Katharina Otto-Bernstein’s fawning documentary about Robert Wilson tells us everything we need to know about the 65-year-old, Texas-born creator of such glacially choreographed theater and opera spectacles as The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin and Einstein on the Beach. Wilson isn’t known as a plum interview subject. Here, however, he opens up about being the stuttering son of a former Waco mayor, early therapeutic encounters with dance, his self-awareness as a gay man and then a post-art-school nervous breakdown. Wilson is articulate and ironic, and Otto-Bernstein mostly shields us from his tantrums and critics. Instead, we’re shown a conga line of New York arts commissars praising their friend’s string of triumphs that ignominiously ended in Los Angeles. The refusal of L.A.’s Olympic Arts Festival to fund Wilson’s sprawling Civil Wars in 1984 is depicted as a crime against humanity and further confirmation of West Coast shallowness. Occasionally, a dissenter, such as former New York magazine theater critic John Simon, brands Wilson’s use of handicapped children exploitative, and some veterans from Wilson’s Byrd Hoffman performance school express hurt bewilderment about his dumping them for professional actors. There’s even a moment when the film wonders why it is that Wilson is mostly funded by European arts centers, only to have the late Susan Sontag answer the question by citing America’s lack of will to subsidize the arts. What she doesn’t say is that Wilson is the prime example of what happens when money is continually thrown at a voracious ego — its creative universe keeps expanding until the money stops. One problem is that most of Wilson’s works don’t “snapshot” very well as excerpts. Instead, we’re left with footage of Wilson’s acolytes bunny-hopping around onstage or outdoors at his Watermill performance academy — or getting screamed at by the master and loving it.
ABSOLUTE WILSON | Written and directed by KATHARINA OTTO-BERNSTEIN | Produced by OTTO-BERNSTEIN and PENNY CM STANKIEWICZ | Released by New Yorker Films | Nuart