Many years ago, Carlo the Bandito, had a crazy idea of movie-going . He thought the more difficult the material both in accessibility and content, the more valuable a piece of art. Forget about entertainment and enjoyment. He went to only see films at art houses made by directors with last names like Cuaron and Fellini. And just for the record, he has never seen a film my Fellini. He rejected good taste for a semblance of good taste. It didn’t matter if it was enjoyable so long as there was a foreign director and subtitles involved. In short, he was an indie snob.
One such film was Pedro Almadovar’s Talk to Her, a film that followed a journalist, an ambiguously gay-slash-mentally handicapped nurse, a dancer in a coma, and a matador. Was the film good? Enjoyable? It had moments, certainly, most of which he can’t remember. It had something to do with longing, sex, loneliness, abandonment, and raping girls in a coma. Other than that, he can’t remember much. But he does remember the opening scene of two men at a movie theater watching a dance piece. Two women shrouded in long white night dresses are dancing around, stumbling around a stage space scattered with black wooden chairs. Others are clearing a path for the women continuously, saving the women from running into said chairs. But they’re also running into walls and being lifted. It was an evocative moment for Carlo then, as it is for him now.
Many years later, I would see Talk to Her, and it was this opening moment of the film that has stuck with me. The dance piece in question is called “Cafe Muller” by German choreographer Pina Bausch. “Cafe Muller” along with a host of other dances by Bausch have been documented and cut together in a documentary-slash-homage to the late choreographer in Pina, a film my Wim Wenders.
A nother member of the Collective was so moved and affected by the film, that at the time of this writing she has seen the film four times. When I finally saw the film, my jaw dropped at one moment and didn’t close until…well, my mouth is wide open.
There is very little in the film about Pina Bausch’s life. Instead, the movie focuses on her work because the work was her life and the life for her dancers. They are as much a subject in this film as Pina. One dancer recalls an encounter with Pina in which she realized that all of their experiences were Pina’s, “…or perhaps Pina’s were ours.” This highly personal approach and humanism in the dance is evident throughout.
“Cafe Muller”, the piece used in Almodovar’s film, shows a host of characters looking for love, losing love, trying to move past dead loves. The two blind women could be dead. Two lovers cling to each other, while one man moves them through the motions, eventually lifting the woman, now limp, into the arms of her male lover. He drops her. She gets up and clings to her lover again. The other man moves them through the motions again, where she is dropped from her lovers arms, and then in an instant clings to her lover’s neck again. Over and over. Cling, drop, cling, drop, cling, drop, until they don’t need help from the third party because they are caught. The movement is abstract, but there is such a ferocity of emotion exhibited in the choreography and the commitment of each dancer, that they give characters fully-fleshed out with stories and wants and desires and longings. None of it has been articulated into words, though, yet, to those who are open to it, feel and know exactly what is happening in the dancers as well as if it were happening to the spectator. The dance is abstract, but always accessible.
If the content of this dance seems a bit heavy, be assured that there is plenty of humor and whimsy in the film. One huge ensemble piece shows a school dance. The students are lined up against the back wall, and each moves forwards one at a time to be scrutinized. They smile and turn, then walk back to their chairs. By the end, it is a full on hormone bath of jitters and frisks as the girls stand to one side ruffling their skirts, as the boys approach in a sort of marathon sprint, awkwardly and anxiously approaching the women, trying to restrain their hormonal impulses but still attain their goal. It’s the sexual explosion of pubescence through the medium of dance, and it’s a riot.
A dancer runs up to chairs and stands on them, places her foot firmly on the backing, and tumbles down with the chair. A man resets them. She created her piece for (and with?) Pina because she said Pina made her feel light and free. One gets the sense that there was an alchemical collaboration between choreographer and dancer, an intimacy between all the creators, that one senses in each dancer’s testimony and recollection of Bausch. There is also a deep loss as each person speaks, as if one had lost a friend, lover, parent, and fellow artist all at once. (Bausch passed away a few days before filming began) And still, the dancer climbs onto her chair only to collapse it in a moment of utter and unutterable joy that she must squeal and sigh like a little child against the backdrop of a blue sky.
That image, along with all the others, can’t be taken out of context of dance performance on film. Wenders has created such a cinematic experience of dance that is as integral to the success of the film as the genius of Pina Bausch and her dancers. Dance on film is a medium of its own, and Wenders makes it evident that he understands this completely. The 3-d element faded into the background until I was just lost in the dream of the dance. Wenders takes us away from the typical fourth wall perspective, then inserts a frame of a curtain and a film screen to remind us that we are watching a film.
The pieces are staged on a conventional stage, but then many of them are put into real-life locales: modern flails on a sand dune, stomping and stamping on a skyline metro, a despairing fall on a pulley train. A quick cut in the middle of a dance shows us older footage of Bausch herself dancing or rehearsing a piece with her company. The interviews shot for this movie never actually show the dancers speaking. Wenders opts to have them viewed sitting with voice over of them speaking, which further cements the idea that for these people, their true language is the dance. Each moment, each directorial decision was made with such deliberation and contributes to the way we are experiencing the dance on film as film.
Carlo and I were moved to tears, laughter, feelings of anxiety and longing and awe throughout the movie.This is a film that could be viewed multiple times and ought to be, not only because of the complexity of the work, but also because it’s just damn entertaining. It awakens, stirs one out of the doldrum of everyday life. This film, along with all the documented work, is a gift. It’s a dream machine, too. But most of all, the film is just well crafted, damn good, and entertaining.
How much I paid: $15
How much the film was worth: priceless