Talking Movies: Score One for Skin

This month, the Englert's screening of an adults-only documentary will feature a live opening act by Iowa City's own Les Dames du Burlesque

If you like sex and art (especially in that order of enthusiasm), then you should definitely make a point of getting to the Englert on Friday, May 18, to see the Iowa premiere of Frederick Wiseman’s Crazy Horse, a documentary about Paris’s legendary cabaret. To sweeten the deal, FilmScene, the host of the event, has found a sponsor in Deluxe Cakes and Pastries. Before the screening they’ll put on a pre-show reception, replete with pastries and drinks, in the Douglas and Linda Paul Gallery on the second floor of the Englert. Even sweeter, Iowa City’s own troop of cabaret-style dancers, Les Dames du Burlesque (isn’t it curious that the Parisians wanting to sound sexy use an American name, Crazy Horse, and Iowans use a French one?) will perform an opening routine inspired by the film!

Crazy Horse, founded in 1951 by Alain Bernadin, is a crucial ingredient in the Parisian mystique, right up there with the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and strolling the boulevards with a baguette under your arm. Seven days a week, twice a night and three times on Saturday, gorgeous naked women with bodies lithe and strong as jaguars (to a person they seem to aspire to Josephine Baker’s body-type) dance artistically-choreographed numbers, bespangled by swirling lights, while knowing audiences—a healthy mixture of men and women—sip champagne. (By the way, you have to be over 18 to get into the movie. The Englert will be serving their customary beer and wine; I’m working on the champagne.)

In the poem “Adam’s Curse,” W.B. Yeats’s lady friend remarks, “To be born woman is to know—/ Although they do not talk of it at school—/ That we must labour to be beautiful.”

Wiseman’s documentary unobtrusively chronicles both the dancers’ extremely sexy performances and their strenuous labor to be beautiful night after night. Not only do you get the naughty pleasures of breast and thigh, you get to listen in on heated debates about how best not to make buttocks look bony.

Frederick Wiseman must feel a deep, albeit strange, kinship with Crazy Horse. One of the greatest documentarians, he’s known for his seemingly effortless glimpses into real life (no voiceovers, no talking heads, no information other than what the camera shows); and yet his documentaries are elaborately edited films, with story arcs he weaves carefully and seamlessly into them. It seems appropriate, therefore, that his portrayal of Crazy Horse gives just as much love to the hard work of famous choreographer Phillippe Decoufle and his team of designers and dancers as to their seductive artistic product.

Thankfully, his movie doesn’t make a big deal of the obvious fact that the dancers move within the contours of the male sexual imagination. You could easily imagine a lesser documentary boring us with a half-hour debate about the morality of cabaret. Nevertheless, the question of who is the ultimate beneficiary of gorgeous women dancing naked, Man or Woman, is in the air. At one point, one of the female organizers of Crazy Horse suggests to an old male journalist that the dances are liberating to women, empowering them to play with their sexuality and use it to their pleasure and advantage. At another point, one of the male producers—a creepy yet charmingly obsessed character—starts going off on how Crazy Horse touches on the unconscious with the same artistic power as Fellini and Michael Powell; meanwhile, the head choreographer is rolling his eyes, as if to say, “We’re talking naked women, for God sake!”

While I don’t want to forget that these nude dancers are writhing around to the delight of many a man, I do think that there’s something to the pretentious talk of liberation and art. The desire of heterosexual men is so strong that beauty is practically synonymous with the soft curves of femininity, even for women. The dances of a good cabaret, like all true things of civilization, allow us to reflect on the weirdness of who we are and the world we have wrought.

As sexy as the dances are, they are also at times silly, sad, intelligent and spooky. They hold the mirror up to desire—in fact, one of the best dances is organized around mirror-reflections. In showing us its power, the dancers do in some ways transcend the male gaze more effectively than if they were simply to chastise it and act like it wasn’t there. Maybe that’s why smart, spunky women autonomously form troops like Les Dames du Burlesque: Sometimes the best way out is through.

In any case, Crazy Horse is sexy, fun and gracefully intelligent. And we’re talking naked women, for God sake!

Scott Samuelson teaches philosophy at Kirkwood Community College and blogs about music with his son at

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