“You just have to get more crazy” a dancer remembers German choreographer Pina Bausch telling her, in Wim Wenders’s 3D dance film, Pina. And Pina’s dancers do get crazy, smearing themselves with dirt, writhing around in lakes, falling to the ground over and over again like asylum inmates. Paradoxically, there is nothing very crazy about Frederick Wiseman’s Crazy Horse, which concerns the eponymous Parisian erotic dance cabaret, where performers are carefully chosen for the precise length of their legs and curvature of their rumps, then assembled into mass ornaments of cleverly arranged body parts. While Pina is a bright explosion of flopping, flapping half-clothed bodies, Crazy Horse is a jewel-toned display of constrained unclothed bodies. One overflows with artistic pretension and ruminations on the craft of dance, while the other is willfully kitschy, as only a film that includes a number called “Baby Buns” could be.
Crazy Horse nominally follows the creative directors and costume mistresses of the Crazy Horse cabaret, an institution long dismissed by Parisians as “a revue for Japanese tourists,” now aiming for artistic recognition. Wiseman is loathe to fiddle with the pace of the cabaret choreography, and apart from a jaunty opening sequence of highlights from the Crazy Horse oeuvre, numbers are presented with a bare minimum of editing. So many lengthy routines involving varying configurations of female hindquarters are stuffed into the film that it can begin to feel like being trapped in a vintage issue of Playboy.
Pina is also a concert film of sorts, but so many dances are stitched together with such rapidity that the demarcations between them become blurred. Wenders’ use of 3D has been highly praised, and the technology does emphasize the geography between multiple dancers, giving an enhanced spaciousness to sweeping movements which are amplified by dramatic natural backdrops (it should be noted that the technique was also explored in last year’s fantastic dance film, Step Up 3D).
Wenders borrows some of Wiseman’s trademarked techniques by giving no context to Pina’s work or information about her life (she passed away suddenly in 2009, when the film was in pre-production, but this can only be discovered by reading her obituaries). Bypassing talking head boredom, he films his silent subjects staring straight ahead, as scraps of their interviews play on the soundtrack. Interestingly, in Crazy Horse, Wiseman fudges his own “no interviews, ever” rule by filming interviews as they are given to another, unrelated, camera crew.
Gorgeous ciphers, the Crazy Horse dancers remain enigmas. (Their director, Philippe, reveals one detail when he complains that they exit the stage crying after a lesbian-themed routine because they don’t like touching each other.) But the fanatical, alopecia-inflicted artistic director of the Crazy Horse, Ali, mythologizes the women, explaining that they are all products of a complicated philosophy of femininity. A true fetishist, he only cares about four things in life: Yves Saint-Laurent, Marlene Dietrich, Helmut Newton, and “The Crazy”. Destined to become an iconic Wiseman character, Ali’s pale face lights up with reverence when he looks at the Crazy Horse stage, as though he’s kneeling in Notre Dame.
A hagiography of a departed genius, Pina treats its subject matter in a similarly devout manner. Pina’s disciples, many of them past middle age, have devoted their lives to dancing as she directed them to, and they often sound like members of a cult— the first child born into the company says, “Life without Pina, I just don’t know how it is.” Even in memory, Pina has an omnipresent hold over her followers.
While Crazy Horse exalts a highly artificial style of erotic movement, Pina delves into the destructive potential of rhythmic motion freed from restraint. Crazy Horse is confined to a discreet black box near the Champs-Elysées, while Pina sprints back and forth between nature and the stage. Both are populated by people infatuated with dance to the point that nothing else exists in their lives. But Pina is ultimately too earnest, assuming that the audience will love Pina’s challenging interpretive choreography simply because it’s so perfectly and passionately presented. Wiseman, conversely, sees the humor in his subject, livening up the retro appeal of erotic cabaret with his customary wry wink.