Friday, March 2, 2012

Dancing around a Void (Pina and Damsels in Distress)

Pina (2011), the Oscar-nom'd Best Documentary directed by Wim Wenders, continues the genre's current trend of revealing little about its subject. Or even having a subject. Or arguably not being a documentary at all. This is not a knee-jerk criticism, noncomformity being generally a good thing; but the PowerPoint presentations of Al Gore and the metaphysical musings of Werner Herzog and the stock-footage shenanigans of Alex Gibney or Michael Moore don't push the envelope so much as neglect to stamp postage on their messages altogether. And on the off-chance there is an actual topic front and center - like professional nutjob Joyce McCarthy in Errol Morris's Tabloid - it's of so little consequence I feel the same way I do toward recently ballyhooed docudramas that magnify ephemera like the crappy movies of Howard Hughes or the bogus impact of Billy Beane: Why was this movie even made? Why should I be watching it?

I didn't feel quite that harshly toward Pina, which has some imaginatively staged dance numbers, some of them in urban or natural settings. Shortly before filming began, Wenders, who has made at least one notable documentary (1999's Buena Vista Social Club) and one of the greatest movies ever made (whether that movie is Paris, Texas or Wings of Desire depends on you), was faced with the death of his subject, the groundbreaking choreographer Pina Bausch. How, then, to fill the void? (In Buena Vista Social Club he had the opposite problem - keeping the overbearing Ry Cooder's ego out of the way of the compelling Cuban musicians and their terrific music.) Pina showcases Bausch's most famous dance numbers as performed by her troupe, a polyethnic, gender-balanced mix of younger and older dancers who supply the expected "talking-heads" without heads that do any talking. In what some may find an overly artful touch, Wenders has each of them face the camera silently while the audio from their interviews plays in voiceover.

Like Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Pina was made in 3-D, and even more than Herzog's film (which I mostly liked) it demonstrates both the best (depth of field) and worst (blurriness of motion) that the technology can offer. And while it's clear that Pina Bausch had a profound impact on her proteges, the most they reveal about her - or at least what Wenders lets us hear - are blinding insights like "Pina taught me to find strength in fragility." It's apparent to even this dance non-expert that a recurring theme in Bausch's art is the struggle between the deterioration of the body (through disease or age) and the will of the spirit: One dazzling set-piece occurs in a large sterile room - possibly a mental institution - in which the dancers navigate obstacles between each other in the form of several chairs. If the movie had spelled out such themes with real-life parallels I'd probably be critiquing that narrative tack instead. It's good to see Wenders, who has a habit of indulging his own pretensions, flirting with relevance again. He's still halfway down the rabbit hole, though, allowing his subjects to speak for themselves without fully considering what their words, and his images, mean.

Whit Stillman's return to the screen following a fourteen-year absence isn't as momentous as Terrence Malick's end to his 20-year exile - 1998, the year of Stillman's last movie (The Last Days of Disco), was the same as Malick's resurfacing (The Thin Red Line) - but the unique niche that Stillman occupies is worth noting. Or at least the go-getting young-adult rarefied-air landscapes of Metropolitan and Barcelona used to be original before Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbauch aggressively expanded the area's urban planning.

The weirdest thing about the self-conscious weirdness of
Damsels in Distress (2012) is it feels like Stillman trying to do an Anderson movie, rather than the other way around. It's been a while since I've seen his earlier films, but the arch flatness (or flat archness) of the dialogue and deadpan absurdity of the shaggy-dog scenarios seem more exaggeratedly cartoonish than in previous Stillman efforts. (Unlike his disciples, Stillman moves the camera quite a bit in Damsels - unlike Stillman too, in fact.) As Violet, the lead distressed damsel of a quartet out to better the lives of the culturally deprived co-eds at Seven Oaks College, Greta Gerwig hits the right tone: When she explains the virtues of good hygiene for suicide prevention, or why stupid guys make the best boyfriends (to give women a purpose in life and feel better about themselves), the twisted comic logic is ticklish. And as Frank and Thor, a pair of boneheads from a local "Roman" frathouse (the campus's version of Greeks), Ryan Metcalf and Billy Magnussen provide the funniest takes on inspired stupidity since Bill Pullman in Ruthless People and Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda.

Unfortunately what is at first clever and charming becomes exhausting twee overload by the film's second half. Damsels sets up one of Stillman's key themes - the efforts of a collective to change an individual (here a transfer student played blandly by Analeigh Tipton), only to have that individual shake them up instead - but doesn't follow through on the premise. The comedy gradually unspools, ending with not one but two dance numbers, a classical-style musical sequence followed immediately by Violet's purported new "dance craze" over the closing credits. It's one of those bring-the-cast-together climaxes you find in Wes Anderson's work, only without the emotional resonance of the best of them. Parts of Damsels in Distress are fresh and delightful, but the worst bits are as stifling as The Life Aquatic or The Darjeeling Limited - movies made ostensibly in the open air, yet actually within the world of a filmmaker who forgot to crack a window.

No comments: