Friday, February 24, 2012

Pina Movie Review

In his introduction before the presentation of his latest film, a documentary called Pina, director Wim Wenders claimed that if you’d asked him in the mid-80s if he’d ever make a film about dance, he’d have laughed. Then he saw a performance by the Tanztheater Wuppertal choreographed by Pina Bausch and he was hooked. After lengthy planning stages in preparation for a documentary, Pina suddenly died. Ready to abandon the project completely, Pina’s dance company, some of whom worked with her for 20 years or more, insisted they continue with a film but make it a tribute to her work and incredible artistry.

I, like Wenders, never would have thought I’d be so captivated by dance but this film hooked me from its first moments until the close. Not only is the dancing some of the most wonderfully beautiful work I’ve seen in any medium, but Wenders uses his 3D cameras to expertly capture the performances in a way that makes it feel more like a live production.

I’ve been vehemently against 3D cinema, but this year we’ve finally seen some examples of its effective employ. In The Adventures of Tintin Steven Spielberg used it tastefully, if pointlessly. Martin Scorsese put the technology to reasonably good use in Hugo but my sense was that film would lose nothing significant in 2D. Pina, on the other hand, is a film that demands to be seen in 3D. The few times I took my glasses off to view the 2D images took me right out of the experience.

What Wenders does is quite inventive. For the stage-set performances we can see a mock audience at the bottom of frame appearing as if they are part of our cinema audience. The dancers on the stage come alive in the visual depth created by the 3D effect. I give this praise for 3D with one minor caveat: the scenes that take place outdoors and away from the artificiality of a stage don’t really have as much added by the 3D. My impression is that those scenes would work just fine without the effect.

In this tribute to Bausch, her company recreates several of her great works that they’ve performed over the decades. The stage performances are broken up by interludes of solo performances set around the city of Wuppertal – some on the streets, others in industrial complexes, still others on the suspended tramway that glides overhead – and interviews with members of the company. Wenders is never one to follow convention for its own sake, so these interviews (or more to the point, testimonials) take on the same kind of ethereal quality that the dance performances evoke. The testimonials are given in voiceover with a static camera observing the speakers, whose expressions change in concert with what’s being said. But this documentary doesn’t come supplied with narration or necessarily a linear story to tell. It’s a tribute to an artist and as such it gives an impression of Pina Bausch’s work over time.

One thing to take note of with this dance company is not only the international nature of the members who comprise it (they come not only from Germany, but also from China, England, the United States, and South America, among other places as you can judge by the myriad languages spoken in the film) but also the fact that they range in age from teens and early 20s up to men and women in their 50s. This suggests that people were willing to trust Bausch and work with her for many years and also that Bausch was more interested in having the right people in her company to help her tells stories than in getting the youngest and most beautiful dancers she could find. When we first see the company they are walking on stage single file performing a repeated motif representing the four seasons. When we see the same people doing the same thing outdoors at the end of the film, the difference is that we’ve now come to know most of these faces as individual dancers. It’s a beautiful little touch to close a film that is not at all about the individuals who perform in this company.

As you watch you begin to recognize the big themes that emerge from Bausch’s work. She uses the elements quite often. The performance to open the film, The Rite of Spring, is performed entirely on a soft bed of peat that has been raked over the stage. The primal movements of the dancers is compounded by the brown dirt that stains their white dresses and faces. Water figures heavily in her work as well, along with stones and other natural elements. Her work suggests a deep interest in human struggle not only with and against nature but between men and women. More than either of those battles, Bausch’s work struck me as bearing a fascination with inner struggle as represented by the overwhelming number of dance numbers that involve repeated movements that grow steadily faster and more frenzied.

This is truly one of the most astounding films I’ve seen. It’s absolutely gorgeous in 3D and my recommendation is that you see it. I’m not so sure Wenders has a chance of winning the Oscar this Sunday night as he’s up against a documentary about a highly publicized murder case that garnered international attention and one about a wounded Afghanistan veteran. Those are tough odds, but my hope is that voters will have been as moved as I was and will vote with their hearts first.

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