3D Meets the Arthouse: Pina and Cave of Forgotten Dreams

A conversation between Philip Concannon and Niall Anderson

Philip Concannon: Over the coming months the cinema release schedules will be dominated by summer blockbusters, and most of these movies will be in 3D. After false starts in the 1950’s and the 1980’s, it appears that 3D is now here to stay, becoming an increasingly integral element of studio filmmaking, but perhaps the most interesting experiments in three dimensions are taking place outside the multiplex. By a fortunate coincidence, two new 3D features from respected German auteurs are hitting UK cinemas in the space of a month. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog utilises this newfangled technology to explore the primitive artwork buried deep within the Chauvet Cave in France, while  Wim Wenders’ Pina uses 3D to pay tribute to the late dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch. While most 3D films thus far have been the result of studio-imposed conditions, these films are passion projects from idiosyncratic directors, and both attempt to express the simple beauty of their chosen subject through three dimensions.

The question is, have they succeeded? Does Herzog’s camera bring the 30,000 year-old paintings to life, and does Wenders’ use of three dimensions capture Pina’s dancers at their best? Finally, what do these films say about the future of 3D as a viable filmmaking tool outside of the mainstream? In the following conversation, Niall Anderson and I will hopefully answer these questions as we examine and compare both Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Pina.

Niall, perhaps you’d like to begin by sharing your views on 3D in general, and as you saw both documentaries this week, who is your victor in this Teutonic 3D duel?

Niall Anderson: Oh, Herzog by a country mile. While it’s far from being his best work, Cave of Forgotten Dreams feels like a natural continuation of an ongoing project: to imaginatively map the places humans generally don’t go, and to probe for what’s human in them simply by narrating what he finds.  Beyond the narration there’s the images, and Herzog has never been afraid to let them speak for themselves.  There’s very little visual trickery in any Herzog film, but the 3D made me realise again just how spartan his essential style is.  The 3D adds a component to that style, but doesn’t change his focus one bit.

Where Cave of Forgotten Dreams incorporates 3D, Pina is built entirely around it.  It is much more dynamically shot, much more obviously staged, much more kinetic than the Herzog.  With limbs and heads poking out towards the audience at all time, it’s much more what you expect from a 3D cinema experience.  It is also a complete aesthetic disaster – misconceived and mis-shot from first frame to last.  3D leads Wenders into some prettified vulgarities (the clifftop dance filmed like a missing sequence from November Rain), but it isn’t central to Pina’s failure.  That’s entirely down to Wenders’ woolly-brained romanticism and the fact that if he’s ever seen ensemble dance captured on film, he didn’t learn a thing from it.

Bad as it is, Pina isn’t an argument against 3D, but it is a note of caution.  And I do wonder if there’s anybody who sees a poster for a film in 3D and thinks, “Yep – that’s the clincher.  I was indifferent to Pina Bausch/the Saw franchise, but now I know it’s in 3D, man, I’m there.”  I also suspect that the arguments about this will only really kick off when some studio decides to re-render its classics in 3D (in much the same way they retrospectively colourised black-and-white films).  Can you imagine the fuss when Citizen Kane: 3D hits the Curzon Soho?  Or would you be first in the queue?

PC: That day may not be so far away – 3D versions of Star Wars and Titanic are in the works – but until they start touching films that I actually care about, I’m willing to ignore such misguided opportunism in the hope it quietly goes away. The mention of Citizen Kane did make me think about Orson Welles, though, who I’m sure would have been keen to explore the possibilities of 3D filmmaking, and it is interesting to see distinctive filmmakers beginning to take the 3D plunge. I liked both Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Pina a lot, and I’d recommend them both, but I think a key part of the appeal is seeing this technology applied to more esoteric subject matter than you’ll find among the summer blockbusters. I’ve recently enjoyed 3D opera and have 3D motorbike racing to look forward to soon, and there’s something about the way 3D is being used to accentuate these specific experiences that I find much more appealing than I have found most 3D narrative cinema. (I also quite liked The Lovers’ Guide 3D, but let’s move on…)

So I thoroughly enjoyed watching the dancers in Pina, and I thought the 3D was extraordinarily effective in giving a sense of space and depth around their bodies. I’d go so far as to say that it’s probably the cleanest and most fluid use of 3D yet, and I loved the rhythm of the film, finding it absorbing and often startlingly impressive. The film is very one-paced, however, and if it doesn’t grab you early on, then I can imagine it developing into a very monotonous affair. It’s also true that Pina is a film that relies more heavily on the 3D element of its filmmaking, and I’m sure the promise of that experience will attract more curious punters than a straightforward Pina Bausch documentary ordinarily would. The 3D is very much its trump card.

Does that reliance on 3D shorten its shelf life, though? I can’t imagine getting half as much enjoyment out of the film watching a 2D version, whereas Cave of Forgotten Dreams still has plenty to offer beyond its 3D aesthetic. The things I enjoyed in Herzog’s film were the things I always enjoy in Herzog’s films; his exploration of an unusual subject matter, his droll narration, his equal fascination in the eccentric humans surrounding his main story, and his habit of digressing down unexpected tangents. (nuclear crocodiles!) The 3D is less consistent than it is in Wenders’ film – there’s some wobbliness, and Herzog succumbs to an odd desire to spin the camera just because he can – but, as you say, the essential focus of his filmmaking hasn’t altered in the transition from 2D to 3D. Pina is the most I’ve enjoyed a Wenders film in years (even if that’s faint praise), but of these two pictures, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the one that truly seems to be infused with its director’s inimitable spirit and personality. I hope more arthouse auteurs will embrace the form in such a fashion, so which filmmakers would you like to see stepping into a new dimension next?

NA: To be honest, I’d like to see somebody I’ve never heard of stepping out in 3D.  I’d like somebody to start their career that way – just to prove it’s possible.  But the economics of 3D is still unclear, and we don’t yet have a Roger Corman figure for the 3D era – the guy who gives other people cameras and simply says: come back with something I haven’t seen yet.  Of established filmmakers, only Francis Ford Coppola is likely to give someone the money to do that.

But it wouldn’t surprise me if The Hobbit turns out to be at least partially in 3D.  And it also wouldn’t surprise me if Guillermo del Toro’s next film as director turns out to be in 3D.  Jackson and del Toro have enough commitment to the idea of cinema as an event – cinema as pure sensation – to want to try it out.

But the big one is going to be Spielberg.  Spielberg is a gearhead who also happens to be able to tell a story. He can command whatever budget he wants; he can create whatever technology he wants; he’s under no pressure to produce any film at all.  What if he gets up and says: ‘Look, I’m sorry – the tradeoff is too big.  3D gives you a big spatial field, but you lose colour resolution: everything is going to look artificial.  Also, there’s no such thing as a spontaneous take in 3D – you might get the perfect performance in one lens but there may be a hair in the other.  The level of corrective editing you’ll need is just insane’?

The intermittent technical shoddiness of Cave of Forgotten Dreams made me realise why Avatar looks the way it does.  Blue, red and green are the colours that 3D renders without appreciable distortion, so James Cameron built the film around them.  This is practicality on Cameron’s part, but the result is a kind of abstract art.  And abstract art movements come and go: they may change the way people look at realism, but realism remains the gold standard.  The essential similarity between Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Pina is that they’re both celebrations of other people’s art: they are a depiction of something that’s already stylised.  What I’m looking for is realism in 3D.  Who’s going to give us that?  What would it even look like?

PC: At the moment, the majority of 3D filmmaking does seem to be inextricably linked to fantasy and spectacle, and the best narrative features to utilise the technology so far have been animated or CGI-heavy – the vivid world of Avatar, the depth and scope of Up, the beautifully romantic lantern sequence from Tangled. It’s hard to see a point in the near future when determinedly realistic filmmakers take up the baton (will Noah Baumbach’s stripped-down misanthropy ever require a third dimension?) or where there might be a Dogme 95-style revolution for 3D technology. Whether it’s for reasons of cost, technological limitations, practicality or simply the demands of the market, 3D still seems to be tailored right now for the fantastic and the gimmicky.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams does give us some sense of realism through 3D, with the camera superbly capturing the shape and contours of the rock formations that these remarkable paintings adorn, but it adds nothing to scenes of men simply being interviewed on camera (unless they’re brandishing a spear), which makes me wonder if there really is any point in pursuing total realism in 3D? Chief 3D evangelist James Cameron has spoken of his belief that 3D will one day become the standard for cinema, in the way that talkies replaced silents and colour replaced black & white, but while there is a reliance on often-uncomfortable glasses and while it remains expensive to implement properly, it’s impossible to imagine such a paradigm shift occurring.

So maybe it should remain a cinematic tool for fun experiences and experiments? Perhaps there should be a whole new type of cinema to fully exploit the possibilities of this medium? When I watched Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, I wondered how a film like that might work in 3D. How about a completely subjective cinema, one not necessarily tethered to narrative, in which the goal is to simply immerse us in a world and push the experience as far as it will go? As you say, the acid test for a realistic or ‘mature’ age of 3D will be the uptake from directors like Spielberg (whose animated Tintin movie will be 3D but whose live-action War Horse, interestingly, will not) and Martin Scorsese, but perhaps storytelling is not the way to go. The young filmmaker you imagine beginning his career in 3D may not be a budding Spielberg or Scorsese at all, but someone more along the lines of Stan Brakhage or Godfrey Reggio; someone with a vision to share instead of a tale to tell.

NA: I think there’s a lot in what you say; and I think that in their different ways Pina and Cave of Forgotten Dreams bear out your idea that the proper – or at least the most formally appropriate – use of 3D is in building a cinema of subjectivity.  I think that might be at the root of my strong preference for Herzog’s film over Wenders’.  The Herzog is about the limits of interpretation – how much we can interpret about things purely from what we see of them.  Whereas Pina seems to appropriate a vision without trying to add anything to it.  And I honestly felt that 2D would have given us that experience just as well, if not better.

Putting the films side-by-side again, the final interesting point of comparison for me is that there already seems to be a 3D arms race – or to put it another way, that there already seems to be a 3D rig to suit every need and most budgets.  Thanks to James Cameron, we more or less know what’s happening at the high end of the technology: we know that it’s moving to solve known problems, like motion blur in panoramic shots.  But Cave of Forgotten Dreams shows us that on-the-fly, handheld 3D is now possible. The rate of development in the technology over a short space of time has been astonishing.  While that doesn’t guarantee longevity for 3D as an art-form, it does give it a healthy breathing space in which to develop further, at both the top and the bottom of the market.

Philip Concannon writes on film at Phil on Film.

“Cave of Forgotten Dreams” is currently on release (Picturehouse Entertainment). “Pina” is released on 22 April (Artificial Eye).

9 thoughts on “3D Meets the Arthouse: Pina and Cave of Forgotten Dreams

  1. Another great post. I particularly like the format. In terms of 3D, I suspect the big one will be when someone uses it to do the opening for Saving Private Ryan thing -a big immersive battle scene. But even there the glasses are always going to be a problem.

  2. “I also quite liked The Lovers’ Guide 3D, but let’s move on…”

    Yeah, this wave of 3D hasn’t generated its definitive dirty movie yet, has it? It’ll be interesting to see what happens when this thing opens in Hong Kong next week. (Trailer only mildly NSFW, but heavily reliant on things poking out of the screen.)

  3. I don’t particularly see the problem with the lightweight polarizing glasses that most 3D screens use (except that some people just need to have something to bitch about) although the bulky active shutter glasses I was given for Cave of Forgotten Dreams were pretty horrible.

    I didn’t spot any colour issues in “Cave”, but there was a carelessness about scale, which generated some nice effects (the paintings themselves looked like little boxed miniatures) but also did give the exterior scenes a weird “toy people” effect.

    I would have loved Enter the Void in 3D – Noe’s tilt-shift cityscape pans deliberately mimicked the scale-wrecking effects of stereo photography. It’s notable that Spielberg is staying away from 3D for now for live action. I’d agree that the craft isn’t well developed enough for our brains to always work with the different things our brain is telling us about the 3D image depth compared with the scale and depth cues we are all able to read in 2D pictures. Avatar didn’t suffer from this problem, which suggests it can be overcome.

  4. I hope that 3D remains a niche item, as I can’t watch 3D for longer than about 80 minutes without getting a headache.

    Avatar seemed to use ‘layers’ of image depth, to make sure our brains understood how things should be interpreted. This must be easier to achieve in animation as the environment is so tightly controlled.

  5. Do we know which of Tintin and Hugo Cabret will be out first? If their release dates are even slightly close to one another, that’s when we can expect the glut of ’3D Grows Up’ articles in the broadhseets, I guess. When it come to anticipating a rush of spectacle (pun half-intended) I’d normally be more turned-on by Spielbeg than Scorcese. But of the two, Hugo Cabret sounds more interesting and has a milieu (the early days of Cinema) which feels like it lends itself much more readly to 3D – tho the cliffhanger narratives of Tintin aren’t far off.

    Very fine article, the conversation piece format works very well.

  6. I don’t mind the idea of the glasses, but they don’t sit well over my actual glasses. Also, they are never clean.

  7. At Cineworld they let you keep them and bring them back next time. Or just to wear with the lenses out, like the kids do.

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