Movies in Brief: 'Wild Combination'
By STEVE DOLLAR | September 26, 2008
Anyone who mythologizes the glory days of East Village bohemia will
watch Matt Wolf's "Wild Combination," which opens Friday at IFC
Center, with a frog in his throat. Sympathetic enough to count as a
fan's hagiography, this modestly mounted documentary details the
life, death, and artistic evolution of Arthur Russell, one of the
most remarkable figures to emerge from the downtown New York music
scene of the 1970s.
An Iowa farm boy turned avant-everything cello player, Russell
(1952-92) was a child of the corn whose impulsive teenage escape to
San Francisco landed him in hippie Buddhist communes and on a
recording session with Allen Ginsberg, who featured the musician on
his 1971 "First Blues" album. Later, Russell would move into
Ginsberg's apartment building on East 12th Street and continue
writing hundreds of songs, articulating his passions in a keening,
emotionally nuanced voice and experimenting with percussive loops and
electronic effects that transported his compositions beyond genre.
Russell, whose severe acne and burgeoning homosexuality marked him as
an outsider in the Midwest, blossomed in the polymorphously perverse
Manhattan of the 1970s. He befriended seemingly everyone, including
David Byrne and Philip Glass, with whom he collaborated, and was the
musical director of the Kitchen back when SoHo was an artist's free
zone and not an outlet mall. As Mr. Wolf recounts through interviews,
sound recordings, and grainy archival video footage, Russell was not
only prodigal but prolific. He embraced the nascent disco movement,
creating revolutionary dance tracks, and may have been the first East
Villager to sport a trucker cap because, well, he was from Iowa.
Those rural roots are emphasized in poignant conversations with
Russell's elderly parents, for whom his homosexuality came as a
shock. But they accepted their son's death at age 40 from AIDS with
surprising grace, welcoming Russell's lover into their lives.
If "Wild Combination" never really manages to give us a complete
portrait of Russell, it will whet appetites for his music, which is
remains as unique, and as contemporary, as ever.
The eclecticism of Arthur Russell
VIFF PREVIEW / Gay, Buddhist and a Midwesterner with a downtown New
York farmboy sensibility
Allan MacInnis / Vancouver / Thursday, September 25, 2008
Arthur Russell was gay, a Buddhist, an underground disco producer, an
avant-garde cellist, a new music composer and a songwriter in the
downtown New York scene of the 1970s and '80s.
Largely unknown outside the city he died of AIDS in 1992 at age 40
his work is only recently receiving the attention it deserves. A
documentary in the Vancouver International Film Festival, Wild
Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, traces Russell's journey
from Iowa, where he grew up among tractors and cornfields, to San
Francisco circa 1967, to New York, where he worked alongside Allen
Ginsberg, Phillip Glass, Robert Wilson, the Talking Heads, and many others.
Xtra West spoke with Wild Combination director Matt Wolf about
Russell and the film a tender portrait of the musician and those
who loved him.
Matt Wolf first heard of Arthur Russell as a "long forgotten, HIV+
gay disco auteur" often seen listening to his own music on a Walkman
on the Staten Island Ferry.
"That description was really compelling to me. Then I got his music,
and became obsessively involved in it," Wolf recalls. "So I contacted
Tom Lee, Arthur's boyfriend from that period, and asked permission if
I could potentially use the music in some sort of project. At the
time, I thought it would be an experimental film," Wolf explains.
But when he met the "really sweet, generous and open" Lee, who was
still living, at that time, in the apartment that he had shared with
Arthur, Wolf felt that the project could be much larger than he
Wild Combination, though a first feature, is not Wolf's first project
to deal with HIV/ AIDS. Among his student works are the shorts I Feel
Love about so-called "gay serial killer" Andrew Cunanan, who
murdered Gianni Versace and others, allegedly out of rage at having
discovered he was HIV+ (which he wasn't) and Smalltown Boys named
after a Bronski Beat song prominently featured in the film Parting Glances.
Smalltown Boys, Wolf informs me, is, in part "a very untraditional
biography of David Wojnarowicz, this angry and powerful and prolific
gay activist," who died of AIDS the same year as Arthur Russell. Wolf
was 10 years old at that time, watching stories of AIDS on
television, but not really understanding "the intensity of what was
going on." He is now 26.
"As a gay person, I've been preoccupied by that time period and the
impact it had on our culture, and all of these powerful and
compelling people dying prematurely in the late '80s and early '90s
from HIV and AIDS," Wolf says.
Wild Combination unfolds without mention of AIDS or Russell's death
until 50 minutes in, yet by the time it comes around, most viewers
have long since guessed why Arthur is absent.
It's "yeah, he's a gay artist, a guy from the '90s that's your
assumption," Wolf notes.
The ease with which we go there, unbidden and how unsurprised we
are to hear Lee tell of Russell's diagnosis drives home for the
viewer how huge the impact of AIDS has been. But the strategy, Wolf
explains, was more about wanting to tell Russell's story in a linear fashion.
Wolf says there was discussion about introducing Russell's death at
the start of the film and then revisiting it later in the narrative.
But he says he knew from the get-go that he wanted the film to begin
in Oskaloosa with interviews with Arthur's parents, Charles and
The Russells obviously still feel great loss at the passing of their
son, while not entirely understanding his passions.
Emily Russell tells a rather sweet story of how she discovered that
her son was gay, and Charles recounts a conversation where he tries
to talk Arthur into coming home from the commune in San Francisco
(where he was meditating, meeting with Allen Ginsberg, and practicing
the cello) to work alongside him in the insurance business. Both
refer to him throughout by his childhood name, Charlie.
Still, Wolf tells me, he found them very worldly. "They possessed a
sort of wisdom and depth and curiosity that I think defies perhaps
our stereotypes and expectations of people who have lived in the
Midwest their entire lives."
Wolf attributes the warm reception his film is receiving to the
likelihood that many viewers "just fall in love with Chuck and Emily
and with Tom."
"That was the idea. I felt this kind of love for Arthur Russell; I
fell in love with his music and had a sense of idealization or love
for his relationship with Tom and his parents," Wolf adds. "I think
that the audience picks up on that feeling from me. It's in the film."
Wolf leaves news of Arthur's HIV diagnosis until close to the end to
increase the emotional impact, and in terms of narrative structure
to serve as a "way of helping Tom and the Russells unite," which he
wanted as the climax to the story.
"I felt like that would build most intensely out of Arthur's death,
and that it was most appropriate to bring that towards the end."
Wolf says he wanted to be particularly sensitive "in terms of
discussing Arthur acquiring HIV and Tom not being HIV+."
"It was my choice that that was Tom's story to tell, and I was going
to let Tom discuss it however he felt comfortable with it," Wolf
reveals. "Some people have said that the film could be more
hardnosed, in terms of investigating that infidelity in their
relationship, but I find that to be kind of moralizing and a weird
kinda 'hetero' suggestion," he contends.
In addition to rare archival footage of Russell, "fake archival
material" shot on 1980s technology, and uber-rare footage of the
underground disco scene in New York, Wolf uses several old
photographs of Russell to illustrate his documentary.
Russell often posed in plaid shirts and truckers' hats, an unusual
aesthetic for either the arts scene or the disco scene in New York in
the 1970s and 1980s.
"I think it was a conscious self-fashioning to be this kind of
downtown New York farmboy. He was wearing truckers' hats, plaid
shirts and Pumas before it was cool!" Wolf says with a laugh. "I
think Arthur's personal style is so the way people dress now. And he
made an amazing record that was unreleased, with songs all called 'Corn.'"
In fact, Wolf says, one of a series of previously unreleased Russell
recordings now finding its way onto CD, Love is Overtaking Me, is
replete with country and folksongs, and includes a lot of
corn-related imagery, too.
"I think there was this definite sense of pride in, and a knowing
preservation of, his Midwestern roots in his self-presentation," Wolf notes.
While there is a resurgence of interest in Arthur Russell among music
fans in general, Wolf ends by telling me that he hopes that Wild
Combination is "regarded as a queer film."
"I mean, the film appeals to straight people as well, but I love that
queer audiences are experiencing the film, and I think they do
respond to it in a more intense way than straight people."
VANCOUVER INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL.
A Portrait of Arthur Russell.
Sep 25, 12:15 pm.
Oct 1, noon.
Oct 4, 9 pm.
Empire Granville 7.