Who is Robert Wilson?


Absolute Wilson (2006) Review 5
Director:Katharina Otto-Bernstein,
Length:105 minutes


Who is Robert Wilson and why should we give a damn? Well, he’s one of those creative artist types whose stuff is what’s called “avant-guard,” which means that only the right people, the elite and the weird, are allowed to appreciate what’s being done in the artistic endeavor. Sometimes the avant-guard will actually create something that is historically significant, other times, they will just produce crap which will embarrass future generations. Something like atonal symphonies or late modern jazz, for example.

Robert Wilson is the current saint of avant-guard theater, a performance artist known and appreciated by the effete around the world, especially in Japan and France, where schizophrenic navel-gazing is encouraged by government grants.

Not to say that he didn’t lead an interesting life, growing up the son of the conservative Mayor of Waco, Texas back in the 1940s to ’60s, where he was lonely and misunderstood…and gay.

So he went to New York and studied architecture, dance and physical therapy. Here he discovered the avant-guard theatrical community and soon took it over, founding the “Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds” where he got a bunch of like-minded people together and did performance art. According to the filmmakers, this was somewhat like a cult.

His list of achievements between 1970 and 1980 are examined in detail. Most notable are a seven-day long marathon play he produced for the Shah of Iran’s grand 2500th anniversary celebration and an eight hour piece called “A Letter to Queen Victoria,” which flopped on Broadway. His most famous work, “Einstein at the Beach,” which he did with Phillip Glass, had a one-day run at the Lincoln Center in New York.

Between the interviews of Wilson, Glass and various critics and friends, we get to see snippets of the works themselves. This makes the whole thing more than just a bunch of talking heads and pans of still photos. We get to see how strange and innovative Wilson’s work was and why it has not stood the test of time.

Most puzzling was the controversy over his Olympic extravaganza “The CIVIL WarS: a tree is best measured when it is down,” which is as famous disaster as you can get in the history of 20th century theatre. I left the screening wondering why Wilson and the arts ministries of the countries who paid for much of it didn’t sue the LA Olympic committee for everything it was worth.

This is one of the better documentaries of the year despite the fact that its subject matter is rather obscure. It’s recommended for Wilson fans and those who are interested in fringe entertainment.