Posted by Greg Ferrara on February 26, 2017
If you have ever been to the theater, you know the exhilaration of watching actors perform live onstage. There’s something about it that’s completely unique. There is no equivalent in the cinema. By the same turn, the awe and grandeur of the cinema produces a different level of exhilaration, completely separate from the stage. When we watch the Death Star explode, or Popeye Doyle race beneath the elevated subway tracks of New York City, or Chief Brody get a big hello from a hungry shark, we know that’s something that can never be replicated on a stage and have the same impact. On the stage, simply seeing a person sing a song in front of you, or dance, or reveal their deepest fear or greatest joy, is a moment all its own. Pina (2011), directed by Wim Wenders, is one of the few films I have ever seen that replicates the stage experience and provides the best argument yet that cinema/stage fusion can indeed work.
Pina was produced in 2011 shortly after the titular subject, Pina Bausch, died of cancer at the age of 68. She died as Wim Wenders was preparing to film her talking about her life, accomplishments and art. When she passed away, he had no choice but to scrap the biographical documentary. However, instead of scrapping it outright, with the urging of her dance company, he made a film about her using her choreographed routines as a method of connecting with her. Throughout, her dancers speak of working with her but it is the performances that speak the loudest.
Wenders decided to present the film in 3-D and while it works exceptionally well in 3-D, I saw it twice on the big screen, once in 3-D and once without, and honestly I think the 2-D version looks better. The presentation of 3-D always looks like elaborate multi-planing to me and 2-D actually looks more like watching the dancers perform in person. And the big screen helps, tremendously. If you’re going to watch it, and the time to see it in a theater has passed, I recommend a nice big screen TV, which most film lovers probably own by now anyway. Otherwise, it would still work because, damn, Wenders knows how to film dance!
The first big dance number we see is an interpretation of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” We see the troupe dumping tons of dirt on the stage, raking it out, and preparing for the performance. Then we see the performance and it is, quite simply, amazing. Wenders does not merely let the camera sit back in front of the stage to give the illusion of watching a stage performance. He combines the two, cinema and theater, giving you full views, closeups, pans and tracking shots. The dance fills the screen and you feel like you’re there, except that it ends abruptly and moves to something else.
This was, I thought, a flaw when I first saw it but by the second time, did not. Wenders is showing pieces, bits and sections, that give the viewer an understanding and appreciation of Pina’s art without letting them fully in. It shifts in and out, like a brainstorming session of what to do next, and lands on and off the stage. Sometimes the dance takes place by a stream, sometimes on a train, sometimes along a ridge in the country. And all the time the dancers relate their stories and describe how little any of them, or anyone else ever knew Pina. This takes the film in a fascinating direction, one in which some in the film even opine that it was perhaps fateful that Pina would die before production, lest she give up her secrets.
As such, she remains a ghostly figure throughout the work, her voice heard from time to time, her face seen, her constant smoking on display. She was driven to communicate through dance, not words, and when she used those words, they were striking and direct. One dancer relates how Pina used emotional language to direct him. He remembers one day talking to her about a dance and how he was getting the hang of it and felt good about where it was going. Then, as he went to leave, she said, referring to the dance, “don’t forget to scare me.” That, speaking as an actor, is an amazing bit of direction. Here’s crappy direction: “Say your line like this,” then the director says the line. “Scare me” is great direction. It’s telling the performer, be happy that you have the steps memorized, be happy that you feel confident. But don’t forget to do something more, something dangerous, something that comes from you alone and makes me wonder if you’re dancing on the edge of disaster. Scare me.
As Pina, the movie, winds its way towards its conclusion, it feels as if you have just watched a narrative film, one in which the characters connect to each other through physical motion only but in which a kind of plot can almost be discerned. It starts in primal fashion, with “The Rite of Spring,” and goes to one of Pina’s famous dances, as dreamlike women move chaotically through a room full of chairs while someone frantically moves them out of the way, and finally settles into more personal dances, as two performers hold each other and gracefully move to the music. There is a definite progression here, and that’s important. It gives us the sense that we are watching Pina’s evolution as a choreographer.
Pina Bausch died before Wenders could make a proper (read: standard) documentary about her so he went in a different direction. That direction did something extraordinary. It provided a biography of an artist by showing the art and succeeded in producing one of the finest biopics the cinema has ever seen, minus the biopic.
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