The documentary-maker on the artist and poet Joe Brainard, and his modernist masterpiece 'I Remember'
In his new film I remember: A Film About Joe Brainard, Matt Wolf transports Joe Brainard’s memories from the grave, or at least transforms them from the stagnant space upon the page, by bringing them back to life. Wolf creates a biography about the artist in film, with narration from Brainard’s best friend, poet Ron Padgett.
Through his own artistic portal, Wolf admirably creates a sense of regeneration. And he does this through layering, of memory upon memory, art upon art, artist upon artist, combining his own work with that of Ron Padgett and of course Joe Brainard.
If I had to choose three works of Joe Brainard's that are my favourite, I'd say his flower collages; there's a kind of simple, elegant, but obsessive beauty to them. His poem People of the World Relax is really funny, and describes a great philosophy for life. And also the book cover collaborations he did with his friends. At Bard College's Center for Curatorial Studies, we organised a shelf of all these books. To me they represent how strong his connection was with writers and his friends, and the significance of collaboration in his work. Somebody recommended that I read his poem I Remember, and I totally fell in love with it. And a year or two past, online I found an audio recording of Joe Brainard reading that poem, and the audio was really amazing, and I knew I wanted to do something with it. I wasn’t really sure what, but I thought it could be cool to turn the readings into a film. So, initially I was just kind of bringing to life the poem, but it kind of felt like a nostalgia piece, so I decided to expand upon the poem and make it so it could be a biography of Joe Brainard. I found these archival recordings, and I wanted to bring those to life. I thought it could be more interesting if it told the story of Joe Brainard’s life. So I met up with his best friend, the poet Ron Padgett, and interviewed Ron, and my concept became to kind of interweave this interview with Ron Padgett with the audio recording of Joe Brainard reading out Remember; so that the film would do two things: it would tell his life story, but also bring to life that what Joe recounts in the poem. So that’s what I ended up doing. It's been so odd that there’s not a really rated Frank O’Hara or John Ashbury film, and I always loved Joe as this somewhat marginalised heroic, gay, literary, art-scene hero. And I think he’s kind of an unsung hero. But a lot of people are really passionate about his work. It’s really amazing about how enduring that poem is, especially since Joe didn’t really identify as a writer, but more as an artist.
All the work I do as a filmmaker is about the past. I think it’s because I’m most interested in looking at the past to try to understand something about today. And, to me, Joe is a figure that I can relate to and identify with today. He’s an artist that I see as a peer today, even though he died prematurely from aids. And a lot of my work – I made a film about the musician Arthur Russell too – is about closing the circle around that generation of artists and my own peer group. I know a lot of my peers really relate to and identify with those artists, so it feels natural to dwell in the past because these artists’ work are such an important part of how we think today.
Usually what I do is really flexible. When I make a film, I try to make the form as specific and responsive to the subject matter. The film I’m making is about the history of teenagers [Teenagers]; that film is told primarily by the voices of young people and the narration is derived heavily from real teenage diaries. So, similarly, for this film it was finding a vocabulary in film that paid homage to the style of writing of the original poem. The thing that I connected to most when making this particular film was the idea of friendship. It’s less about the content of that poem and more about the kind of conversation that I created between Joe and Ron. It just made me think about my own friendships and how important they are to me. But also looking at a friendship that went from childhood all the way until someone’s death, it’s really incredible. We don’t all have those kinds of relationships. And I think it’s really cool to pay tribute to a friendship that spanned an entire lifetime, and that was a mutually created friendship of these two really interesting artists.