Hollywood doesn't want you to know it, but the new era of digital 3-D movies hasn't exactly set the world on fire. According to an analysis published last year by the online magazine Slate, revenues from 3-D movies have declined steadily since James Cameron's 2009 Avatar became the highest-grossing movie of all time. This isn't really much of a surprise. The culprits include exorbitant ticket prices, poor-quality 2-D to 3-D conversions, and a string of bad movies shot or presented in 3-D for no discernable reason. Digital 3-D hasn't risen above novelty status because few filmmakers have found ways to make it truly enhance their work and evolve the moviegoing experience — all of which makes German director Wim Wenders' new documentary Pina a welcome surprise.
Pina is about modern dance, specifically that of brilliant dance theater innovator Philipinne "Pina" Bausch, which is bound to turn off potential viewers not especially interested in the topic. But don't let that keep you from seeing the film in a theater. Unlike Avatar, it's not going to translate well to its eventual 2-D edition on DVD. (You'll need a flat-screen and Blu-ray player that are both 3-D-enabled to get the full Pina experience at home.) And don't be surprised if film historians one day describe Pina as the Citizen Kane of digital 3-D.
No one would say Pina expands film language in the manner of Orson Welles' 1941 classic. But Pina matches new technology with appropriate content to create something that looks entirely new. This wasn't easy. For more than 20 years, Wenders searched for a way to capture the choreographer's magic on film. He finally saw that potential in digital 3-D. After a year-and-a-half of preparation, and two days before test shoots were to begin with Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal dance company, Bausch died. Her dancers encouraged Wenders to make the film anyway, though he had planned to co-direct it with Bausch. It was the last chance to preserve the choreographer's work with her own direct input visible on screen.
The resulting film is far from perfect. Pina is built around excerpts from four of Bausch's works, interspersed with short, original pieces in which individual company members pay tribute to her. This piecemeal approach can't generate the power of Bausch's full-length creations. And despite technical innovations that allow the 3-D camera to move with the dancers in extraordinary close-up and place the viewer deep inside the work, Pina doesn't fully pass the novelty test. We only forget about the 3-D thing intermittently. But when form and content come together here, as they frequently do, Pina is nothing short of dazzling.
Most important, Pina looks like a starting point. Wenders, who's known for soulful narrative movies like Wings of Desire and Paris, Texas, and for his smash-hit documentary Buena Vista Social Club, plans on spending the next several years working on a 3-D documentary on architecture — another subject that exists only in three dimensions. Here's hoping Hollywood figures out how to make digital 3-D work creatively for mainstream movies. Pina's effective use of the medium opens a door for other filmmakers. Let's see who can walk through it. — KEN KORMAN