Judge Gordon Sullivan used to be an expert in prehistoric dance.
Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost
From its earliest days, cinema has been aligned with dance. Annabelle Whitford appeared in Edison's Black Maria to do her "butterfly dance" back in 1897. Since then, dance has had a long career in cinemas, from Busby Berkeley's mechanical forms to the Sharks and Jets brawling, and most recently in the Step Up franchise. However, for much of its history, dance was largely ruled by the Busby Berkeley style of dance choreography. Because dance is a three-dimensional art and cinema is two-dimensional, much of the choreography of dance has been reduced to action on a single plane. This effect, as many have noticed, tends to denaturalize the body and emphasizes dance's relationship to painting rather than something like sculpture. This was initially Wim Wenders' hesitation in trying to film dancer Pina Bausch. Her choreography is so focused on the body and its dimensionality that to render it in just two dimensions would have meant doing violence to its beauty. Luckily for Wenders and Bausch, 3D technology evolved sufficiently to give the director confidence to film his subject. Though her death prevented a complete collaboration, the documentary that emerged—Pina—is a beautiful homage to a groundbreaking dancer.
Facts of the Case
Wenders set out to make a documentary about Bausch in 2009, but she died from an unspecified cancer shortly before film was to begin. As with many documentary projects where the subject suddenly dies, Pina had to become something different. Wenders still sets out to document Bausch's famous dances, but the film is now also a retrospective, and an elegy for its deceased subject. Combining extended looks at various dances that Bausch choreographed for the Wuppertal Tanztheater with older footage of Bausch and interviews with her dancers, Pina is a celebration, almost a wake, for a titan of modern dance.
I won't pretend to be an expert on modern dance, but I've been to my share of ballet and was a bit of a dancer when I was young. It's obvious from the first few moments of the very first dance sequence in Pina that Pina Bausch approaches dance differently from other people. She has no compunction against making her dances violent or her dancers contorted. Despite the shocking or ugly nature of some of the movements, the whole builds up to an emotionally affecting and physically marvelous presentation of what the human body can communicate.
Pina Bausch is obviously the nominal subject of this documentary, and her dancers realize her choreography beautifully. However, the film is essentially a collaboration between Wenders and Bausch (even if it is a posthumous one). Wenders essentially asks the camera to be another dancer in Pina's company. Shots are not captured from the point of view of the audience in a stage setting (though there are a few wide angles). Instead, the camera moves amongst the dancers, capturing everything from their subtle movements to the overall design of Bausch's settings—which range from dances performed in a train to a stage covered in dirt.
To capture the celebratory aspects of Pina, Wenders also adds some archival footage of Pina; it appears to be 8mm footage, but it's also digitally inserted into the image so it's sometimes hard to tell the source. This gives us a picture of Bausch herself, and we also hear from her dancers. Wenders chose to film the dancers silently sitting (as for the "fly on a wall" interviews found in most reality TV), but playing their interviews in voiceover. It's a nice touch that gives weight to the stories the dancers tell.
All this builds up to an excellent Pina (Blu-ray) release, the first 3D effort from the venerable folks at Criterion. They've elected to present the 3D and 2D version on two different discs, while mirroring the main extras on both discs. Unsurprisingly, both discs look amazing. Both feature 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded images. The 3D really brings out the dimensionality of the dancers, putting the viewer amongst them even more strongly. However, the 2D presentation is nothing to sneer at. Both transfers have excellent detail and strong blacks. Colors are bold and really pop out of the screen. If we're picking nits there's a bit of noise in some exterior sequences, but you have to hunt for it. Both discs get DTS-HD 5.1 tracks that are amazing. Most of the track is focused on the music that accompanies the dancers, and these moments provide rich immersion and a solid soundstage. When dialogue is included, it's warm and rich from the center channel.
I don't follow much of the 3D craze, but I'm surprised how many of the extras on Criterion's set are available in 3D and 2D version. There's a 46-minute making-of where Wenders guides us through the shooting process, and 36 minutes of deleted scenes (with optional commentary by Wenders). Not in 3D, but still appreciated are 10 minutes of additional behind the scenes footage. We also get a 23-minute interview with Wenders, and the film's trailer. Finally, as if that weren't enough, the discs round out with a commentary from Wenders, who discusses just about everything you might want to know about Pina—if this were the only extra we'd have little right to complain. The standard Criterion booklet includes an essay by novelist Siri Hustvedt, some excerpts from Wenders and Bausch, and info about the performers and their dances.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Pina is not a standard documentary. There's no real narrative trajectory, and we don't learn a lot of the "factual" stuff that many documentaries linger on. Really, it's about the dancing here. More significantly, it's about fairly abstract modern dance. Obviously that kind of stuff isn't for everyone—Pina can feel a bit slow at times because of this. I could also see some viewers (who have no plans to ever upgrade to 3D) complaining about the higher sticker price for this 3D/2D combo—if they only want to the 2D version some might balk at having to pay the two-disc price for something they think they'll never use (to those people I say go halfsies with a friend who has a 3D TV).
Pina is a triumph, one of the few 3D films which feels motivated by artistic progress rather than economic drive. However, even if you only see the 2D version, it is still an amazing tribute to a trailblazing choreographer of modern dance. As both an artistic and technical achievement, it's fitting that Criterion has afforded the film the kind of Blu-ray release it deserves. Fans of the film (or of Wenders in general) can purchase this disc with confidence.
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