CONVERSATIONS Mousse 40
Dreaming Documentary: Matt Wolf
by Stuart Comer
Until the end of World War II the term “teenager” did not exist, and neither did the concept of an age of transition. Matt Wolf, one of the most highly acclaimed young filmmakers in independent cinema, explores this theme in Teenage, taking his cue from the book of the same title by John Savage. Stuart Comer has a long discussion with Wolf about this latest effort and some of his biographical portraits, like that of Arthur Russell, Wild Combination, and that of Joe Brainard, I Remember, as well as his general interest in the generation (prior to his own) of activist artists, musicians and filmmakers in the battle against AIDS.
STUART COMER: Matt, you’ve recently emerged from making a body of intimate documentaries focused on individuals – usually queer men with an “outsider,” contrarian bent, like Arthur Russell, David Wojnarowicz and Joe Brainard. Then you directed Teenage, which takes on the massive cultural and demographic shifts of youth culture during the 20th century. How did you become interested in developing a film from Jon Savage’s book, Teenage? This new film is less of a conversation between you and the ghosts of your heroes; instead, it takes on a much broader and arguably less “underground” cross-section of the recent past.
MATT WOLF: I think for a long time I was searching for a kind of role model. I wanted to figure out how to be an artist, how to be queer, and political in a meaningful way. In high school I published an underground newspaper, and in our first issues I came out as gay. I started a Gay-Straight Alliance club, and then I met other queer teenagers from the Bay Area. We were lobbying for anti-discrimination laws that would protect us in school. I spent most of my time on the weekends alone, going to the local independent movie theater. I was also discovering what’s now called the “new queer cinema” at my local Blockbuster video store, which miraculously stocked Derek Jarman and Todd Haynes titles. The public library had Kenneth Anger and Maya Deren compilations too. So while entrenched in activism, I was also imagining a life as an independent filmmaker. It was around this time that I first discovered David Wojnarowicz on the Internet, by using the search terms “gay art.” In a sense, through David I discovered a viable intersection between politics and art. I fell in love with his series Rimbaud in New York, which is a kind of biographical fantasy about the French symbolist poet, and a meditation on generational inheritance. Years later I met the British artist and film curator Ian White in New York, when I was still in film school. Ian was doing research at NYU’s Fales Library, which holds David Wojnarowicz’s papers in the incredible Downtown Collection. He was organizing a Wojnarowicz film program in London, and he encouraged me to explore the archive. It was there that I handled David’s personal possessions, photographs, even the actual mask he used in those Rimbaud images. It felt very profound to me, and I developed a kind of obsession with archival material and ephemera. In college I made an experimental biography of David Wojnarowicz. It was really by accident, but I realized that biography comes naturally to me. It’s a form in which I can express personal ideas and feelings, while also creating cultural histories. Shortly after graduating from college, a friend told me about Arthur Russell—this avant-garde cellist and disco producer, who created “transcendent pop.” I was transfixed by this image of Arthur obsessively listening to mixes of his own music, while riding the Staten Island Ferry. In my film about Arthur, Wild Combination, I got hold of his actual clothing from his partner Tom Lee. I found an actor who kind of reminded me of Arthur, and I filmed him with an old VHS camcorder, dressed up in Arthur’s actual clothes, listening to a Walkman on the ferry. I didn’t fully realize it then, but I was creating my own “fake archival” footage. I felt that I didn’t really have a choice because there’s almost no true footage of Arthur from his lifetime. In a sense, he’s an absent subject.
I remember when I was editing Wild Combination I thought to myself: how can this film analyze culture in a larger way? I wanted to do that, but I wondered if this film could only analyze the interior world of one strange and special individual. In retrospect, I realized that these biographies are uncovering a significant hidden history—the lives and work of a generation of artists lost to AIDS. Without the growing body of written and filmed biographies, their legacies might be lost. Arthur Russell had a lot of different creative personas. Under his own name he created avant-garde, serialist compositions, soulful folk music, ethereal pop songs, and under various monikers (Dinosaur L, Loose Joints) he created groundbreaking dance music in the disco milieu. The thing I learned from Arthur is that most artists are a variety of people, not just one fixed character. We’re not necessarily encouraged to explore all of the different sides of ourselves, but I think we should. I embraced that notion when I started to make Teenage. I wanted to explore a different side of my intellectual, emotional, and political interests. I wanted to speak in a different language, but with some familiar vocabulary. Before reading Teenage I related to Jon Savage as a kind of role model too. I was a fan of his book England’s Dreaming, which is really the definitive history of punk rock in England. Jon’s a kind of romantic cultural historian. His work has a certain rigor that situates music in a larger cultural context, but he is decidedly non-academic. He’s a storyteller. His book Teenage was a departure for him as well because it doesn’t just deal with music, but also with global history and the broader genesis of youth culture. It shows how our modern notion of teenagers was born in the early 20th century. I loved how Jon’s punk perspective colored his depiction of history. I also loved that his book was littered with tons of fascinating biographies of forgotten adolescent figures from the period. When I was reading Teenage I thought, there are twenty films in here. But what if I wrangled the material into one work? What if I made a historical film that re-imagined the genre in a punk way?
At first I didn’t know what that meant, and it seemed nearly impossible to me. The sheer volume of archival material, the international scope of four decades of history was intimidating to say the least. I didn’t want to organize the material with a central, authoritative narrator, and I didn’t want to make an academic, conventional television documentary. That formal challenge appealed to me. I didn’t know how to do it, and so I felt like I needed to try. But I realized that I could enter this history in a familiar way: through biography. So the film is a panoramic cultural history, but it is also a series of four portraits—a party-crazed Bright Young Thing named Brenda Dean Paul; Melita Maschmann, an idealistic Hitler Youth; a proto-punk German swing kid named Tommie Scheel; and Warren Wall, an African-American Boy Scout. Like Arthur Russell, David Wojnarowicz or Joe Brainard, their stories are hidden histories. And to me, these figures are all “underground” in their own way. Once again, I found myself using “fake archival” material to create their portraits. I had no choice—there was no existing archival footage, there were no photographs. They’re absent subjects, but their vivid stories begged to be told. They create a composite portrait of the teenager that was emerging at the end of World War II. In all of these films I find myself tracing footsteps. I guess it’s not unlike David Wojnarowciz, who probably imagined himself to be a latter-day Rimbaud, traversing an apocalyptic Manhattan geography. At various moments, I’ve felt like I’m inhabiting Arthur, or David, or Melita, or Tommie.
SC: You are making these films at a moment, three decades after the advent of the initial AIDS epidemic, when the loss of a generation of artists becomes palpable and meaningful in new ways. Did you feel a need to connect with figures from a generation that “vanished,” whom you could not address or interview directly?
MW: The first time I really internalized the devastation of AIDS was during a screening of Derek Jarman’s Blue. I was at the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, this intensive documentary retreat, and I was sitting next to the film curator and writer Ed Halter, who would have a big impact on how I think about film. Jarman made Blue shortly before he died from AIDS-related complications, and after he lost his eyesight. It’s an aurally and psychically dense audio collage about mortality and art, and it’s illustrated with a constant stream of blue light. I remember looking over at Ed, and he was very emotional. Then I looked back at the blue screen, and I had a real sense of something profound that was invisible or vanishing. From that point on, I definitely felt compelled to understand that loss, but to also connect to the artists from this generation as peers. I absolutely fantasized about interviewing them, but I also became interested in knowing them through documents that they left behind.
SC: There have been several recent documentaries analyzing the AIDS epidemic and in particular the activist spirit it generated, like Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman’s United in Anger: A History of Act Up and David France’s How to Survive a Plague, but your approach to the documentary genre and to the use of archival images has taken a different tack. As a former activist, do you still locate these strategies in your work, or do you think your agenda has shifted?
MW: It’s interesting: when I was 18 and first living in New York, I joined the video activist collective Paper Tiger Television. Our motto was “overthrow the corporate media,” which seems viable today with the advent of YouTube, Twitter, and various livestream platforms. But there was a time when queer people were totally erased from the mainstream media. My favorite ACT UP action was the “CBS News Zap” on January 22, 1991, the night before the historic Day of Desperation. An activist somehow snuck onto the set of the CBS Evening News, and as Dan Rather was saying, ‘This is CBS Evening News… Dan Rather reporting,” he jumped in front of the camera for one second and screamed, “AIDS is News. Fight AIDS not Arabs,” before being pummeled by security. At that moment in history, AIDS activists literally had to raid the mainstream news to get coverage. When I was coming of age as an activist, we were the news. Matthew Shepard had been murdered, Ellen DeGeneres was coming out on her sitcom. I was actually the subject of several news pieces, including a spot called “Something to Believe in Our Youth.” It was a totally alienating experience, and made me not want to be an activist anymore. I didn’t feel radical… I felt like a palatable poster child. The recent documentaries you mention, which are culled from the footage of AIDS activist collectives, are historicizing the movement alongside other civil rights struggles. I think that’s really important. But perhaps because of my own personal alienation from gay politics, I’ve taken a much more subjective approach in my work. United in Anger features a huge array of interviews that encompass the diversity of activists who were part of ACT UP. Many have criticized How to Survive a Plague for claiming to be the definitive story of AIDS activism, because its central characters are white men, and the film inevitably sacrifices certain nuance to construct a dramatic narrative. I think both of these strategies—comprehensive and/or definitive modes of representation—have their rewards and their traps. Wild Combination will probably be the definitive film on Arthur Russell, but I certainly didn’t interview everyone he ever worked with, and the film doesn’t discuss every piece of music he ever recorded. That wouldn’t make for interesting art, but rather fan hagiography. I focused on Arthur’s relationship with his partner and his parents because they interested me. It makes for a more intimate film. Teenage certainly traffics in large political themes. It’s about young people struggling to be treated like equals. It follows seminal youth movements that led to the creation of a distinct class called “teenagers.” But I’ve created a very dreamlike film. The voiceover is in the first person, culled from actual teenage diaries, and there are no dates and labels on archival footage to identify the sources. The form of the film is perhaps as rebellious as the adolescent subjects it depicts. It’s no Ken Burns, and for that reason it will not be regarded as the definitive film on youth culture. But that wasn’t really my goal.
SC: You seem to have a knack for finding the ghosts in the wires, and to personalize the endless stream of images that are beginning to stand in for “public memory.” How do you think the Internet has changed the way artists—or at least how you—work with archival images and footage?
MW: Well, for one thing, it’s just much easier to find things. Years ago after reading Joe Brainard’s incredible poem I Remember I was searching the Internet for more information on his work. Within minutes I found vivid recordings of Joe reading the text on the website PennSound, and I got inspired to make a film. I ended up interviewing Brainard’s best friend, the poet Ron Padgett, and then combining our dialogue with the found recordings. The film sort of simulates a conversation between Ron and Joe, jumping between the past and the present. It’s about Joe, but it’s also more generally about creative friendships. So I like to really play with context to transform archival materials into new narratives. For Teenage I worked with about 100 archives from around the world. They sent me reels of footage and lightboxes of photographs via the Internet. There’s no way I could have sourced the volume and variety of material I use in the film without the Internet. There are pluses and minuses to this proliferation of archival imagery online. In a sense it’s led to the “tumblrification” of visual culture, where everyone is a curator of content that’s re-presented without any context. I definitely tread a thin line with context in my work, especially in Teenage. I’ve appropriated and re-contextualized a vast range of footage from newsreels, propaganda and feature films, and amateur home movies. A viewer would never know where this material originates—they have to trust the intellectual integrity of the film. I’ve done the same thing with the narration, which is based on hundreds of diary entries and written testimonies by adolescents. Jon Savage and I call this strategy “living collage.” In the 1970s, Jon saw punks taking thrift clothes from previous youth cultures like Zoot Suits and Rockers. They’d literally cut the garments up and reassemble them with safety pins into something startling and new. We’re doing this in Teenage—sampling clips, images and voices of youth from the past, and re-scrambling them into a work of contemporary non-fiction. I suppose it’s not unlike visual culture on blogs and social media today, however our goal was to create a comprehensive cultural history.
SC: Do you feel an affinity with an earlier generation of queer bricoleurs and cut-up strategists like William Burroughs and Brion Gysin? They still seem to resist easy categorization—were they artists, writers, painters, poets, sound experimentalists, filmmakers, performance artists? They were also formative figures for many pioneers of the punk movement. Your films are similarly hard to locate within a single given genre. They certainly are not conventional documentaries, nor are they straight-up experimental films, nor the kind of video work that tends to circulate in the gallery world. They seem to be geared towards a savvy viewership that is accustomed to navigating multiple fields of information and experience.
MW: That’s an interesting connection—there’s definitely an affinity between my interests and their work. I’ve never personally felt that emotional draw to either Burroughs or Gysin, but I revere their legacies. Maybe they’re too hardcore for me, not gentle enough. But I totally identify with their genre promiscuity. In a sense, my goal has always been to engage a lot of different audiences in a variety of contexts—arthouse and independent film people, the art world, music and queer scenes, and even on television. Professionally speaking, I work within the film industry. It’s how I get funding, and it’s where I seek the broadest distribution for my films. But I work with a lot of actors—in re-creations and for scripted voiceover, so I’m not exactly a perfect fit in the documentary circuit, where content rather than form is usually king. The things we’re talking about here, even the language we’re using, isn’t the typical discourse of film… It’s more the domain of art, where I probably feel the most comfortable. I suppose I identify as an artist above all else. Nonetheless, I don’t have a studio practice, and my films should be viewed as self-contained things that are watched from beginning to end because they’re narratives. It kind of brings me back to Arthur Russell because he was the same way. He flirted with commercial viability in dance music. He could have had a career as an avant-garde composer like Philip Glass. Or, as evidenced by the intense resurgence of interest in his music, he could have found acclaim in indie music during the ‘90s and beyond. Being all of those things is what makes him interesting, but it’s also probably why a certain level of success eluded him. In a sense the value of his work deepens when you look at its breadth, and I think that’s typical of “artists,” regardless of their medium. I’m really interested in taking 180-degree turns in my work, and trying out completely different forms for each major project. My hope is that it’ll feel like a continuous line of thought in the end.
SC: You and I share a fascination with Lance Loud, the son in An American Family, the early ‘70s PBS documentary series frequently referred to as the first reality television show. When Alan and Susan Raymond first started shooting the series, Lance had just left his upper middle class, suburban Santa Barbara youth behind. He was living in Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel and dove straight into the heart of the New York demimonde of Andy Warhol, Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn. After becoming arguably the first openly gay person on television, he was transformed into an accidental and wonderfully eccentric gay icon in the media. Lance, who died from HIV and hepatitis C co-infection, was born the same year as Arthur Russell (1951). He was three years older than Wojnarowicz and a decade younger than Joe Brainard. I wonder if it could be interesting to think about Lance in terms of the shift in your work from a generation of brilliant artists ravaged by disease and the four portraits in Teenage, who are not conventional cultural icons, but who create exciting possibilities when drawn out of the shadows and into a public sphere that has never been more public.
MW: I’m completely obsessed with Lance Loud. Episode 2 of An American Family, in which the mother, Pat Loud, visits Lance at the Chelsea Hotel, is my favorite documentary ever made. To me, it’s the most fascinating collision of “the underground” and “the mainstream.” You know how sometimes you feel so deeply inspired by something that so clearly relates to all of your interests, but you still can’t exactly explain why? I feel that way about Lance. He is at once so contemporary, and also such a magical relic from another time. Somebody recently asked me, “If you could film any moment in history what would it be?” I was racking my brain, totally stumped by this fascinating question. But the thing that came to mind was Lance in the Chelsea. Later in episode 2 he’s walking through Central Park with Pat, awkwardly talking about their relationship. Lance says, ‘There was always something in me that I didn’t really understand. I couldn’t judge myself by the standards that were given to me because, I mean, they just didn’t fit.” That’s every character I’ll make a film about. That’s where I want to be.
Originally published on Mousse 40 (October-November 2013)