I bought a winter pass for the ‘Stranger Than Fiction’ Winter Season at the IFC in NYC, which started off with Wim Wenders’ 3-D documentary Pina, on Pina Bausch. I had just seen Werner Herzog’s Caves of Forgotten Dreams (2011)—on 3-D TV in Yale’s Film Study Center as the concluding film for the World Documentary course I was teaching with Raisa Sidenova––and was curious to see how these two veterans of the New German Cinema would deal with 3-D and Art. Wenders was getting ready to make his documentary on Bausch when the dancer/choreographer died. The film is really a portrait of dance troupe in mourning: they dance in her memory as individual dancers talk about their sense of loss. If the essence of dance is bodies moving through space, 3-D would seem a natural vehicle for such a portrait. Many of the scenes were wonderful in this respect but at other times bodies seemed to be flat cutouts arranged in space (something I found to be true for Scorsese’s Hugo as well). Overall, it was a rewarding experience though my eyes ached by film’s end. I wonder if this is what people felt when first seeing motion pictures in the 1890s? Anyway, the documentary had loose ends—it was definitely not a biographical portrait which told the unfold story of Bausch’s life. The four dances are never named nor the dates in which they are choreographed. Indeed, to the uninitiated is not always clear that we are watching elements of fully developed dances as opposed to improvised movement. Perhaps this sense of being at sea mirrors the disorientation that performers and filmmakers must have felt as they made the picture. Or they knew their subject too well and lacked distance. Anyway, I went to Wikipedia after the screening and I suspect that seeing the film after gaining a better overview of her career would yield a different, perhaps better effect. (Nota bene: the dangers of leaving too many loose ends for the viewer. Perhaps I should add the years for Errol Morris’s documentaries in Lightning Sketch.)
The most interesting and innovative aspect of Pina was not the 3-D. It was the interviews. How did they come about? Hard to know, but presumably Wenders interviewed members of the troupe and then had them perform his chosen excerpts of their interviews—silently, expressively. And on a couple of occasions, the dancers performed their silence. A compelling, new approach to a too-familiar element of documentary, I think. This alone made the film a memorable success in my book. The other element of this film I found compelling was its exploration of advancing age. Age and dance are in brutal tension with each other. Lifers are few, but Bausch was committed to allowing dancers to age. One dance has three sets of actors –ages ca. 20 ca. 40-45 and ca. 60-70. As we confront advancing age, works about growing old gracefully and vitally is something that catches our attention!
As for Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Herzog finds an occasion to mobilize his theories of Ecstatic Truth by finding them realized in an earlier era. Art as truth. Art as an expression of the soul, such that without such as expression there is no soul. So, Herzog suggests, this is the moment when the homo spiritualis was born. The exploration of the cave through 3-D was lovely, emphasizing the contours of the space and underscoring these paintings were not done on flat surfaces. And some of the cave paintings were stunning. Particularly sobering were the drawings of rhinos, lions and some other animals long extinct in Europe. These animals, which obviously flourished there (including cave bears), were relegated to Africa where they face an uncertain future.
With Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Pina and Errol Morris’s Tabloid, 2011 was an interesting year for documentary. Last night, I saw Buck, which is short-listed for the Oscars, at the STF/IFC. The filmmaker was there as were quite a few dedicated horse people in the audience. I didn’t have great expectations, but it was a lovely, complex biographical portrait of a cowboy-horse trainer, “Buck” Brannaman, who identifies with horses and shows how respectful, non-punitive treatment produces soulful results –for horse and rider. “Your horse is a mirror to your soul, and sometimes you may not like what you see,” he remarks. Herzog would embrace this topic as yet another instance of ecstatic truth.