Saturday, January 28, 2012


One of the great special qualities of the movies is that they have the power to both allow us to look at familiar subjects in ways we haven’t quite seen them before or open us up to subjects that we wish to further explore. That’s the greatest asset of Wim Wender’s new film Pina, a tribute of sorts to the late German dancer/choreographer Pina Bausch which, like Bausch’s dancing itself, occupies that middle ground between documentary and performance art.

I have, in many reviews in the past, called for, at the very least, self-sufficiency in movies. Pina shows the value of such a trait. For those who are familiar with the influential talent and her work with the Wuppertal Tanztheater company, in Pina they will find a beautiful tribute, staged in such a tender and yet provocative way that only a master of images like Wenders could create. And for those who don’t know Bausch, Pina acts as the perfect portal through which to discover the strange, expressionist wonder of Bausch’s work in action.

Bausch occupied a space in dance that was just as much about performance art as it was about rhythm and movement. The film is largely comprised of Wenders recreating Bausch’s most famous performances, some of them on stage and some of them out on the streets, in trams, parks, escalators, etc.

One such performance includes one of Bausch’s most famous pieces Café Muller in which a cast of characters seem to wallow around the stage in a melancholic trance, crashing into tables and chairs until a surge of passion brings their bodies to life. There's also Rite of Spring in which the stage is completely covered in soil as groups of men and women cower from and then interact with one another in a mess of bodies and limbs seemingly strewn about at random.

The thing that strikes me most about Bausch, who, outside the staging of one of her dances in Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her, I have never been familiar with, is the way she used movement, not so much as a display of the beautiful possibilities of the human body but as a means of expressionism. Her dancers stagger about the stage, as if subdued within the troughs of a trance, held up by some unseen force until a surge of inspiration fills their body and sends them into a twisted explosion of movement. It is both startling and hypnotic.

There is, I suppose, no better man than Wenders for the job of staging Bausch’s work (in 3D no less). Wenders, a wildly gifted and consistently inconsistent filmmaker, is, first and foremost, a visual essayist. His most successful films follow not subjects but ideas, which he is able to wrap into the visual landscape of his setting. His Wings of Desire followed a pair of philosophizing angels as they walked around Berlin, looking down on the city’s inhabitants, watching them as they make deep and important decisions and observations. And his Paris, Texas followed a man who couldn’t remember who he was, through the desert as he pieced his life back together.

Documentaries have always been a weak point for Wenders though, who would rather dress a subject up than simply observe it in action. His Buena Vista Social Club charted the making of a great album but also undermined it as his camera spun endlessly this way and that, making the film more about the aesthetic quality of its making and less about its subject, and his Notebooks on Cities and Clothes couldn’t quite decide if it was documentary or university art school project.

Wenders, in more subdued mode, here does a nice job of using 3D to provide Bausch’s work with a look that is uniquely cinematic and removed from it’s staged origins but also providing the depth and myserty of an actual stage.

The problem with the film arises when Wenders wants to go into documentary mode. His large pieces like Rite of Spring and Café Mueller, both of relative length, are intercut with dancers faces looking into the screen and narrating their memories of Pina (who had died of cancer just days before shooting was to begin), their faces static, their lips not moving to the sound of their voice. Other stylistic distractions abound as well as dances on stage are cut away from to view different dances on the street or, in one strange and unnecessary touch, Café Mueller is cut away from to show two dancers, out in a park, standing over top of a miniature cut-out set of Café Mueller, discussing it as it transpires in miniature behind them, cutting into the power and momentum of the actual performance.

But alas Pina is a sight to behold and a film worth our praise. Wenders has done Pina the justice she deserves and will hopefully give her legacy rebirth just as her life was closing. At the very minimum Pina does something that just about every documentary should strive to do: introduce us to a subject that, by the time it has ended, we want to discover even more about.

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