With Pina, Wim Wenders aims to do for Pina Bausch and modern dance what Buena Vista Social Club did for Afro-Cuban music. In other words, it’s utility cinema — this is the film you show someone who doesn’t know much about modern dance, if you want them to learn quickly. That’s not a slam against the film — I loved Buena Vista Social Club — but simply a description. As a documentary, Pina eschews analysis in favor of experience. It’s not an overview of Bausch’s career, or a statement on her art. It’s a glowing celebration of the woman’s work and of the dancers who bring it to life. Wenders doesn’t dig into their personal stories, but his camera does dwell on their faces, often as they comment in disembodied voiceover on their experience with Bausch. The fact that they are, mostly, older men and women is both strange and refreshing — it made me think about how, if you watch enough films, you get your perceptions of beauty and physical grace tied up too closely with an expectation of youth. It’s clear that Wenders sees Bausch’s dancers conveying something mystical, or perhaps divine, as they move on stage. They seem serene, physically beautiful, and generally beatific. The time Wenders spends with them reminded me of those moments in Wings of Desire when the film passes briefly over the faces of ordinary Germans, their fragmented experiences standing out briefly from the pageant of everyday life.

Along with a plethora of solo performances that take place out of doors, the film excerpts four of Bausch’s major, stage-bound works without allowing them to run to completion. This is a bit frustrating, and maybe it will be partially remedied when the inevitable deluxe Blu-ray edition lands in 2012. (The German disc includes more than 40 minutes of deleted scenes, but I have no idea what they contain.) I suppose a film that included the 50-minute Café Müller in its entirety would be a less commercial proposition, but the longer pieces are so fragmented that sometimes Pina feels like a coming-attractions trailer for itself.

I suppose I have to say something about the use of 3D. The line on 3D in Pina is that it amplifes a documentary experience by adding the sensation of depth. Ostensibly, watching Pina in 3D gives you a better sense of how Bausch’s dance pieces actually occupy space and time, especially in the shots where Wenders has the movie screen itself doing double duty as theatrical proscenium. In these cases, you’d think the stereo image would mimic the experience of sitting in a theater seat, looking onto the stage where a live performance is taking place. For my part, I’ve never experienced a 3D movie in the same way I see objects in the real world. To my eyes, the sense of depth, of multiple planes, and of the roundness of people and objects, is always exaggerated. It’s not an unpleasant sensation, but it’s hardly “realistic” — instead, I’m reminded that every shot in one of these films is, fundamentally, a visual effect. I can’t be the only one.

If Pinaseems a bit slick and safe, it may be simply because Wenders started shooting it shortly after Bausch herself died, unexpectedly, in 2009. Her death no doubt narrowed the range of possible approaches Wenders, her friend of many years, might take to the work. If Pina functions as elegy, it’s still an impressive document, and a landmark in the history of dance on film. It certainly deserves the success it has enjoyed around the world. But — especially given the apparent paucity of high-quality recordings of Bausch’s choreography — I’d be even more enthusiastic about an extended version, rougher around the edges and presented in 2D if need be, that let its subject matter unfold to its full majesty and power.

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