Monday, January 15, 2007

Absolute Wilson

dir. Katharina Otto-Bernstein

This poster is not nearly as cool as the cover of the book she wrote about him.

Spencer Owen, BERKELEY
January 13, 2007 - 35mm/Landmark Shattuck Cinemas

Absolute Wilson is a new documentary about the avant garde theater director Robert Wilson. It's talking heads and archive footage, and it goes: growing up, early work, and then, interspersed with the portrayal of other achievements he's done, several segments summarizing the process behind several of his most landmark works (namely Deafman Glance, KA MOUNTain and GUARDenia Terrace, A Letter for Queen Victoria, Einstein on the Beach, the cancelled CIVIL warS, and The Black Rider). Some of the talking heads are David Byrne (ha ha, for real though), Susan Sontag, Philip Glass, and most importantly a lot of Wilson himself.

I was glad to see this film. I learned a lot about his history and it was delightful to hear him speak about it. It's semi-thrilling to find out about his non-Einstein work, such as his seven-day (!) play staged in Iran (!), KA MOUNTain and GUARDenia Terrace. He's reminiscent of Werner Herzog when he talks about being hospitalized for dehydration; when he comes to in the hospital, he remembers that he's in Iran doing a seven-day play, and so he "tears out the tubes" and goes back to performing. Yet I was reassured that Einstein on the Beach must have definitely been the pinnacle of his work, as it is certainly the pinnacle of Glass's. Tears came to my eyes to hear Robert's sister Suzanne talk about their uber-conservative father's proud reaction to Einstein's landmark performance at the Met, and then see Wilson and Glass take a bow to their rapturous ovation. (Pomegranate Arts, a couple years ago you were advertising a touring version of Einstein, now nothing! What happened?)

On the other hand, after the opening sequence, I was sure I would hate it. Clips of Wilson smiling and saying semi-goofy things (not a problem in themselves) are cut along with some of the more eccentric moments of a handful of his theater productions (also not a problem). Naturally, it's cut to music. This movie has quite a thorough original score, actually, by a gal named Miriam Cutler, and she kicks it off with a real thud by contributing some completely indistinct and chintzy big band jazz -- like, some real weak comedy music. So essentially, we're watching very brief clips of what are supposed to be these immersive, highly surreal, and ... sure, sometimes comical, but nonetheless serious and simply unusual theatrical events ... set to what sounds like royalty-free music. Then they actually go and do a decent job timing the montage to the music. I'm unsure of how accurately I'm conveying the effect, but essentially, we launch by making a thorough mockery of the subject.

Now, I understand the occasional need for serious art to cut through that fog that so many call "pretentiousness" and bring some levity to the table, and I think this was Mrs. Otto-Bernstein's intention. This sequence could have easily worked in their favor if it weren't for the terrible, undermining choice to have it run through with music fit for a Comedy Central special on the upcoming Rob Schneider film. I came in biased towards Mr. Wilson, and after a couple minutes, I was not looking forward to this overview any longer. Imagine the effect it could have on someone who doesn't know a thing about his work. They might be sure he's a pure goofball right away, or a charlatan, or even worse, something like a parodist of Beckett. The most irritating part is that these are all valid criticisms of Wilson, and though I disagree with them, I can easily see them all coming to the surface thanks to this opening treatment.

The movie got better, fortunately, but some of its clip usage seemed arbitrary, and there was a definite overuse of stock footage that had nothing to do with Robert Wilson (a doc pet peeve). As for the rest of Cutler's score, it also seemed stock, but not quite as offensively so, and thankfully it did not all dabble in swing music. My ears perked up at a couple of deliberate Steve Reich rip-offs. I mistook a piece for Reich at one moment, but quickly sussed that it wasn't him; it was a "Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ" soundalike. It was then quickly followed by a similar shadow-piece, a shadow of "Four Organs" this time. I'm guessing that the original pieces were dropped into the temp track, and they didn't want to pay for them, but for some strange reason really wanted something like them in the movie just that way. Both of these background moments were very brief, and since not minimalist Reich but minimalist Glass had a working relationship with Wilson, they were only tangentially relevant, and only to people who had the same recognition I did. I was relieved to be treated now and then to music from Wilson's works, even some of David Byrne's brass band compositions for The CIVIL warS. These were actually released as an LP called Music for the Knee Plays in 1985, and it's an outstanding record that is to this day in dire need of a CD issue.

Ultimately, Absolute Wilson was a success; I gleaned information and insight about Robert Wilson and his art, and was happy for it. But though it was finally respectful towards its subject, the aesthetic choices along the way -- excepting those that came directly out of the oeuvres of Wilson and his collaborators -- were often truly half-assed and, at times such as its opening sequence, wrong-headed. Maybe this sounds unfair or overcritical, but it really got in the way of being able to take things seriously. Can't a documentary about an aesthetic pioneer at least try to be as dignified as its subject?

See? Much better.

(If you're interested in a much more insightful movie specifically about Einstein on the Beach, I recommend tracking down a video of an hour-long TV documentary from 1986 called Einstein on the Beach: The Changing Face of Opera.)

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