Let’s Get Personal

[cross-posted on Extra Criticum]

I’ve been thinking about two documentaries: Scott Walker: 30th Century Man and Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell. I loved Wild Combination and was luke-warm about 30th Century Man and there are numerous reasons why I responded the way I did to both, but as I think on the films it occurs to me that those involved with the Scott Walker film didn’t get close to him, while those involved with Wild Combination let us get very close to Russell. The titles, both referencing a song by the artist, should be a tip off: Is Scott Walker from the future and therefore unknowable to us 21st Century folks? Apparently so. “Wild Combination” is much more suggestive of what we’ll see: Russell the avant-garde composer and the producer of disco hits, the musician who lived and worked in New York City’s obscure bohemia but wanted to be as famous as Mick Jagger, the shy and awkward man who was uncomfortable in his skin but was forceful and uncompromising in his art.

I don’t know what level of cooperation each filmmaker had with the relevant parties. It’s very possible Walker didn’t want to talk about his private life; he is, after all, a recluse. He talks a little bit about an “imbibing” problem, but mostly we see heavy hitters (Bowie, Eno, Goldfrapp, one of the Cocteau Twins dudes and more) responding to Walker’s songs and touting his brilliance. Wild Combination spends a lot time with Russell’s parents, his partner, his friends and his colleagues. Russell’s insecure adolescence is covered, his burgeoning interest in music, his work habits, his drug habits, his sexual habits. Hearing all this we begin to understand not only this man, but his time and his milieu (mostly 1980s, Lower East Side, NYC). Simply put, it is, as the title says, a portrait. And the visuals are gorgeous and evocative.

Neither Walker’s nor Russell’s “serious” work is very accessible, but in understanding an artist, we better understand his or her work. So it is that Walker and his work remain an enigma, where as Russell and his work seems warmer, more human.

I think about these films a lot in relation to the documentary. In presskits and grant proposals I’m very quick to say “the film is not series of biographies,” and yet without some personal detail and history, we don’t know who these people are, why they do what they do, and why we should care about them. It’s a lesson I keep reminding myself. Scott Walker, I hardly know you and I’m okay with that. Arthur Russell, I wish we could spend more time together.

Below are the trailers for both films.

You! Yeah, you! Have you seen these films? What do you think?