film reporter

The avant-garde finds a voice in Wilson docu

The 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles have long since faded into memory. And with it, the surrounding Olympic Arts Festival, presided over by director Robert Fitzpatrick, also has disappeared into the mist.

But that long-ago arts fest resurfaces in writer-producer-director Katharina Otto-Bernstein's new documentary "Absolute Wilson," a nuanced portrait of the groundbreaking theater director Robert Wilson that New Yorker Films opens today in Los Angeles. And as part of the film, the Olympic Arts Festival is resurrected, providing the dramatic high point of the documentary: Wilson had been commissioned to create an epic theater piece, "The Civil Wars," on which he was working with such collaborators as Philip Glass, David Byrne and Jessye Norman. But at the eleventh hour, the arts festival withdrew its promised funding, and the project collapsed.

Wilson found the whole experience one of the most painful and bitter of his career — in 1986, "Civil Wars" was chosen by the Pulitzer Prize jury for the drama prize but was then rejected by the Pulitzer board. "That was one thing going into this film that I knew he wasn't going to talk about," Otto-Bernstein says of Wilson's lingering distaste of talking about the project.

But Otto-Bernstein, who hadn't made a film since the 1998 documentary "Beautopia," about the international fashion industry, seemed to have a knack for getting Wilson to talk. The two met at a cocktail party several years back. "We met in my bathroom, literally — I went off to hide from my husband to have a cigarette, when I turned around and met this guy, Robert Wilson, who asked if he could have one," she says. "I knew his work, but I'd never met him before."

At the time, Otto-Bernstein was contemplating a film about artists and their muses, and as she explained it to Wilson, their conversation turned into a three-hour marathon, with him inviting her to visit his experimental theater workshop Watermill Center on Long Island, N.Y.

Eventually, Otto-Bernstein convinced Wilson that he should sit as the sole subject of a documentary. From the first interview she filmed, they had an unusual rapport. Otto-Bernstein was nine months pregnant at the time; an hour in, her water broke, and Wilson ended up taking her to the hospital. "That broke the ice," she says, laughing.

Although Wilson's work can look austere and occasionally forbidding onstage, on camera he comes across as relaxed and forthright in response to Otto-Bernstein's questions.

The film traces the influences on his life as they surface in his work: his childhood in Waco, Texas, from which he escaped to New York's gay and avant-garde theater circles; his lifelong search for his withholding father's approval; his work with brain-damaged children, which influenced the movements he brought to the stage; and his collaboration with a deaf-mute black child, Raymond Andrews, who he adopted.

Wilson is now much more well-known in Europe, where he regularly works, than in the U.S., where his celebrity is restricted to more highbrow circles. And with "Absolute Wilson" earmarked for eventual airing on HBO, that presented Otto-Bernstein with a challenge as she shaped her film.

"It was not a mystery to me," she says. "I knew I had to satisfy sophisticated European audiences, who know his work well, and at the same time, create a story for an American audience that doesn't know him so well."