Wild Combination: a Portrait of Arthur Russell
Thursday August 18, 9:30 pm at the Metrograph:$15

It seems like the perfect moment to revisit this 2008 documentary about Arthur Russell, the eccentric experimental musician whose disco dance records are seeing a serious resurgence more than 20 years after his death– what with a sampled homage to Russell’s “Answers Me” on Kanye’s new oneLife of Pablo, and Eric Copeland’s “self-described Arthur Russell-influenced album” Black Bubblegum.

Wild Combination: a Portrait of Arthur Russell reflects on the late musician’s wide ranging talent as a classically-trained cellist, steeped in traditional Indian music, who had a knack for meditative dance tracks and even a bit of rock music under his belt from his time in a power pop group called the Necessaries.

It only seems appropriate that this intense revival of Russell’s influential output (which is finally bestowing on him the popular recognition he always deserved), some of it deeply personal, be accompanied by a closer look at the personal history that informed it.

As the film suggests, like most pioneering artists, Russell was way ahead of his time, wracked as he was by head-spacey anxieties and what seem to have been some self-inflicted troubles, and eventually a deadly illness. From stormy relationships to constant affairs, Russell’s intensely private tendencies to his professional rivalries, the documentary’s tale of his tempestuous personal life implies that his day-to-day was the polar opposite to Russell’s soothing, strange ambient dance tracks.

Though Russell was a prolific musician through-and through and a maker of tracks that didn’t (and probably never will) sound like anything else created by his contemporaries, some on-camera interviews suggest that he had trouble completing things.

At least one person interviewed for the doc points to drug use that apparently plunged Russell into a depressive isolation. As the interviewee puts it in the documentary: “He went from being a guy who was spaced-out naturally, then spaced-out out all the time because he was stoned all the time, then spaced-out because he was a genius, and then he became demented spaced-out.”

Of course, there’s always more than one side to the story, and documentarians generally feel that they need to construct a clearly defined narrative thrust to answer questions that the audience might have. That said, there are few things, if any, that people could potentially reveal about Russell’s character and life events that would put a dent in how we feel about his music. Seriously, it would have to be some really mean stuff– like a story about stealing ice cream cones from babies and tossing them in the street just to see them cry, repeatedly (which, ok there’s probably no way).

And have you ever seen that biopic Amadeus? Well, if you recall, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (at least for the purposes of the film’s semi-fictionalized narrative), being a super genius composer, had a lot of haters. The whole story’s told from the perspective of a mediocre composer dude who, even in his old age, was hellbent on sullying Mozart’s legacy.

You get the point.

Sadly, Russell’s productivity was even further hindered when he fell ill from AIDS, an illness that eventually led to his death in 1992 at 40 years old. The thorough, posthumous probing of his archive demonstrates that Russell’s life was cut all too short and that he’s still very much being mourned. It’s also a reminder of a sentiment shared by many his fans: that we were robbed of a powerful songwriter and musician before his life’s work was complete.

Note: the description for “Wild Combination: a Portrait of Arthur Russell” has been updated to clarify that most of the details about Russell’s personal life are from the film and are not the opinions of the writer; and a correction was made to reflect that the documentary was released in 2008.

"Lawa" movie poster

(“Lawa” movie poster)

Saturday August 20, 7:30 pm and Thursday August 25, 10 pm at Spectacle: $5

There was a brief period during the late ’60s when the Warsaw Pact countries were livin’ it up like much of the rest of the world–sexin’, druggin’, and rock-n-rollin. Sure, Socialist Eastern Europe’s flower power was a little grayer and slightly more industrial than what you’d have found in America during the same period, but the artists, filmmakers, poets, and performance artists were a whole lot more daring in their rebellions. The stakes were obviously much, much higher.

It all culminated in the Prague Spring, an all out bloom of artistic productivity and even some slight political freedoms in Czechoslovakia that was mirrored in other places like Poland. Soon enough, the Soviet gerontocracy kicked into curmudgeonly gear and instilled a crackdown across the USSR’s sphere of influence. No more fun for anyone.

The Polish filmmaker Tadeusz Konwicki was just one artist who suffered under Soviet censorship. It wasn’t until 1989, when Solidarity was in full swing and things were hurdling toward the 1991 dissolution of the Warsaw Pact that he could make a film like Lava.

The central character in the meandering, time-traveling story is Adam Mickiewicz– the 19th-century Polish Romantic poet whose work was suppressed by the Russian Tsarist regime’s partition of Poland, before he was exiled altogether. Konwicki connects the censorship of the past with his own late-’80s present, weaving an epic tale through the ins-and-outs, partitions and boundary redraws, wars and civil tensions across Poland’s long and complicated-ass modern history.

Spectacle calls this film, “dense, beautiful, confounding, and with a breathtaking urgency that comes through undiminished nearly three decades later.” If “dense” is the last thing you want to experience in this sorta heat, keep in mind that Spectacle has a totally admirable AC system and a relaxed beverage policy. And it’s dark in there! So there’s that.

Blow Out
Friday August 19, 9:15 pm at Anthology Film Archives: $10

If that whole AC thing’s not convincing enough to sit through 2+ hours of heavy Polish cinema, then perhaps Blow Out will be more to your liking. Two words: John Travolta. There’s nothing that says summer in New York quite like Travolta, the actor-man whose #2 search question on Google is, sadly: “Is John Travolta Dead or Alive?” Well, I can’t say for sure– checking in with Scientologists has proven somewhat difficult, anyway he could be at Operating Thetan status by now, which means it doesn’t really matter if his shell’s still circulating blood, his soul is clearer than Clear no matter what his lung capacity.

Not to be confused with Blow-Up, the 1966 Michelangelo Antonioni film screening at 7 pm, Blow Out is an edge-of-your-seat crime thriller starring Travolta as a beautiful young man named Jack who leaves his job as a police audio tech to do sound work for slasher movies. Sounds pretty cool, until one night he’s out recording atmospheric sounds and just happens to witness this crazy accident when a car containing a young woman speeds by and crashes over a ravine and into the river below. Jack saves innocent young Sally (she has blonde curly ringlets of course, and is a dead-ringer for pre-heroin Nancy Spungen) after pulling her out of the water.

After the accident, he becomes obsessed with the mysterious circumstances surrounding the crash. Jack learns that the car’s driver, before expiring, was the Governor and in all likelihood the Presidential frontrunner. Gasp! Of course, there’s more to the accident than what meets the eye– actually, it’s Jack’s ear that leads him to solve the crime.