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Reel Life: an artist gets the Olympic shaft


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"Robert Wilson has created a monumental new work for the occasion of the 1984 Olympic Games. the CIVIL warS is Wilson's first large-scale work to be premiered in the United States and his most important work since the legendary performances of Einstein on the Beach at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1976." --from the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival program of events.

Forget what the program says. It never happened. Robert Wilson's "monumental" and "important" American premiere never took place. A $1.5 million funding glitch materialized instead, and the Olympic committee canceled it. Canceled all six sections of it, developed by Wilson in six separate collaborations with troupes from Holland, France, East Germany, Japan, Italy, and the United States. Canceled the gigantic Abraham Lincoln; the weightless Robert E. Lee; the underwater passages; and the music by Philip Glass, David Byrne, and Gavin Bryars. Canceled the vast logistics and the epic ambitions. Canceled five years worth of work. If you'd gone to the Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles during the summer of 1984, all you'd have seen of the CIVIL warS was a display of artifacts from the aborted production. And, of course, that unfortunate program listing.

Howard Brookner's documentary Robert Wilson and the CIVIL warS fills in a little of what you would've been missing, by showing snippets from rehearsals as they took place here and there around the world. The Japanese are dancerly and grotesque; the Germans, harsh; the Americans, oddly Japanese.

But Brookner's not out to preserve the work, or to mitigate its loss by substituting his own filmed version of it. To the contrary, he's out to show how irretrievable that loss actually is. And how far-reaching. Clearly outraged at the dirt done Wilson by the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee and its president--the current baseball commissioner, Peter Ueberroth--Brookner works like some kind of avenging insurance adjuster, documenting an incalculable claim.

Obviously, the immediate victims are the artist and his piece. Even critics who reject Wilson tend to acknowledge the importance of his postliterate, profoundly visual theater, with its alogical stream of images; its suggestively nonsensical language; and a concept of time that falls somewhere between the Hindus and a fun-house mirror. Like him or not, the 46-year-old Wilson's got a mature, powerful, remarkably influential aesthetic. And the CIVIL warS was to be his most sophisticated utterance yet.

It was also something to which he gave himself with a calm fervor. Brookner shows Wilson indefatigable--storyboarding the piece with dozens and dozens of large, gorgeous charcoal drawings; tracking its progress from Cologne to Minneapolis to Rome; recruiting the Madame Pompidous and Paul Gettys of the world on its behalf. When the entire effort starts to sputter and sink late in the film, Wilson's anger, grief, and exhaustion are heartbreaking.

But more heartbreaking still is the sense that this sort of waste isn't all that unusual. America's continually pushing away its best hearts, making orphans of them. And Wilson's a prime example. As the Olympic program states, he's never premiered a major work in the United States.

Brookner makes a motif of this tall, WASPish Texan's alien status, continually placing him--both intellectually and physically--among foreigners. We hear a succession of German and French voices extolling Wilson's genius; we see Wilson surrounded by actors to whom he must speak through interpreters. By the time Brookner shows him standing like some mild-mannered, bespectacled Godzilla on a Japanese subway, his isolation's complete. He's a man without a country . . . or nearly so: it still remains for Ueberroth, the American executive, to cut him off entirely.

Brookner's so passionately convinced--so enraptured with Wilson and scornful of his enemies--that he doesn't bother telling the other side. We never hear from the Olympic committee. We never find out what that $1.5 million was all about. And we certainly never get an idea of how the whole mess might've been avoided.

What we do get is a clear and vigorous account of a great American artist who offers us presents that we foolishly refuse to accept. Perhaps, seeing this film, we'll find out what we're missing.

Robert Wilson and the CIVIL warS plays at the Film Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (Columbus and Jackson, 443-3733) on July 18 and 19. Saturday, 6 and 8 PM; Sunday, 4 PM. $4.50.

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