Tuesday, May 19, 2020

A Portrait of George Kuchar

I wrote this on September 8th, 2011, after hearing that George Kuchar had died.

George Kuchar put himself into everything he did. Okay, that’s a cliché. But you can’t talk about George Kuchar without talking about clichés. George took film clichés and story-telling conventions and exploded them with a sensual, rakish, devastatingly charming touch. Whether cinematic or soap-operatic, low­­-brow or high-brow, George took the chintzy, schmaltzy effluvia of pop culture, shook it up, and then reconstituted it in the ambitious, emotionally lurid yet lucid pictures that he made with his friends. And he helped us recognize the power and pathos of those conventions by making them seem startlingly new and funny as fuck. George was able to take something simple and cheap and make you see how gorgeous and heartbreaking it could be. Life is made of such cheap stuff.

George was a real fan of Hollywood cinema, from the lush and lavish to the sublime and ridiculous. George and his twin brother Mike made cinematic spectacles of themselves with their friends starting in the late 1950s. They were there for the birth of the New York underground cinema, not as originators, but as tempest-tossed captains buoyed by the rising new wave of the weird and wild and unconventional. But unlike some who have tried to follow in his footsteps, George was never arch or disingenuous. He never laughed at the strange and wondrous characters in his pictures. They were his friends. And he was right there in the picture with them.

George was attracted to people. And people were attracted to George. You can go through the decades of class films that he made with his students in Studio 8 at the San Francisco Art Institute and see how hungry his students were to be seen, to look, and to be a part of something fantastical and daring. George was able to tailor ever-evolving screenplays to get the best out of them. As his teaching assistant in 1996, I was always amazed by how quickly and easily he could whip up funny, inventive dialogue. After setting the students in motion to create the set for the day’s shoot, George would sequester himself briefly in the small screening room at the back of the classroom and, on a scrap of paper, would work out the day’s dialogue.

Every picture that George made came alive with raw emotion. George Kuchar didn’t make “camp” films or “avant-garde” films or “pornographic” films. George Kuchar made pictures. Whether on 8mm or 16mm film, or on 8mm or Hi8 or digital video, George made pictures that embodied his sense of humor and conveyed his affection for people and his lust for life. He used the word “pictures” to describe his work not only because he wanted to sidestep the argument about the seriousness of “cinema” and “films” and the tawdriness of populist “movies”, but also because he was a skilled illustrator and painter. He imbued his drawings and paintings with the same mix of rough, unvarnished beauty that he brought to everything he made. To think of George Kuchar as the apotheosis of “camp” filmmaking is to miss most of the story. In his vision, melodrama was no less capable of eliciting true emotion than high drama, tchotchkes were no less of a lens through which to venerate and contemplate the unknowable than religious icons.

George had an incredible eye. If you watch any of the pictures that he and his brother made together on film, or George’s 8mm and 16mm pictures, you are immediately struck by his lush compositions, his oversaturated, vibrant colors, his ability to weave together textures that scream out to be touched and fondled. Indelible in my mind’s eye are the vibratingly passionate shades of red woven throughout Eclipse of the Sun Virgin (1967). One scene shows a young man with shellacked black hair standing in a tiled bathroom wearing a red button-down shirt that resonates with and accentuates the blooming red spots of his acne. In a series of intercut shots George–with red full lips–looks, then looks away, then looks again, heightening the fluctuating tidal pull of attraction and repulsion. The flesh is feeble and imperfect, but still strong enough to make the spirit weak in the knees as it squirms, chained and enthralled by the mysterious power of the flesh.

The compositions and cinematography in the pictures George shot on video were no less compelling than his work on film. His video work, however, is often layered with video effects that feel less organic than the animated special effects that he created for some of his film-based pictures. It isn’t every artist who can be so accomplished in one medium and then drop it for a cheaper, new alternative. But when George took up the video camera he discovered new powers within its constraints. George loved the act of making pictures, the writing, the special effects, the editing, so much so that he always gravitated towards the cheapest options so that he could keep constantly working. George was an enthusiastic proponent of consumer-grade video equipment in an art world where avant-garde filmmakers fetishized and venerated filmmaking on film as the one and only true path. George was able to use video cameras in new and inventive ways. The camcorder technology of the mid-1980s helped George achieve a new level of spontaneity by allowing him to intercut footage and audio in-camera while shooting on location. The size and weight of consumer video cameras also allowed him to get right in amongst the action and to eliminate the distance between himself and the people in his pictures.

George was fully himself at all times, and in all situations. In personal conversation he was very much like how he was in his pictures. He was honest, open, and incredibly funny. He was unafraid to talk about his love of food, or his bodily functions, or about his neuroses, but always in the most hilarious, forthright manner. George loved people, and he wanted everyone to make pictures, to make art. But when he came into contact with an art world full of big egos he could be wickedly sarcastic, and incredibly insightful about people's peccadillos and foibles. George would often punctuate a really rollicking tirade with an exclamation in his Bronx brogue “Ah, the hell with it!” He could crack you up just by talking about the weather. But for him the weather wasn’t just idle, impersonal talk. The weather was Nature’s Spectacle, full of grandeur and power and beauty of the highest order. And although he was afraid of its power, he loved it dearly, as you can sense by watching his Weather Diaries (1986-89). For George the world was full of magic and wonder and humor.

One of the most lyrical shots from Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966) shows clusters of rooftop television antennae as they throb and shudder, dancing in the wind. This image perfectly conveys in a succinct image the collective isolation of a nation so newly entranced by the power of the televisual dreamworld. The swaying antennae also stand in as actors and audience for the isolated protagonist. Orchestral strings waver in a frisson of syrupy sentimentality, but the scene is nonetheless heartbreaking and poignant.

Hold Me While I’m Naked is perfect, as a picture, and as a summation of George Kuchar’s intent as an artist. On the one hand it is a modest, low-budget, small-scale picture full of stunning visuals and quirky characters that has inspired countless filmmakers over the decades. But the title is also the director’s plea to his viewer. George exposed himself, emotionally, and often physically, in his pictures. He held nothing back. And he invited us to join in too, to laugh, to cry, to expose our own emotional selves without fear or hesitation.


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