By Christopher Campbell | Spout October 7, 2011 at 5:35AM
Mark down 2011 as the year when I got very excited about dance. At least on the big screen, in documentary form. I have seen and been transfixed by the following films: Sue Bourne's "Jig," a barely conventional competition documentary following boys and girls on their way to the 40th Irish Dancing World Championships (just released on DVD); Bess Kargman's "First Position," another terrific competition doc with kids, this one about a very prestigious ballet event, the Youth America Grand Prix (just acquired by Sundance Selects); Frederick Wiseman's "Crazy Horse," in which the legendary filmmaker shows us the eponymous Parisian cabaret through his near-objective eyes; Bob Hercules and Gordon Quinn's "A Good Man," an appropriately honest look at two years in the work of choreographer Bill T. Jones as he puts on a show about Lincoln (plays at DOC NYC next month); Alma Har'el's "Bombay Beach," which dreamily interrupts its verite look at residents of Bombay Beach, California, by having those subjects perform choreographed dance numbers (opens in NYC next Friday); and Philip Cox's "The Bengali Detective," which partly focuses on its Indian P.I. subjects' entry into a TV dance contest (currently being remade by Fox Searchlight).
None of those films, as good as they are, come close to the magnificence of Wim Wenders' "Pina" (aka "Pina 3D"), a sexy, funny and spectacular work which may have also taken the crown of best 3D film I've ever seen -- knocking Werner Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" off the throne. While that still takes the cake as far as its extra-dimensional necessity, for its historical and geological significance, and it still is possibly the more transcendental experience in either format, "Pina" is far more beautiful and enchanting (and the 3D cinematography is less eye-straining outside its 'cave,' in the real world). And it is nevertheless entirely vital for its subject matter, as a properly preserved tribute to the choreography work of the late Nina Bausch, through extraordinary performances by her company.
I feel like another German-born W.W., William Wyler, would have greatly appreciated this film (as would his great fan, Andre Bazin). Through the 3D, Wenders is able to produce a picture of the stage as close to the real deal as we may ever get in cinema. He fully takes advantage of the gimmick (not meant pejoratively), framing some of the performances as well as any archive material with curtains at the sides of the screen and with chairs, sometimes empty, in the foreground. In scenes set outdoors, he films dancers in front of settings of great corporeal space, like an industrial complex, a subway tunnel (which reminds of Herzog's "Cave," with its graffiti) and a mined canyon. There is also a great sense of layering and drapery, whether in the use of sheer curtains, windows, light clothing and even an effect with superimposed film footage, that is so magically realistic. But it's not just the depth of focus that I'm so in love with here. In fact, I'll confess that at least one little illusion-based moment in "Pina" works better with the flatness of 2D, even in spite of how it would look live (hint: it's in the trailer).
What I found especially tremendous is the way I felt so much of the weight of people and objects on the screen. I literally tensed up more in my seat than I've ever been conscious of, and I couldn't immediately understand why. Was it that the dancers have such an illusion of weightlessness that down below I felt my own gravity? Was it the tension of their muscles that reflected back in my own body's mimicry, perhaps for identification? I believe it had most to do with the dancing that wasn't as airy, the moves that are graceful yet still very heavy. You can see the gravity in footprints -- dirt is outside and on stage -- in the splashing and downpour of water -- again, some of the indoor acts include a lot of natural elements, in the snapping of cords and the intentionally slow motion of a woman with a man on her back. Sounds definitely enhance this sense of gravity, but it's certainly the result of the 3D's rendering of the physical space and all of its laws.
I would say the old nonsense about feeling like I was really there watching these performances first-hand, though against the Wyler preference Wenders does provide us with lots of camera direction, changes in position and distance. It's more like you're inside the film than present at its shooting. What a marvelous show and experience.
"Pina" is now showing at the New York Film Festival and will open in the U.S. this December
Recommended If You Like: the magic of cinema