Although many of Wilson's earlier videos originated as class projects while he attended Arizona State University in the Eighties, some of his most fascinating tapes are among the 30-odd one-man videos he's produced, directed, written, photographed and starred in during the past year. One such solo vehicle is his recent What I Did to "Psycho," an absurdist retelling parody of the Hitchcock thriller. By inventively editing in clips from the original film, Wilson appears to "co-star" opposite Anthony Perkins, playing roles created by Janet Leigh, Vera Miles and John Gavin.
"There's an advantage to doing spoofs of old films," explains Wilson. "If I have to make a copy to give to a gallery for a show, it doesn't matter if I lose a generation [of detail], because it's supposed to look like a bad film in the first place. If it gets worse, it actually gets better.
"Commercials and trailers are the best," continues Wilson, who has spoofed every genre from driver-ed films (Red Pavement) to civil defense drills (Family Atomic Preparedness). "They're versatile, you've got a lot of cuts, and I can pack a lot of visuals into very little time. Anything longer than a few minutes and you run the risk of losing your audience. As an artist, I think that's one of the worst things you can do--boring people."
He's currently shooting Valley of the Pauls, a long-range work-in-progress inspired by the coming-attractions trailer for 1967's Valley of the Dolls. To date, he's spent a year reenacting snippets from the show-biz shocker, a labor-intensive project that eventually will require him to impersonate Patty Duke, Sharon Tate, Barbara Parkins, Susan Hayward and Martin Milner.
The cast parties might not be much, but Wilson isn't complaining.
"When you're in college, you have access to a lot of people," explains the cut-rate auteur. "Now I don't. But when I use other people, it's very difficult to coordinate schedules. Doing it this way, I have absolute control."
It also makes life a lot easier for the costumer (Wilson, again), who spends a lot of time these days cruising secondhand stores for vintage size-12 women's wear. "It kills me to pay $5.99 for a really horrible Sixties A-line dress at Family Thrift," he rues, noting that he frequently spends less than that on an entire project. "I know I'm only going to wear it once--in Valley of the Pauls. The mid-Sixties are just not my thing."
And judging from the looks of things around Chez Wilson, neither are the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties.
With the exception of food, toiletries, electronics equipment and a few books, there's virtually nothing in his east Phoenix home that would look out of place in a 1959 Better Homes & Gardens layout. (Wilson recently allowed a Japanese photographer to use his retro showplace as a kitschy setting for a book of high-end erotica.) With closetfuls of props and unlimited ingenuity, Wilson has turned his abode into a residential version of the Universal Studios lot. Its artfully disguised rooms appear in virtually every video, and surrounding lawns have doubled for everything from Golden Gate Park to a nuclear wasteland.
Even so, Wilson sometimes still finds it necessary to shoot on location. That happened last fall while he was vacationing in San Francisco. Realizing that the nearby bay could double for the Malibu shore where one of his Valley of the Pauls heroines would play a crucial scene, Wilson dutifully handed his camera over to a friend, suited up in drag and hit the beach. Never mind that re-creating the sequence involved wallowing in icy surf dressed in a filmy bathrobe, all while wrangling a wayward wig and three huge prop "barbiturates" that kept floating out of camera range.
"I could really feel for Barbara Parkins and what she must have gone through," says Wilson, referring to the actress who'd sloshed through the tide in the original. "I'd wait for a nice visual-looking wave to crash over me with foam, and when it did, what happened was absolutely disgusting. The wave would carry sand into my mouth and right up my nose. But I had to do it, because I knew I'd never be able to fake an ocean back home with a hose."
Meanwhile, back at the ranch house, Wilson's twin obsessions of cross-dressing and calamity played out against a backdrop of Eisenhower-era blandness continue to fuel the artist's newer projects. In one recent photo collage--with Wilson playing all the characters, of course--an Avon Lady and a Fuller Brush Man duke it out in front of a living room full of horrified suburbanites.