Matt Wolf is a New York filmmaker whose documentaries focus on music, teenagers, and artists who he describes as gentle gays. He made the film Wild Combination (2008) about the avant-garde cellist and disco producer, Arthur Russell (whose music is used in Keep The Lights On). Currently, Wolf is working on Teenage, a documentary about the invention of youth. While working on Teenage, Wolf created a short film, “I Remember: A Film About Joe Brainard”, where he pays tribute to one of his favorite artists and writers, Joe Brainard. Like Arthur Russell, Brainard’s life ended prematurely due to AIDS.
Joe Brainard was a gay man raised in Oklahoma. He only lived to be 52 years old before dying of an AIDS related illness, but he produced an astonishing amount and variety of work throughout his life—ranging from set designs, poetry, collages, drawings, paintings, miniatures, and more. His work is in permanent collections at MoMA, the Met, The Whitney, and museums all over America.
Matt Wolf’s short focuses on Brainard’s forty-page poem, “I Remember”. “I Remember: A Film About Joe Brainard” will be showing at BAMcinemaFest on June 30th at 4:30pm.
We got to ask Matt Wolf some questions about his newest film.
Why did you make a film about Joe Brainard? Why did you choose to focus on his poem, “I Remember”?
You could say Joe Brainard is part of a school of “gentle gays.” I also made a film about the musician Arthur Russell—he’s in that gentle gay camp, too. Joe wrote a poem called “I Remember,” which is a list of hundreds of beautiful, mundane, funny, and very universal memories. It’s really one of my favorite pieces of writing ever, and when I found some archival recordings of Joe reading the poem, I knew I had to do something with them…The poem “I Remember is an unconventional autobiography, and after hearing recordings of it, I realized that it could also be the basis for an unconventional biographical film about Joe.
Other than Brainard, what is the film about?
After deciding I wanted to make something about Joe I met his best friend Ron Padgett, also an acclaimed poet. I was really inspired by him, and
“I Remember: A Film about Joe Brainard” is more of a fluid narrative about Brainard rather than a traditional documentary. How do you see this film in the context of documentary?
I was trying to create this conversation between Joe’s poem and Ron’s memories of Joe. So the audio editing in the film jumps around quite a bit, between archival and contemporary sources, their different voices, periods, and more generally between personal sentiments and universal memories. I wanted the film to have a free associative structure and feeling not unlike the poem itself. And I also didn’t want to interrupt the flow of imagery and memories with talking head interviews or text, so the film is basically an archival collage—of found footage, 8mm films of Joe, and numerous photos of Joe and his art.
By allowing Ron Padgett to portray Joe, Joe’s life and death became more personal for me, especially his struggle with and death from HIV. What was it like collaborating with Padgett?
Ron is an amazing guy, he really inspired me. His dedication to Joe’s memory is very touching. He also has vivid memories of their friendship from early childhood all the way up through Joe’s death. It’s rare to have friendships that span an entire lifetime. Ron made me think about my own friendships, and how important they are to me. We all deserve (and hopefully have) a friend as caring and cool as Ron.
What was your approach to Brainard’s HIV? What role did you want it to have in the short film?
I think it’s important to discuss the generation of artists who died of AIDS in the early 1990s. What would our world be like if all these incredible artists—from Arthur Russell to David Wojnaorwicz to Joe Brainard—and hundreds, or thousands of others were still alive making art? I’ve always been in touch with that sense of loss. At the same time, Joe’s story isn’t just a story about death.
What kind of audience did you make this film for?
When you make feature films you really have to think about that, and nowadays you have to make efforts to cultivate that audience too. However, I’d say this film is something I did for personal reasons. It was a creative outlet for me in the middle of a very long-term project. But I also know others in the world love Joe Brainard and would love to see this material presented in a creative way. So the film is for anybody who ever fell in love with Joe’s work, and for those who will hopefully discover Joe and his particular magic.
“I Remember: A Film About Joe Brainard” will be showing at BAM among several other “All—City Shorts”, focused on or set in NYC. Check out Matt’s film on June 30th at 4:30pm.