Kristin here, reporting from Vancouver:
Entertainment and arts journalists seem to have some telepathic way of agreeing upon what will be the big hooks upon which to hang their stories. This year one such hook is the notion that auteurs are finally working in 3D, and this will somehow help determine whether the technique continues to spread. In Hollywood, those auteurs primarily include Spielberg, with The Adventures of Tintin due out in December, and Scorsese with Hugo, the adaptation of a bestseller based on the last years of Georges Méliès.
Two major directors have already brought 3D into film festivals and arthouses. Herzog contributed the one film that even people who dislike 3D (including me) admit uses the technique justifiably: The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. His countryman Wim Wenders’ Pina 3D (Pina–Ein Tanzfilm in 3D) is also a documentary. It creates a portrait of the late Pina Bausch primarily through a collection of scenes where dancers from the current Tanztheater Wuppertal troupe perform excerpts from several of her choreographed pieces.
As usual, the 3D seems superfluous. The opening shot of the theater, with its surrounding stretches of paved surfaces and its rows of trees, looks almost like a model. This is partly due to the almost complete lack of movement. Only some tiny figures on a bench shifted slightly and proved that this was a real space. Within the dance scenes, the 3D effect is more pronounced, but I suspect I would have found the dancing equally dramatic and original had the print been in 2D. One thing I will say for it was that the scenes are bright enough to look good in 3D. The 3D print of Miike Takashi’s Harakiri: Death of a Samurai, which we saw immediately after Pina, displays the notorious loss of light filtered through the glasses. Lowering the glasses a few times during the screening, I got the impression that the print was actually about twice as bright as it was seen through the glasses.
I heard some complaints that Pina offers little information about the choreographer herself. Another objection was that none of the dances are shown complete. Even the lengthiest excerpts, from Bausch’s well-known staging of The Rite of Spring, present only a small portion of the whole ballet. My own reaction was that the variety of shorter scenes gives someone unacquainted with Bausch’s style a good overview of her work.
Rather than go through archival material to present a biographical portrait of Bausch, Wenders chose to highlight each of the members of her troupe with a portrait in medium close-up and a short statement by each about their relationship to the choreographer. I found this helped in keeping track of the performers, who reappear in various combinations throughout the dance scenes, sometimes in solos or pairs, sometimes as a group. Their words about Bausch, though brief, collectively suggest their devotion to her, a devotion that pushed them to collaborate with her in inventing avant-garde moves suited to themselves and yet contributing to a recognizable overall style.
Wenders begins with the dancers on the theater stage, but what differentiates Pina from standard records of dance performances is the filmmaker’s decision to stage some of the short scenes out of doors, in landscapes, city streets, and large empty buildings. One shot looks out over a vast quarry, with a young man bursting up over the edge of it and dancing wildly on the sandy space beside it. Another has a woman performing simple steps on point against the backdrop of a large, rusty factory. A pond in the midst of barren fields forms the stage for a composition juxtaposing a woman carrying a man in the foreground with one carrying a tree at the rear (see above). A few brief scenes have the dancers performing on the corners of busy city streets.
The result gives more an impression of Bausch’s approach to choreography than an overview of her life, but it surely will lure many viewers to seek to learn more about her.
Two Years at Sea
Ben Rivers’ Two Years at Sea neatly straddles the boundary between documentary and experimental film. It appears to be a portrait of an eccentric middle-aged man, Jake, living by himself in a sprawling house in a Scottish forest. The title is never explained, nor is the subject’s name ever given. This film’s natural venues are festivals and perhaps galleries, where notes can supply the information that as a young man Jake spent two years as a sailor, saving up money to live his dream of getting away from urban environments and living close to the land.
Jake makes an excellent subject, almost never glancing at the camera but simply performing his chores, relaxing, or hiking in an unself-conscious way. In the final lengthy shot, he falls asleep on camera. Yet in fact, as we can know only through the program notes or during the filmmaker’s Q&A, Jake plays a somewhat fictionalized version of himself. (The real Jake is more gregarious and welcomes guests.) Rivers suggested some things that his subject might do, and Jake agreed: taking a shower, building a raft from which to fish on a local pond, and mostly notably, raising a small trailer into a pine tree to form a sort of tree house. The framing of the shots showing the trailer rising through the branches hides just how this was accomplished, resulting in a touch of magic realism.
Jake’s home is not a small shack but a rambling building in need of some repair. It is crammed with stuff, empty cans, tools, ancient mattresses, and worn-out objects that the owner can salvage for other uses. Similarly, the yard is overrun by old vehicles, heaps of firewood, and spare parts of unknown machines. Amongst all this apparent junk, Jake has rigged a shower, a stove, an aged washing machine, and a place to sleep. His only company is a cat, although photos glimpsed at intervals—a woman’s face, some children, Jake as a young man building a wall—hint at a past that is never made explicit. Surprisingly, he has a fairly modern car, presumably his means of supplying his needs from an unseen nearby town. He also apparently has a generator, running the lights, washing machine, and a few lamps.
The irony seems to be that Jake has escaped to nature and yet seems almost overwhelmed by the sheer volume of manufactured objects around him. The placement of the trailer atop a tree suggests that now Jake is fleeing the crowded environment he has himself created. Once the trailer is secured, he drags up a small mattress to sit on, cleans the window with his sleeve and, sits contemplating the trees outside.
The techniques with which Jake’s routines are recorded are as Spartan as Jake’s chosen life. Rivers has avoided digital filmmaking, choosing to shoot on black-and-white anamorphic 16mm. He hand-processed the footage at home, creating a grainy, occasionally blotchy image. There are many lengthy takes of actions with slow rhythms. Most is one in which Jake, having built a raft out of a frame covered with an inflated mattress and held afloat by four empty plastic bottles that look like giant marshmallows, launches it, he clumsily paddles a short distance out on the pond, and we watch him fish and drift slowly across the wide screen (see below), ending up near the shore and again paddling further out. He never tells us what he is doing or why, and the filmmaker provides no voiceover. We are left with the impression of a man who does exactly what he wants to do when he wants to do it, whether the practical act of chopping wood or the simple contemplation of something in the landscape because he finds it interesting.
Ultimately, as with any film about someone who has fled to a simpler life, we are lured to contemplate our own occasional fantasies of giving up society’s complex challenges and joys and living somewhere isolated and peaceful. It’s a rare person who would ultimately decide to do so, but here the filmmaker builds a portrait of someone who has.
Two Years at Sea.
PS, October 18: Ben Rivers takes part in a conversation about artists and funding in the UK on Frieze Magazine.