Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell Dec. 5 & 19 at MoMA
Arthur Russell lived in a New York as artistically wide open as the Iowa prairies from which he fled as a young adult. Finding himself as an artist in the heart of the 1970s and 80s downtown arts and club scene, Russell still managed to remain displaced from his contemporaries anxieties, spending his prolific career concerned solely with the reverb in his own head before it was cut short.
Following the Beat Generation to the Lower East Side and Greenwich Village of the mid-70s, Russell experimented with communes before finding his community alongside Allen Ginsberg, Philip Glass, David Mancuso and so many more. And with his music – cello-anchored, often drum machine-buoyed and always gently compelling – he embodied the best of these experiences, bringing together individual talents that lent rather than bent their personalities to his purposes prior to his passing in 1992.
The documentary Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, which has a couple more MoMA screenings (Dec. 5 & 19) and is available on DVD, attempts to show Russells progressionintimate details amid broad strokes. Composed by Matt Wolf, this series of archival sketches (some real, some recreations) nods to all Russells facetsminimalism, disco mantras and pop ensembleswithout treating them like separate subjects. As a director at the performance art space The Kitchen or premiering records at the pioneering mutant disco Loft parties, Russell took a special-of-the-day approach. He worked with North Indian drones and electro drum machines, put effects-slathered cellos to congas and composed R&B while a blender ran blissfully in the background. He released music under not only his own name, but also Loose Joints, Dinosaur L, Indian Ocean and Killer Whale, among others. He had equal folky and funky sides, as can be further heard on CDs such as Calling Out of Context, World of Echo and Love Is Overtaking Me. The only thing Russell lacked was any hint of militancy.
Where Wild Combination speaks loudest is in its quiet moments. The film concentrates on the process, not the results, calling out Russell on his self-defeating perfectionism as well as celebrating it. Family and friends reminisce about the times they saw Russell (or Chuck Junior to his parents) performing magic shows to no one, or taking solitary rides on the Staten Island Ferry with a tape deck. There is rarely more than one focus in the frame, and solace is found in the fields of grainwhether literal or from vintage film stock. Throughout the film, the homage to Russells music always runs parallel to a more personal resonance. Quiet rebellions, dangerous flirtations (with both pop success and physical expression) and heartfelt resolutions are shown in the shadow of social as well as artistic experimentation, and strike equal chords. The greatest work of Russells left unfinished was himself. But his parents, boyfriend and contemporaries recognize that healing was always integral to Russells work, and the tapes and tapes of work he left behind offer salve and salvation. In balancing moments of frustrated focus and wide-slung wonderment, Wild Combination succeeds as both an introduction and a testament the artist.