Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell

David Noriega

Reviews / 06.01.2009
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All images of Arthur Russell courtesy of Audika Records

Wild Combination is director Matt Wolf's self-described filmic 'portrait' of Arthur Russell, the cellist, composer and songwriter whose music - which traversed the spectrum from minimalist avant-garde to disco - has recently provoked a frenzy of interest and praise after a lifetime of obscurity. The film lands somewhere in between biographical documentary and expressionistic rendition of Russell's music; talking-head testimonials from friends, family and collaborators are interspersed with evocative landscape shots and archival footage. The end result is engrossing and, on occasion, poignant.

Russell grew up in Oskaloosa, Iowa, before running away from home in his teens. In San Francisco, he changed his name from Charles to Arthur and joined a Buddhist commune. In 1973 he moved to New York, where he became deeply embedded in the legendary downtown art scene of the 1970s and 1980s. There he obsessively proceeded to create a large, inchoate and dizzyingly variegated body of work until his death from AIDS in 1992. Such a life is well stocked with the stuff of narrative pleasure and pathos, and Wild Combination indulges the viewer with just the right amount of these things. Russell's father, verging on tears, describes hitting his son after finding weed paraphernalia in his room; Allen Ginsberg, a good friend and collaborator, tells us (by way of archival footage) that Arthur ignored his duties at the San Francisco commune because he was perpetually holed up in the seminary playing his cello. When the setting shifts to downtown Manhattan, the film pauses long enough to give a detailed panorama of a thrilling cultural moment rife with down and out bohos, cheap rent, heady performance art and bacchanalian dance parties. Here Russell was, for a time, artistic director of the vanguard performance space The Kitchen, and communed with the likes of Rhys Chatham and Philip Glass (who appears as one of the film's most entertaining and informative interviewees). Finally, we are confronted with the tragedy of Russell's illness and death, made especially poignant by the intimate, honest testimony of Tom Lee, his longtime lover and confidante.

Wild Combination's overall success lies in its ability to retain Russell's music at the heart of his biography. Wolf thoroughly canvasses Russell's extensive and mind-bogglingly diverse catalogue, which includes, among other things, avant-garde orchestral compositions, underground disco hits (songs like "Is It All Over My Face" and "Go Bang," which earned the artist his few moments of commercial success), and a number of solo cello and voice recordings that evade categorization. Throughout the film Wolf deploys the simple but satisfying tactic of matching the music with some cleverly chosen visual component. To wit, a selection from Instrumentals - a series of playful and pop-sensible, yet unconventional, compositions from early in Russell's New York career - is accompanied by old black and white cartoon footage of eerily anthropomorphized flowers and trees prancing hypnotically across the screen.

Indeed, one of the film's greatest joys is that it compounds the synaesthetic impressions already facilitated by Russell's songs, which, in a natural reversal of Goethe's famous definition of architecture as frozen music, encourage a perception of sound as fluid space. This is particularly true of Russell's solo recordings, which reached their zenith with the 1986 album World of Echo, and which the film makes clear were the products of Russell's most solitary and impassioned work. They also give Wolf the opportunity to delve into Russell's most charming idiosyncrasies, such as composing all day long with the blender on.

These are beautifully fragile songs, interweaving plangent vocal melodies with spare cello parts played through delicately applied electronic filters. It's not hard to imagine the cello's deep bass notes as the gentle tectonic movements of a soft but sturdy ground, its scraping treble notes and shards of feedback as jet streams in an enormous Midwestern sky. Russell's unaffected singing hovers tenuously between the two realms, an interplay of echo and silence that suggests fragmented enclosures - the skeletal silhouettes of farm machinery, perhaps. Russell's music is the boundlessness of an Iowa cornfield paradoxically contained within the reverberating space of a New York City loft. Thanks to Wolf's visual overtures (which include numerous shots of cornfields), it is also a smattering of city lights as seen across a river, or an unraveling cassette tape floating underwater, or simply colors shimmering in an empty space.

In many ways Wild Combination cannot help but be deeply nostalgic. On the simplest level, as expressed by Russell's loved ones, it is nostalgic for a time when the man was still alive and making music. But the film also yearns for a time when downtown Manhattan was a haven for authentically bohemian and adventurous artists, poets and musicians; and even for a time when hearing a piece of recorded music meant knowing that, somewhere in the room, part of a simple machine was reassuringly spinning. (Abstract close-ups of rotating records and tapes are, indeed, one of Wolf's favorite visual motifs.) There is a question implicit in the film's wistful approach: Why did it take so long for Arthur Russell's music to reach a larger audience? In other words, why now and not then?

Typically, narratives of under-appreciated genius hinge on a volatile or reclusive artist whose nature alienates him from the practices and institutions of his field - one who has, say, a profound aversion to live performance or an intense dislike for the gregarious schmoozing and self-promotion that so often drives success. Wild Combination makes clear that Russell, though certainly spacey and eccentric, was no maladjust working in self-imposed isolation. He collaborated with important artists of his time, had a natural gift for leadership and mediation, and relished his active position within a defined artistic community. What's more, this community was the birthplace for much of the music that, by the end of the 20th century, had been either explosively commodified in popular culture (punk rock, hip-hop) or canonized in the avant-garde (minimalism).

Wild Combination offers a few possible answers to this question. There is Russell's obsessive perfectionism, which kept him from completing most of his projects. There is also the dogged multiplicity pointed out by the musician and critic David Toop: Whereas most members of the downtown music scene had well-defined signature styles, Russell hopped from genre to genre, unwilling to settle for either cerebral experimentalism or pop accessibility. Most artists who succeed, commercially or critically, in combining the experimental with the conventional do so by situating themselves solidly on either end of the spectrum and picking, gingerly and methodically, from the other, thus slightly expanding the common conception of what constitutes "pop" or "avant-garde." The Talking Heads (with whom Russell played on several occasions) were a pop band that took cues from the avant-garde; Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca were avant-garde composers that borrowed elements (i.e., electric guitars) from rock music. Russell was incapable of such selective and repetitive appropriation for the simple reason that he could not sit still. I imagine him continually subsumed in what Brian Eno called "idiot glee,"1 an almost trancelike state of passionate playfulness, writing an album of country songs, then arranging a piece for chamber ensemble, then seeing if he could tap the mass market by making people dance (a ritual in which he himself never partook). In all of these endeavors Russell was too liberal with his blending. More than arranging casual encounters between genres, he thoroughly crossbred them: His pop songs were too weird and his weird pieces were too poppy.

At one point in Wild Combination, Philip Glass pays Russell a great musical compliment: "People who become an artist on an instrument - the instrument becomes bent to their needs and their expression. And that's what he did." What follows is footage of Russell playing live, alone with his cello. In seeing this performance it's not hard to imagine that, had we been there, we wouldn't have known quite what to make of it. First of all, Russell looks different - bearded and longhaired, not the clean-cut Iowan people knew. Then there's the song. It starts out as a mildly discordant drone, Russell chanting "Eli" over a sustained chord. But soon a plaintive, folk-like melody emerges. "Eli," as it turns out, is the name of a dog that nobody likes.

Here is Russell in all his contradictions: An earnest Midwesterner, a West Coast Buddhist, a natural New Yorker; a restless experimenter who explored the natural boundaries of his voice and instrument, but also a songwriter of great and moving simplicity. Wild Combination leaves us with the feeling that Russell was a tricky figure to pin down. Each of the film's interviewees understands him differently. To his parents he is Chucky, a troubled adolescent with overambitious reading habits; to Ginsberg he is a Buddhist bubblegum poet; to Lee he is "the guy I wanted to be sitting on the couch with." Somehow he even manages to be, in the words of disco diva Lola Love, "the funkiest white boy I ever met." It is in this sense that Wild Combination succeeds as a portrait rather than a simple biography. Like any good portrait it casts its light with affectionate restraint, enough to reveal its subject's complexity, but not enough to rob it of its mystery.

- David Noriega

Footnotes
  1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rm36ZxJboUI (last accessed on 17th December 2008).