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Making His Way

absolute wilson

(New Yorker Films)

The director Katharina Otto-Bernstein obviously won Robert Wilson'sconfidence. In her excellent documentary about him, he speakscandidly, winningly, and often wittily about his life and work.Otto-Bernstein, too, must have a sense of humor. She called herfilm Absolute Wilson, and though the title makes a certain sense,few artists of our time have had less to do with absolutes.

A film about this theater artist is a good idea for three reasons.For nearly four decades, Wilson has occupied a high place in theinternational theater world, and those who have admired or dislikedhis work will have their feelings supported by this picture. Thosewho have read about his work but have not had the chance to see itwill get generous samples here. And those who may not have a stronginterest in the theater can discover how Wilson relates to theavant-garde in general.

Wilson was born in Texas in 1941 to parents who were friendly in apicky way. A childhood stutter made him miserable and presumablyfostered his later interest in communication without words. (Linksbetween his childhood and his work recur in the film.) His youthwas uncomfortable, chiefly because of his lack of self-knowledge;there was a suicide attempt and a session in a mental hospital.Then he got the chance to do a production of some sort with deafchildren, and this experience opened marvelous possibilities ofcontrariness for him.

To give just the outline of Wilson's career: he came to New York in1963, studied design, began production work, and in an incrediblyshort time had made a reputation as a director--through the scopeof his vision and the abundance with which he fulfilled it. Verysoon the prime maxim about him arrived: he was a painter who workedwith theater means instead of with brush and paint. He certainlywas uninterested in traditional technique and form, or in dramaticsuspense. (One of the first books that dealt with him, edited byBonnie Marranca, was called The Theater of Images.) His object wasnot pictorial beauty, although there was plenty of it; he usedcontrasting volumes of space and color and light for the evocationof wonder and a rare sort of pleasure, rather than traditionalexcitement.

The first time I became aware of Wilson was in 1970, when talk ofhis productions in Europe began to spread. (Many of his productionswere expensive, and as Susan Sontag notes in the film, he often hadto work abroad in order to get subsidy.) His first widely notedproduction was done outdoors in Iran: there was only oneperformance, which lasted one week. (To be ultra-clear: the oneperformance was a week long.) A member of the cast interviewed forthis film said that they all had to make do with two or three hoursof sleep a night- -or day. Soon came word that a production of hisin Paris, called Deafman Glance, was in the Wilsonian sense verysuccessful and brought a long letter of praise from Louis Aragon,whose own art could hardly have been more distant from Wilson's.

I missed that production when it came to New York, but I saw some ofThe Life and Times of Joseph Stalin--only some of it, because itran from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., and after two and a half hours, thoughquite unbored, I felt too replete to absorb more. During that time,a photo of Stalin was displayed briefly, but there was no otherreference to him. Wilson apparently used his title not as adeception but as a springboard. The springing went far from Moscow,in a series of striking images that seemed to suggest one another.At one point, among the wildly varied components, some twenty blackwomen and men dressed as stereotypical mammies came out and circledto the "Blue Danube," then disappeared.

In the next two decades, I saw many more of Wilson'sproductions--much shorter ones--and was sometimes overwhelmed,sometimes merely patient. He often worked with an autistic boywhose presence seemed exploitative to some (including me), butWilson apparently intended it as part of his unlimited embrace. Hewrote an opera with Philip Glass called Einstein on the Beach,which was done at the Metropolitan Opera House and which I sawtwice. (Skimpy compared with the forty visits by Sontag.) Some ofthose productions are excerpted in the film, along with many that Ihave not seen, with comments by Wilson that are often enlightening.(He brought his grandmother from Texas to Paris to play Victoria inA Letter to Queen Victoria, and when she arrived, she said shehoped she didn't have to learn any lines. It would be too much: shetook nine pills a day just to keep alive. Wilson replied,"Grandmother, just say what you just said.")

In 1979, Wilson was engaged to do a production for Peter Stein'sSchaubuhne in Berlin, then one of Europe's prime theaters. In NewYork, I met an actress in that company who would be in theproduction, who said that she couldn't wait to work with Wilson. Iasked her why, since he had nothing to do with the company's usualmethods. She said, in effect, that she was tired of largetrajectories in feeling and theme, and that she wanted to work withsomeone who would just tell her what he wanted her to do with herhands. I remembered her when, in this film, Wilson rehearsesIsabelle Huppert in Orlando on the positioning of one hand.

Absolute Wilson made me especially regret that I have never seen aWilson production of a fixed work, one that he could not easilyreshape to his impulse- -such as the operas he has staged aroundthe world, including Das Rheingold, Madama Butterfly, andLohengrin. Some ten years ago, I did see him in a onepersonproduction of Hamlet, which was not his peak. It pitilesslyunderscored his disregard of technique, as when at other times hedid solo dancing. Still, his productions of standard works mighthave helped my residual view: he very often evokes high admiration,but he very rarely moves me. Perhaps his treatment of a standardwork might alter this response.

For those who know Wilson's work and for those who may meet himhere, this film presents a question of interest in all arts, apersistent question. What are artists to do in an age with fewcredible compass points? The matter besets serious artists of allkinds. From the beginning, however, Wilson ignored the absence ofcompass points. Without regard for tradition or anti-tradition, heplunged into himself, his imagination, his vitality, his quirks, andhas progressed through them. His work is not always engrossing, butit is always unique, with no aesthetic obligations to the past orpresent.

This film is a valuable signet of Wilson's carefully articulatedindependence. As a wry note about the dilemma that he has ignored,the music under the closing credits is from Nino Rota's score for81/2--a film about an artist who had to struggle toward creation.