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Absolute Wilson   B

New Yorker Films / Film Manufacturers Inc.

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Katharina Otto-Bernstein
Writer: Katharina Otto-Bernstein
Cast: Robert Wilson, David Byrne, Charles Fabius, Philip Glass, Jessye Norman, John Rockwell, Susan Sontag, Suzanne Wilson.

Review by Rob Vaux

I don't get Robert Wilson. In fact, I suspect that anyone who claims to get Robert Wilson is either full of it or indulging in non-prescription meds. But as the new documentary Absolute Wilson makes clear, you certainly don't forget his work once you've seen it. An icon of avant-garde theater, he's forged an unsurpassed reputation for experimental daring over the last 40 years, and director Katharina Otto-Bernstein understands how to convey his genius in generally accessible terms. Her portrait rarely breaks new ground, but certainly puts Wilson's work in an intriguing perspective... something that wouldn't be possible if he weren't so radically unconventional.

Indeed, it's the film's approach to his work that allows us to appreciate him. His personal story, which he unfolds onscreen with nominal candidness, is fairly predictable. A sensitive boy -- stammering, homosexual, given to shocking acts of impropriety like making friends with black kids -- grows up in button-down Waco, Texas, only to bloom in college and flee his repressive roots for the bright lights of New York, where he becomes the darling of off-off Broadway. As if sensing the typicality of this scenario, Otto-Bernstein delivers only the most perfunctory details of his early life, allowing us to see the sketch without developing it into a full-blown portrait. Intriguing issues remain unexplored (such as Wilson's relationship with his misunderstanding but ultimately very proud father), but on the whole, the film wisely realizes that its real energy lies elsewhere.

That would be in Wilson's art, beginning with simple exercises in dance and movement, and developing into extravagant spectacles of surreal excess. His best-known work (outside of bohemia, at least) was Einstein on the Beach, a collaboration with Philip Glass that initially played for a single performance at New York's Metropolitan Opera only to emerge as a major creative triumph. Similar endeavors have dominated Wilson's life, most with less popular success. The film gives an easy introduction to the most prominent examples, laying out his aesthetic concepts, then revealing their often bizarre extrapolations. They definitely put the "art" in arty farty. Many exist without plot or narrative, embracing multiple non sequiturs and a dream logic that encourage the audience to adopt a state of mind rather than follow a story. They're tough to get into, and in some cases unwatchable (as in one experimental piece from the 1970s whose performance lasted seven unbroken days). But even in Absolute Wilson's brief glimpses, they speak to an imagination unmatched for audacity and originality.

More importantly, the film ties their oddities to Wilson's own personality, demonstrating a very approachable philosophy behind the strange and irrational pageants on display. His early difficulties with speech and his experiences with the physically and mentally handicapped produced in him a profound insight into the power of movement -- of being comfortable in one's own body, as he explains it, and of using the body as an instrument of expression. His productions spring from that connection, demonstrating that those with the greatest difficulties often have a joy and beauty all their own that no so-called "normal" person can duplicate. The therapeutic basis of that revelation forms a key into grasping his work, allowing laymen to understand (at least in theory) what he's striving for.

The irony, of course, is that expressing marginalized voices often means sacrificing a broad appeal. Here, too, Absolute Wilson demonstrates telling insight, though it doesn't always probe as deeply as it could. Wilson himself never voices it, but others speak about his frustration at remaining a niche figure, relegating his work to the fringes rather than the widespread acclaim that they believe it deserves. The film culminates with a dissection of his disastrous production for the 1984 Olympics festival, the CIVIL warS, which was ultimately shut down before it could be performed. Aside from some quiet New York snarkiness about L.A.'s supposed lack of sophistication, Otto-Bernstein smartly uses the incident to demonstrate the cost of pursuing an alternate vision. If one seeks extremes, then the masses (and their money) may not necessarily follow. Redemption arose several years later, following a successful collaboration with Tom Waits and William S. Burroughs (you know, the sell-outs), but Absolute Wilson never lets us forget that real genius sometimes means limited popularity.

That conundrum, of course, is exactly what movies like this can help alleviate. Though it doesn't make Wilson's art any less obtuse, it certainly helps us connect to the man who created it, and perhaps allow a wider audience to see what makes all those SoHo museum types go weak at the knees for him. If Absolute Wilson feels run of the mill at times, it's only to give us a point of access to the mind it hopes to illuminate. In that sense, we can probably be grateful that Otto-Bernstein isn't bolder; otherwise she'd draw undue attention away from her subject. This kind of film needn't be extraordinary if the man onscreen has more than enough to go around.

Review published 01.04.2007.

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