- Absolute Wilson
The pop music journalist/historian Richie Unterberger published a book several years ago titled Unknown Legends of Rock ‘n’ Roll (1998). The phrase “unknown legends” seems at first glance to be self-contradictory, and perhaps in most cases it is. Pop records are mass-distributed objects, even if they’re rare, and presumably with a little digging even the most obscure 45 or LP could be “known” in the usual sense. This isn’t true for every art form, of course, and that is one of the problems that Katharina Otto-Bernstein’s documentary Absolute Wilson must confront. The film’s subject— avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson—presents some specific obstacles for the filmmaker and the audience. The first is the task of familiarizing the audience with Wilson’s work as a theater director. Despite being one of the most heralded and prolific avant-garde directors of the last forty years and a luminary in the downtown New York art scene, unless you reside in Manhattan or any of the European cities where Wilson’s work is regularly performed, you probably haven’t had an opportunity to see a Robert Wilson production. Consequently, Absolute Wilson joins a handful of recent documentaries about artists or movements in New York whose work is too ephemeral, performance-based, or just plain “underground” to circulate much outside of its home turf. These documentaries include films about Jack Smith, Rockets Redglare, and the “Cinema of Transgression” of Richard Kern and Nick Zedd, and others. Luckily, though, as demonstrated in Absolute Wilson, someone had the forethought to film and/ or videotape many of the performances of Wilson-directed theater pieces.
But the wealth of documented performances and the necessity of familiarizing the audience with Wilson’s work also help demonstrate one of the weaknesses of Absolute Wilson. Like many people who learned about Wilson’s theater productions only second hand, I became aware of his work through his musical collaborators, from the recordings of Einstein on the Beach (music by Philip Glass) and The Black Rider (music by Tom Waits, words by William Burroughs). These productions are given a great deal of coverage in the documentary, and, since that’s the initial context most of the audience will likely have before viewing Absolute Wilson, it is probably a wise allocation of screen time by the director. However, also the film also uses scores of shorter clips of Wilson’s theater productions that emphasize how prolific he is, they do little to show what his work actually looks like—other than to gloss a few recurrent visual motifs. Obviously, in-depth coverage of Wilson’s entire oeuvre is beyond the scope of a feature film, but the commentary in the film could probably have included a more general analysis of themes and visual style. Even Susan Sontag, usually reliable for pithy and poignant insights, mostly just repeats how great Wilson is as an artist and how much she enjoyed (and how many times she saw) Einstein on the Beach.
For better or worse, Absolute Wilson exchanges any kind of academic critique for anecdotal remarks from Wilson’s many collaborators and for a good deal of homespun storytelling by Robert Wilson himself. Wilson was born in Waco, Texas, and had a difficult childhood, largely due to his family’s reaction to his sexuality and chosen profession. As autobiographer, Wilson is engaging, and his stories about his family (particularly his grandmother) are revealing. But Absolute Wilson too often supplements these revelations with visuals and commentary that are merely nostalgic and superficial. Wilson’s childhood in Waco is accompanied by sepia-processed photos of the Texas town in the 1950s that would embarrass Ken Burns, and the argument between Wilson and his father over his sexuality is coded into an all-too-familiar pop psychology cliché.
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If Robert Wilson is in fact a kind of “unknown legend” of theater and performance art, then Absolute Wilson partially succeeds in helping to make his work “known” to interested viewers. The...