It’s almost an axiom of the documentary genre: If you’re into the subject, you’ll like the documentary. (Ironically, the opposite holds true for fiction films: NASA experts relish picking apart Apollo 13, same with statistic-heads and Moneyball, and so on.) By virtue of its subject alone, enthusiasts of modern dance will devour Pina. If it was in a bottle, they’d drink every drop; if it was in a squeeze-tube, they would rub it on their skin. Not hurting the film’s case is the fact that it’s shot in crisp 3D using Sony HDC-1500 cameras, ensuring not only that the dancers’ bodies and costumes will seem to emerge from the flat frame, but the spaces and stages their performances occupy will as well.
Cancer took Pina Bausch when she was relatively young, 68, in 2009. Those whose cinephilia doesn’t overlap with an interest in modern dance will recall Pedro Almodóvar using an instant from one of her best-known works, Café Müller, in Talk to Her. In the film, a handful of characters attend Café Müller , and Almodóvar cedes a few moments’ worth of screen time to a particularly vivid part of the performance, in which several male dancers remove chairs from the unpredictable, slaloming path of a solo, unseeing female dancer. In those few, short moments, Almodóvar did a better job of selling me on Bausch than Wenders does in 106 minutes, in spite of what appears to be a small city of talent in front of and behind the camera.
Pina‘s failure can be said to lie in, well, in those words. The film is meant to be conflated with Bausch’s legendary, innovative works, and her impact on her field, and those around her. Go after Pina and you’re going to have to go through a mob of modern-dance zealots first. Even if you were to discount all of that, you’re left with Wenders’s humility before his subject, well-documented in promotional interviews. Believe his words or watch the screen and Pina is just a document, with no auteur-derived interference standing between you and the immersive, theatrical experience of Bausch’s works.
Not that there’s anything wrong with brilliant, one-of-a-kind dance performances, presented on screen without a lot of fuss. Pina‘s single, undisputed victory is leaving the viewer convinced of Bausch’s nonpareil status in her field, a titanic creative mind tempered by a sophisticated wit, and (according to the documentary’s multitude of speakers) a visionary who pushed her dancers to trust in their bodies, to give themselves permission to cut loose and create forms within the shortest distance between mind and muscle, and so on.
Where Pina falls over the unremoved chair, however, aside from the off-putting presumption that the audience should just be happy with “just presenting,” actually has to do with the devices Wenders uses to cut between, and into, the dances. Talking heads abound, only Wenders doubles back on the “don’t let me distract you” decision by crafting talking-head segments that are needlessly esoteric in design and transition, such as freeze-framing on a photographer’s flash and cutting to a key member of Bausch’s company, who in turn will not speak except in voiceover. If it needs to be said aloud, this departure from documentary convention is absolutely, and not at all constructively, distracting.
As if to countermand Pina, nearly to the point of mutiny, this year’s New York Film Festival’s “Special Events” sidebar featured The Music of Tom Jobim, a profile of the Brazilian pop composer that is completely absent of narration, talking heads, helpful captioning, etc. Just one performance after another, doing a few standards from his catalogue: live, televised, in a film, in a studio booth, in a parade, and so on. The effect, this time truly without undue interference, is of an accumulation of privileged musical moments; before too long, the viewer is in a sea of performance and music, an enormously pleasurable experience. If Pina, dressed in cutting edge 3D clothing, dutifully observes the timeless conventions of the music documentary (it’s unabashedly hagiographic, pandering, talky without being particularly instructive), The Music of Tom Jobim openly flaunts such conventions. Wenders’s film would have been vastly improved if he’d taken instruction from the festival’s other, less-heralded music documentary.