That’s how filmmaker Katharina Otto-Bernstein sums up her new documentary Absolute Wilson, a richly provocative and moving portrait of one of the most visionary theater artists of our time, the legendary Robert Wilson. The film delivers a surprisingly candid look at Robert Wilson the man, who drops his characteristic reticence and speaks with astonishing candor about his personal life: his troubled and lonely childhood as the son of the Mayor of Waco, Texas; his early learning disabilities; his work with disabled children using therapy as a tool for artistic expression; his departure from Texas at the time of his coming out and his fascination with the downtown New York avant-garde scene of the late 60’s. What emerges is a life full of impressions, colors and rhythms, making it all the more poignant how Wilson’s early hardships ultimately shaped his ground-breaking aesthetic vision, creating some of the most historic theatre and opera productions of the twentieth century. All told, it is a remarkable tale of a shy, stuttering boy’s triumph over adversity. As director Otto-Bernstein exuberantly puts it, Absolute Wilson “tells a story for everyone to see how anything’s possible -- it really is an extraordinary American success story.
Absolute Wilson traces Wilson’s themes and visual motifs back to his childhood days as the son of the Mayor of Waco, Texas -- where Wilson felt like a complete outsider in a world of churchly damnation and racial segregation. Sandwiched between a beautiful but remote mother and an ambitious, perpetually disappointed father, Wilson was a lonely boy. His teachers had little hope for him making anything of his life. His friendship with the African-American son of a family employee made Wilson even more of an outcast in a community where interracial friendships were shunned. Eventually, one life-altering moment came in the form of a ballet teacher named Byrd Hoffman who told Wilson to slow things down. Not only did his stuttering improve, but the literal and metaphorical notion of slowing down, coupled with his encounter with the lab experiments of psychologist Dr. Daniel Stern, became the basis for his later groundbreaking theatrical language.
After an unsuccessful attempt (to please his father) at studying law in Texas, Wilson changed course and headed to New York City to study architecture at Pratt Institute. During this time, he came out to his un-accepting father – who declared that Wilson’s homosexuality could be “cured.” New York was a life-changing experience for him: the vibrant new world of design, dance and theatre, and the work of such boundary-pushing pioneers as Merce Cunningham and John Cage, spoke to the impressionable young Wilson.
Through Otto-Bernstein’s film we observe Wilson’s early therapeutic work with challenged and hyperactive children – showing how this cathartic experience would profoundly influence his relationship to language and movement.
Through its lively mix of interviews including musician David Byrne, writer Susan Sontag (in one of the last interviews before her recent death), composer and collaborator Philip Glass, and opera star Jessye Norman, Absolute Wilson recounts the ensuing years of Wilson in New York: his experiments in theatre as therapy (working with patients confined to iron lungs); and the founding of his experimental theatrical commune The Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds, whose members ranged from professional performers to curious housewives. We learn about Wilson’s adoption of Raymond Andrews -- a deaf-mute, African-American teenager -- which inspired the director’s first international sensation, the seven-hour silent opera Deafman Glance. Louis Aragon, the co-founder of Surrealism, praised the piece in an open letter to Andre Breton. The film presents extraordinary works like KA MOUNTAIN AND GUARDenia TERRACE, the seven-day-long play performed in the mountains of Iran, and Wilson’s collaboration with Christopher Knowles, the autistic, (then) teen-aged poet, whose abstract thought patterns led to such productions as A Letter To Queen Victoria, and perhaps Wilson’s best known work in America, Einstein on the Beach, the landmark opera on which he collaborated with composer Philip Glass. Absolute Wilson also examines the embittered story of Wilson’s multi-national epic project the CIVIL warS, originally commissioned for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Although portions of the CIVIL warS had been performed in various cities at various times, Wilson never saw the entire piece come together in Los Angeles as he originally conceived it, owing to the last-minute withdrawal of funds by the Olympic Committee.
Otto-Bernstein’s portrait offers a rare and insightful glimpse into the man behind the genius: in equal amounts exhilarating, shocking, transformative, and ultimately, very human, it may be Wilson’s most enduring impression on us all.
105 min., Unrated
Written, Produced and Directed by
After Effects Editor
Prod. Sound Mixers
Sound Effects Editor
Rights and Clearances
PENNY CM STANKIWEICZ
PENNY CM STANKIEWICZ
PHOTOMAG / PAT DONAHUE
PETER M. BUMGARNER