MOVIE REVIEW: Wenders can’t find rhythm with dancing biopic ‘Pina'

Pina (PG)

2 out of 4 stars

With "Pina," director Wim Wenders faced a similar problem Terry Gilliam encountered a couple years ago with "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" when his leading man (Heath Ledger) died halfway through filming. Rather than scrap what was already in the can and start over, Gilliam worked around it in a most ingenious way, as if nothing had happened.

A week before Wenders was going to start filming "Pina" in 2009, the celebrated modern dance choreographer and the title subject of his film -- Pina Bausch -- died of cancer. In a moment of stunning clarity and logic, Wenders cancelled the production. When the members of Bausch's dance company were informed the film was a no-go, they implored Wenders to forge ahead with a performance art tribute to their mentor.

It's unlikely anyone besides Wenders knows what he originally had in mind for "Pina," but given his sterling track record it had to be better than this Plan B/default/fallback affair.

It should be made clear that if you're into modern dance you will likely adore "Pina," as roughly 90 percent of the film's 103 minutes is dedicated mostly to performance. If you're not a fan of this medium, you might wonder how it can even be called "dance." There is a great deal of movement going on and some of it resembles dancing, but the bulk of it -- again, to those not enamored or familiar with this avant-garde form of expression -- comes across as incredibly pretentious, pointless and rather silly.

Some of the passages include a guy straightening upended chairs in a make-shift cafe, a woman with a leaf-blower in the woods, people tossing buckets of water into the air, one woman shoveling dirt onto the back of another who is on all fours and a man and a woman alternately throwing each other into a glass partition. Another woman is seen seducing a mechanical hippopotamus on the rocks in a creek. It might be art but it's probably not dance; at least what most people would consider dancing.

Even though a lot of what takes place in the film is esoteric mumbo jumbo, Wenders sure makes it look good. It opens in a manner almost identical to that of Jonathan Demme's Talking Heads concert film "Stop Making Sense," where the viewer is given the perspective of an audience member with really good seats. A huge, empty stage slowly fills with performers, stage hands and incidental objects, eventually morphing into a stunningly visual piece, albeit one that is incomprehensible on a narrative level.

Like his friend and contemporary Werner Herzog did with "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," Wenders shot "Pina" in 3-D, and, as Martin Scorsese did with "Hugo," he employs the questionable technology very wisely. Never does anything shoot out from the screen and the depth lent to the images provides magnificent enhancement. From a technical perspective, the movie is near flawless.

It's time now to address the movies' gigantic elephant.

Without Bausch to collaborate with in the present and perhaps out of a need to legitimize not only the title but the entire endeavor as a whole, Wenders regularly includes stock footage of her at various stages of her life and career and absolutely none of it adds anything to the end product. Never once are we given any details of where she came from, her personal life or her creative approach. Wenders offers nothing and the fawning, oddly chilly testimonials from the dance company are equally barren but in a different sort of way.

We know nothing more about Bausch going out than we did going in and this is where the movie disappoints on a most monumental level. The principal purpose of any documentary is to enlighten and educate and to do so with the assumption that the audience knows absolutely zilch about the subject. This isn't a documentary about Bausch, it's a quasi-concert, posthumous vanity project made solely for professional dancers or anyone who already knew everything about her already. (IFC)