Filmmaker Matt Wolf has made a sweet short documentary about the New York School artist and writer Joe Brainard. Up until yesterday, you could have watched the whole film for free at Vdrome, but I screwed up the dates (sorry), so now you can watch the trailer and buy the film at Matt's site.
The film features 1950s Americana footage, including scenes from sex education films about Syphilis, played while Brainard reads from the lovely "I Remember." In between, poet Ron Padgett reminisces about their close friendship, from their school days back in Tulsa to Joe's death from AIDS in New York.
I asked Matt a few questions about the film.
You said the vanishing of New York tapped into your desire to make a film like this--how so?
Sarah Schulman's book Gentrification of the Mind really shook me. It helped me understand the connection between AIDS and the transformation of New York. It also helped me better understand the kind of artist's life that is no longer possible in New York today. Joe is part of a generation of artists who died prematurely from AIDS, and I worry his and others' legacies might be lost if they're not celebrated. I made this film because I love Joe's work, but also because I don't want it to be forgotten.
Schulman's analysis of how AIDS contributed to gentrification is very important. Reminds me also of Fran Lebowitz in the documentary Public Speaking, when she says, "An audience with a high level of connoisseurship is as important to the culture as artists...and that audience died in five minutes."
I don't know. I'm always amazed when I go to a cultural event in New York that I perceive as marginal, and it's sold out. I imagine that the Joe Brainard fans of the world are highly concentrated in New York. While the life of artists is less and less sustainable here, I think the vitality of its many cultural institutions is enduring.
I've been a big fan of "I Remember" for years, but there seems to be an assault on nostalgia in the current climate. How do New Yorkers, especially, respond to "I Remember" these days?
I think the problem with nostalgia is romanticizing the past as better, or more authentic. But I think there's a lot to be celebrated in the present, in New York and beyond. There's so much value in digging into the past, uncovering hidden histories. Not just hidden cultural histories or biographies, but also the hidden histories within ourselves. That's what Joe is doing in "I Remember." I imagine that people will always find his poem to be refreshingly simple and emotionally direct.