DIRECTED BY: Wim Wenders
FEATURING: Pina Bausch
PLOT: A selection of modern dances from avant-garde choreographer Pina Bausch, interspersed
with tributes from the dancers who worked with her and presented in 3D.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Pina Bausch invented weird dances, but filming them (even in 3D) doesn’t make a weird movie, just a movie about people performing weird dances.
COMMENTS: German choreographer Pina Bausch died unexpectedly just before Wim Wenders began principal photography on Pina; whatever profile of the working artist he might originally have planned, the film became instead a eulogy. Because Bausch believed that movement was itself a language that could express emotional truths impossible to say with language, it’s fitting that almost none of her words remain in the film but that her life is instead told through her abstract dances. (What quotes we do have are mostly platitudes for the comfort and inspiration of her dancers: “dance, dance, otherwise we are lost”). It begins with a semi-conventional staging of Stravinsky’s still-shocking “The Rites of Spring,” with pagan maidens anxiously swaying in nude-colored nightgowns until the high priest selects the unlucky gal destined to dance herself to death to ensure a good harvest. That’s as comfortably classical and representational as things get. When we move into Bauch’s own imagination, we encounter a dreamlike café where blind women crash into the walls, a ballet performed in the pouring onstage rain beside a giant craggy rock, and a woman who walks onto a train cradling a pillow and silently connects with a passenger wearing donkey ears. Next to a muddy lake, a hunched woman bears a sleeping man on her back, while further in the background another lady marches along with a tree growing out of her spine. Limp dancers manipulated like puppets by others are a repeating theme; for example, there’s one sequence where a man carefully positions two comatose lovers, placing the woman’s arm around the man’s neck and then hoisting her into his arms, but she always slips off and he repeats his manipulations over and over, performing the futile ritual faster and faster each time until he’s almost a blur on the screen. Dances from four of Bausch’s major works are recreated; Wenders sometimes pours the action out of the theater and into the streets of Wuppertal. A few shorter pieces were created for the film by her disciples in Pina’s surreal style. The stagings and costumes are minimalist but always evocative and interesting; color schemes are intense and dramatic. The musical accompaniment is tasteful, eclectic and melodic, ranging from the expected classical chestnuts (Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky) through jazz (Louis Armstrong) and Portuguese fado to moody modern avant-rock and electronica. I didn’t go into Pina as a fan of modern dance, and I didn’t come out one; but, even though the non-narrative feature did become a bit repetitive at 100 minutes, I’m glad I spent the time getting to know the woman and her craft. I don’t think Pina will spark the same interest in its esoteric subject as Wenders’ The Buena Vista Social Club did in Cuban music, but it’s impossible to come away unimpressed by the grace, dedication and creativity of the dancers, or by the love and respect that went into composing this tribute to Pina’s life work.
Though sometimes promoted as the first 3D documentary, fellow German Werner Herzog beat Wenders to the punch (at least by release date) with his equally weighty Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010). When I watched Cave on a flat screen, I was convinced that, by not having seen it in 3D as intended, I was missing out on crucial visual textures. But (although I know I’ll be in the minority here), having caught Pina in a theater in all three of its intended dimensions, now I’m not convinced that 3D technology can ever add anything to a film’s visuals but a touch of novelty. The human brain automatically adds depth to a flat image, making 3D effects superfluous. Pina‘s dancers didn’t seem richer or more real to me simply because they were superficially curvier and stood out a bit from the background. In fact, they looked artificial and unnatural, in that peculiar way only modern computer-generated effects produce. The ersatz hyperreality of 3D may perform a weirdening function by enhancing the oddness of Pina’s otherworldly compositions, however.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Pina’s power comes from the way Wenders uses that illusion of living, flexing proximity to immerse you in Bausch’s dreamlike, emotionally vertiginous world. Watching Pina is like being inside one of Bausch’s surreal pieces.”–Jordan Levin, The Miami Herald (contemporaneous)