See the below information about the Viewing Positions film screening this week:
A Portrait of Arthur Russell by Matt Wolf
Wednesday, March 18, 2009, 9pm
16.5 South Main St.
Black doors to the right of Subway
Oberlin, OH 44074
Disco-not-disco NYC genius Arthur Russell’s legend comes to Oberlin
OBERLIN, Ohio – Please join Pioneer Species and Viewing Positions: Contemporary Cinema in Context in screening filmmaker Matt Wolf’s stunning documentary Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell. Official selection at both the Berlin and Edinburgh Film Festivals, Wild Combination attempts to tell the story of avant-genius Arthur Russell, yet another AIDS victim whose work and mind have been lauded posthumously as something out of this world.
WILD COMBIANTION begins in the bucolic landscape of Oskaloosa, Iowa. Chuck and Emily Russell remember their precocious son Arthur’s early inspirations. As a teenager in the 1960s, Arthur was obsessed with Timothy Leary, John Cage, and Beat poetry. Clashing with his parents’ Midwestern conventionalism and inspired by these figures’ counter-cultural imaginations, Arthur ran away from home. He joined a Buddhist commune in San Francisco, and he met his lifelong mentor and collaborator, Allen Ginsberg. Allen described Arthur as “delicate, exquisite-minded, youthful, and at the same time oddly reticent.” The two collaborated on a number of recordings. But when the commune tried to take away Arthur’s cello, forcing him to secretly play in a closet, he followed his greater musical ambition, and he joined Ginsberg in New York.
Arthur began working with Philip Glass and other composers in the avant-garde music world, specifically at The Kitchen, where he became musical director in 1974. He composed melodic orchestral music and absorbed the vanguard ideas of the new music scene. Simultaneously Arthur discovered the liberating social and aesthetic possibilities of underground discos. Under the guise of various monikers—Dinosaur L, Loose Joints, Indian Ocean—Arthur produced playful and eccentric disco records that became hits of the pre-Studio 54 era.
The rules and codes of established genre didn’t apply to Arthur. The serialized patterns of minimalist symphonies resonated with the repetitive rhythms in dance music. Likewise, the utopian social settings of the early discos were like the Buddhist commune Arthur had once known. With childlike innocence and fun, Arthur ambitiously explored all of these possibilities.
He fell in love with his boyfriend Tom Lee, and the two moved in together in the East Village, next door to Allen in a building populated by poets, musicians, and artists.
But despite Arthur’s musical talent and ambition, he was often tempered by self-defeating career choices and alienating perfectionism. It seemed that Arthur was creating a kind of utopia, where the absorbing process of making music was his life. Finishing his work was a secondary concern. Collaborators moved on to new projects, career opportunities passed, and Arthur began working alone in his apartment. What resulted was perhaps his most fully realized body of work, “World of Echo.” These transcendent solo cello-and-voice songs were like intimate diaries that fit somewhere between lullabies and art songs.
It seemed that popular success was within Arthur’s reach: He believed these diverse musical projects would reach a wider audience. But the devastation of AIDS cut Arthur’s career short. When Arthur died, he was puzzlingly lost in obscurity. His 1992 obituary in the Village Voice read, “Arthur’s songs were so personal that it seems as though he simply vanished into his music.”
But now fifteen years after Arthur’s death, his music is being rediscovered. In the past five years, Arthur has developed a significant, international following. A new generation has discovered Arthur.
With a visually experimental form, WILD COMBINATION brings to life Arthur’s descriptively rich and emotionally direct music. The film explores the compelling cultural history of New York in the 1970s and ‘80s, the experience of being gay and confronting AIDS, and the cathartic process of making art and pursuing popular success at a time when those goals were mutually attainable. Intimate interviews with Arthur’s family and collaborators, rare archival materials, and an engrossing visual language bring his music to life and give long overdue attention to this ground-breaking artist.
ABOUT PIONEER SPECIES:
Pioneer Species is a micro-cinema screening alternative, independent, and experimental media every Wednesday night at various locations in Oberlin, Ohio. Often, visiting artists and curators will be present to introduce their programs. The micro-cinema is managed by students of the Oberlin College CINE 323: Exhibition Practices in the Media Arts course.
ABOUT VIEWING POSITIONS:
Viewing Positions: Contemporary Cinema in Context is a series of screenings and discussions that explore a variety of approaches to film and media practice today. Presented by the Cinema Studies Program at Oberlin College, with support from the Blanchard Fund. All events are free and open to the public. Organized in collaboration with the students of CINE 323: Exhibition Practices in the Media Arts.
Before I even heard Arthur’s music, I was intrigued. My friend described a long forgotten gay disco auteur in a farmer’s plaid shirt, obsessively listening to mixes of his own music on the Staten Island Ferry. That image alone was enough, but when I heard the emotional intensity and the complex beauty in Arthur’s music, I was obsessed.
Coming from an experimental filmmaking background, my first instinct was to expressionistically render Arthur’s music —on the Staten Island Ferry, by the West Side Piers, or in cornfields.
I found an address for Arthur’s former partner Tom Lee online and I wrote him, requesting permission to possibly use Arthur’s music in an experimental film.
Months later, Tom called and I went to meet him in the same East Village apartment that he shared with Arthur, where Allen Ginsberg once lived next door. I was so inspired by Tom—his openness, generosity, and the connection he still feels to Arthur—that it occurred to me that this film could be much larger than I initially imagined.
As I spoke to Ernie Brooks, Steven Hall, Arthur’s parents and many others, I recognized the need for a biographical film, which would explore the legendary cultural history Arthur was a part of as well as the emotional and personal stories imbued in so many of his songs.
Rather than producing an encyclopedic or definitive film that reconstructs Arthur’s entire musical trajectory, I chose to make a portrait. I retraced Arthur’s footsteps on the Staten Island Ferry and I ran through cornfields with a VHS camera. I interviewed Tom Lee in the small apartment where Arthur once obsessively worked and I met Chuck and Emily Russell in Arthur’s idyllic childhood home. These experiences helped me imagine Arthur’s point of view and enabled me to form a deeper interpretation of his music.
In the process of making the movie, I learned things from Arthur about being an artist and pursuing it at all costs. Arthur struggled: he created obstacles for himself and he frustrated his collaborators and loved ones. But I think, unlike many other people, Arthur was able to connect to a primal place of childlike innocence and fun. I love going there with him.
WILD COMBINATION is co-presented by Pioneer Species and Viewing Positions: Contemporary Cinema in Context with support from the Cinema Studies Program at Oberlin College and the Blanchard Fund. These entities are working together to bring a greater diversity of alternative, independent, and experimental media to the community of Oberlin, with the goal of creating a broader awareness of non-mainstream media and media making. Watch for further updates and events!
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