Monday, January 19, 2015

Review: 'The George Kuchar Reader'

George Kuchar was a very funny writer. His movie scripts reflected this, as did his self-penned capsule descriptions of his films and videos. The book he wrote with his twin brother Mike, Reflections from a Cinematic Cesspool (now sadly out of print), is a “sideways” memoir that has some wonderful passages. The newly released book The George Kuchar Reader focuses squarely on his “lurid” writing and is loaded with wonderful diversions. Its last section also provides what may be our only insight into the real George that hid behind his outsized public persona.

Edited by Andrew Lampert and published by Primary Information, the Reader is a cornucopia of writings by George, including letters, diaries, articles, movie program notes, speeches, drawings, comics (from the period where his work was appearing in collections edited by his “Frisco” friend Art Spiegelman), syllabuses and, most importantly, very useful short essays he wrote on making films and videos on an extremely low budget.

The book is a great supplement to George’s film and video work, which is sadly not available at all on DVD — selected shorts can be found “underground” (the Torrents) and above-ground (YouTube) on the Net. When I wrote about George's death, I included a list of indispensable embeds of Kuchar films available at that time — the material goes up and it goes down, so different titles are available at different times.

The only feature film related to the work of George and his twin brother (and one-time collaborator) Mike is Jennifer Kroot’s delightful documentary It Came From Kuchar, which is now legally available on YT:

Back to the Reader: George’s prose style was intentionally torrid, since he clearly loved Hollywood fan magazines and the popular press. He loved describing his films in the most lewd and lurid terms imaginable and putting himself down (usually invoking gas — he was quite possibly the filmmaker most aware of his body functions).

He rhapsodizes in one piece about his “defining filmic moment” seeing Vera Hruba Ralston and David Brian in a terrible B-feature released by Republic. The cheapness of the film inspired him to believe that he could make films in a similar vein:

“Here were truly crazy people worth emulating because it made growing up seem like fun: you can be in your fifties and still play-act, have fake fist fights and tumble on the floor with robust Czechoslovakians. These were my kind of people from an exotic tribe that I wanted to infiltrate… The human imagination imagining the best way to make the worst look good. This became a defining film moment for me.”

As noted, a few of the most valuable pieces find George offering lighting tips for low-budget film- and videomakers. As opposed to, say, Jerry Lewis, whose book The Total Filmmaker tells a fledgling filmmaker how to make a big-budget production with a giant crew and studio backing, George and Mike Kuchar have always spoken in lectures and writings about the importance of bringing extension cords and gaffer tape (or duck tape) to a shoot, finding the right bulbs, the best places to place your lights, and the fact that a regular clamp-lamp found in a hardware store is as good as (and cheaper than) a lamp purchased in a photography store.

George’s tips are of course delivered with a humorous undertone, but you can tell they came from his own past mistakes: “You can also use a sheer, black cloth to soften the image, but be careful when you put it on the lens with a rubber band that the excess portion doesn’t rub against the microphone and create back-ground sounds that would suggest a potential skin chafing outbreak.”

George also wrote what could be called, for lack of a better term, “historical pieces.” One hand-written six-page entry (and may I say that George’s handwriting is totally legible — those nuns did a good job with him!) finds him describing the underground film scene of the Sixties. He of course punctuates the piece with a number of humorous observations, but he also is providing us with a glimpse into a long-gone world that he and Mike were an important part of. At one point he talks about the different kinds of films one could see at underground screenings.

“Long pictures were made with really lengthy, single takes. After a few minutes the audience would catch on to what was in store for them…. and sometime rebel in a violent manner. Other folks would sit back and flow with the experience… the aesthetic of boredom, kindling erotic fantasies involving other members of the audience sitting nearby.”

As put together by Lampert, the book emphasizes George’s opinions about his work, the shooting and editing processes (which he saw as both work and a leisure-time activity), and his reflections on the movies and popular culture. All of this material is incredibly funny, and yet one wonders what George was like when he wasn’t manifesting his George “persona,” as seen in his diary videos and in these writings.

The real George emerges in the final segment of the Reader, a touching sampling of excerpts from his letters and emails to his close friend — and one-time Kuchar brothers screen goddess! — Donna Kerness. This correspondence allows us access to George’s real thoughts and emotions in his final year, as he battled prostate cancer yet continued teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute and compulsively producing his charming and funny video diaries.

Although he loved to put himself down in his public work, these personal emails find George quite proud of his accomplishments as an underground and independent filmmaker (and teacher). He is also revealed here to be an incurable romantic, who pined heavily for a younger man with whom he had a nearly two-decade relationship; the relationship was a purely sexual one for the other man (with a dollop of friendship), while George awaited each call and communication from the gent with bated breath.

He notes at one point that “….I’ve always been in the shadows regarding this aspect of my life while others have openly flaunted and reveled in their couplings. I no longer feel like being this perceived wallflower or backseat passenger on the road to romance.” He prized his position as the man’s “fuck buddie” (as George spells it — Lampert has left his writing as is, so grammar and spelling mistakes aren’t corrected, to keep with the "lurid" flavor of George’s prose style).

At times the emails read just like any personal correspondence. At other times George does indeed ponder his mortality and the films and videos he feverishly made throughout his life: “So much [of the current situation] is trying to extinguish the magic with tricks of the mind and ticks of the clock. Mortality itself is attempting to blow out the blaze. Those are the culprits who have set my teeth chattering with these monologues of doom and gloom…. I don’t want the fire to die. I can die but not the flame. It has to keep dancing to create all those shadows on the wall moving. Those shadows are what my life has left others to view.”

The 65 pages of correspondence to Kerness (49 pages from his final year) serve as the memoir that George never wrote. Those of us who never knew the man personally but loved his films will find the “real George” as endearing (and libidinous!) as his public self. Those of us who have had health, romance, and/or artistic problems similar to the ones that he went through can’t help but think of him as a sort of “patron saint” (especially for ex-Catholics — although I notice his emails indicate that he still prayed nightly).

But of course, most of the Reader is filled not with George’s own deepest emotions, but with his love of cinema, as in this intro to a piece about making a very prone-to-nudity senior “actress,” Linda Martinez, into a “sex symbol” in his student films: “It is all fantasy. A world of illusion conjured up by concubines with cold sores that masquerade as beauty marks…. Pancake makeup replaces the naturally pancake-induced cellulite that ripples on the buttocks of non-actors and these powder-puffed butts that are no longer silent either. They utter digitally enhanced retorts to the dialogue that ricochets around the theatre in Dolby stereo. Technology has amplified the aural components of every vibrating orifice into a Jehovah-like commandment of withering import.

“We are a truly blessed congregation of cinephiles in nature.”

Any artist who called his work “gossamer garbage” surely knew that “high” and “low” culture are very integrally related. This fine book reminds us of how important George truly was, and is, to the film community. Now let’s get some of his films (and Mike’s too) on DVD soon! 

NOTE: Donna Kerness maintains a site for her art. It can be found here.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Sam’s ‘perfect actress’: Deceased Artiste Billie Whitelaw

A bit of unfinished business from 2014: Of all the recent show business deaths, the performer who seems to require special treatment is British actress Billie Whitelaw, who excelled both as a lead and a character person. She also happened to be a muse for one Samuel Beckett for a quarter of a century.

Whitelaw's obits all stressed her working-class background and the fact that her mother encouraged her as a child to pursue acting as a way to get rid of a stutter. The young Billie had several roles on radio (including a regular one as a schoolboy) before she made her debut in theater in 1950 and appeared in her first film in 1953.

Some of the write-ups of her career cited her as “the female Albert Finney.” This could mean a number of things (a working-class heroine, a cranky person, a performer who did not document her life in public the way other performers do), but the comparison immediately brought to mind one of my favorite non-Beckett roles of hers, as the ex-wife in Finney's only theatrical feature as a director, the underrated Charlie Bubbles (1967), which I discussed recently on the Funhouse TV show. (She also played opposite Finney in Gumshoe.)

Whitelaw's character could easily have been depicted as a shrew, but while she keeps a “stern” bearing, she also lends the role a degree of weariness (that is the main thing about her role as a celebrity author's ex-wife, she wears the character's weariness with style). As scripted by Shelagh Delaney (A Taste of Honey) and acted by Whitelaw, Charlie's ex is a woman who has been through a hell of a lot with him but still loves him, although she knows it's best that the two of them now live apart.

She won a BAFTA Award in the Supporting Actress category for her work in the film. Here is her segment from the film:

While American viewers saw her in many films, including Hitchcock's Frenzy, The Krays (as Mama Kray), Quills, and the Simon Pegg-Edgar Wright pic Hot Fuzz, she is best remembered by those with any sense of memory as the villainous nanny in the original The Omen (1976).

Those who dig a bit deeper in cinema and theater – and really top-notch TV – know of her position as one of the foremost interpreters of Beckett's work, to the extent that he wrote plays with her in mind and restaged some of his older works with her in the female lead.

The pair first worked together in 1964 on his Play and thus began an on-and-off collaboration that spanned a quarter-century. Beckett referred to Billie as “the perfect actress” – one assumes he meant for his work, but that accolade can be stretched to include her other immaculate performances in more routinely structured plays and movies.

A New York Times article by Mel Gussow from 1984 discusses the methods that Whitelaw used when working with Beckett on his plays. The odd thing about the work she did for him is that it contained both an incredible degree of stasis and yet was physically demanding because of the repetitions or oddness of posture demanded by the activity in the piece.

She said of playing in a Beckett piece that “Whenever I work with him, I feel as if I’m being blasted off into outer space.” And yet she knew instinctively as they continued to collaborate that what he wanted from her was to be “Flat, no emotion, no color.”

In watching these pieces in a row to write this piece, I was struck by how much musical precision was involved in what she was doing. She also was indeed both lively in her performances while mostly called on to recite singsong dialogue in a hypnotic tone that mesmerizes the viewer (it also, naturally enough, could be seen as either abrasive or boring – two aspects Beckett seemed to have built into his work).

I will list these not in chronological order, but in order of importance. “Eh Joe” is a piece that Beckett wrote for TV in 1965 in which a silent man in an empty room hears a voice, that of his former love reminding him of his life. Whitelaw isn't seen here, she is the voice of memory (and conscience) in this 1988 production:

In “Footfalls,” Billie paces back and forth in a proscribed area onstage (in a spotlight), talking to her aged mother, who is only present as a voice, meant (again) to remind her of the past and provoke her:

The longest piece by Beckett with Whitelaw that we have available on video is a production of Happy Days that he directed in 1979. The play is an odd one, because it seems like it always existed, or had to have existed – if Beckett hadn't written it, another avant-garde playwright would've eventually come up with the metaphor of performers half-buried in sand onstage.

Her performance is fascinating in that, again, she delivers his stylized dialogue with immense care, yet still makes it sound like natural speech. The character she plays is the eternal optimist who refuses to think the worst of any situation, even as she is starting to disappear below the sand.

The one thing that weighs against the piece is its length – the first act is sublime, but the second act seems like the original draft of the play boiled down into a shorter length. It's impossible to say that a Beckett play “drags” (he didn't pace them in any ordinary sense, ever), but Happy Days does seem to reiterate its situation and its lead character's blind optimism one too many times. (That said, Whitelaw is fantastic.)

If I had to pick a favorite of all the pieces I'd gravitate toward Rockaby. The short one-act (running 18 minutes) was part of a longer one-hour 1983 documentary directed by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus about the U.S. debut of the play.

The piece is devastating. Whitelaw moves slowly in a rocking chair, looking paralyzed, while her voice is heard offering a singsong recitation of the dialogue. (“Time she stopped/going to and fro…close of a long day…”) She occasionally speaks along with the voiceover and a few times shouts out the most significant word in the play (and possibly in life?), “More!”

I've refrained from trying to analyze the plays as I've written about them here (my focus is on Whitelaw's performances), but this solid little piece is most clearly about aging and death. And, of course, wishing that – no matter how dull life can be – that there was “More!” to be had.

The most singularly amazing thing Whitelaw did was to become a mouth unleashing a torrent of words (and screams) in “Not I,” the 1973 concept piece (shot here for the BBC in '77) that is an astounding thing to behold. It's nearly impossible to describe what occurs in the play without making it sound pedestrian or too simplistically avant-garde. It simply must be seen.

It's incredibly intense and one of the all-time best depictions of insanity (and/or the fast rush of memory, which can be the same damned thing). This BBC airing of the piece brackets it with a very calm Whitelaw talking about the production of the piece, which is kinda weird – to have a “normal” intro and outro to such an extreme piece of raw emotion. It blunts the piece in a way, assuring us, “no, she's all right... she came through it okay...”

When asked about Beckett's death in 1989, Whitelaw remarked, “I’m the canvas who has lost the paintbrush.” A week before she died, the University of Reading purchased her Beckett archive (letters, costumes, scripts) for 35,000 pounds. The performances she gave, it goes without saying, are priceless.