October 31, 2006

Art Fag City: Not Quite Absolute Wilson

Conventional biography misses point in doc about legendary avant garde director Wilson

By Paddy Johnson

Samples of the work showcased in Katharina Otto-Bernstein's documentary Absloute Wilson (Photo: Film Manufacturers Inc.)

"You cannot capture this in film. Absolutely not," said Absolute Wilson director Katharina Otto-Bernstein of the work of vanguard theater artist Robert Wilson. Whether or not this is true, I can't say these are the most inspirational words I've heard from a filmmaker this week. Sporting a title that reads like an homage to a vodka ad, Otto-Bernstein's documentary portrays its subject's life and work using the flawed premise that the inclusion of his personal struggles will make up for her reluctance to create a film that is a tribute to Wilson's creative sensibilities.

Not that the latter is necessary to put together a successful documentary on the artist. Absolute Wilson provides a good overview of Wilson's career, and there is a wealth of footage from famous colleagues including musicians David Byrne and Tom Waits, literary legend William Burroughs and the late critic and novelist Susan Sontag. Beginning with a discussion of Wilson's childhood, the film documents his struggles as a youth to overcome a stutter and slow learning, going on to highlight the most important projects of Wilson's career. Often serving as dominant plot points, these works include his experimental theater The Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds, his successful five-hour opera Einstein on the Beach (made in collaboration with the composer Philip Glass) and The CIVIL WarS, an ill-fated commission offered to the artist in the early '80s by the Los Angeles Olympic Committee.

As thorough a chronology as Otto-Bernstein provides, though, this alone cannot create a compelling story. The director clearly wants the film to be more than just a history of important works; she sought material addressing aspects of Wilson's troubled relationship with his parents, but these clips are problematic because they provide only superficial insight to who the artist is and come at the expense of investigating his practice. There is very little commentary from other family members on Wilson's parents, despite this being among the first topics covered in the movie. Such omissions don't help establish a particularly robust portrait of the artist.

Further compounding the matter are interviews featuring friends and collaborators exclaiming that Wilson's art making is too idiosyncratic to explain his genius. Of course, the myth that great art cannot be articulated has always been unfounded and usually signifies a lack of investment or the intellectual ability to discuss the work adequately. Given the number of incredibly eloquent people interviewed for this movie, there is no reason that this footage should have made it past the editing room. Such decisions mean that while we learn that Wilson has a great talent for organizing people and understanding the range of communication that can be achieved through body language alone, we never get beyond a generalized picture of why this is important.

The most illuminating moments in this timeline come from the scenes detailing the artist's obsessive focus on aesthetics and performance. One sequence, for instance, recalls that Wilson's first thought upon waking up in a hospital after a suicide attempt was how much he liked the aesthetic of the room he was in. This kind of intense, fascinating interest in a profession that leads a person to contemplate beauty over his own survival also creates uncommon social dynamics: For example, when I asked Wilson in an interview last week how he gets actors to cooperate and stand for hours at a time, he responded, "I don't know why [schools] don't start with the technique of the body…" Thus began a long monologue that never answered the question but did suggest that he wasn't interested in cooperation, but rather working with actors who don't need to be coached. Within the space of 30 minutes with the press, Wilson revealed how demanding and difficult he can be to work with in a much more direct way than Otto-Bernstein ever manages to do. My impression was that he never meant to be evasive; responding directly simply did not occur to him.

Could it be that Otto-Bernstein and her film was a vulnerable as I was to Wilson's digressions? Is he really so engrossed in his work that he is uninterested in answering questions that don't relate to what he happens to be thinking about at the time? Choosing to address these aspects of his personality would certainly have created a better picture of who Wilson is and why there is such a range in the success of his productions.

But there is very little evaluation provided by the interviewed critics about which of Wilson's works are most successful and why, so the impression we're left with is that they are all awesome regardless of how they were received. Given the sheer volume of work the artist has produced over the years, this seems unlikely. Maybe I'm asking too much from a documentary that is essentially done in collaboration with its subject, but I would have liked to have seen more critical analysis of the work; in the end, you have to put aside the limitations of filmmaking and evaluate the film on its own terms. And I, for one, can't pretend that a cold documentary pairing a lineage of the artist's productions and his superficial personal biography is the same as a portrait of the artist, his life and work.

Paddy Johnson is the editor of the New York art blog Art Fag City.

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