AFI Fest 2011: Pina

Even though I’m fairly vocal about my dislike of 3D, I remain open to the possibility of interesting and appropriate uses of the technology. Last year I was quite entranced by Werner Herzog’s use of 3D to illuminate the Chauvet caves in Caves of Forgotten Dreams, and I was hopeful that Werner Herzog’s dance-filled tribute to choreographer and dance director Pina Bausch would be similarly effective in using 3D to show the depth and movement of the dancers. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, but the movie is definitely a visual feast with or without 3D.

Wenders has been planning to make a film with and about Bausch for some time, as the two have been close friends for quite a while, but he says he couldn’t figure out how to do the kind of film he wanted to about dance until 3D came along as an option. Then as he and Bausch were working on the film, she died suddenly and he abandoned the film, only to be convinced by the members of her dance company to finish it as a tribute to her. So what we see is a collection of dances, performed both on a stage and in various outdoor locations around Germany, interspersed with very brief interview snippets from various members of the company about Pina and their time working with her.

I know next to nothing about ballet, though I do enjoy good dancing when I see it, and this is very good dancing. A lot of it veers into the realm of performance art or straight acting, but it’s clear that Bausch and company treat dance as a form of expression, which may take the form of traditional dance (more what I’d call contemporary than ballet, based on many years of watching So You Think You Can Dance, though those lines are clearly being blurred all the time) or more performance-based introspection. Every piece, though, is a near-perfect combination of music, movement, and performance, showcasing all the dancers with their particular strengths. It’s great to see a dance company with such a variety of dancers, too – one of the older ones discusses a bit in her interview segment how wonderful it is to be part of Pina’s company as an older dancer, and it’s obvious from the film as a whole that the company was a very demanding place to be, but also a very nurturing one.

The interview segments I mentioned are actually done quite interestingly. Rather than simply breaking the dance to do a talking head interview as many documentaries do, Wenders here shows a headshot of each dancer, but rather than showing them speaking, he gives their thoughts in a voiceover that bleeds into a routine that either features them or illustrates something of what they mentioned about Pina and dance. It’s an unusual way to present interview snippets, but it works quite well within the film, both because it’s a little bit more artistic and stylistically cohesive than jumping out to a standard interview would be, and also because it underscores that these people present themselves through silence and physicality rather than by talking.

But all of this is true regardless of the 3D. So what does 3D bring to the table? In some situations, the 3D is rather nice. Strangely enough, it makes the wordless interview visuals pop, and I quite liked it there. And there’s a bit of one of the dance that involves one person taking photographs of various couples (which then lead into smaller dance vignettes), but the photograph pauses for a second, pulled out into almost tactile 3D. Other specific moments of monumental stillness look good in 3D. But here’s the problem. Movement in 3D is highly problematic, because as soon as either something on the screen or the camera itself starts moving with an amount of speed, it’s incredibly difficult to focus and everything just looks kind of blurry. You know what dance is 80% of the time? A whole lot of movement. Thus, I spent 80% of this movie with my head and eyes aching trying to focus on anything in the frame. At some points, the dancers were moving fast enough that I had to just stop looking for a few seconds. Maybe there’s something physically wrong with me that it bothers me this much, but I can say that I would’ve enjoyed Pina much more in 2D, despite Wenders’ insistence that he couldn’t have made the film without 3D technology.

So the film itself would get four stars as a visually sumptuous exploration of very intriguing and unusual dance, illuminating a woman who has clearly given a lot to her field both in terms of groundbreaking choreography and the philosophy that creates a dance troupe as varied and cohesive as this one. The 3D gets two and a half stars for continuing to be physically taxing without enough reason for existence to balance out. I’ll round it out to three and a half stars overall for the 3D presentation of the film, since really, the content of the film should get more weight than the technical presentation, but I can’t deny how much negative effect the 3D had on me while watching.

Director: Wim Wenders
Screenwriter: Wim Wenders
Producers: Gian-Piero Ringel, Wim Wenders
Starring: Ensemble of the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch
Country/Language: Germany/France, German (and smatterings of Chinese, English, French, etc.)
Running Time: 103 min.

Jandy Hardesty
the recovering academic

8 Comments

  1. An interesting review as I saw it in 2D and thought it was very good as you say, but thought that it might play really well in 3D. I’m glad I didn’t see it in that form now after what you said. It’s available now on DVD & Blu-Ray in the UK for anyone interested in picking up a copy.

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  2. I saw this at TIFF in 3D and, though I’m not at all a big proponent of 3D (it doesn’t let your eyes roam the frame as it forces your attention to specific things), I thought it worked pretty well. I didn’t have the same issues you did and felt it actually helped give the dancers their space. I don’t think the film “needed” it though and would agree with you there, but didn’t feel it hurt the film (which is probably the highest praise I’ve given 3D so far…).

    One of my main issues with the film were the dancers’ thoughts about Pina herself…I didn’t feel like I found out much about her or her process. They are obviously all quite enamoured of her (which is fine), but most of what they recollected about her coaching sounded very cliched. I did like the way he presented it though and completely agree with your points. Not all the routines worked for me either (some went on longer than I would’ve liked), but that’s fine…There’s enough gorgeous imagery in the film to latch onto.

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  3. Bob, I should clarify – I liked the 3D when the moment was about space. It popped pretty nicely some of the time. But when the moment was about movement, not only could I not control where I focused (as you say, which is definitely a thing I dislike about 3D in general, it’s dictatorial control of focus), I couldn’t focus on anything, not even the thing I was supposed to focus on. It all just looked like a massive, headache-inducing blur.

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  4. Interesting…I strangely didn’t have that issue with the 3D (which is odd, because the way you describe it is exactly how I would have thought it would be). Maybe it’s because I was sitting so close? I don’t know…I didn’t find the 3D to be overly present during those full motion scenes – again, giving rise to the thought that it would have been just as good without it. Except for some of those quieter framed moments where it did add some nice depth.

    I would see this again in 2D…

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  5. Nice review. You’ve argued effectively why 3D could be problematic here. This film wasn’t on my radar, but now I’m quite interested to see it. The layering effect you describe with the static pictorial elements reminds me a bit of what Brett Morgen did in The Kid Stays in the Picture — which was 2D, of course.

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  6. Thanks, Derek. Obviously the 3D didn’t bother others (like Bob, above) as much as it did me, but I found it very hard to watch during fast-moving segments. But like I said, some of the more static moments looked quite good. The film should be getting a limited release toward the end of the year – it is well worth checking out, especially if you’re interested in dance. There are some really unique pieces in here.

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