If you venture past the obvious benchmarks — the homages to German Expressionism, the fiery lighting designs — perhaps the defining quality of theater director Robert Wilson’s work is its air of mystery. With productions like his landmark 1976 opera, Einstein on the Beach, or more recent triumphs such as Woyzeck,he eschews concrete meaning to evoke unfiltered emotion, rewiring our central nervous system with a confluence of stark images: a soldier running frantically in place; a shard of glass grasped like a knife.
As inscrutable as his work is, so too can Wilson seem in interviews, especially when asked about his intentions. (“Interpretation is not the responsibility of the director,” he told the Weekly’s Steven Mikulan last spring when The Black Rider, his collaboration with musician Tom Waits and author William S. Burroughs, arrived in Los Angeles. “Interpretation is the responsibility of the public.”) Like David Lynch or the recently deceased Robert Altman, Wilson won’t dissect his work and, quite frankly, I’m not convinced even he fully understands it — or that he wants to.
It seems odd, then, that a man so enamored by mystery would agree to be the subject of a documentary. Nevertheless, we have Absolute Wilson, director Katharina Otto-Bernstein’s five-years-in-the-making portrait of the 65-year-old Wilson, a surprisingly straightforward biographical overview of a major avant-garde figure.
Sitting at the Four Seasons hotel with his director at his side, Wilson will only offer that he immediately liked Otto-Bernstein after meeting her in the bathroom during a cocktail party.
“I like doing things I don’t know much about,” adds Otto-Bernstein, who previously made documentaries about the modeling industry, the reuniting of German families after the Berlin Wall’s collapse, and Manhattan bike messengers. “I knew very little about Bob. I’d seen his later work, but if you know too much, your questions are too informed and you prohibit good answers. If you know very little, you ask very simple, almost naïve questions. You don’t intimidate your subjects. You invite them to talk, and you get great answers.”
While the film works best as a greatest-hits primer for the uninitiated, even devotees will appreciate Wilson’s rare candor about his family life in segregated, homophobic Waco, Texas, and the opportunity to scrutinize unearthed archival footage of Wilson’s threadbare early productions.
Fighting a cold — he flew in last night and has events to attend later today at LACMA and the Museum of Television & Radio — Wilson is laid-back but measured. It’s the same style he exhibits in Absolute Wilson, as if he’s never once pondered his artistic roots until this very moment, finally allowing himself to reflect.
“Many years ago, I watched [choreographer] George Balanchine work,” he says, echoing Otto-Bernstein’s complaints about overplanning. “The Mozart of the 20th century. He was a highly structured, complicated balletist. He would show somebody how to do something or he would sketch something very freely. The dancer would get up to try to do what [Balanchine] had demonstrated, but then he would do something else. Balanchine never said anything.”
Working with the legendary Broadway director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, however, was the opposite experience: “Jerry would do all of this preparation and diagrams. Even today, though both men are dead, there’s something forced in the work of Robbins that was never in Balanchine. Balanchine had this freedom — looking at the material and developing it in another way.”
It is as close as Wilson gets to discussing his methods, save for a brief, tantalizing moment in the filmwhen we observe him dictating specific body movements to actress Isabelle Huppert during rehearsals for his staging of Orlando. Just a glimpse, and then it’s gone.
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Though Otto-Bernstein, who was raised in Germany (where Wilson is revered), wanted to build “a Taj Mahal” to an artist she admires, her film’s major flaw is that it only scratches Wilson’s surface — the existing 105-minute version was pared down from an original eight-hour cut. Yet if the resulting triumph-over-the-obstacles framework might seem simplistic, Otto-Bernstein argues that, after living in the States for 20 years, she wanted to use a quintessentially American storyline to reintroduce Wilson to his countrymen.
“I always found it astonishing, especially since America is so under the gun for its involvement in Iraq, that some of the most well known ambassadors of America — well known in the most positive sense, which are the great performance artists — are unknown to the American public,” she says. “I find that shocking.”
Watching Absolute Wilson, the neophyte will learn about Wilson’s push-pull relationship with Texas, his suicide attempt, his successes and failures. But the more Wilson talks, the harder it is to reconcile the soft-spoken Southerner we see with the towering figure we’ve read about. (By the way, it’s just as difficult in person.) Perhaps tellingly, Wilson seems most comfortable racing from airport to airport to oversee his international productions. He is his work. But now, he’s allowing his admirers a peek into his inner world. He appears to be still grappling with that decision.
“Usually, I am outside looking at the situation,” he says. “And here I was inside — and someone was outside looking at me. I’m not often in those situations. It’s very difficult for one to see oneself.”