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Wild Combination at the ICA

Matt Wolf's moving documentary about Arthur Russell.

Given Arthur Russell’s near-universal present adoration, it’s kind of amazing that Wild Combination has taken so long to be made. In other ways, it’s entirely fitting that even 16 years after the disco producer/avant garde cellist’s death, the most definitive record of his life available is this impressionistic visualisation of his music. Wild Combination, playing at the ICA this week, is less “The Arthur Russell Biography” and more a touching non-fiction story about a difficult man – and the people who remember him. The films tells the story of a maddeningly, joyously complex artist, a forgotten gay icon, a funny dancer and a genius who would spend hours writing songs in his apartment, waiting for his boyfriend to come home. It also has the most heartbreaking shot of a cornfield since Badlands. I spoke to the director Matt Wolf on a rainy day outside the Barbican.

Dazed Digital: How did you come to this project?
Matt Wolf: My friend started talking about it when I visited him in San Francisco. He described this gay disco auteur who would ride the Staten Island Ferry back and forth listening to mixes of his own cassette tapes, and that image really intrigued me. It was just as Calling Out Of Context and the World of Arthur Russell came out, and I became really obsessively involved with these records, and began working on some ideas that might work their way into an experimental visual rendering of Arthur’s music. But I found myself increasing interested in the biographical elements of his life, and went to meet Tom Lee, Arthur’s boyfriend, at the apartment they shared that was next door to Alan Ginsberg and Above Richard Hell, and I was so touched by Tom, his openness and the connection he felt with Arthur that was still very much alive, and it occurred to me that the film could have a very strong biographical dimension.  As I spoke to each person, it became clear that his or her perspective was focused on one aspect of Arthur’s life, different to any other person. I always said to my crew, "This isn’t a documentary; I just happen to have all these interviews!" I think I was just learning the process of making a documentary, and realising what a documentary is through following my nose.

DD: That’s quite a brave aesthetic choice, though: to concentrate on him as a person rather than a musician. I mean, there’s hundred of tapes of his music, but next to none of him being interviewed…
MW: Yeah, yeah… The film is weighted much more heavily on the emotional story of his relationships – with his friends, with Tom, and after his death, the relationship Tom develops with his parents, and the circuitous story, where the film goes from Iowa to NY and back to Iowa structurally, and I thought that check and Tom were captivating to watch on screen: more so than minutiae of music lore. I’ve seen that in music documentaries, I wanted to do something different. There is a real lack of Arthur in this, and there’s no way around that, so it becomes more about handling that absence, looking at how to tell the story through someone else. There’s a real scarcity and absence, which makes the traces even more special.

DD: There’s something ghostly about that absence.
MW: Yeah! There’s something about seeing him on film or in pictures: he’s always looking away, never looking straight at the camera. Or we do these evocative shots in the film with actors in Arthur’s actual clothes.

DD: Is there a connection between your creative process and Arthur’s?
MW: These may be a little esoteric, but my attitude towards filmmaking is to think of the threads of the process, almost like when you’re braiding: obviously sound and image, but with say image, there’s the visual system that’s all VHS, the archival system, the interview system, and so on – and they have to all work in balance. That’s how I think about filmmaking, and I think there are a lot of similarities in music. I was thinking about the process of producing a song and the artistry of producing a song, I really start to understand the stratification of sounds you hear in a complex song… really listening to the actual sound of a song, with lyrics and language as a separate system to the beat and the cello and the effects, and seeing how Arthur braids these parts together.

DD: I actually found the landscape shots some of the most moving parts.  What was it like shooting these shots?
MW: Oh, that was really fun! When we shot the cornfield, we strapped a camera onto the side of a car we rented and drove through cornfields, and drove and drove and drove. We got pulled over by the police – it was homeland security thinking we were terrorists – but that’s America for you. It was really beautiful. When you’re not from the Midwest, as I’m not, you have this clichéd picture of what the Midwest looks like and its true: it’s so flat and you can’t see anything – it just goes on and on and on. I wanted this contrast between this deep ocean space and this wide, endless sky and corn. I remember we were in Iowa in this motel in the back of a Walmart, just listening to Arthur’s music with these shots on loop, feeling so pleased. It felt meditative, just seeing the landscape move.

Wild Combination is on at the ICA until 19 October, and out on DVD on Plexi on November 3. Rough Trade are releasing a CD full of Arthur’s lesser-know folk music called Love Is Overtaking Me on the 27th October.