Sunday, July 05, 2015

From Mane to Maine: Wiseman's "Crazy Horse" and "Belfast, Maine"

Whether he's training his camera on the autumnal haze of sleepy "Belfast, Maine"- with its potato plants, church choirs and local gas station denizens- or the writhing half naked bodies of beautiful dancers rehearsing their latest erotic spectacle in Paris, Wiseman is a filmmaker who understands silence is golden. Of course, editing and mise-en-scene is a comment itself on the subject, but both "Belfast, Maine" and "Crazy Horse" represent the best aspects of Wiseman's 45 year plus oeuvre.... which is a long way of saying he observes and visually dissects an institution or locale with monk-like patience and an acute eye for the humanity wrapped inside the mundane.

"Belfast, Maine" (1999), one of the few works by Wiseman to document the sprawling intersections of an actual city (the other being "Aspen" in 1991), at first seems to unravel with little order in its four hour progression. It's only about halfway through its fly-on-the-wall tactics does something like a message emerge. And that message is that Wiseman's documentaries are probably the closest thing we have to actual life being lived on-screen. Through the seemingly random (and at times rambling) simple shots of people going about their business, dealing with Medicaid workers, checking into a hospital, or rehearsing a scene from "Death of a Salesman", "Belfast, Maine" paints such an evocative portrait of life-in-the-margins that it almost feels extraordinary for its ordinariness. I doubt any written movie character could be as seemingly good-natured and expectant of whatever eventually takes her life as an elderly woman describing her condition to an aid worker in one scene or the appalling state of health of another man who claims he used to smoke seven to eight packs of cigarettes a day, but now is down to a more manageable two-to-three since he had a stroke last year. Further still, outside of the people within the film, Belfast reveals itself as an almost too perfect hamlet of Northeastern charm and approaching 'wintryness'. As stated earlier, this is one of the few films Wiseman made centered around an entire city, but his efforts always canopy the specific atmosphere and tensions of the environment his chosen institution reside within. I can't help but feel a homely kinship to the surroundings shown in "Boxing Gym" (Austin, Texas") and especially the upscale cowboy aura buttressed around his 1983 film about the retail capital of Neiman Marcus' Dallas, Texas location. If there's a high compliment to be paid to "Belfast, Maine", it's that even though I've never been further in the Northeast than Philadelphia, I feel like I know it slightly better through "Belfast, Maine" and its tough-minded inhabitants.

About as far removed from the plaid-and-denim quaintness of Maine lies "Crazy Horse" (2012), a film thirteen years later that finds Wiseman firmly ensconced in the electric, haute couture confines of the world renowned Paris cabaret. What begins as titillating (beautiful, half naked women pampering their faces and applying make up backstage) soon turns methodical as the film endlessly charts, zags and follows the various beauties as they work hard learning their moves for upcoming dance numbers or stand listless while choreographers, set designers and club financiers argue, dawdle and crunch numbers. Actually, "Crazy Horse" isn't that different from the seemingly normal actions of Belfast, Maine after all. Boredom, struggles, and bureaucratic numbness is a universal language.

Made after "La Danse" (2009) and "Boxing Gym" (2010), "Crazy Horse" could be called the cap in his ballet trilogy, adapting a more free floating camera style than before. Instead of hinged in the corner, observing people talking or reacting to their surroundings, Wiseman continually frames the writhing bodies of his "Crazy Horse" women seamlessly.... none moreso moving than when one dancer practices alongside Antony and the Johnson's beautiful song ""Man is the Baby". Music and image, when done right, can often be a transcendent merging of arts, and in this quiet, almost nondescript individual moment that never connects with any other choreographed section of the film, captures something that feels stunningly private. That's documentary filmmaking done right... and it's just one of the thousands of little, off-hand moments Wiseman has been documenting and etching into film for decades now.

"Crazy Horse" is available on Blu-ray video
"Belfast, Maine" is currently unavailable on home video formats

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