No matter how you feel about about Pina 3D, the feature-length documentary from Wim Wenders on German choreographer Pina Bausch, one thing is indisputable. This 3D thing basically solves the problem of dance on film.
What problem? Think on it. Bodies are best enjoyed in all dimensions: up close, in the flesh, tempting touch. They don't like being flattened. And since most dancing on camera is 2D, most dance films lack a vital quality of what made the piece worth filming in the first place.
No, Pina 3D -- playing through Thursday at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas and the Metreon -- is more alive than any dance flick ever made. It's close-up and monumental. It's visually stunning and philosophically consistent. It's also boring, turgid, and self-indulgent.
The director incorporates a handful of Bausch's seminal works, splicing them with profiles (in fascinatingly tight focus) of the dancers who performed them as part of Tanztheater Wuppertal, the German troupe Bausch directed until her death in 2009. Wenders, her longtime friend and fellow German, directed Wings of Desire and Buena Vista Social Club, among others. This latest effort scored him an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Documentary.
Like Bausch's often inscrutable work, Wenders' film casts aside plot in favor of something more intimate, much of it conveyed through the third dimension. You notice details that wouldn't register in 2D. Set aside any gimmick-shy doubts about the industry's latest push for 3D, and the needlessness of many such releases lately. (Shark Night 3D?) At the Metreon last week, the mere translucence of a dress was so immediately shocking that I nudged my black glasses off and back on again, just to confirm the dress' beauty and that of the pale German leg moving within. I was also transfixed by a mole on a dancer's cheek, and by the crystalline sequences set along Wuppertal's elevated tramway.
Not long in though, you expect Pina 3D to turn into a Zagat entry on the "late and influential" "doyenne" of "German expressionist dance theater." Like any clip reel, there's no real narrative drive. Its baggy structure hacks up entire works into bite-size segments. Wenders, in draining the pieces of any through-line, tempts self-important monotony and unintentionally exposes the weaknesses of Bausch's choreographic tropes. (As in, her work can feel monotonous, self-important, lacking in a through-line.) The subject herself remains frustratingly distant, as if Wenders were prohibited from revealing too much of Bausch herself, whether in footage or in humanizing anecdotes.
When Pina 3D finishes, it's like Barack Obama's presidency (up until a few weeks ago, when he might have gotten his mojo back). Yup. It starts out all revolutionary, nearing hagiography, full of towering potential. Great optics throughout. But after a while our director seems to have lost control of a unifying message. I saw the movie with my grandmother, and as she put it, "What's the point?" I whispered that she just had to decide for herself, which was a cop-out, and she knew it.
In interviews, Wenders has echoed the film's dancers, who praise Bausch as a quasi-saintly figure. (One says, "Everything I used to be disappeared under her gaze." Another: "You always felt more than just human working with Pina.") The two were friends for 25 years. Maybe he's too fond of his subject, too close to remember how she looked from the outside.
The few messages that come through are Pina Bausch's alone. As her dancers tell it, she often addressed the power of dance when words turn futile -- "a language we all speak," as one puts it. Ah, dance, movement, bodies! The 3D format I can support without question.