A leap for documentaries
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, Jan. 27, 2012
It's not every day that a director comes along and sweeps away a genre's pesky cobwebs, but Wim Wenders does just that with his documentary (and Oscar contender) "Pina."
The director behind "Buena Vista Social Club" and "Wings of Desire" doesn't reveal any basic facts about his subject, the late German dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch. Instead, he has crafted a 3-D collage of dance, unconventional interviews, archival footage and words that manages to describe her very essence.
Bausch, who died unexpectedly at the age of 68 two days before filming was to begin, was a master of the unorthodox. The artistic director of Tanztheater Wuppertal blended art forms (including dance operas), goaded her dancers with enigmatic statements and abstract questions, and brought dirt, water and rocks onto the stage.
Those unfamiliar with her work get a crash course during "Pina," which features snippets of her choreography, including "Cafe Mueller," a moving spectacle of dancers struggling across a set littered with tables and chairs.
Much of the film, though, consists of tributes to Bausch, courtesy of her talented dancers. Each company member gets the opportunity to explain, in words and movement, Bausch's significance. In an ingenious stroke, during the interview scenes unidentified speakers are shown making facial expressions while his or her words are heard through voice-over. The result is a panorama of emotion, in which one dancer exhibits pure joy and another severe aching. As Bausch notes early in the film, words alone cannot describe something, nor can dance. One medium has to pick up where the last has left off. The disembodied words seem to get to the heart of that idea.
Each interview generally precedes a solo performance or pas de deux. The works are diverse but always mesmerizing. One dancer pulls herself around by her hair beside a busy lap pool, while another athletically scales a dirt-covered hill.
In one hilarious interlude, a performer whose face is obscured by a cascade of dark curls attacks a pillow in front of nervous passengers on a subway car.
Wenders also makes stunning use of 3-D technology. What might seem like a convenient bid for publicity - the first 3-D art-house film! - turns out to be the only logical way to showcase the action. Every sinewy muscle is on display, every inhale and exhale. And when the audience witnesses the soil-covered "Rite of Spring" from the perspective of one of the performers, the work's drama reaches new heights. How often, if ever, do dance fans get such an opportunity?
You might call it arresting or spectacular, heart-rending or thrilling. But, as Bausch knew, none of the usual descriptors can do justice to the object. This is one film that just needs to be experienced.
Contains partial nudity. In German, French, English, Spanish, Croatian, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and Korean with English subtitles.