Interview with Matt Wolf, Director of Wild Combination
The story of Arthur Russell's life is easy to mythologize. A Midwestern farm boy runs away from home to the hazy streets of San Francisco, befriends Allen Ginsberg, and is locked in a closet by a half-assed charlatan who at least has the wit to recognize Russell's talent as a cellist. Then suddenly Russell relocates to Manhattan where he shares a street address with the likes of Ginsberg and Richard Hell. Without skipping a beat Russell befriends and collaborates with The Modern Lovers' Ernie Brooks; Philip Glass; David Byrne; Robert Wilson; and other luminaries of the New York City avant-garde and, more importantly, of the burgeoning disco scene.
Almost overnight Russell is producing groundbreaking experimental disco tracks under a host of aliases, all while continuing to explore his primary interests: his cello and his voice. Despite his quest for popularity, Russell descends into self-doubting paranoia which leaves him at home endlessly recording and re-recording songs dedicated to this lover, Tom Lee, before eventually falling prey to AIDS in 1992.
Much like the rest of us, experimental film director Matt Wolf became familiar with Russell's work through the compilations that have surfaced over the past few years, such as Soul Jazz Records' The World of Arthur Russell and Calling Out of Context on Audika. Thankfully Russell left behind thousands of reel-to-reel tapes and cassettes, which Tom Lee has decided to share with the world. Wolf's intention was to create a visual interpretation of Russell's work, but after meeting some of the folks close to Russell Matt realized only a portrait of Arthur's life through his music would do him service.
Arthur Russell's music is extremely emotional: his vulnerable voice intertwining with processed cello and often with programmed beats results in a combination of ethereal sounds that enters the listener's mind and opens a direct connection to forgotten childhood emotions. Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell manages the same task with recreations of Russell's seemingly mundane routines, interviews with those closest to him, and ultimately with tear-inducing footage of his performances.
Matt Wolf took the time to discuss his film and Arthur Russell with Fecal Face just in time for the SF Film Society's screening of Wild Combination at Mezzanine as part of SFFS' ongoing SF360 Film Club. The screening is Monday, September 22nd.
Interview with Matt Wolf
Tom started introducing me to others, and I had that same impression when I spoke to Arthur's parents, Chuck and Emily, who live in Oskaloosa, Iowa in the house where Arthur was raised. All these impressions started influencing me to move in a more biographical and documentary direction and the film just started happening and unraveling.
MW: Well, I do not think that guided that decision conclusively although I definitely was working with a modest amount of actual footage of Arthur, so I knew that I would have create an unconventional visual language to bring his story in that setting and time to life. But I guess it never was my interest to make an encyclopedic or definitive biography of Arthur, and I wasn't attracted to the musical lore, the minutia of the details of Arthur's musical production, or the surrounding musical culture. I wanted to build those context in the larger film ultimately to make clear what Arthur was pursuing, but I guess some of the traps I was trying to avoid were, for instance, having an over abundance of talking heads that you were not familiar with, or to avoid having an abundance of experts analyzing or interpreting the cultural context or Arthur's music. There is one figure like that in the film, but I wanted it to be a more intimate film with the scaled-down ensemble of people who were identifiable and who represented really discreet aspects of Arthur's life. I think for all those reasons I was making a portrait; I wasn't making the definitive story or biography of Arthur.
MW: Arthur encountered and crossed paths with a tremendous range of people, all of whose stories are really interesting; like David Mancuso, who is just one figure that Arthur cross-pollinated and crossed paths with...a whole movie unto itself about the collaborations with Philip Glass and Robert Wilson, and that moment in the history of the avant-garde and its crossing over into a larger consciousness. That story is its own film and I definitely had interest in going deeper into a lot of those things, but I had to maintain a certain level of focus on central goals, particularly to create a cathartic or emotional experience by hearing Arthur's story, and then to balance the biographical with the cultural history and to balance the music with the dialogue. There was a natural push and pull between all these different kinds of narratives in the film...there are so many other narrative possibilities that go unexplored in service of the overall goal of giving an emotional encounter with Arthur's life.
MW: Yes, I think this is true of other film makers that I have talked to that have made films about artists - it is impossible to not be self-reflective on your own process as compared to the artist that you're representing. In many was I was inspired by the determination of Arthur in the face of constant rejection...the rejection that had stopped him from pursuing his musical passion and his musical ambition with the same kinds of determination that he always had. [He also] was really methodically involved in an artistic process and he was able to focus on that in a very unique way, and you know, he didn't finish things but perhaps that was just an element of him just being engaged with his own process. On the flip side of that Arthur suffered from a level of paranoia that was self-defeating and he created obstacles for himself that proved to ruin certain opportunities, or that got in the way of him reaching a wider audience. I did not personally relate to the paranoia aspect of it but I felt I could empathize with the pressure to complete something and for there to be an element of finality with the film, which of course is never really truly possible. It was hard to finish the film, and it is always hard to finish something that you are creating out of nothing - in which the possibilities are really endless. And you know, I am really different from Arthur (laughs) in a lot of ways, but it helped me empathize with what he was going through. Certain people I would talk to still have a great deal of frustration they feel when remembering their relationship with Arthur.
MW: Well yes, and I think Bob Blank really touches on that a lot in the film even though I think he still feels a lot of warmth for Arthur. They had a really frustrating and adversarial relationship, and he spoke a great deal about how much tension and animosity there was between him and Arthur. And Will Socolov, his relationship with Arthur ended poorly, but I think despite that all those people felt a lot of warmth for Arthur. There was something very childlike about him; he was almost like a little kid who would annoy the shit out of you but you couldn't help but to love or admire in some way, and I would think that is true for both Will and Bob. I really focused on people that had a truly significant encounter with Arthur. I am sure plenty of people had less significant or profound working relationships or connections to him, and they might have just purely negative things to say, but I did not feel that would be a asset to the film particularly since I was already limiting the amount of people that would be talking.
MW: I don't think it is ever possible or necessarily useful to identify all the sources of inspiration or all the roots of ideas that are within somebody's art...
MW: Yes, impossible and not even necessary in that there should always be a level of mystery that defies language or reckoning in great artistic projects, and like that it was clear that Arthur had these preoccupations with water or the space under water, the ocean, or also in contrast to that the wide open plains of Iowa. He imbued his song-writing with a Country twang that is an emblematic Midwestern sensibility, he was responsive to the rhythms and energy of New York City's downtown, but I don't think any of those contexts or reference points explain his artwork. There is something about him that defies explanation which I think touches upon what you are talking about, which is timelessness. You can't just pin it down in a specific time or place where it doesn't just touch us in one specific way or evoke one static response or reaction, and I think that is what is great about it.
MF: Yeah, I think they are all ecstatic that Arthur is this cult celebrity now, which wasn't the case when he was alive. He would have a concert and nobody would come, you know, it was really disorganized and Tom would be cringing hoping that if any of his friends came they would get it. As Arthur's parents said in the movie, they didn't quite understand his music when he was alive - but I think all the discourse surrounding it, and all the critical praise and acclaim, has really been exciting and exhilarating for them because they all share so much pride in Arthur, and so many happy memories of him.
MF: "Wild Combination" was the song that Arthur had hoped would become a hit, and I think that song is really universally acceptable. I also thought the metaphor of "Wild Combination" was potent in that it really helped explain Arthur's music, particularly the desperate interest in disco and the avant-garde that people for some reason could never reconcile as a logical stepping stone from one to the other. And I think that Arthur had a great challenge at juxtaposing seemingly unrelated elements and synthesizing them into something whole, and that to me is representative of the title of this song "Wild Combination."
MW: Well thanks so much.
MW: Yeah, totally....
MW: Oh, thank you. It is great to hear that kind of feedback. Thank you.
Interview by Fecal Face's Music Editor, Chris Rolls. chris(at)fecalface.com