Robert Wilson has a hankering for extremes. As a wildley experimental stage director, he is best known in the United States for the opera "Einstein on the Beach," with music by Philip Glass, which ran about five hours, with nary an intermission. Other Wilson works have ranged to 12 hours or so, and one epic actually rambled on for several days.
Wilson continues to produce large-scale pieces in Europe. But owing to the vagaries of financing, he has been limited to chamber works in his American appearances lately -- such as the recent "Dialogue/Curious George," which required only setting, two characters, and about 90 minutes. This has been frustrating for his American admirers, who yearn to see such a European extravaganza as "Death Destruction and Detroit."
But if you do find an eerie beauty in Wilson's smaller efforts, get ready for the msot minimal masterpiece of them all.In collaboration with West German television, Wilson has assembled a series of TV shows, each lasting precisely 30 seconds. Having conquered the five-hour format, he now challenges himself to cram his favorite dramatic devices into half a minute at a stretch. The result -- comprising about 100 episodes -- is an uncommonly witty, accessible, and engaging work. It was presented at the Collective for Living Cinema in collaboration with Goethe House of New York as part of a series on "Alternative Image Making in German Television."
Seen in one sitting, "Video 50" lasts about 50 minutes. In taping 100 installments, I think Wilson has cribbed a little, since some of the episodes look like instant replays of each other. There's a chair dangling in midair, for example -- like the levitating bed in "Einstein on the Beach" -- that recurs again and again, with no differences I could discern from one time to another.
Some of the segments are brooding, inscrutable, or flatly peculiar. Yet many are out-and-out jokes. Sample: A woman stands behind a mysterious machine, her face bathed in reflected light. What's going on? Suddenly two slices of toast pop into the air, and we realize this fantastical device was just a cleverly photographed toaster. The rigor of the scene shows Wilson at his most austere. Yet the humor is right out of Mike Nichols and "The Graduate."
In a sence, this is the amusing paradox of "Video 50." When Wilson first told me about the project, in an interview a couple of years ago, it sounded as avant-garde as you could get. Yet in watching the show, I suddenly realized what its tru antecedent was -- the ingerious TV comedy of Ernie Kovacs, back in the 1950s. Just like Wilson he concocted outragious little skits, often lasting just a few seconds, and frequently more bizarre than ha-ha funny. Remember when Kovacs hit us with one of his favorite gags, a man working at a typewriter under water? Wilson has his own genteel gent, sitting at his desk with great dignity as goldfish swim outlandishly through the air.
To my mind, pointing out the Kovacs connection doesn't belittle Wilson's work in the slightest. Even two decades ago, everyone knew Kovacs was years ahead of his time, and his shows have lately found favor again on the rerun circuit. To the genre, Wilson has brought his own brand of austere aestheticism and other-worldly wit. "Video 50" also makes a fascinating precis of his current stge style for those with or vithout access to his theater work. And it indicates the suitability of the TV format to his extremely disciplined approach; this is a far cry from the self-indulgent outpourings that mark so much "experimental video" today.
I was surprised to see "Video 50" at the collective for Living Cinema, a roomy but out-of-the-way showplace in Lower Manhattan. Wilson likes to exhibit his work in the middle of the mainstream -- "Einstein on the Beach" was presented at the metropolitan Opera House -- and he shudders at the idea of his art being shunted toward museums or other havens for noncommercial items. He even told me that PBS would be too rarified a resting place for "Video 50," and said only the commercial networks would ever get their hands on it, if they were willing (which they wouldn't be) adn if he had his druthers (which he evidently hasn't).
However it got there -- and perhaps Goethe House was the necessary go-beween -- I'm glad the Collective has brought us Wilson's initial video venture. Even for his admirers, it's a surprisingly captivating and entertaining experience. Wilson has triumphed over television on his very first try. Let's hope he keeps at it. It could bring his art to a wider and more varied audience than ever before. Networks, are you listening?