Movie Review: Absolute Wilson

By Joan K. Widdifield, Psy.D
Movie Magazine International
It is said that once you see one of Robert Wilson's experimental plays, whether you liked it or not, you will never forget it. German born director Katharina Otto-Bernstein thought that Wilson's plays were "absolutely spectacular" and wanted to know more about the artist, notorious for not giving interviews. Otto-Bernstein pursued her goal for five years with the result of moving interviews with Wilson and his friends and collaborators Phillip Glass, Susan Sontag, Tom Waits, and several others – for her documentary "Absolute Wilson." She paints the picture of a boy who doesn't fit in but who triumphs over challenges and becomes a celebrated theater artist. Through scenes from Wilson's shows and the history behind them, we start to get a picture of the artist.

Wilson has an obsessive drive to create. With little need for sleep and lots of energy, he drives others to work as hard as he does. He grew up in segregated, fundamentalist Waco Texas as the son of the town's mayor. Afflicted with learning disabilities and a stutter, he felt like an outsider from the beginning, which was only intensified by his homosexuality and friendship with the son of their family's black domestic helper – not acceptable in Waco.

When he was young, Wilson had struggled with language, walking and comprehension. His strength was in visual processing. He still uses drawing to describe something when he is talking. In his plays, language often takes a secondary role; he may use nonsense language or deconstructed words. His staging always communicates expressively rich images.

Wilson moved to New York to study architecture at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He said that architecture gave him the structure that freed his creativity. He became enamored by New York experimental theater of the '60's, and never moved back to Texas. Some of his celebrated works are "Einstein on the Beach," "Deafman Glance," and "A Letter to Queen Victoria."

Critics have called Wilson "the towering figure of avant-garde theatre," and have said his works "push the limits of time and space, forging images of astonishing beauty, stark wit and haunting emotion." Others call his works "indulgent and costly, …and unclassifiable." Otto-Berstein's point is that all of what is said about Wilson's work is absolutely true.

The shows included in the film are psychologically penetrating and haunting; I wanted to see more. The film focused more on Wilson's professional life than his personal life. Even though he agreed to participate in this documentary I still found him elusive. But, by the end of "Absolute Wilson," you feel as if you've been through an experience.

Wilson's musings on coming up with a new project gives us a glimpse of how his mind works:

"Sometimes you say to yourself, 'what should I do next?'….you're trying to think of the right thing to do but quite often you should think what's the wrong thing to do, what should I not do?...and then do that."

For Movie Magazine, this is Joan Widdifield.
More Information:
Absolute Wilson
Directed by Katharina Otto-Bernstein