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Calling Into Context: An Interview with Filmmaker Matt Wolf

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Dusted's Brandon Kreitler speaks with the director of a new documentary on Arthur Russell.

Calling Into Context: An Interview with Filmmaker Matt Wolf

Below is an interview with experimental filmmaker Matt Wolf, whose forthcoming film Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, marks the first serious documentary attention given the avant-garde hero. For those who hinge on every newly found Russell demo that slips out – and there many such people – the film is a revelation. Full of previously unseen footage of Russell and a plethora of interviews with his friends, parents, collaborators, and with long time partner Tom Lee, it will mark the vanguard of the still small sphere of Russell scholarship. Given that Russell’s legacy dwarfs the amount of surviving video documentation (thought to be almost none), this film could have survived on its considerable archival discoveries alone. Wild Combination, however, offers much more: a narrative of a man so un-self-consciously enigmatic; a quiet and awkward gay farm boy form Oskaloosa, Iowa; a runaway devotee in a Buddhist commune in San Francisco during the height of Haight-Ashbury hippiedom; a prodigy of the ’70s downtown avant garde scene in New York City; a disco pioneer; an increasingly hermetic AIDS patient working obsessively in his apartment, making the best music of his career as his health continued to leave him. The film premieres at the Berlin Film Festival this week.

From Wolf’s Director’s Statement:

Before I even heard Arthur’s music, I was intrigued. My friend described a long forgotten gay disco auteur in a farmer’s plaid shirt, obsessively listening to mixes of his own music on the Staten Island Ferry. That image alone was enough, but when I heard the emotional intensity and the complex beauty in Arthur’s music, I was obsessed.

Coming from an experimental filmmaking background, my first instinct was to expressionistically render Arthur’s music on the Staten Island Ferry, by the West Side Piers, or in cornfields.

I found an address for Arthur’s former partner Tom Lee online and I wrote him, requesting permission to possibly use Arthur’s music in an experimental film.

Months later, Tom called and I went to meet him in the same East Village apartment that he shared with Arthur, where Allen Ginsberg once lived next door. I was so taken aback by Tom – his openness, generosity, and the connection he still feels to Arthur – that it occurred to me that this film could be much larger than I initially imagined.

As I spoke to Ernie Brooks, Steven Hall, Arthur’s parents and many others, I recognized the need for a biographical film, which would explore the legendary cultural history Arthur was a part of as well as the emotional and personal stories imbued in so many of his songs.

Rather than producing an encyclopedic or definitive film that reconstructs Arthur’s entire musical trajectory, I chose to make a portrait. I retraced Arthur’s footsteps on the Staten Island Ferry and I ran through cornfields with a VHS camera. I interviewed Tom Lee in the small apartment where Arthur once obsessively worked and I met Chuck and Emily Russell in Arthur’s idyllic childhood home. These experiences helped me imagine Arthur’s point of view and enabled me to form a deeper interpretation of his music.

In the process of making the movie, I learned things from Arthur about being an artist and pursuing it at all costs. Arthur struggled: he created obstacles for himself and he frustrated his collaborators and loved ones. But I think, unlike many other people, Arthur was able to connect to a primal place of childlike innocence and fun. I love going there with him.

Dusted: Tell me a bit about the process of making the film. It seems like many, including myself, have always thought that there was a lack of documentation – especially video – of Arthur. How did you find all this stuff?

Wolf: When I started making the film, I didn't think it could hold a feature length precisely for this reason – I didn't think enough visual material existed to bring Arthur to life.

This ended up being a productive challenge and forced me to creatively imagine different ways to represent Arthur and his music. We shot a number of things with actors in VHS and Super 8 – in cornfields, on the Staten Island Ferry, by the West Side Piers – that was mysteriously evocative of Arthur. Almost like "fake archival material." We also did a number of stylized recreations of interiors and objects from Arthur's life. I think the lack of archival materials ended up helping me develop a more interesting visual language.

Archival research is sort of like a treasure hunt. And we were lucky – we found amazing new stuff. There aren't hundreds of hours of Arthur talking to the camera, in fact there is nothing like that. But I think the rarity of the material makes what we do even more special.

Dusted: On a perhaps related note, I remember reading a bulletin on the website during production of the film requesting footage, pictures etc, from anyone who had anything. It seems to me that the Arthur that exists in the minds those familiar with his work is similarly an amalgamation of sort of disparate facts and anecdotes, even rumor. Do you see any parallel to this and the way the film was made?

Wolf: A fan of Arthur's music spotted a clip from a documentary called TV Party about a legendary New York public access music show. In the clip, he noticed Arthur performing with Ernie Brooks behind David Byrne. It's a blurry, old black and white video and I never would have noticed Arthur. Now the clip is in the film. So we relied a lot on the leads and feedback of fans while researching the film.

But to answer your question more directly, I would say that people's memories of Arthur are extensive and extremely vivid. The characters in the film seem to have a connection to Arthur that's very much alive, even a decade and a half since his death. It's true, however, that one person from Arthur's life couldn't summarize his entire creative journey or career trajectory. There were so many disparate directions and paths that Arthur pursued. I'm not sure if I'd call this mysterious or mythic – just complex. So, it was necessary to talk to a number of people to piece together Arthur's personal and creative life.

Dusted: What misconceptions or exaggerations exist in the public mind about Russell, who was as, your film illustrates so well, a very complex person?

Wolf: I think there are a bunch of tropes or clichés about the "forgotten genius," a kind of Picasso mythology surrounding numerous cultural figures who were significantly recognized after their deaths. I'm not sure it's important to classify Arthur as a genius or to mythologize his obscurity. I think in the film you'll find that the biographical elements help explain why Arthur didn't become famous like some of his contemporaries. As the writer and musician David Toop said, "He truly wanted to make it, but he had none of the characteristics you need to succeed in the entertainment industry." Arthur had shots and opportunities to reach a wider audience, but for many reasons, it didn't happen. That being said, I think Arthur was always looking toward the future, and that his music had a futuristic quality to it. It doesn't surprise me at all that he found an audience decades after he was making work.

Dusted: Do you think of Russell differently having completed this undertaking – conducting the interviews, digging though the footage?

Wolf: Absolutely. It's funny to work on a project about somebody whose no longer around to speak about themselves. I feel a deep sense of knowing or empathy for Arthur based on all the things people have told me. But at the same time, I feel a kind of reservation or concern about being fair and considering how all these things might make Arthur feel. It's as if I have a relationship with this person, who unfortunately I never knew.

Dusted: Your past films have dealt with issues of gay identity and being gay in America. While Arthur's homosexuality is certainly only one aspect of a complex individual, I wonder what connection you see, if any, between this film and any overarching topical interests you have as a filmmaker?

Wolf: Yeah, I hope people regard Wild Combination as a queer film. A major connection I feel to Arthur is that he was gay. And I chose to make the love story between Tom Lee and Arthur central to the film. But on the other hand, the film isn't about gay culture. I would say that Arthur and Tom didn't have that kind of primary connection to a gay community or culture. But as a filmmaker, yes, I am interested in gay biographies and gay cultural figures from this particular era. And Arthur's story is an extension of these interests.

Dusted: In the film you make great use of visual artistry to accompany the music. A fair amount of these images evoke childhood and play, both directly and indirectly. Can you speak to this? What about Arthur makes these natural reference points?

Wolf: I'm glad you see that in the film – it's a major goal of mine to bring out this thread of childlike experience and play. I think that's one of the most significant reasons that I connect to Arthur and his music. There's a kind of insistent clinging to childhood and the energy, optimism and joy of that period. Sometimes Arthur sounds like a little kid, or conveys feelings with the sincerity and simplicity of a child. And other times he sings directly about it, "Calling All Kids, Calling All Kids… Grownups are crazy!" Part of me thinks Arthur truly did believe that grownups are crazy!

Dusted: Lastly, why does Arthur's music and persona continue to be so immediately influential and captivating to so many, more so now than perhaps even during portions of his life?

Wolf: I think Arthur's music is intensely, viscerally personal. You feel close to the person singing and, at least for me, that resonates emotionally. There's tremendous beauty in Arthur's music, and there's so many different kinds of material. Not only do people want to experience more of Arthur's music for these reasons, I think they desire a deeper connection or a fuller sense of the artist. It is a bit of a cliché to value art that has a timelessness to it. But I think Arthur's work is like that – you can be in any time or place listening to this, but at the same time the legendary periods –underground disco, the avant-garde, CBGBs – in which it was all made are fascinating. I hope people continue to discover Arthur's music for many more years.

By Brandon Kreitler

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