eroticism, does not, to quote Adam Phillips, “use sex … to get rid of sexuality.”   

Wiseman takes seriously that no one at Le Crazy would ever dream of saying that an ass is just an ass. One number ends with a dancer posing as Olympia in reverse, her rear facing the audience. This tells us much about Le Crazy’s belief in the importance of erotic life, and also about its understanding of the limitations of erotic life. It tells us that sex can appear affirming, illusory, pompous, and costumed as a ritual—that we need to go to the museum after the curtain is has fallen and look at Titian and Goya and Degas. The peddling of the flesh at Le Crazy is hardly great art, but great art has availed itself of a similar interest. 

Wiseman presents Le Crazy’s contradictions without resolving them, as he has brilliantly done in all his films. After the shadow puppets at the beginning, he cuts to a close-up of a cute blond cheerfully faking the sounds of an orgasm, perhaps for a voiceover. Then he cuts backstage to several beautiful naked performers preparing for the show. One is blithely slathering on make-up in front of a mirror onto which is taped a photo of her darling little boy. And then to the number “La Lecon de L’Eroticisme,” where a naked woman writhes on top of a lip sofa that Salvador Dali famously created for the revue.

The Le Crazy numbers are alternately silly, portentous, and anguished, which does not make them any less sexual than XXX films, only less pornographic. A Betty Boop-style number is called “Baby Buns.” There is a Busby Berkley-type number in which a pair of women wearing rhinestone caps spin inside a giant orb hanging from the ceiling. There is a cosmonauts-in-love/pole-dancing number and there is a caged leopard-girls-fighting-for-rivalry-and-for-seduction one. There is a slave girl-in-the-galley piece. A girl Narcissus hurls herself around the stage. Body parts emerge from what looks like a pool of water to the words, “I’m ready now.” A voiceover lyric moans “I’m only a shadow and you, you’re a light.” A woman tied up and hanging in a sling communicates her inner captivity, as if she were illustrating Bataille’s epigram that “the truth of eroticism is ultimately tragic.”

It says a lot about Le Crazy’s faith in tradition that one of Bernadin’s most famous numbers—“God Save Our Bearskin,” a nude comic version of the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace—is still in the show sixty years later. And it says a lot about Wiseman that he introduces the number by showing one of the Girls, as they are called, carefully brushing an extravagant horsehair tail backstage. Only later do you see the Girls marching on stage wearing the tails, along with busbies and harnesses.

Here, as in all of his films, instead of repeating clichés about his subject or exposing it in titillating fashion, Wiseman shows that Le Crazy’s Girls are not prostitutes—you never see them talking to patrons or breaking the fourth wall. You mostly see them working. He shows that at Le Crazy nudity does not mean the audience can peer into a performer’s uterus, as it does at many strip clubs here in America. In fact, the club’s attitude towards nudity reminded me of a moment in Elaine Sciolino’s book, La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life, where the bombshell Arielle Dombasle, who has headlined at Le Crazy, says that for a woman being naked is an act of violence, and that she never lets her husband see her that way.

The Girls are rarely totally naked. Their uniform includes small, black cache sexes covering their genitals,elaborate harnesses made of leather ribbon, garters, lipstick, fingerless gloves, red Louise Brooks wigs, bejeweled caps, glow-in-the-dark finger nail polish and body paint, rhinestone tails, shoes designed by Christian Louboutin, and ingenious costumes with holes cut out to better display their asses. Their bodies are often shielded by elaborate lighting—one resembles a stained glass window and another quarter-sized dots.

Wiseman seems only obliquely interested in The Girls’ identities, measurements, or well-publicized regimen: (they cannot have tattoos; they are mostly either Russian or former French ballet dancers; they must be between 5’6” and 5’8,” and there must be ten and a half inches between their breasts and five inches between their navels and their pubis). In fact, in this film, as characters, The Girls are less memorable  than the artists behind them. Ali Mahdavi, the golem-like Artistic Director, Fifi Le Poupil, the peroxide blond costumier, Andree Deissenberg, the half-American, half-French managing director, and Philipe DeCoufle, the director, all are memorably united by their faith in Le Crazy as a French treasure that needs to be preserved, like Julia Child’s cooking or Chanel’s couture. Mahdavi names Fellini and Fassbinder as inspirations.

Skeptics might argue that there is nothing new about pornographers calling themselves artists. Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt have spoken noisily about their contributions to the First Amendment. The Minsky Brothers, the burlesque impresarios who helped to invent the striptease in the Jazz Age, compared themselves to the Shuberts, the Broadway producers. But whereas the American flesh-peddlers inflated their sense of themselves mainly to escape raids and arrests and to prevent reformers from shutting down their theaters, Le Crazy’s creative team does it out of principle. They really believe it.

When Fifi Le Poupil, the costume designer, explains to one of the dancers that the new skirts are superior to the old ones because they make the ass look round as opposed to bony, it is as if she is reciting a monologue from Moliere. When Mahdavi, a gay Iranian, clarifies that he is less interested in the anatomically perfect woman than the one who tries hard because she will never feel that she is beautiful enough, he sounds like Boris Lermentov, the autocratic Diaghilev character in The Red Shoes. In one scene, Philipe DeCoufle, the show’s director, throws a petulant auteurish fit, because the board will not let him close the theater so that everyone can work full time on “Desirs.” The protest would be comical, except that Decoufle feels his objection so deeply.

One of my favorite things about the film is that Wiseman leans so heavily—and brilliantly—on editing to tell his story. The audition scene, which in Hollywood would provide the inciting incident, is delayed towards the end, where the judges whisperingly evaluate the aspiring girls. Likewise, Wiseman places opening night halfway through. The gorgeous empty theater, with its cherry-colored velvet seats, its bottle of tangerine champagne and glasses on every table, is the equivalent of the female bodies on stage. People start to stream in. There is excitement, there is noise. The audience is vital and diverse, couples of all ages and races, and sexual preferences, and plenty of women.

Wiseman famously does not do research before shooting, or use talking heads to give context, or film jump cuts—these strategies separate his documentaries from the cookie-cutter ones. But the history of Le Crazy, which is now sixty years old, is worth telling. When Bernadin launched the club in 1951, two years after Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was published, there was little in his background that might have predicted such a vocation. His father was a farmer who came to Paris before World War One. As a young man Bernadin sold pencils and worked in hotel bars. In the 1930s, he took a hotel management course in London, and after the war he worked as an antiques dealer, he painted, and he ran a restaurant for awhile. It was at this restaurant that he met Bing Crosby and Art Buchwald, who both advised him to start a nightclub. He rented some basement rooms, decorated them like a saloon, dressed bouncers in Canadian Mountie costumes and had singers warbling “My Darling Clementine.” There was even square dancing. That did not fly. Bernadin added more strippers, and the singer Charles Aznavour, “France’s Frank Sinatra.” Le Crazy took off.

The question is why it succeeded. Of course there was the hospitable atmosphere of post-war Paris, a city thronging with GIs happy to take in French nudity. Location certainly helped: At 12 Avenue George V, near the Hotel George V and Yves St. Laurent, and close to the Champs d’Elysee, Le Crazy was as far from Pigalle’s sex clubs or Montmartre’s clubs as Marie Antoinette was from those who could not afford cake. In addition to the tourists, Le Crazy drew the Beautiful People, including Maurice Chevalier, Max Ernst, Graham Greene, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, the Russian poet Andre Voznesensky, JFK, Fellini, John Cassavetes, Aristotle Onassis, Edie, Andy Warhol, and Salvador Dali, who, in 1964, came up with the idea for a number in which performers were dressed as football players. Woody Allen shot part of What’s New, Pussycat? there.

Le Crazy also succeeded because the revue placed itself firmly in the twentieth century at a time when most Parisian nude revues advertised their Belle Époque roots. The Folies Bergere looked back at Toulouse Lautrec and the can can dancer he worshipped, La Goulue; the Moulin Rouge commemorated the twenties, when Josephine Baker shook her behind. These revues, which were two or three times as large as Le Crazy, featured more feathers and spangles than actual nudity. And they served food, which Le Crazy had the good sense never to attempt.

Also, from the first, Le Crazy was a Franco-American affair. All of the origins myths about Bernadin’s inspiration for the revue in some way involve America, or the idea of it. Bernadin was enthused by Radio City Music Hall, or by watching Yvonne DeCarlo, or by a nude pin-up in an American girlie magazine, or by a Marx Brothers film. Once he had launched the club, Bernadin added magic, elaborate lighting effects, rock and roll and soul, and practical jokes into the nude dancing. (One of the women’s toilets is a double.) He gave the Girls punny names such as Charly Commando, Funky Coconut, Rita Cadillac, Pussy Duty-Free, Rita Renoir, Bertha von Paraboum, and Akky Masterpiece, which made them playfully allegorical. At the same time, Bernadin drew from pop art, Jean Genet, and Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty to stage numbers in which fantasy, comedy, terror, and ennui coexist with pleasure.

At a moment when striptease was becoming obsolete in America, the numbers at Le Crazy were too produced to be burlesque-style striptease—the so-called “tragedian of strippers,” Rita Renoir removed her crinolines while reading and Dodo d’Hamburg started one undressing act in widows’ clothing. (In an allegorical number about France’s defeat during the war, she played a dominatrix.) But it was less the jokey naughtiness than the cool ironic indifference that attracted Umberto Eco, whose essay “The Socratic Strip,” in 1960, observed that when Lilly Niagara did a “dressing act,” it was with “bored sexuality … spiced with a penance.”

The final trademark of Le Crazy was its appeal to, and reliance on, intellectuals. (Wiseman belongs prominently in this aspect of his subject.) After Le Crazy, writers such as Roland Barthes interested themselves in the subject of women undressing as a literary subject. Bernardin even founded a “Striptease Academy,” and put at its helm Edmund Heuze, a professor at the Academy of Beaux Arts—the American equivalent would be Playboy nominating someone from the Committee on Social Thought to its editorial board.

In the 1980s, plagued by imitators, Le Crazy began to lose audiences. By 1994, when Bernardin shot himself—the cause of his suicide has never been established—his club had become culturally moribund. In 2006, it was bought by Belgian investors, who focused on franchising, hiring personnel from Cirque de Soleil, inviting celebrities to do star turns, and touring in Russia, Asia, and throughout Europe. It seems to have succeeded.

Besides its delight and its wisdom, Crazy Horse provokes a larger reflection about Wiseman’s work. This is his thirty-ninth film, and the third one he has made in Paris. (The first two were La Comedie Francaise and La Danse: Le Ballet de L’Opera de Paris.) Wiseman, who first visited the Crazy Horse in 1957, with his father-in-law, sees Crazy Horse as part of what he once called an ongoing “search for the spoors in our society.” 

But there are spoors and then there are spoors. As some critics have noted, Wiseman’s early films, unsentimental, black-and-white portraits of institutions sheltering the most vulnerable members of society, are far from the world of Le Crazy. But Wiseman has always resisted the label of the reformer, and his interest in other types of documentaries goes back at least to the 1990s, when he began to use color, when he filmed Aspen, the fashion industry, and institutions such as American Ballet Theatre. He continues to be best known for his first films, on high schools, prisons, welfare offices, hospitals, state legislatures, and so on; but Wiseman is not the dour goody-goody, the PBS improver of all things, that people sometimes think he is. Even his strict style was never exactly puritanical. 

To be sure, to suggest that the American prison system is not up to housing our most vulnerable is different from portraying the flamboyant sexuality of a French nude revue. But both films fit a compliment that Pauline Kael gave Hospital in 1970: that Wiseman does not deal with institutions as social problems. Wiseman, she wrote, makes “you look misery in the eye and you realize that there’s nothing to be ashamed of.” Obviously the misery in Crazy Horse is not exactly wrenching—watching a man on a bad trip vomit all over the floor is different from watching a Russian performer warm up for her act by reciting poetry or seeing a close-up of a pile of gold glitter—but Kael’s point is still good. Some of Wiseman’s films may have inspired outrage, but none of them are sermons.  

Wiseman is not a moralist. He is an observer—one of the great observers. He seeks authenticity. Sometimes authenticity is depravity, sometimes it isn’t. Wiseman’s subject is nothing less than what it means to be human. He is a kind of nineteenth-century realist, like Zola or Chekhov with a camera. Is it merely an accident that the president of Crazy Horse Productions is named Philippe LHomme, Phillippe the man? 

Rachel Shteir is the author of three books, most recently, The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting.