BY ANNE COLVIN
The past weeks have seen the unexpected force of Hurricane Irene wreak havoc along its path, leaving us meteorologically bewildered and with a newfound existential barometer.
Someone who was no stranger to tempestuous weather was George Kuchar, low-fi filmmaker extraordinaire, who passed away on 6 September after a battle with cancer. I recently spoke with him on the phone while he was in hospital receiving treatment. Despite his weakness, he rose to the occasion and we talked about his video series ‘Weather Diaries’ (1977–2011). Used to conversations about the weather – I originally come from Scotland – George pointed out that there are more meteorology books written in the UK than anywhere else. Talking to George was a profound and moving experience.
The Kuchars – George and his twin brother Mike – were darlings of the underground cinema movement, embraced by such iconic figures as Andy Warhol, Jonas Mekas, John Waters and Atom Egoyan. They are, in the words of New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, ‘among the most prolific and inventive American filmmakers of the past half-century, and perhaps the most eccentric’, and as director John Waters once put it, ‘[Kuchar] was the first to do vulgarity in an almost opera style’. Their works are screened internationally and held in numerous collections. George was a recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Worldwide Video Festival First-Prize Award, the Los Angeles Film Critics Award, and the Maya Deren Award for Independent Film and Video Artists from the American Film Institute, amongst many others.
Fuelled from an early age by a love of Hollywood melodramas, the twins began experimenting with 8mm cameras in their teens. They were often to be found on the roof of their Bronx apartment directing friends in make-shift cinematic fantasies – small explosions of special effects, over-the-top plots and crazy performances – a style which was to become their signature trademark. The titles of two of their early works – Lust for Ecstasy (1964) and Color Me Shameless (1967) – seem to say it all. As Kathy Geritz, film curator at Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive observed: ‘The Kuchars, with their unique blend of narrative and popular culture, soon became part of the burgeoning underground New York cinema scene of the 1960s. Their 16mm productions such as Hold Me While I’m Naked and Sins of the Fleshapoids inspired John Waters, while Andy Warhol preferred their 8mm productions.'
George moved to San Francisco from New York in the early 1970s to teach at the San Francisco Art Institute. At the time, he was about the same age as the students, which for him made the experience feel more like collaboration than teaching. They made films, hung out and developed close relationships. Given his earlier experiences in New York, I suggested to George that he could have been seen as some sort of hero by his students but instead he insisted, in his Bronx accent that he was just a ‘schmo from New York!’ He continued working with his students this way until recently, and was something of an institution at the SFAI and having been around, in his words, ‘longer than the Hammer House of Horrors!’
With the advent of the camcorder George turned to video-making in the mid-1980s and created the ‘Weather Diaries’, a monumental collection of video diaries which is, as noted by film scholar Gene Youngblood, ‘unique in film history’. Through these diaries, George told you how it was in his world, extending the narrative to include his bodily functions, dreams, obsessions and the weather. Every spring for the past 30 years George traveled to El Reno in Oklahoma and holed up in a mid-century motel to wait for the ‘deadly fury’ of mid-western tornados. These storms, the motel residents, the room, his gastric condition and junk food provided the material for the ‘Weather Diaries’ videos and while people lost their homes and even their lives George managed to ‘take cover and figure out how to save myself’.
The novelist Travis Jeppesen has said that ‘stylistically the work is neither home movie nor high art, but perhaps a little of both’. A kaleidoscopic collage of kitsch, a camp weather report, and moments of profundity all combine with canned muzak and cheesy special effects. With the idiosyncratic Kuchar eye he skillfully created a unique and bizarre elemental symphony. Unexpected beauty, incisive wit and general wackiness all fly in the face of the oncoming force of nature. If anyone could paint a poetic portrait of extreme weather, it was George.
George’s meteorological obsession stemmed from a love of Eric Sloane’s books, another artist interested in Americana and weather. Taking his passion beyond the confines of the Bronx and the page, George made it a reality; ‘it’s thrilling to look at nature from a distance’ he told me. He also exploited low fidelity to the extreme, and as a DIY master observed that, having had such a range of portable special effects on his computer, he may as well use them when editing in his motel room. His process was down to ‘what looks and feels right’, never over-thinking a creative decision, instead making them very much in and of the moment.
Last month I saw the most recent and final entry in his ‘Weather Diaries’ in ‘SF Tropical’, a quirky group show at Queens Nails Projects in San Francisco. A seamless carousel of clips wove together a cacophony of student-enacted flashbacks, peep holes, Oh Yeah! chocolate bars, Mexican food, Indian food, the weather channel, evacuations, his dog and the rain – all framed by George’s call to action: ‘The storm sirens are on.’ Local art school students participated in this particular diary video, making a film within a film, whilst George played both himself and what seemed to be a fictitious character. Like his films, George was playful and created an immediacy and vitality in his work. The students in the video clearly loved his irreverent humour, and took him out for meals. He liked Indian food and watching George devour a mango lassi in lurid detail was enough to make one rush out to the nearest Indian food truck.
The poetry and intimacy at the heart of the work illuminated George’s wonderful spirit: the rain falling on the air conditioner, the filmmaker talking about the storm moving in and ‘the storms in my life’ in his refreshingly frank manner. His diaries ‘start with people and end with people’.
George had recently given up teaching due to his ill health and had hoped to have some time to work on his paintings, which he always introduced one way or another in the ‘Weather Diaries’, creating another relationship between himself, the videos and the people who populate them. George leaves behind a truly inspirational legacy and a heartfelt loss to his many fans.
An exhibition of George Kuchar’s work at the San Francisco Art Institute’s Walter and McBean Galleries is planned for spring 2012.