Wenders’ Pina tests the limits of 3D, and finds them
Kathleen Maher
September 13, 2011

Wenders’ Pina tests the limits of 3D, and finds them

The newest film from German director Wim Wenders is a loving retrospective of the work of choreographer Pina Bausch. Wenders has woven together videos of Bausch's staged performances, re-created dances in live settings around Bausch's home base at Wuppertal, Germany, and interviews with Bausch's bereft dancers.
As it happens so often in Wenders’ work, the result is too long, occasionally ponderous, and studded with glorious moments. The most precious bits are provided by the lost Pina in the recorded versions of performances. Bausch died suddenly in 2009 after she was diagnosed with cancer. She and Wenders were in the process of creating the movie, and Bausch had defined several sections of dance to be staged and included in the movie. Her death was completely unexpected, and her troupe repeatedly expresses shock that she’s no longer with them. Wenders, too, was left bereft and, at first, abandoned the film. He returned to it only after the troupe encouraged him to go forward.

Bausch and Wenders had become friends and over the years. She cajoled him about making a movie about her work, and he fretted that he did not have the vocabulary to translate dance into film. It was only after he saw the U2 3D movie that Wenders had an idea of how he wanted to make the movie.

Wenders has chosen to film Pina in 3D; unfortunately, the result provides a lesson in what not to do in 3D.

The filmmaker presented his movie at the Telluride Film Festival, held over the Labor Day weekend. It's a magical festival hosted in an enchanted region, the Colorado Rockies. Wenders talked about his film and defended his use of 3D. He waved his hands around and said we live in 3D and that dance is a 3D medium.

(Source: Wim Wenders Webside, photos by Donata Wenders)

We actually don’t live in a 3D world. We live in a world we call “real,” and it apparently has three dimensions (don’t worry, that’s as metaphysical as this piece will get). We can move around objects, we can turn our head to catch fast motions, just out of our sight. In contrast, a 3D movie is an illusion with some of the same restrictions as a conventional film. We can only see what’s on the screen. We can't look around the corner. In fact, 3D movies have even more restrictions. Fast motions blur as the images from each camera move too fast for the camera "eye" to process. There is a well-defined middle space on the screen where 3D works. Move out of that space, and the spell is broken—and it can be unpleasant.

In Pina, Wenders makes many of these errors. As his camera races to track the moves of dancers on the street, the frame is broken by objects in the foreground. The camera focuses on the dancers’ hands, only to have the fast moves blur and get lost. The shift from the fantasy world of dance to talking-head interviews is jarring in 3D. And, finally, at 106 minutes, Pina is long for a dance film. The 3D glasses get heavy and the butt gets sore.

These little sins may not be so bad when a compelling story is being told, but they loom large in a documentary that demands a thoughtful reception, and a Zen-like ability to overcome boredom. Pina is all that. The movie is not served by the use of 3D.

Later, at the Toronto Film Festival, Wenders gave a keynote speech and elaborated on his use of 3D, frankly admitting the challenges of the medium. He said that some of the problems he encountered were the result of working in 24 fps for film. He also noted that the dance footage looked much better at 48 fps, but projectors don’t accommodate those speeds. The team shot a lot of test footage to try capture the smoothness and grace of dance, he explained. In fact, he was so unhappy with many of the tests that he didn’t dare show them to Pina.

The vocabulary for 3D is still being written, and perhaps technology will solve some of the problems of blur and distortion, and bad management of the intraocular envelope (the 3D space created by two cameras)—and maybe it won’t. It seems likely that 3D will always retain that quality of strangeness, even preciousness. Watching Pina's dancers work on stage was like watching them in a box. The effect is heightened by the proscenium and 3D sweet spot in the middle ground.

(Source: Wim Wenders Webside, photos by Donata Wenders)

Even the most successful 3D movies—Avatar, Coraline, Alice in Wonderland—carry this quality of peeping into a magic world, but Wenders tries to have it both ways as a documentary and a record of the dance. It’s frustrating that the performances are cut short or broken up to serve the movie. After all, the tragedy of Pina is that she has left a very real and material world that exists all around us, and her beloved troupe is left to figure out how to go on without her. The dances staged out and about town help underline this—as if the dancers are moving on. They’re out in the real world now, but they’ll always be Pina Bausch dancers.

It’s ironic that Wenders was so convinced by the technology of 3D that he was finally able to make the film he wanted to make about Pina Bausch’s life and work, yet it will probably be better to see this movie in 2D. In any format, it is a movie worth seeing. As always, those remarkable moments Wenders manages to capture in his movies last a lifetime.

Remember the beautiful, brooding angels atop the city of Berlin in Wings of Desire? Remember, Wenders’ prescient depiction of a search engine (featuring a determined Russian Bounty Bear) in Until the End of the World? And, most of all, remember the tortured Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas? Pina, likewise has its moments. For a hint of the beautiful worlds created by Pina Bausch, a clip of her signature Café Mueller is available on YouTube.

Kathleen Maher is a contributing editor to CGW, a senior analyst at Jon Peddie Research, a Tiburon, California-based consultancy specializing in graphics and multimedia, and editor in chief of JPR’s “TechWatch.” She can be reached at Kathleen@jonpeddie.com.