Yesterday I went to the Philoctetes Center to see a film about the director Robert Wilson called of course Absolute Wilson. The film chronicles the life and work of Wilson.
I've not a huge fan of Robert Wilson's work but I thought it would be interesting to see what he was like and what drove him to create the rather bizarre performances he's created over the years, including one play that took place over 24/7 in Iran.
I'm one of those people who actually like plays that have a plot. I'm not really fond of plays being desconstructed, and moved around with giant televisions etc. Most of the time, I figure that the director hasn't a clue, so he's just throwing everything but the kitchen sink up on the stage.
Wilson was born in Waco, Texas in 1941 when the South was still incredibly segregated. He stuttered as a child and was seen at least from what I got from the film as somewhat stunted intellectually. They mentioned in the film the fact that he's left-handed and I wondered if they had tried to force him to write with his right hand. Queen Elizabeth II's father, George V, was left-handed and was forced to learn to write with the other hand, and he had a horrible stutter. Plus he was also abused by one of his nannies which might also have something to do with it.
Anyway, Robert grew up thinking he was stupid, until a dance teacher helped him by telling him to slow down when he spoke which helped his stutter. He was also gay, which never goes down well in the South, and he had one very good friend who was black, the son of their housekeeper, another no-no.
So like most misfits, he came to New York to go to Pratt to study I'm assuming design, although his professor stated in the film that he never did any of the assignments, he would just create his own. He got involved with the avant-garde theater Off-Off Broadway which was really taking shape in the sixties. Artists were taking over lofts in SoHo, storefronts, anywhere that they could turn into a theater.
Because he's visual and also had trouble communicating, most of his pieces, from what I could tell in the film, deal with language. It seems mainly how language can be a barrier. From interviews in the film, Wilson's life is all about his work. He seems to travel constantly putting on productions simultaneously, with no time for a private life, and I think it shows in his work. If you're afraid of intimacy, of anyone getting to know you on a deeper level, then its going to color everything you do.
From the snippets that we got to see in the film, his work is interesting, but its certainly not something that I would want to see 40 times the way Susan Sontag mentioned in the film that she had done. If I can't indentify with anyone in the play, I find it hard to watch, although I can admire the performances and all the work that went into it.
I also found it interesting how he would meet people, who were damaged in some way, and then put them into his work. He adopted a young black kid who was deaf and used him in his work for a few years, but then (at least according to the film) he seemed to disappear from Wilson's life. Another guy that he's continued to work with is an artist named Christopher Knowles who is brain-damaged. To me, while it seemed that in one way he was helping these people, in another way he was also exploiting them for his own gain, which I found a little off-putting.
What I missed in the film were more dissenting opinions about his work. There are brief interviews with John Simon, who for many years was the much reviled critic for New York Magazine, who didn't seem too fond of his work, but everyone else seemed to hail him as a genius. While they talked about his failures over the years as an artist, it's always with the idea that people just didn't understand him. That he was too out there for America, which is why most of his work has been done in Europe, where most theaters are subsidized heavily by the government. That attitude, that we in America are just too stupid to appreciate him which always annoys me.
I'm glad that I took the time to go see it, because it's always good as a writer or an artist to be exposed to other points of view, even if you don't agree with them or even like them.
Thanks for reading,