Matt Wolf

Left and Right: Joe Brainard and Ron Padgett.

Matt Wolf is a Brooklyn–based documentary filmmaker. His first feature, Wild Combination (2008), focuses on the avant-garde cellist and disco producer Arthur Russell. Wolf is currently at work on his second feature film, Teenage, and his short filmic portrait I Remember: A Film About Joe Brainard will play at The Kitchen on May 7.

OVER THE PAST FOUR YEARS, I have been working on an unconventional historical film about the invention of teenagers. The film is based on Jon Savage’s book Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, and it looks at the history of youth in America, England, and Germany before World War II. While making the film I’ve sourced over one hundred hours of archival footage and thousands of photographs of teenagers. Early on in that process, I wanted to develop a smaller project—something that I could complete by myself and with limited means. I had been exploring PennSound, an online audio archive of poetry, where I found some wonderful recordings of the artist and writer Joe Brainard reading from his iconic text I Remember, which is probably my favorite poem ever.

I love I Remember because it gives me an immediate and visceral sense of Joe Brainard’s humor, self-deprecating personality, and his gentle demeanor. And hearing Joe’s voice only deepens those impressions—it kind of made me fall in love. I wanted to make something that would add context to these recordings. Something that isn’t just a nostalgia piece or a straight documentary.

When I started thinking more about Joe’s work, I read a biography written by his best friend, the poet Ron Padgett, titled Joe: A Memoir. Ron loosely mines the style of I Remember by detailing countless addresses, correspondence, and anecdotes from his lifelong friendship with Joe. At first, I found the approach to be a little cold or dry, but as I continued reading, I was incredibly moved. To be honest, I think it’s the most vivid account of a friendship that I’ve ever read. The book made me reflect on my own creative life and community, and the significance of the bonds I share with other artists. I contacted Ron, interviewed him, and he helped me access materials to make the film. But I was a little stuck; I couldn’t figure out how to combine Ron’s interview with the archival recordings of Joe, so the project languished for a while.

But then Nathan Lee, a curator at Bard’s Center for Curatorial Studies, approached me to do a project. I knew he was interested in the archive and queer genealogy, and I had always wanted to make an elliptical film installation, since I usually make features. So I enlisted the help of a sound designer and radio producer Mark Phillips. He helped me edit the piece into an organic, nonlinear conversation between Ron and Joe. Their dialogue jumps between the past and the present, between the rich and universal experiences that are discussed in Joe’s poems and Ron’s specific memories of his friendship with Joe.

There was also a complexity to what they were talking about that needed to be creatively illustrated. I started experimenting with dozens of films from the National Archives in Washington, DC, one of my main sources for Teenage. I have a collaborative relationship with a full-time archival researcher there named Michael Dolan. I give him themes, specific images, and ideas, and he sends me films. And when I watch them, I discover unexpected imagery that pushes me in new directions. These are usually government-produced newsreels and educational films, but they star real people, and for my purposes usually teenagers. I like to transform these stock subjects into loose characters. For I Remember I use several of a boy in an educational film about syphilis. He became an avatar for Joe, you could say. I’ve mixed these films with numerous photos and some beautiful 8-mm films that Ron created with Joe and other friends in their early twenties.

In a way, I think of the film as a gay-straight guy buddy movie. I think that’s an interesting social dynamic, which hasn’t been explored much in film. I know Ron is not keen to canonize Joe as a “queer” artist or icon. Nonetheless, a lot of young gay people like myself are interested in exploring the biographies of gay artists who died in the early ’90s from AIDS––to reclaim that history, I suppose. Joe is an important, and often overlooked, part of that story. The subject of my previous film on Arthur Russell is similar to Joe in that regard. In some ways, this film felt like the perfect bridge for me in terms of making a queer biography and an archival meditation about adolescence and coming of age.