Crazy Horse—an inside look at the celebrated Crazy Horse Saloon in Paris—is the thirty-ninth film that Frederick Wiseman has made since he established himself in 1967 with the devastating Titicut Follies, about life in a mental hospital in Massachusetts. Aside from two fiction films, these are all documentaries, ranging in length from seventy-five minutes to six hours—documentaries in a mode particular to Wiseman, who is not fond of the term “documentary” and has emphasized the relation of his films to the methods of fiction. They have no narration or explanatory subtitles; the filmmaker asks no direct questions of the people he films; the order in which scenes are presented is not necessarily chronological. The films concern themselves not with sharply demarcated events or with the doings of a selected individual but with places and institutions—places as institutions, institutions as places—and take whatever might occur within their limits as a legitimate object of attention.
This is not to say that they lack narrative; on the contrary they overflow with stories of every imaginable variety, whether witnessed, recounted, or surmised. If all Wiseman’s films together might be taken as a single ongoing work, any one of them contains at the same time multitudes of other potential films. A single shot or brief interjected phrase often serves as ideogram for a further range of associations. Think of it as an Arabian Nights constructed entirely out of pieces of the real world.
Wiseman professes to dislike talking about his work but he has written a brief and dense account of it called “A Sketch of a Life” in which he manages to head off what are doubtless frequently asked questions about his life, influences, methods, and aesthetic philosophy.1 Notably, he opens by quoting a passage from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—the caterpillar asking “Who are you?”—and characterizes himself at the outset as a “fantasist.” He describes his discovery of the close reading of poetry as having been fundamental in the development of his work, and at another point writes of how his mother, a frustrated actress, initiated him into the idea of theater by recreating down to the least word and gesture the activities of everyone she encountered in the course of a day. The implied concerns—the elusiveness of personal identity, the rigors and perils of verbal definition, the radiant variety of human behavior even in its smallest elements—illuminate but can hardly explain the process by which he arrived at the consistent method that has generated his life’s work.
It is a method of immersion—with a minimum of advance study or preparation—in a spatially limited milieu, whether missile base or public park, ballet school or monastery, intensive care unit or primate research lab, high school or slaughterhouse, the Canal Zone or the state legislature of Idaho. Wiseman films over a period of…
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