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, seen through the square of a bathroom window, also stand in as actors and audience for the isolated protagonist who reaches over and slowly closes the window like a curtain falling in the theatre. 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.

 

 

You can learn more about George Kuchar from the resources below:

 

George Kuchar: The Comedy of the Underground Directed by Gustavo Vazquez O. and David Hallinger

 

Kuchar Brothers website.

 

The George Kuchar Reader from 2014. 



 

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Random notes versus ransom notes from June 1996.

Sometimes I come across random notes that I've jotted down in the past. They feel like ransom notes from my past self that have been sent circuitously to my present self. The main difference between a "random note" and a "ransom note" seems to be the degree to which a person makes recourse to an X-Acto blade.

Other times I come across something that was cut and pasted together in the past. The pieces are all edge.





Saturday, November 23, 2019

Random notes and this particular morning in September, 2008.

I sometimes make these random notes. Sometimes I make these false starts. This was the beginning of something reflected through an insufferable inability to start. This one is from September 10, 2008.

This Morning, in Particular

    This. This is the type of thing you write when the sink backs up and the pipes start dripping and the phone won't answer and the maintenance man can't. Not even an appointment. I don't have "writer's block" because I am not a writer because I haven't written anything because I have some sort of... well you can see where this kind of foolishness might lead. Let's just say I woke up this morning. Here. In this apartment.
    Everything has seams and is quietly falling apart at them. I put two and two together and still there are not enough words to piece it all together. The time for summer nights and soft lanterns is broken, divvied out into the time for all things. What comes next is the expectation of something different. What actually comes is another story. Endless, it seems. I woke up alone today and hardly knew it, except for the dull ache. But hey, that could have been from sleeping funny or something. I hear the voices outside and hardly can turn to look. Nothing passes by that you don't see again and again. Certain reruns are longer than others. And Flannery O'Connor can't do a thing about it.
    This is the type of morning that folds itself into fortune cookies and origami cranes. This is the type of morning when the steam rises, smelling like something other than old coffee and crusty dishes. This is one of those mornings that I usually miss because I like to sleep. I like to feel my muscles stretch against themselves and I yawn like fourteen jaded lions at the San Diego Zoo. I want a toothpick and a shovel. I need an hourglass and a washtub. I looked for the Chapstick but my lips went dry without me. No telling where the next shoe will drop. The big stick carries us around and speaks not at all. It has us in its hip pocket. Carries us like a wad of chewing gum. Loosens us up by the Adam’s apple like a monkey wrench. No one really knows how big sticks chew. It must be disgusting. And involves splinters in all the wrong places.
    I lost the only roll of toilet paper in the whole building. I slipped it into my backpack for further review and the next thing you know the damn thing was gone. No remedy for that. No solution diluted enough. No water too weak to leak from that faucet. The situation is dire, and likely up for departmental review. I'll stand convicted of incompetent embezzlement. Losing rolls on the way home from the Literature department. Justice is poetic, if not swift, or impartial, or just.
    I steamed up the mirror with my breath and watched it race away from the edges. All silver and cloud-grey. But no vision came. And I couldn't just obliterate all traces of something that was so willing and compliant in going. I couldn't coax it to do any more self-sacrifice than it was already willing to do, unasked. So I was just left staring at myself expectantly. All for art, he says. Poor bastard had a future in front of him but couldn't recognize a thing past the two blurred sides of his nose. He could've fogged up all manner of windowpanes, or glass houses where inhabitants throw judgments like rocks. Nothing speaks in so fine a tongue as a receding section of undivided time. My lawn suffers from the want of a blade. Cuts both ways. Grows as haphazard as he who forgets to cultivate it. We share a five o'clock shadow.
    I watched the people rise today. I had no clear view of the sun, so I had to settle for watching the people outside my window scamper-clambering into wakefulness. Their actions getting ever more clear as the dew on the window pane evaporated under the breath of an unseen sun.
    I awoke with a bellyache. Which, of course, makes me think of S.J. Perelman: belly acre. Miles of intestines wound up around themselves like twine, griping about something small. Friction, perhaps. I awoke to the kind of scents that a Dust-Owl perches over on the dust fields, searching for dust bunnies. I swirled the morning in my mouth like a fine wine and spat it out in the clogged sink like second-hand saliva and mouthwash. I go over and over the simplest things and yet the morning still looks back at me the same. Cockeyed through a five o'clock bit of shade.
    I wonder when the drains will unclog and the water flow. No other forces are at work in drains but gravity and obstruction. You can split hairs all you want after that, but no passageways will be cleared. No new territories discovered. It always leads inexorably to the same point, it’s just that sometimes something gets in the way.

Random notes and impulse control from January 31, 2012.

Sometimes I come across random notes that I've jotted down in the past. They feel like ransom notes from my past self that have been sent circuitously to my present self. The main difference between a "random note" and a "ransom note" seems to be the degree to which a person makes recourse to an X-Acto blade.
So here is something titled "Impulse Control" that I apparently wrote on January 31, 2012:

Impulse Control


For some time now it has become increasingly clear that we live in a society with little impulse control. In fact, those with the least amount of impulse control are lauded as the centurions of the new economy. They slice a swath through the open-mouthed barbarian hordes of idle and apathetic consumers, and are rewarded with all the spoils of war—splitting the difference between "disruption" and "destruction". They fondle themselves in the rumpus rooms of elaborate corporate “campuses” erected in honor of the creative economy. They eat the sugared cereal of their youth all day long and wear pajamas and ironic slippers and brainstorm about new apps and multitask on cutting edge tech. Multiple windows open, they post on FaceBook, update their tweetfeed on Twitter, and Google clips for shits and giggles on YouTube.

So much hysterical giddiness in the workplace seems unbecoming somehow. But don’t worry. The situation isn’t as erratic as it seems. Pleasure Island from Pinnochio  has been recreated in the workplace because there is money to be made through such ritualized playtime. The brainstorming, being encouraged to act out your CHILDHOOD in all caps, without shame, is the way corporations create the petri dish to formulate—in laboratory conditions—their ideal consumer. Lost in nostalgia for Star Wars and Foosball and low-resolution Atari games, creators and consumers circle-jerk each other like happy drones, and ultimately help define each other.

The word “Synergy” is no longer enunciated with hushed reverence in press releases and extravaganza product release events. It is a fait accompli, the systems have been streamlined, the consumers have been surgically separated from their jobs, and now can spend all their time just mindlessly consuming. "Consumption" is still a "wasting disease". While the centurion and their twin (the mindless consumer) of the new economy are engaged in the exact same activities, one set gets paid to play and indulge in fugues of comic book fantasy, while the other pays for the privilege. This is the essential difference. Nothing is created other than the conditions for an infectious and ecstatic petulance. Faith is expressed through debt.

The internet “post” is perhaps the modern manifestation of the bumper sticker. The bumper sticker, particularly in its East Bay manifestation starting from the Seventies, was narrowcasting. The new tech allows for broadcasting FaceBook to those you know and Twitter to both strangers who share your views and strangers who hate your guts.


856 For Zellersasn

I finally got my hands on a Montreal Assembly 856 For Zellersasn. The name is a mouthful and the pedal itself is chock-full of switches and knobs and capabilities. For my first improvisation using the pedal I used the FUZZ channel of the Dr. Scientist BitQuest! into the Montreal Assembly 856 For Zellersasn and then into the Boss RE-20 and mono out to a Zoom H5.

Then I took the audio clip and edited together shots from The Crowd (1928), an incredible film directed by King Vidor.

Drolo Stamme[n]

I have an early version of the Drolo Stamme[n]. The most obvious difference is that it has an on/off stomp switch in the upper right-hand corner.



Here is Stamme[n] Version 3:

I initially made this animation to capture the sound of the first version Stamme[n].
 

But since the Version 3 Stamme[n] had features that I wanted to explore, I saved up and eventually got one. Here are some explorations of the two pedals used in conjunction with each other.

For this audio clip I edited shots from the silent film Häxan (1922), which was directed by Benjamin Christensen.

 

For this audio clip I edited together shots from the silent film Sherlock, Jr. (1924), which was directed by Buster Keaton,


Drolo Stamme[n] into Hexe Revolver DX-L into Boss RE-20

For the visuals I used some animation that I drew with a Sharpie years ago.


For this clip I didn't use the Stamme[n]. Just a Basic Audio Fuzz Mutant into a Hexe Revolver DX-L.