Saturday, January 14, 2012

Wenders' dance

I wrote here a few years ago about the sad decline in the career of German director Wim Wenders. When I was seriously getting into movies in the mid-80’s, his Paris, Texas was the acknowledged benchmark of class – authentically both European and American, sexy and mythic, familiar and unprecedented. He followed this with his angels over Berlin rhapsody, Wings of Desire – even more beloved by some, but in retrospect full of warning signs of an artist seduced by his sense of his own greatness. Since then it’s been twenty years of almost unbroken disappointment. I’m not riding a band wagon here – I was one of very few people who gave a qualified thumbs up to both The Million Dollar Hotel and Don’t Come Knocking. But even I couldn’t rouse myself to a kind word about some of his output, in particular the hectoring Land of Plenty.

Quasi-profundity

Wenders intersperses his fiction films with documentaries, with similarly declining returns. The most significant is the semi-legendary Lightning over Water, a productively ambiguous examination of – in effect – the death of director Nicholas Ray. The most broadly famous though is Buena Vista Social Club, which apart from the inherent worthiness of its service to the long overlooked musicians didn’t excite me much. His documentary on Yasujiro Ozu, Tokyo-Ga, is touching in concept but suggests no understanding whatsoever of Ozu’s importance, and exhibits in spades Wenders’ tendency to set himself up as an aphorist-for-hire, shoving aside Ozu in favour of a stream of quasi-profundities which nowadays wouldn’t even make the grade as Tweets. Likewise his documentary Notebook on Cities and Clothes, where the term “notebook” seems to be code for the lack of rigour behind the film’s endless blather on the relationship of fashion and film.

This is also perhaps the greatest weakness of Wenders’ new documentary Pina: whenever people say anything, it’s usually some generic insight or personal recollection of the kind you can scrape in layers off any life achievement presentation (Wenders at least acknowledges the limitations of the talking head format, but only by separating sound and image to play the voices over shots of non-talking heads). Happily, this only accounts for a small percentage of the film. The rest is largely sublime.

Pina Bausch

Pina illustrates the work of Pina Bausch, the German choreographer. She and Wenders planned to make a film together in 2009, but then she died of cancer; he put the project on hold before resuming, working closely with many of her dancers and collaborators. My knowledge of dance pretty much stops at Fred Astaire and what you get at the Mirvish shows – I’ve never once been to the ballet for instance – so the following remarks may mainly illustrate my own ignorance. But Pina made me think about the form as I never have before. My (no doubt clich├ęd and reductive) view of dance tends to emphasize grace and technical precision, but these qualities aren’t particularly prominent in the film. Instead, it communicates the possibilities of dance as narrative, grounded in vibrant emotions, in earth and sand and water, and as diagnosis, fearlessly and with immense resourcefulness circling around the core question of – as someone puts it toward the end – what are we longing for. The dances in Pina often seem thrillingly torn from some larger story, or perhaps from the heart of all stories,

Wenders made the film in 3-D, and it stands with Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Hugo in largely conquering one’s reservations about the format. There are still moments when the extra definition of the foreground comes at the cost of a weirdly flattened background, or when the excess of focal points makes the real seem oddly fake. But for the most part you forget you’re watching any kind of special format, and lose yourself in the play of cinematic and physical invention. Without ever feeling intrusive or over-analytical about it, Wenders allows us to move within the performance, to commune with the performers and the space as Bausch herself as might have done in rehearsal.

The film doesn’t confine itself to the stage though – it takes the dances outside, into the country, but also to the edge of highways, to the underside of train tracks, or into the train carriages. Some of the effects – cutting between different performances of the same dance, for instance – clearly go beyond what was originally on the stage, but in the absence of any knowledge of those originals, it’s impossible to know how much. These devices might easily have seemed like over-reaching, but they seem to me to work, because one imagines Bausch would have wanted her work to be treated as a conversation, and thus to solicit an answer.

Kings of the Road

In The New Yorker, Anthony Lane drew a link between Pina and Wenders’ earlier works, colourfully evoking those as a “volley of unpredictable gestures—solemn or wild, often futile, but not without a streak of comic dignity.” He evokes a moment in Kings of the Road where a man drives his Volkswagen Beetle into a river and “stays in the driver’s seat as the water rises, furiously turning the steering wheel this way and that, as if he still had someplace to go and some hope of getting there.” Lane asks: “Who would have seen the joke, and the horror, more clearly than Pina Bausch?” In Kings of the Road, one of Wenders’ best, once the driver exits the water, he latches on the river bank onto a man who services film projectors, and without even introducing each other they fall into a rhythm, travelling together from one small town movie theatre to another. The picture talks to the necessity of exercising control over one’s trajectory even in drab and barren times, even if only by a form of negation, by rejecting almost all personal possessions and fixed coordinates; it’s one of those films you feel could continue almost indefinitely, gathering further incremental power through continued encounters and variations and adjustments.

Pina can’t quite return Wenders to that rare state, but it’s an achievement that the film even makes you think back to it. “Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost,” stands as its final motif, but of course it reminds you of the injunction to ‘dance fools dance’, to lose yourself in misdirected merriment, the better not to notice your descent to hell. Wenders’ recent career has more than its share of such misplaced dancing, making it all the more miraculous that in a film that might have constituted the final surrender, he rediscovers himself. He says now he’s going to make all his movies in 3-D, but that’s hardly the most necessary takeaway. It’s more important that he engage us again in nourishing and unpredictable conversations; if he can simultaneously cut back on the annoying talk, all the better.

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