Absolute Wilson

While filmmaker Katharina Otto-Bernstein should be commended for resisting the impulse to concoct an "interesting" approach to a film about the life and work of the avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson, the result is a rather conventional, Biography Channel-style portrait of a man who helped change the face of theater in the last quarter of the 20th...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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While filmmaker Katharina Otto-Bernstein should be commended for resisting the impulse to concoct an "interesting" approach to a film about the life and work of the avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson, the result is a rather conventional, Biography Channel-style portrait of a man who helped change the face of theater in the last quarter of the 20th century. Otto naturally begins at the beginning, with Wilson's birth in Waco, Texas, to an established family of civic leaders, and his early youth, most of it spent largely alone. Growing up gay and saddled with a stutter, a learning disability and difficult parents, Wilson escaped to New York City in the mid-'60s, where major figures like Merce Cunningham, Yvonne Rainer, Meredith Monk, John Cage and Julian Beck were busy revolutionizing the worlds of theater, music and dance. After his disastrous post-college return to Waco ended in a suicide attempt and a brief stint in a mental institution, Wilson returned to New York for good and began creating a string of ambitious works that garnered international acclaim and culminated in a masterful 1978 collaboration with Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach. The juxtaposition of photos from Wilson's youth with stills from his productions helps Otto draw parallels between Wilson's life and work that sometimes feel too direct, but they're interesting nonetheless; after all, inspiration does come from somewhere. Otto ends with The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets, Wilson's successful collaboration with Tom Waits and William Burroughs, while the rest of Wilson's career is recapped in a closing-credits montage. Watching snippets of Wilson's work doesn't do justice to the power of the individual productions — taken out of context, much of it looks like a segment of "Bad Performance-Art Theater." But the film doesn't shy away from showing Wilson with all his temperamental idiosyncrasies, or including notoriously cantankerous critic John Simon, who makes no bones about his doubts regarding both Wilson's use of a brain-damaged teenager as muse and collaborator and the much-regretted work that never was: the 1984 debacle, the CIVIL warS. Among those on hand to voice their approval are David Byrne, whose own work as a performer owes a great deal to Wilson, and the late, hyperbole-addicted Susan Sontag, who makes the rather dubious claim that she saw Einstein on the Beach over 40 times.

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  • Released: 2006
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: While filmmaker Katharina Otto-Bernstein should be commended for resisting the impulse to concoct an "interesting" approach to a film about the life and work of the avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson, the result is a rather conventional, Biography… (more)

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