Matt Wolf is a non-fiction filmmaker whose work finds inspiration and subject matter in the lives and work of other artists. His debut feature film, Wild Combination, profiled the elusive musician Arthur Russell. Russell’s prolific recordings (mostly unreleased and in continual flux) and performances ranged from minimalist new music to disco to country-tinged power pop in his too short life. Through a variety of recent releases of these lost and found gems over the past half-decade and Wolf’s poignant, sensitive documentary, Russell’s profile has raised.
I absolutely adore Arthur Russell and was ecstatic to see Wolf’s documentary when it made its way around the festival circuit in 2008. Documentaries about artists, to my eye, are rarely successful at generating the heat and intensity of their subjects. Perhaps conventional logic dictates that the documentarian’s duty is to present the material in a straight-forward and information-driven mode. The very impulses toward idiosyncrasy, subjectivity and innovation that drive the work of these artists are often lost in the translation to a different context.
Wolf’s work is vital because of the care he takes to ensure that his formal, conceptual and aesthetic decisions reflect—though subtly—the works and lives of his subjects. The pacing is delicate and deliberate without feeling slow. The shared emphases on biography, work and social context entwine to produce fleeting documents of artists who have passed but whose influence still grows.
I Remember, which was released last year, profiles the artist and poet Joe Brainard. Brainard is best known for his poem cycle of the same name and for his work in collage, painting and assemblage. For the piece, Wolf has constructed his own collage of found footage and archival images of Brainard with a swirling conversation between a recording of Brainard’s own reading of I Remember and the poet Ron Padgett offering a very personal biography of his best friend.
Wild Combination is available on DVD and iTunes. I Remember will screen at the Ann Arbor Film Festival and Images Festival soon and can be streamed online or rented through Video Data Bank. Wolf’s latest film, Teenage, premieres this April at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Because it seems a good a place to begin as any, I’m hoping you might tell us a bit about your background—where you grew up and were educated, the types of jobs you’ve held to help you make work and, most important, your evolution as an artist. When did you realize you wanted to make films? Did you begin by being in bands or making paintings or was filmmaking always the goal?
I grew up in San Jose, California. I was a teenage gay activist, and I thought that I’d grow up to work in politics. I was on Good Morning America, lobbying my legislatures and stuff like that, but I also wanted to be an artist. I got obsessed with ‘90s queer independent films and directors like Todd Haynes and Derek Jarman. And then I started discovering video art and experimental films by people like Sadie Benning and Kenneth Anger. I was inspired to become a filmmaker, so I enrolled in film school at NYU.
It didn’t really occur to me how traditional and industry-oriented NYU would be. But I stuck it out, and eventually had the filmmaker Kelly Reichardt as a professor, which was really inspiring. During college, I got involved in the art world. I was writing art reviews for magazines, and most of my friends were visual artists. So when I finished school, I worked in a painter and video artist’s studio. Slowly I got some opportunities to make short documentaries about artists first for the public art organization Creative Time, and later for the New York Times. It was around this time that I started making my first feature Wild Combination.
My first experience with your work was through Wild Combination. Arthur Russell’s music has long meant the world to me and I was excited that someone had chosen to make a film about his life. To me, one of the most effective strategies in the film is your use of time-specific camera and media formats for your “reenactment” shots. Be-walkmaned Arthur on the ferry is shot on VHS tape, while Iowa is captured in luscious super-8. More so than the interviews, these moments tie us to the spaces, places and feelings of those periods. Can you talk a bit about the process of creating those reenactments? Do you, in your own mode of remembering (and as a filmmaker), see your own past in such aestheticized forms?
Making “fake archival footage” is one of my main filmmaking interests. I love working with found footage, but I like creating my own vintage-looking material too. My new film Teenage, which is coming out this Spring is a pretty expansive look at the birth of youth culture. In the film, I’ve made recreations that are shot in the style of period home movies. I shot scenes with vintage 16mm camera bodies and uncoated lenses, used experimental printing techniques to further degrade the footage, and then even organically got dust, scratches, and dirt on the films. Viewers shouldn’t necessarily be able to identify this stuff as original, staged footage. A lot of people will think it is archival.
The first moving images I ever saw of Arthur Russell were these de-saturated, extreme close up shots of him performing cello. They were shot on an old VHS format. I knew that was the material, texture, and feeling I wanted my film Wild Combination to have. I’m always trying to make films that have a cohesive form to them, even if I’m drawing on eclectic material. The recreations I film are a kind of visual glue that tie all the elements together.
Arthur Russell didn’t have immense media exposure from which you could draw footage, but there are numerous tapes of him performing that could be utilized. To what degree was the film shaped around the footage you were able to find? Were there scenes you were unable to include but that demonstrated something about Arthur you wanted to show? Also, I was struck by how many of the credits for this footage belonged to other legendary downtown figures (Phil Niblock, Jean Dupuy). This shouldn’t be too surprising considering where they were shot or his audience, but I’m curious if this lent itself to another kind of collaboration or, at least, an opportunity to reflect on the rhizomatic, entwined structures of artistic community.
There was a tiny amount of documentation of Arthur. If I had been a more experienced filmmaker, I probably would have said there’s not enough archival material to make this film. But that limitation proved to be a really productive challenge for me, and it helped me think more creatively about the filmmaking. It contributes to this sense of mystery about Arthur, the subject who is absent from the film. But really, I’m using every existing filmed recording of Arthur that exists. It was cool going to Phil Niblock’s loft to pick up a VHS tape, and the Kitchen’s archive was very generous in helping me access Jean Dupuy’s wonderful video documentation of Arthur performing “Eli” from the performance event “Soup and Tart.”
Arthur Russell and Joe Brainard share certain similarities. They were both born far from the coasts but found their way to the cities (and New York, in particular) about as quickly as they could. They both operated on the fringes of their particular scenes but were well-loved by their peers and small but devoted audiences. They were both gay and casualties of the AIDS crisis. I’m curious what about these figures (beyond the incredible work they produced) drew you to them.
Lately I’ve been thinking of those two as “gentle gays.” They both had a certain intensity and self-deprecating quality to them, but they also seemed like incredibly sweet people with a sensitive demeanor. I’m really interested in telling the stories and exploring the biographies of artists who died of AIDS. I think a lot about what New York and our world would be like if so many brilliant queer people hadn’t died prematurely. In some senses I imagine myself as a peer to them today.
I’m interested in the artistic inheritances of queer art (in particular from the 1970s to the 1990s) to makers in the present. Because of the tragic ravages of the AIDS crisis, so many of that era’s great makers’ lives ended much too soon. The question is broad and will be necessarily subjective, but I’m hoping you might have some thoughts on these questions of inheritance, lineage and historicization.
This is all stuff I think about a lot. Being queer is an important part of my identity. But often times I don’t really connect to contemporary gay politics. Queer culture from the past is what resonates with me the most. I’m not entirely sure why that is, but I know I’m not alone in that feeling.
Regarding these questions of inheritance, there is an incredible book I would recommend: Sarah Schulman’s Gentrification of the Mind. It’s a memoir about the AIDS crisis and ACT UP movement, and Sarah discusses how AIDS lead to the gentrification of Manhattan. She reflects on gentrification not just as phenomenon in cities, but a phenomenon of consciousness.
I imagine one of the pleasures of making documents/portraits of artists is the chance to interview and work with their peers. Are there artists through whose interviews you’ve felt a particular closeness or whose way of talking about your subject was particularly illuminating? Did the chance to have a relatively narrow topic (one artist) allow for a conversation that touched on other, broader topics (I imagine talking to Philip Glass about Arthur Russell is easier than talking to Philip Glass without a subject at hand)? What sorts of lessons about artistic kinship and community have you learned through these interviews?
I love interviewing people—it’s one of the most stimulating and rewarding aspects of making a documentary. To me a good interview is a two-sided conversation, not just a series of questions. Through my work I’ve met a lot of really interesting artists and thinkers. I believe that any good biography transcends its subjects and is about other cultural histories, or larger ideas. For Wild Combination, the biography was a way for me to also explore the setting of downtown New York in the 1970s and 1980s, the intersections of pop culture and the avant-garde, as well as queer culture and the impact of AIDS.
I Remember is described as “a film about” while Wild Combination is “a portrait of” their subjects. Without dissecting hairs or whatever the phrase is, I’m interested in these small designations. Do you think of these works (and perhaps in contrast to other projects you work on) as being distinct in their processes? Or, perhaps, do you have ways of describing the shift between portrait, document, documentary, essay or non-fiction (or other categories) filmmaking? Are these terms useful in the construction and reception of your work?
Both projects are really portrait films. A portrait isn’t a definitive biography, it’s a selective and artistic treatment of a subject. I didn’t interview everybody that knew Arthur Russell or Joe Brainard—I make focused and somewhat selective choices about how I would present their stories. That’s how I can be specific in my filmmaking rather than general. To me, it’s about making creative non-fiction, rather than straight documentaries.
I Remember was commissioned by Nathan Lee while he was at Bard’s Center for Curatorial Studies. How did this come about? How does making work as a commission differ from other forms? Did knowing the work would exist in a museum exhibition (I’m assuming) before screening spaces impact the way you made it? Do you consider these works to be collaborations with your subject?
Nathan was really supportive, and gave me free reign to make whatever project I wanted. I had already started the Joe Brainard film, but needed an excuse (and some financial help) to finish it. I was excited about the opportunity to work in a gallery space, and to explore the documentary form in an elliptical, non-linear way. I felt like the structure of Joe’s poem “I Remember” speaks in circles, so it felt right that the film could play that way too. Truth be told, it’s only since screened in festival contexts, so I think it really is perceived more as a self-contained documentary, but I think it works in both contexts.
Your next major project is about teenagers. Can you discuss the project a bit?
Teenage is premiering in April at the Tribeca Film Festival. I worked with the author Jon Savage on the film—it’s inspired by his book of the same name. The film looks at the pre-history of teenagers, and examines youth culture from before WWII. It’s really about the role youth play in shaping the future, and how society oppressed and controlled youth before they were finally recognized as “teenagers.” It’s not a traditional historical film—the entire story is told from the point of view of teenagers. It’s been a major project that I’ve been working on for four years, so I’m excited for it to come out soon.
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