"Absolute Wilson"; "Army of Shadows"

Robert Avila January 9, 2007

SF360.org introduces a new Tuesday feature: weekly reviews of films playing Bay Area theaters.

An "Absolute Wilson," reframed

The influence of a theater director can be difficult to pin down from the evidence of a given production alone. But Robert Wilson’s work has been so unique in nearly every aspect of theatrical presentation that the stamp of a personal vision is all but immediately apparent. At the same time, the work of this renowned American avant-gardist — whose cryptic, usually non-narrative, arrestingly beautiful and often extremely long surrealistic stage-scapes and operas can truly be called monumental, in terms of both their scope and importance to late 20th century theater art — resists both easy interpretation and the fingerprint of influence. Into this breach jumps Katherina Otto-Bernstein’s lively and involving documentary, "Absolute Wilson," which convincingly weaves the artist’s groundbreaking work into the fabric of his memories and experience.

These include a lonely childhood in Waco, Texas, where a learning disability and stutter early on cast Wilson as outsider, in a community that would later make his homosexuality still another impediment to acceptance — particularly for his father (an intriguing relationship the film goes some way toward illuminating). This begins a lifelong attraction for, and powerful empathy with, outsiders of various kinds that radically influences the development of this highly collaborative artist. Otto-Bernstein’s doc places justifiable emphasis on the relationship between Wilson’s early handicap and the nature of his art, a connection strengthened by Wilson’s early therapeutic work with brain-damaged children and paralyzed adults in iron lungs.

There are other arcs to this career, however. It’s late-1960s New York, for example, and the small but vital community of Soho’s avant-garde that eventually provides a burgeoning artist crucial refuge from Waco’s debilitating alienation. Moreover, it’s easy to see a solitary child’s need for parental affection and social acceptance tracing through a career deeply contradictory in its blend of uncompromising artistic integrity and a sometimes naïve and overriding desire for mainstream recognition (Europe has showered far more critical and financial support on Wilson’s often mammoth projects than his own country). It’s a contradiction that feeds notable triumphs, such as Wilson and composer Philip Glass’s legendary reinvention of opera in 1976’s "Einstein on the Beach," or 1991’s "Black Rider" (a winning collaboration with Tom Waits and William S. Burroughs); but also painful failures like the self-produced transfer of "A Letter to Queen Victoria" to Broadway or the collapse of the enormous 12-hour opus "the CIVIL wars," planned for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and nixed last-minute by a wary, perhaps vaguely contemptuous Olympic Committee.

Otto-Bernstein packs her 105-minute film with more than two-dozen interviews with colleagues, collaborators, critics, and other supporters (from Wilson’s sister to Susan Sontag), in addition to conversing with Wilson himself. The film’s lone naysayer is critic John Simon. Other critical slants on Wilson come via some candid footage of his exacting and at times apparently tyrannical directing style; and in passing commentary pointing to an ego that can be as emotionally domineering as it is needful and sensitive. But Otto-Bernstein withholds hint of this until establishing her subject (forthcoming and charming in conversation before her camera) as sympathetic and impressive. Occasional use of split screens conveys his cheerfully hectic life and indomitable energy, and helps accommodate a generous amount of archival footage (showing snippets from Wilson’s large body of work, including some early solo performance). The film’s title sounds a bit like an in-joke, given the detail in the press materials placing vodka at the center of the filmmaker and Wilson’s first kismet-charged meeting. But then the adjective fully fits the man whose vast and uncompromising vision is nothing short of total.

"Absolute Wilson" opens Jan. 12 at Bay Area theaters.

Philippe Gerbier and his team don’t have much time to carry out attacks on the Germans; they’re too busy identifying and eliminating informers and collaborators on their own side in "Army of Shadows."

"Army of Shadows" re-emerges

The stakes in "Army of Shadows" are truly life and death, and that puts Jean-Pierre Melville’s remarkable 1969 nail biter on a different plane than contemporary spy thrillers. The film centers on a cell of the French Resistance headed by the middle-aged, square-jawed Philippe Gerbier. Shrewd and decisive, Gerbier (portrayed with no-nonsense perfection by Lino Ventura) is part strategist and part assassin. Alas, he and his team don’t have much time to carry out attacks on the Germans; they’re too busy identifying and eliminating informers and collaborators on their own side.

It comes as a shock to realize that Gerbier and his group (including a lone woman, portrayed without a wisp of vanity by Simone Signoret) are, essentially, only playing defense. This is not the image of the Occupation we’re used to getting from movies, which typically treat us to inspirational acts of sabotage and a satisfying accumulation of dead Nazis. On the contrary, "Army of Shadows" presents life in the Resistance as unglamorous, unsavory, and desperate.

Melville is not engaging in historical revisionism here, or stylish nihilism. The director took a novel by Joseph Kessel, which he’d read in London when it came out in 1943, and augmented it with his own experiences as a member of the Resistance for two years. There’s not a moment of false sentiment, or indulgence of any kind. What Melville is doing is introducing some unexpected ambiguity to the seemingly clear-cut imperative of fighting an occupying force. We’re never in doubt about who the good guys are, but — as with the Algerian freedom fighters (or are they terrorists?) in "The Battle of Algiers" — we have some queasiness about their tactics. The effect of "Army of Shadows," ultimately, is to challenge our definition of heroism.

"Army of Shadows" plays the Pacific Film Archive Thurs/11.