BY CHARLES BERNSTEIN & SUSAN BEE
George Kuchar (1942–2011) was one of the most creative, original, and influential filmmakers of our time, straddling two generations of North American iconoclasts, from Stan Brakhage, Ken Jacobs, Rudy Burckhardt, Kenneth Anger, and Michael Snow to Warren Sonbert, Ernie Gehr, Abigail Child, and Henry Hills. Often collaborating with his twin brother, Mike, George Kuchar started making films as a Bronx teenager, and the brothers’ early films already show the ingenuity, exuberance, and do-it-yourself charm that would pervade scores of their subsequent films.
Kuchar’s Weather Diaries (1986–1990), some of which will be included in the Whitney Biennial film program in 2012, is an iconic series amidst his wildly various diary films. Kuchar’s fascination, not to say obsession, with the weather started for him as a child growing up in the city in the years immediately following the Second World War. He writes that he saw the “colorful tapestry of sky that loomed above the tenements. The awe of summer thunderstorms, smothering blizzards, and window rattling nor’easters left a lasting impression on me. I sought out, via library books, the superstars of this meteorological majesty and read up on hurricanes, tornadoes, and other terrors that occasionally whirled into urban awareness.”
Kuchar learned how to read the clouds, which made “going out everyday a kind of heavenly horoscope.” He developed a “fascination with thunderstorms and the furious whirlwinds they sometimes unleashed on the landscape.”
“I am not a storm chaser as I never learned how to drive a car. I wanted to experience springtime storms on the American plains like the simple folk I read about in those library books. Therefore the videos in The Weather Diaries depict the turmoil, tedium, terror, and televised terrain of tornado country through the eyes of a transplant.”
Every year Kuchar made a large-scale scripted film with his students at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he taught for nearly 40 years. His students were deliriously incorporated into his queerly epic visions, shaped by his uncanny approach to lighting and color filtering, scripts, costumes, overlaying of images and effects, and soundtrack, which are comparable to the greatest Hollywood films, but all done on shoe-string budgets. Rather than being constraining, Kuchar’s production budget enriched the aesthetic power of his films. It helped that he was a genius when it came to lighting, editing, make-up, cinematography, directing, musical soundtrack, and script writing; but his commitment to film as something that can be done idiosyncratically and without huge expense has been an inspiration to generations of independent filmmakers after him. Indeed, Kuchar’s films anticipate the work of younger video artists for whom cheap digital cameras and the Web are the tools at hand.
In his films, Kuchar is always poking fun and always having a good time, in an apparently sweet and charmingly self-deprecating way. Yet this court jester of avant-garde cinema had a sardonic edge that was as sharp as an editor’s blade. His vision bubbled out of the cauldron of his gay, Catholic, working-class childhood. This led to his lifelong tango with the high, and often dry, seriousness of the art world.
Kuchar stayed true to his American vernacular instincts throughout his life. The body of work he produced, now archived at Harvard, is a testimony to the power, and importance, of film done without the hindrance of large-scale production.
As a writer, Kuchar combined his genre-obsessed irony and self-reflective bathos into scripts of scintillating wit. The opening monologue in Thundercrack! (he wrote the screenplay for Curt McDowell) rivals and extends the best of Tennessee Williams’s plays. (PennSound has a link to his script for The Bride of Frankenstein, which is a perfect example of his largely unacknowledged brilliance as a writer.) Kuchar’s soundtracks, collages from his extensive LP collection, are exemplary for using already existing music in new contexts so seamlessly that you would have thought the music was composed especially for each scene. Kuchar’s films offer object lessons in how a splash of sound totally colors a scene; his quick sound segues contribute to the dynamism of his work and give it that wonderful, much sought-after, B-movie aura. But make no mistake: his editing is as diacritically perspicacious as any sound/image juxtaposition in Godard (even if his ingratiating style would not usually give rise to such terminology).
Kuchar made the switch from film to digital relatively early, fully embracing the dominant technology, and as he had done with film, making it completely his own. Much of his later work consists of an ongoing diary—a sprawling, picaresque series in which he documents, in addition to the weather, his meals, his friends, his trips. These funny, endearing works, in which he is the principal character and which he shot entirely by himself, are films that revel in the sublimity of the ordinary.
Kuchar created a small but notable body of work outside of his films: drawings and paintings in oil, watercolor, and tempera. George Kuchar: Pagan Rhapsodies, organized by Peter Eleey, including films, videos, and works on paper, is currently on display at MoMA PS1 (through January 15, 2012). He was trained as a commercial artist and after graduating from the School of Industrial Art he drew weather maps for a local news show. Speaking of his paintings, he told Eileen Myles, “I make ’em cause I like painting and I don’t like to paint my apartment. These cover the walls, they cover a lot.” Kuchar researched his paintings, looking for stories that he wanted to paint. Indeed, his paintings look a lot like his movies. “I pick characters, and I’m used to working in a box.” They are studies in light and color and are chock-full of Kuchar’s personality. He became involved in comix through his neighbor in San Francisco in the 1980s, Art Spiegelman; he went on to do many comix storyboards as well as underground comix.
Visiting his apartment, which he shared in the last few years with his brother Mike, was like entering a giant artwork made up of his own paintings and the kitsch objects he collected, which were lovingly curated and installed with a magnanimous and comic, yet almost religious, ecumenism.
Over many past summers Kuchar would stay with Mimi Gross at her Provincetown house, just up the hill from where we stayed with our son Felix. At Mimi’s, Kuchar would watch long stretches of Fox TV (he didn’t have cable at home), beyond the pale as far as we were all concerned. It’s not that Kuchar had any more sympathy for Fox’s ideology than we did, but he was able to get much more out of it: he loved its pulp qualities, how entertaining it was, how ludicrous. It was for him a kind of freak show. So it was particularly delightful for him that on July 30, 2009, Fox ran a segment with “superstar” anchor Megyn Kelly that attacked stimulus funding to the National Endowment for the Arts for supporting a movie series showing Thundercrack!, a film that was so disgusting, Kelly suggests, because it includes sex between a man and a gorilla.
Kuchar’s comment: “Megyn Kelly is sure attractive.”
Weirdos, kooks, outcasts: these are not the people in Kuchar’s films but the ones on national TV, paraded as normal. In Thundercrack!, Kuchar plays a circus truck driver who has fallen in love with the female gorilla in his charge. In the final, touching scene, we see the driver in bed with someone in a very campy gorilla costume.
From Baudelaire’s “À une Mendiante rousse” onward, artists have tried to find a way to portray society’s “others” without voyeurism, pity, condescension, or romanticizing. Kuchar in bed with an actor in gorilla suit is the perfect realization of the possibility of the pataque(e)rical as a quest for “otherworldly humanity” (to borrow a term Kuchar uses in one of his last class films, Lingo of the Lost).
A man with a movie camera: nobody’s done it better.
Felix Bernstein interviewed Kuchar in March 2010, for a richly intimate video (which can be found on PennSound’s website). “Do you feel like you’re making your films for a certain audience?” he asked. “Like your diary films, who are you making those for?” “My diaries?” Kuchar replied. “I make them for me also so I can remember the friends, the places, the times I had. Good times.”
Felix Bernstein: So, it’s a lot of memory for you and capturing things?
George Kuchar: And to see if you can relay that to an audience, the public. The paying public. See if they can get a feel for the place, a feel for the mood, for the people.
Bernstein: So, in a way, those films are very personal, almost like someone’s photo albums.
Kuchar: It’s true. You just sit there and instead of flipping pages, scenes flash on, and then I try to make them as interesting as possible, and as colorful sometimes, as if the pictures are in color.
Bernstein: Do you feel that it can be like a healing process making those very personal films?
Kuchar: Well, it keeps you out of trouble because you’re working on a project. It takes your mind off gloomy things. Or you can photograph gloomy things and it doesn’t seem so gloomy. So, it’s therapeutic in that way.
Bernstein: Making films for you has been a way of expressing things that otherwise you couldn’t express?
Kuchar: I do express them but people get mad at me. Or they may be disgusted and repelled, you know what I mean?
Kuchar: Because human nature isn’t always the prettiest.
Bernstein: Yeah, people don’t like to necessarily see something personal.
Kuchar: Nowadays, what’s personal with me sometimes is a turd in the bowl, and that they definitely don’t want to see. But I do it sometimes only if it’s needed. Sometimes, I don’t know, there’s an urge. Sometimes there’s a devilish urge. But the main idea is to put some soul and heart into a picture along with the physical attributes. That’s why it’s good to go to a gym and fix yourself up just in case there are a couple of shower scenes you have to do. I mean, you want to be a sex symbol. I think everybody secretly wants to be a sex object. They deny it.
Bernstein: I think they do, yeah.
Kuchar: Yeah, it’s important.
Bernstein: Do you ever feel in your life that like when you’re in a bad place, that making films sort of helps you re-imagine, you know, your life and different situations, and can have a positive effect on you?
Kuchar: It can, and the positive effect would be the reliving, maybe, of the past, looking back and seeing a life unfold. Sometimes there’s great unhappiness. But a lot of times, some of the characters have died, the real people in the picture, and the animals have died. But then it’s like they never really did die because you don’t feel that absence because they are there on the screen and you can replay them, you know, and nowadays with the video hear the sound and everything. The trick is don’t turn it off too fast, otherwise you may be shooting something and saying, “What the hell am I shooting this for? It’s boring, he’s a talking head. What the hell are they saying?” Because you’re interested also in the composition, trying to get everything right. But then if you leave the camera on, a certain kind of essence comes out. It’s almost like panning for gold, and you start the panning when you do the editing, and you extract the main essence of what was happening either with the person or their answers to your question. And so, as long as you have footage, then you can edit. So don’t turn the camera off too fast.
Bernstein: Do you think that people are trying to control their life by filming it all the time or that it’s an artistic freedom?
Kuchar: You can document your life. They’re doing that all the time on the Internet, aren’t they?
Bernstein: Yeah, that’s what I mean. Or reality TV.
Kuchar: That’s okay, but it depends on what they’re doing.
Bernstein: But sometimes it’s not about sort of artistic——
Kuchar: No, but if they’re in the hot tub, I’ll watch. The best thing about that is that there’ll be so many pictures made that nobody pays attention to your picture. And that means you have freedom to do whatever you want because nobody’s gonna see the damn thing anyway.
Bernstein: Also, everyone has a camera now.
Kuchar: Everybody will be photographed constantly. That’s when people say, “Get that camera off of me. I want some privacy.” You see, when you go in the elevators or something they’ve got the cameras on. It’s silly, you know, but it’s great for one thing—for me, anyway—I was interested in twisters and stuff, and, man, it used to be rare to get pictures of tornadoes. Now it’s loaded. Everybody has little cameras and whenever there’s a twister, they’re taking pictures.
Bernstein: I feel like with painting or something that people always talk about it being therapeutic, you get to sit down with the paintbrush, but I feel like people feel kind of more disconnected from film in a way because it seems more like a machine.
Kuchar: No, you know what it is? It’s more isolating when you sit down to do a painting, because you’re alone with the canvas and you usually have to keep people out of the room, even animals. And with a film, if you’re making a film especially with people there, there are people there, there are locations and stuff, and it’s a really social exercise in a way. So, it’s healthier. That’s why you see sometimes a lot of comics that are made and you realize that you’re going into the person’s brain, and you realize that the mind can be a terrible cesspool. And when there’s somebody alone with the paper, it’s all spilling out. And the strange thing about movies is that somewhat the cesspool is like sweetened or disinfected a little bit by the fact that you’re dealing with other people, and therefore the actual stink is mellowed a bit.
Bernstein: Well, not in pornography, necessarily.
Kuchar: No, but pornography’s important because it’s like looking at a menu with pictures on it when you go to Chinese restaurants. You see the chow fun and stuff. And then sometimes in order to get all excited, you have to look at action going on, and then you can examine the people’s parts and, say, compare them to your own, and performances. So, in pornography, if the lights are on too much, it doesn’t look that good. It doesn’t get too exciting because normally you want kind of shadows, and if you light the body in a certain way, there’s wonderful contours. So, if you can add lighting and all kinds of movie stuff to it, it’s kind of interesting.