Sunday, September 11, 2011

Color Him Lurid: Deceased Artiste George Kuchar

George Kuchar never, ever sold out. In fact, like any good and true underground filmmaker (and George and his twin brother Mike were making narrative 8mm movies before that term ever existed), George wouldn’t’ve known how to sell out, even if he’d been offered the additional dough. His films and videos were homemade productions from the first to the last, and they had more identity, authenticity, emotion, thought, and, yes, pure insanity, than anything the major studios would ever, and will ever, put out.

George died this week at the age of 69, and his death greatly saddened both those who knew him personally and those like myself who felt they knew him well from hours spent viewing his voluminous “diary” videos. I had one cordial encounter in person with the gentleman, at a gallery exhibit of his work last year, and, in response to my pitch for an interview for the Funhouse TV show, he not only wrote an extremely polite e-mail a day or two later, explaining he had no spare time during a short trip to NYC, but also left an equally polite and friendly voicemail saying he’d be back this way soon and we’d talk then, and “look me up if you ever get to Frisco — I’m in the book!”

George’s politeness surprised me, but it shouldn’t have. After I interviewed his brother Mike, I got the nicest single note I’ve ever received from a Funhouse guest. Meeting them confirmed that both brothers' films and videos were indeed 100% genuine. Given their friendliness, the newcomer might've thought that the brothers — yes, they are twins and have the same speaking voice, and fucking awesome Nu Yawk accent — are naïve, silly dreamers who just happened to acquire a reputation because their 8mm and 16mm films were liked by the right people at the right time.

Actually, after watching even a few of the brothers’ joint and solo works, one can easily see that while the gentlemen are extremely polite, they also knew exactly what they were after onscreen. I’ve been told of how George videotaped you while you videotaped him — much like I get the sense that Mike is constantly conjuring visions in his head as he’s talking to you (during our interview, his eyes were often closed when he was intent on making a point).

As young men, both brothers developed into addictive “imagists” (my phrase, not theirs) for whom everything they saw and experienced was grist for the mill; thus, the very personal nature of what they were doing. Sure, George’s projects with his students at the San Francisco Art Institute are completely “out there” (that’s an expression whose time has come and gone), and seem on first glance to be just fun filmmaking games for his classes.

However, those films and videos, while not being near his video diaries and his solo 16mm and mini-DV work in terms of brilliance, still have their moments, as can be seen in the video “Butterball.” The video can’t be embedded on this blog because, in the 2000s, George was still doing what he did with Mike back in the late Fifties and early Sixties — using “found music” for his soundtracks (read: breaking out CDs from his own collection or that of a friend). Included here are different versions of the old song “My Love Has Two Faces,” and instrumental versions of a song by the Police and what I *think* is “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?”

To salute George I want to move backwards in this post through the films of his that are online; those unfamiliar with George’s work should jump right down to the two modern classics linked to at the bottom, or check out the commercially available documentary It Came From Kuchar, made by one of George’s former students, Jennifer Kroot.

Since, for the most part, both brothers’ films and videos (Mike has made dozens and dozens; George easily made a few hundred in total) aren’t available anywhere online or on DVD, the documentary serves as a good “101” for those who want to be exposed to the wonderful world of Kuchar.

In terms of official releases of Kuchar pics, there have been only two in the 35 years that home-entertainment media have existed: the British VHS of four shorts by George called Color Me Lurid (the contents of which can be found in various places on the Net), and the DVD of three 16mm shorts by Mike entitled Sins of the Fleshopoids, which also keeps surfacing on YT.

New Yorkers have been very lucky, in that the chief curator of the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, David Schwartz, is an unabashed admirer of underground cinema and has programmed entire festivals of it (my first major dose of George and Mike’s work was ingested out at the MMI).

Also, the city’s most important repertory theater, the Anthology Film Archives, has presented new and vintage works by the Kuchars every few months, allowing NYC residents to be introduced to their work, as well as that of nearly every significant filmmaker from the silent era on, at the lowest prices in Manhattan (!). The AFA is the only NYC theater brave enough to show the uncut and still surprisingly shocking Thundercrack! (above), scripted by and starring George, since the heyday of rep back in the Seventies and Eighties.

The reasons that the Kuchars’ work hasn’t surfaced on DVD are many: lack of “consumer interest” (read: mainstream appeal for idiots); music clearance rights (particularly important for the early, jointly made 8mm films that are awash in cuts from old singles and LPs); and, perhaps most importantly, an evident lack of interest from the brothers themselves.

Let’s face it, to be an independent filmmaker these days requires an inordinate amount of self-promotion and the selling of one’s work, something the Kuchars have never done (to their own credit). One of the most notable fan/students of the Kuchar brothers’ work, John Waters, has turned himself into a very familiar brand, both as a filmmaker and as a media celebrity, lecturer/standup, and talk show guest. I was in fact introduced to the Kuchars’ style of filmmaking through my discovery of the wonderful early Waters features. Waters admirably is always very forthright about crediting the brothers for influencing his work — although (grumble!) his list of important indie filmmakers in Cecil B. Demented included such non-Kucharian, non-Kenneth Angered, folks as Otto Preminger and Spike Lee!

The thing that the Kuchars gave to Waters, Rosa von Praunheim, Guy Maddin, and a very LONG list of other micro-budgeted filmmakers, was a blissful sense of kitsch and camp that melded the melodrama of mainstream Hollywood with the “otherness” of low-budget sci-fi and thriller movies. What first strikes you upon watching the Kuchars' movies and videos is the insanely bright and eye-catching color schemes they used (drawn from both Technicolor melodramas and the comic books they read as kids).

In the last twenty years, as they both have edited their mini-DV productions using digital effects, they have duplicated that color scheme in an even trippier fashion. Some might see this as a “sell-out” of one kind or another, but the brothers’ works have still been made with nearly non-existent budgets (even the videos made for George’s classes were done on a very thin shoestring), and the effects that they’ve used are in fact from earlier generations of computer-editing programs (as well as completely offline digital editing boards) and, most importantly, are being used by older men with the same kind of joy and inventiveness with which they used 8mm back in the late Fifties.

Before I discuss the clips that are online, let me add one aspect: the fact that both gentlemen have resided in San Francisco now for years (George moved there in the mid-1970s), but retained their spectacular NYC accents. Born and raised in the Bronx, they have been celebrated all over the world, but when they talk, the cityspeak pours out of their mouths. I loved hearing Mike rhapsodize about the movies the brothers loved when they were young, and I never tire of George musing on literally everything and anything in his video diaries.

I myself don’t really care about the weather one way or the other (unless I’m caught without an umbrella). Listening to George go on and on about storms and natural catastrophes, as well as the “men in black” and Bigfoot and other paranormal phenomena, was riveting, though. Samples of George talking at length about his pictures can be found here and here.

And what are we left with then, from George’s prodigious output and groundbreaking work with NO goddamned budgets? A sense that anything is indeed possible on film and video, and the fact that the man possessed a very sharp, funny, and ridiculous sense of humor. George and Mike belong on any short list of great underground filmmakers — a Mount Rushmore containing Anger, Deren, Brakhage, Mekas, Jacobs, Markopoulos, Snow, and oh yeah, I guess that Warhol guy and his crew.

What distinguished them from their colleagues was that their movies were always so much fun to watch. The images were just as radical and jarring as those found in the work of the other pioneers, but their sense of humor— and brilliant ability to craft an alternate world out of household objects found in NYC and San Francisco apartments — was always a constant.

Watching a multiplex movie may give you that Spielbergian emotional “tug” or a quick laugh at a fart joke (and yes, in the Sixties the Kuchar brothers were the ones who delivered the very first bad-taste moments onscreen, inspiring young Waters). But the Kuchars’ movies and videos convince you that it can all be done with no budget, and done very beautifully at that.

Moving backward in time through George’s work, I’ll first mention that you can watch one of the films made with his SF Art Institute students here. It is called “Dynasty of Depravity” — has it taken me this long to mention what an unmitigated delight the titles of the Kuchar movies are? When you start out with “I Was a Teenage Rumpot,” it’s hard get better, but they did, on an annual basis.

George also used to diarize his meetings with people he thought were interesting. Examples of that kind of video can be found here and also here (the latter starring Christopher Coppola in the home of his brother Nicholas Cage).

These are only recommended for those who’ve seen George’s best works, but if you need an idea of what that type of production looks like, here is a very joyful micro-budgeted (toys, Egyptian gods, Santa, and dinosaurs!) music video for a song by Andy Ditzler celebrating the winter solstice, directed by George (much like Kenneth Anger, the Kuchars were unintentionally designing “music videos” in their work from the very beginning):

The Kuchars had a beloved dog that figured heavily in their films when a pet was needed (he is the pooch taking a very scary crap in Mike’s The Craven Sluck; see below). George did a filmic ode to the dog with his The Mongreloid in 1978:

As noted above, George was obsessed by extreme weather and would travel to a small city in Oklahoma on an annual basis to record their rainy season. One of his “weather diaries” can be found on the Ubuweb site (they of the seemingly bottomless bandwidth — how DO they do it, and how can *I* do it?). For a nice impressionistic view of his obsession with weather, go no further than this pretty and strange piece called Wild Night in El Reno from 1977:

Certainly the strangest item from George that can be found online is I, An Actress (1977). Intended as a demo reel for an aspiring young actress, instead it becomes a chance to watch George coach her in how to overact for the camera (he was a master at assuming the melodramatic “mood” and stealing a scene). I’m assuming she never submitted it as her “reel” at auditions:

One of the Kuchar features I’ve never seen but would love to is The Devil’s Cleavage from 1975. Some generous poster has put up a party scene from the film. It demonstrates George’s facility with “found music,” especially odd items like a track from the late and "incredibly strange" Mrs. Miller:

The strangest-ever film that George was involved in was one he didn’t direct. Thundercrack! was directed by his friend and protégé Curt McDowell in 1975, and it is still a surprisingly “shocking” movie for many viewers, in that its mega-melodramatic action stops every so often for a graphic sexual interlude (guy/girl, girl/girl, guy/guy).

George wrote the wonderfully overwrought dialogue (it really provides a great lesson in how to mock the melodramatic dialogue found in old Hollywood films, and even in contemporary television dramas), and stars as the circus trainer of a gorilla who is getting far too close to his charge. A helpful YT poster has attempted to upload most of the movie’s non-sex sequences (which is more than half the film), but I’m tellin’ ya, it’s a far weirder picture with those scenes intact:

Although George produced video diaries on a regular basis in the last three decades, he rarely talked about his personal relationships on-camera; thus, there not many direct references to his being gay in the films and videos.

His film Pagan Rhapsody (1970) contains a gay seduction scene, though, and the wonderful inclusion of the Zombies’ “Care of Cell 44” on the soundtrack (go to 14:45; the film is already wonderful, but the Zombies tune, one of their best, BRIGHTENS the pic incredibly). The interesting thing about the way that George and Mike used pop music was that they used *snippets* of songs, rather than playing the whole thing, as with Kenneth Anger or John Waters. As a result you have that snippet bouncing around your head for days, and can’t forget the images attached to it:

Speaking of Mike, here’s one of his 16mm features, The Craven Sluck (1967). George gives a great performance as a seducer who lures away the married Floraine Connors:

George beautifully established his filmmaking style in the mid-Sixties, as did Mike — definitely a function of their splitting up as collaborators and each embarking on his own directorial path. Eclipse of the Sun Virgin (1967) is pure, undiluted George K: torrid melodrama, Catholic guilt, wonderfully over-the-top performances by Kuchar family friends, gay longing, amazing apartment-dweller kitsch, and sublime use of “found music” [RECOMMENDED]:

I close out with one of George’s first solo 16mm features, the utterly, utterly sublime Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966). There is too much I could write about this film, but suffice it to say it’s brilliant on several levels:
—as a record of a filmmaker salvaging a project that went into the crapper (his lead actress bailed during filming);
—as a beautiful combination of the overwrought and the touching in George’s work;
—as a wonderful bird’s-eye-view of apartment life in the NYC in the Sixties;
—as the film that in my mind has the series of cuts (go to 7:40!) that inspired the opening of the credit sequence in Scorsese’s Mean Streets. (Scorsese’s Film Foundation has restored the early 8mms made by George and Mike.) George may not have seemed in his diary videos like the kind of guy who could rock out, but check out his use of rock music in his films, and, I’m telling you, you’re seeing the blueprint for how it was used by those who followed. I could watch that Four Seasons moment in Hold Me… over and over again. And have. [HEAVILY RECOMMENDED]:

You should see as many of George’s movies and videos as you can, but his mid-Sixties work, particularly Hold Me… explains why, in fourteen quick and crazy minutes, he will never be forgotten.

1 comment:

Lisa H. said...

Great post, Ed. Who could resist Kuchar after reading this?