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Wenders's "Pina" and Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams"

"Apples and oranges" was my off-the-cuff reply to a critic I admire as we rose from our seats following a screening of Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams. He'd just muttered something to the effect of "sure beats Pina" and, while comparisons will be nearly impossible to resist — two giants of the New German Cinema have each made their first films in 3D, both of them documentaries, and, on that day in February, the Berlinale had just screened them back to back — I'm sticking with my initial verdict: apples and oranges.

Now Wim Wenders's Pina is playing in the UK and a few European countries, while Places, strange and quiet, an exhibition of nearly 40 large-scale photographs taken between 1983 and the present, is on view at Haunch of Venison in London through May 14 — the cover of the current issue of Sight & Sound, by the way, reads "The Third Coming of Wim Wenders" — and Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams is opening today in a few cities in the US. I'll post a note or two after the roundups, but first, with regard to the Wenders exhibition, a clip from Mick Brown's profile in the Telegraph:

 

His wife, Donata, is also a highly respected photographer, "opposite to me in every way," Wenders says. She specializes in portraiture, and while he shoots only in color, she shoots only in black and white. They sometimes travel together on photographic expeditions, but always go their separate ways.

"We spent a week together in Japan, in Onomichi, staying in a beautiful old-fashioned ryokan," he remembers. "In the morning we would have breakfast, and then she would go off with her equipment and I would go with my equipment, and in the evening we would talk about what we'd seen. But as we both photograph on film we didn't actually see what the other one had done until we came back to Berlin and looked at our contact sheets. And I couldn't believe the adventures she'd had in this little Japanese city, and she couldn't believe what sort of places I'd found. It was a mystery to us that we were both in the same city."


"Pina Bausch was one of the world's most radical and influential dance-makers," begins Sarah Crompton. "So it seems entirely fitting that the film made in tribute to her by director Wim Wenders should be the first to suggest the real artistic possibilities of 3D. Pina is both moving and miraculous in all kinds of ways. To begin with, it is an extraordinary record of the work that Bausch made since first setting up her company in Wuppertal in 1973. Pieces such as The Rite of Spring and Café Müller are filmed with a passion and vitality that make them almost as vivid and powerful as they are on stage."

Also in the Telegraph, James Lachno's briefing on Bausch and Tim Robey: "Wenders has some marvelously inventive visual strategies up his sleeve: diaphanous drapes, for instance, layer the image and create extra spaces for the performers to occupy. The 3D allows foreground and background choreography to interact and weave a textured, beguiling magic. Pina is so stunning as an enactment of Bausch's art that it's a shame Wenders interrupts it often as he does, asking her performers for recollections and insights that tell us less than the work itself. But this is a minor niggle in a film that's both celebration and cause for same."

"Presumably the 3D's main role is to substitute for the 'liveness' of the original performance, and there's no doubt that 3D adds a lusciousness of texture to the company's already refined and polished visuals," writes Andrew Pulver. "You can be too reverential though. Clearly the Tanztheater had its legions of devotees, and this film will be perfect for them: as near to the real thing as its possible to get, without actually showing up in the auditorium. But for non-devotees — which I would have to class myself — it's a curiously uninvolving experience."

Charlotte Higgins, also at the Guardian, is one of the devotees and notes that Bausch and Wenders had known each other for 20 years, "and the idea of making a film together about her work had been on the cards for almost as long. However, said Wenders: 'I never knew, with all my knowledge of the craft of filmmaking, how to do justice to her work. It was only when 3D was added to the language of film that I could enter dance's realm and language.'" But "two days before the shoot was due to start, in June 2009, Bausch died suddenly, five days after being diagnosed with cancer. When what Wenders called this 'unimaginable' event occurred, the film was cancelled. 'The film we had prepared had Pina Bausch as the central figure,' Wenders said. 'She was to have been next to me when we shot it. We would have followed her in rehearsals, watched her give notes to the dancers. And we would have gone on tour with her to Asia and South America, so it would have been a road movie.' Eventually, encouraged by Bausch's family, company, and dancers, it was decided to go ahead after all — not least so as to film a document of the choreographer's work 'while her eye upon it was still fresh.'" As Higgins writes in another piece, "The whole film, quite inevitably, feels like an act of mourning."

And she has a video interview with Wenders (5'12"). For more clips, turn to Les Films du Losange's playlist. And for more interviews, turn to Dave Calhoun (Time Out London), John-Paul Pryor (AnOther), Emma Simmonds (Little White Lies), the Telegraph (video, 2'32") and James Woodall (Arts Desk).

For Time Out London's Dave Calhoun, "Pina is the Paris, Texas director's best work since Buena Vista Social Club." Ismene Brown at the Arts Desk: "Choreography means 'space-writing,' arranging dances in stage space, not actually the art of phrasing steps. And Wenders is the first 3D filmmaker I've seen who absolutely gets that."

More on Pina from the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw ("Wenders's movie uncovers the crucial state of yearning in Bausch's work"), Zara Miller (Little White Lies) and Mathieu Ravier.

 



"Hyperbole fails," begins Stuart Klawans in the Nation. "'A movie 30,000 years in the making! Goes where no film has gone before — or will ever go again! Mysteries and wonders leap off the screen! In a lifetime of moviegoing, you will never see another film like this!' Such ravings become mere statements of fact with Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a documentary that demotes cries of 'Awesome!' to the status of mere reportage. The proposition, quite literally, is this: you can pay your money, strap on your 3D glasses (yes, 3D) and witness what Herzog alone has been entrusted to show you, or else forgo seeing the most primal and profound evidence yet encountered of what makes us human."

Kevin Lee at Fandor: "In one of the best uses of 3D technology to date, Herzog explores the Chauvet caves of Southern France, site of the oldest cave drawings yet found. Accessible only to researchers, the fragile, pristine etchings come to life with Herzog's use of 3D, giving us a sense of what it's like to stand in their presence, submerged in a netherworld hailing from the origins of humankind's existence. As such the journey carries as much psychic power as visual. For the most part, Herzog's typically imposing voiceover does more to support than undermine the film's spine-tingling, primal sense of awe and mystery." You'll see on that same page that he's not quite as enthusiastic about Pina.

For the Guardian's Andrew Pulver, Cave "is fully worthy to stand alongside Herzog's non-fiction masterworks, such as Grizzly Man, My Best Fiend and Little Dieter Needs to Fly… Herzog and his crew have a strictly limited time-frame to get their footage, are heavily restricted in terms of lighting, and are in any case confined to a narrow metal walkway constructed to link the numerous cave chambers." But "the restrictive conditions have a most unexpected result: they energize the 3D photography far beyond anything I've seen before."

Speaking with Herzog for the Financial Times, Leo Robson notes that the "cave is full of bulging and irregular shapes, and Herzog says that the painters, who had 'a quest for depicting movement,' 'incorporated the drama of these formations into their art'; for example, a bulge in a rock becomes the neck of a charging bison. 'There's a three-dimensional drama which was understood and utilized by people 32,000 years ago,' he says. Then, shrugging, he adds: 'But I'm told that it looks pretty good in 2D as well.'"

"Even Roger Ebert, the nation's most intractable 3D curmudgeon, acknowledged that way down in the Chauvet cave, at least, the Hollywood gimmick is appropriate and useful," notes Daniel Engber in Slate, where Dana Stevens advises that "the whole reason you need to see this movie is that it's hard to get across a sense of these paintings' brilliance in language — or in photographs, for that matter. Even the best book of reproductions — like Cave Art, by Chauvet research team leader Jean Clottes, who appears several times in the film — can't convey a sense of the cave's contours, or the spatial relations between one painting and the next."

"Herzog stamps his presence on the film through his now familiar style of narration, a mixture of awe and skepticism, humility and wit," writes Ben Walters in Time Out London. "His own questing sensibility becomes all the more pivotal given the lack — unusual for a Herzog picture — of an identifiable obsessive-hubristic protagonist."

"My mind couldn't help but wander back to another recent film about historical inevitability and the significance of a particular time and space, Patricio Guzmán's Nostalgia for the Light, which I felt captured a similar essence through far more effective means." Ryan Wells at Cinespect: "The issue lies with Herzog, who is a filmmaker whose abilities are better suited with images than sound. His fictional work has some of the most poignantly, striking images ever recorded on film. However, when the images are lacking and the mise-en-scène crosses over into the static realm, Herzog kicks into Professor Debbie Downer mode and goes to town."

"He makes for a deadpan messenger, apparently (though you're never quite sure) deaf to his own absurdity," writes Jasper Rees at the Arts Desk. "His speculations as he obsessively hunts for meaning, for connection, lead him up some blind alleyways which, frankly, this film could do without — never more than in a bathetic coda which takes him to a nearby botanic garden where albino crocodiles swim in pools. (Don't ask. You are urged to leave before this bit, so that your last memory is, fittingly, of a human handprint from 30 millennia ago.) But as it's Herzog bringing us this story, we must learn to live with these interventions. Sometimes the cave seems to be fighting back. At one point he asks everyone, scientists and crew, to keep quiet so we can listen out for the echo of long-dead heartbeats. The camera pans across from Herzog looking sagacious to a tall stalagmite, apparently giving one of the great poets of modern cinema a one-fingered salute."

"Herzog's inimitable narration borders on the goofy," writes Nick Schager in Slant, "but it infuses the proceedings with contemplative profundity, as when he considers whether the paintings are 'the beginning of the modern human soul,' thereby positioning his material as a fundamental search for (the universal) self."

"Hearing his familiar voice musing about these familiarly Herzogian themes has become weirdly comforting. It's hard to remember how confrontational and strange his essayistic personal style seemed when audiences first encountered it." In the Guardian, Hari Kunzru traces a history of Herzog's presence in his own films.

"Would that the director maintained the cave's silence, deep enough to hear your heartbeat," sighs J Hoberman in the Voice. "Instead, there's a compulsion to fill the void with philosophical vapors… and Ernst Reijseger's obtrusive New Age choral music." The New York Times' Manohla Dargis agrees; the score "tended to remind me of my last spa massage. Yet what a small price to pay for such time traveling!"

Elbert Ventura, writing in Reverse Shot, finds that "at 90 minutes, the movie overstays its welcome. One feels almost impious making such a complaint, but a documentary's subject, no matter how compelling, shouldn't inoculate it from criticism. The climactic montages of the paintings, illuminated by lights panning across the walls, as if in mimicry of torches passing by, are indeed captivating. But lingering on them as Herzog does — the climax is as protracted as that of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King — only underscores the limitations of his movie."

More from Roy Ashman (Alternate Takes), Jeannette Catsoulis (NPR), Ed Champion, Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York, 3/5), Michael Joshua Rowin (L), Scott Tobias (AV Club, B-), Armond White (New York Press) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline, 9/10). More interviews with Herzog: Bilge Ebiri (Vulture), Simon Jablonski (Quietus), Tom Keogh (Seattle Times), Eric Kohn (indieWIRE), Chris Kompanek (AV Club), Larry Rohter (NYT), David Gordon Smith (Spiegel Online), Keith Uhlich (Time Out New York), ST VanAirsdale (Movieline) and Samuel Wigley (Sight & Sound).

Viewing (8'08"). For the Guardian's cameras, Herzog discusses the film with Cambridge University archaeologists. Listening (47'36"). For an edition of Science Friday, Herzog, novelist Cormac McCarthy and physicist Lawrence Krauss discussion science as an inspiration for art. More listening (33'29"). Herzog's a guest on Fresh Air.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams has been traveling the festival circuit since its premiere in Toronto last fall; see Daniel Kasman's review and the roundup. The film's also had a run in the UK and, again, sees a limited release in the US today.

At In Contention, Guy Lodge's initial reaction to seeing both films at the Berlinale was to declare Wenders "the resounding winner"; after Pina, Cave seems "a little crusty in comparison." Antonia Quirke, writing for the Financial Times is harsher: "For 3D to work movement is everything, which is why Werner Herzog's recent film Cave of Forgotten Dreams… failed to ignite. In truth that was a rather dashed-off project in general, but crucially the paintings are 2D. Sure it was nice to see them so close, but 3D could do nothing with them. In Pina, when a dancer comes towards you in front of a dark background and then stops to float lazily in the air, followed by a camera dollying quickly to the right — blurred and sparkling — your eyes fall out of your head."

 



So, apples and oranges. Every viewing takes place within a context that sets one's frame of mind, so allow me to briefly explain why I may be a little overly defensive when it comes to Pina. For a few years now, any mention of Wenders in conversation has been likely to trigger either a dismissive eye-roll or a veering off into a new conversation, namely, one earnestly addressing the question, "What happened?" Thing is, I have a penchant for directors with mixed records; as long as they've made one or two truly great works, their oeuvres offer so much more to chew on than those of the all-genius-all-the-time pantheon dwellers. What's interesting in the case of Wim Wenders is that, as opposed to directors whose films actually contradict each other in the way that Daniel Kasman writes about today in his piece on Takashi Miike, his best films (e.g., Wings of Desire) and his worst (e.g., Palermo Shooting) come from the same sensibility. Over the decades, his early existential road movies have evolved into the sort of films that may seem at first glance to contradict works such as The Wrong Movement but are actually deeply rooted, structurally and thematically, in the same Wanderlust. The sense of loss, though, becomes romanticized in ways that work for the three-minute American pop songs Wenders has loved all his life but not necessarily for a two-hour film. Add the occasional flirtation with the supernatural and soon enough you're coming right up to the edge (The American Friend, Paris, Texas) and, at times, fatally crossing over the border into sentimentality (Faraway, So Close!, The Million Dollar Hotel).

In the weeks leading up to the Berlinale, I found myself growing impatient with the speculation I was hearing as to just how Wenders would botch his Pina Bausch project, while at the same time, anticipation would be whipped up with regard to Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which surely must be even better than that first round of reviews out of Toronto would suggest. Herzog has taken on Living Legend status even while, as Vadim Rizov puts it in his piece at GreenCine Daily, his "persona — an increasingly dominant presence in his documentaries — is tipping towards self-parody." He seems to have "cannily realized he's still his own most sellable aspect, barking out mystic sentiments and ridiculously bold pronouncements on demand." Watch the series of soliloquies Nina Shen Rastogi has gathered at Slate — and the Burden of Dreams tangent on the obscenity of the jungle does remain one of his great moments — watch them all in one fell swoop, and then switch over to the "Werner Herzog Reads Curious George" viral hit Vadim reminds us of and start clicking on the others YouTube suggests ("Madeleine," "Waldo") and you begin to get a sense of how ridiculously easy it is to crank this stuff out. And I at least begin to wonder why Wenders's occasional slippage into vinyl-era sentimentality is more readily dismissed than Herzog's occasional slippage into dorm room what-iffery such as wondering out loud what mutant albino crocodiles (which are not mutant, by the way, nor are they crocodiles) would make of the cave paintings.

I admire both Pina and Cave of Forgotten Dreams; I honestly don't "prefer" one over the other. But some of the criticism I've heard of Pina has threatened to tip the scales. For example: that Bausch would never have allowed the camera on stage, would never have allowed the camera to move, would never have allowed a shot from above the dancers' heads. Bausch and Wenders knew each other, and just as importantly, knew each other's work for two decades. The project was already up and rolling at the time of her death. Wenders, I'm sure, had a more than clear idea of what Bausch would or would not allow.

Or: You can't quote from a piece like Cafe Müller; it was conceived as a whole, and therefore, if you show us any of it, you must show us all of it. Seriously, I've heard this argument and it certainly sounds like grasping at straws to me. Such rigidity would, of course, rule out any documentary on, say, Beethoven playing us a few measures from the Ninth; the whole damn thing would have to play out — as it was conceived.

More seriously: The interviews with the dancers are a distraction because they have nothing to say, or at least nothing with as much import as Bausch herself would have had. This criticism — a respectable one, I'd say — overlooks a vital distinction: Pina is not a film about Bausch, but rather, a film about Bausch's legacy. And that legacy is the company. I'll cede to the critics that Wenders's chosen solution to the talking heads problem that faces all documentary makers — he films portraits of them not talking while we hear their thoughts in voiceover — is a little too slick and wouldn't look out of place in, oh, a commercial for an insurance company. But to have those thoughts spoken as a supplement to their more substantial expression of all they owe to Bausch as artists, namely, their dancing, is not a misstep.

In a way, it's a happy coincidence that Pina and Cave have arrived in more or less the same time frame because, over and again, reading these reviews, you'll see critics who have evidently seen one but not the other announcing that this one they've seen is the first film in all of cinema's history for which the use of 3D is justified. Or that this one film is the eye-opener, the one that reveals like no other film before it the true potential of what had been, up to this point, a mere marketing gimmick. As someone who saw both for the first time on the same day, I can understand how either film would spark such jubilation. At the same time, what Cave has going for it is the cave. Once you've made the decision to go with 3D, you don't have to be overly inventive in the filming of those walls to wow us.

In Pina, Wenders takes on a more challenging subject. Don't get me wrong: the cave paintings are the closest humankind has come to immortality. The point isn't to weigh one art against the other, only to note that Bausch's choreography is more spatially intricate, and of course, that it's a moving target. Wenders has met that challenge in part by coaxing the boxiness 3D makes of the screen to work to his advantage. It makes sense that the filmmaker who has spent so much of his career contemplating the nature of cinema head-on from such various angles (e.g., The State of Things, Room 666 and especially Until the End of the World) would see in 3D the opportunity to utilize scale to differentiate between memory and the present even while emphasizing the connections between them. Models used in the creation of pieces seamlessly become the stage on which they're performed; two-dimensional footage floats in empty space behind a proscenium arch.

After Cave, we can begin to look towards places and sights we never thought we'd able to come so close to actually experiencing: the landscape of the moon, maybe, the ocean floor or the rush of blood cells through a vein. After Pina, we can begin to imagine spatial juxtapositions that have never before existed; we can begin to imagine making them almost tangible.

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…to utilize scale to differentiate between memory and the present even while emphasizing the connections between them. Models used in the creation of pieces seamlessly become the stage on which they’re performed; two-dimensional footage floats in empty space behind a proscenium arch… That’s one keen observation, David. Hat Tip.

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