Robert Wilson doc is worth staying up for

Times Staff Writer

A couple of years ago, I eagerly went to see Robert Wilson’s “The Black Rider,” a dark fairy tale made in collaboration with Tom Waits and William S. Burroughs, and fell asleep halfway through the performance. I (very reluctantly) admit to this now because after seeing “Absolute Wilson,” Katharina Otto-Bernstein’s fascinating documentary about Wilson’s life and work, it occurs to me that had I seen the film first, my desire to stay awake might have prevailed in its heroic battle against my eyelids.

Arguably the preeminent avant-garde theater artist in the world, the amazingly prolific Wilson is known for his surrealistic visual style and his deconstructive approach to language as well as for the deliberate slowness and length of his productions. (In one case, “KA MOUNTain AND GUARDenia TERRACE,” performed in Iran in 1972, lasted seven uninterrupted days.)

German-born, British-raised and American-educated filmmaker Otto-Bernstein, who met Wilson at a cocktail party, has taken an apposite approach in introducing the artist to a new audience and creating a wonderful context for existing fans. An engaging, straightforward narrative, “Absolute Wilson” blends interviews with Wilson and a broad assortment of distinguished collaborators, colleagues, contemporaries and admirers as well as a couple of detractors and his sister, Suzanne, who provides a poignant counterpoint to the bevy of sophisticates, with filmed clips from Wilson’s prodigious body of work, family photographs and often amazingly relevant archival footage.


Deftly and painstakingly presented to convey the sense of a remarkably cohesive whole, Wilson’s work is also placed in the context of a life that seems at once familiar and extraordinary. The artist takes on an epic dimension in Otto-Bernstein’s film, from the difficult beginnings to the emergence of a singular, driving vision and a dedication bordering on obsession. Wilson, who has the sleek, elegant aspect of a couturier (think Oscar de la Renta with fewer birthdays and more hair), is evidently not a nice person in the banal sense -- he yells at actors and works employees ragged. But he has had a dramatic influence -- material and therapeutic as well as aesthetic -- on the lives of an astonishing number of people.

Born in Waco, Texas, to a strict Southern Baptist family (his father, the youngest son of a wealthy family, was mayor at one point), Wilson suffered from a speech impediment and learning disabilities as a child. It wasn’t until a ballet teacher, Byrd Hoffman, the first artist he’d ever met, took an interest in him that he was able to overcome his disabilities. Wilson would eventually name his experimental theater workshop the Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds after her.

Upon graduating from Pratt, he was briefly committed to an institution after a suicide attempt. After returning to New York, Wilson did therapeutic work with hyperactive and autistic children and terminally ill catatonic patients and eventually adopted a deaf-mute African American street kid whom he later cast in “Deafman Glance,” one of his most successful pieces.

In her film, Otto-Bernstein sheds light on the themes that have threaded through Wilson’s life with a remarkable consistency, force and directness; the interest in nonverbal communication, the nurturing of talent and the faith in the therapeutic properties of art particularly among those dismissed as lost causes.

Impressive as is Wilson’s output and oeuvre, it’s the fully-engaged, aesthetically driven life that fascinates. And Otto-Bernstein’s movie is a portrait of an artist at his most essential, in every sense.


“Absolute Wilson,” MPAA rating: Unrated. Some nudity. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. Exclusively at Landmark’s Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8223.