Some people climb mountains. Others drive trucks. George Kuchar made movies.
With an outsized oeuvre of over 350 films and videos, there is very little ground that George, a true pioneer of underground cinema and cherished professor at the San Francisco Art Institute, did not break. Born along with twin brother, Mike, in 1942, the Kuchars were raised in the Bronx and reared on schlocky Hollywood double features. The fortuitous birthday gift of an 8mm home movie camera prompted a seismic burst of small gauge epics in the late 1950s and early ’60s that included precocious masterpieces like A Town Called Tempest, I Was a Teenage Rumpot, and Pussy on a Hot Tin Roof. Made with friends and family on weekends, these deeply funny, Kodachrome-colored collaborations brought them tons of laughs and heaps of recognition in the blossoming New York experimental film scene. By 1965 the brothers had graduated to the slightly more professional 16mm format and set off on their individual creative careers.
An energetic but shy soul who came to truly find himself behind a camera, George ceaselessly pursued his muse up until his death in 2011. For more than 50 years he churned out a perpetual onslaught of shorts, scores of truly crazed class productions, a continual stream of video diaries, and an occasional feature every once in a while. His ingenious, outlandish, and sometimes even poignant work features bold cinematography, inexplicable plots, high melodrama, and low-life leanings. Whether focusing on the clunky moments of daily existence, the murky lore of supernatural myth, or vintage pulp tales of wanton lust, all of George’s work is infused with an immersive comedic vision (alternately ironic, campy, dark, absurd, and dour) that values overwrought scenery and sumptuous skin over three-part structure and conventional dialogue. His most popular movies may well be Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966), I, an Actress (1977), and Weather Diary 1 (1985), but these are just the tip of a very absurd and abundant iceberg. From bisexual haunted house porn movies to Midwestern landscape studies, George’s films were always the rarest of things, avant-garde cinema with a sense of humor. How rarely are those words put together?
The George Kuchar Reader (Primary Information, 2014) is a forthcoming volume of uncollected and unpublished writings that span George’s awe-inducing career beginning back in high school. As a longtime Kuchar devotee, preservationist, and proselytizing agent, it has been my great joy to edit this whopper of a book (340 pages!) featuring an array of essays, ephemera, film scripts, autobiographical and critical writings, comics, drawings, paintings, correspondence, tales of U.F.O. encounters, student recommendation letters, and photos. The following essay was discovered on a laptop now in the collection of the Harvard Film Archive, which acquired George’s papers shortly before his passing. The file is dated 2008, but little else is known as to why George wrote this fevered recollection. Irregular spelling has lovingly been kept intact.
The very early days of television, when puppets on strings ruled the airwaves, were quite essential to my stature as a fallen angel (a filmmaker who fell into hell via a CIRCUIT CITY basket). I don’t always shop there, as sometimes I like the BEST BUY stores best as the ceilings are usually higher than their prices. This makes them cooler too. Anyway, television in the old days had lots of puppet shows instead of the kind of wooden entities you see on TV today, plus you could see that the balsa wood beings were being manipulated by strings (something not visible with today’s modern mannequins). The current dummies are wired more discreetly for maximum cleavage potential with the crotch area fully latexed to prevent unwarranted voltage from browning pink panties. The male mannequin requires less grounding for his antenna as the filaments of a hairy buttock make excellent circuitry for discharging ionized effusions.
Puppets were not the only denizens of early TV as you had lots of space operas with canned music but no canned laughter. That was organically generated by the viewing public in the comfort of their own homes since the shows were “live” with gaffs galore! Scenic backdrops would crash and makeshift props backfire or flaccidly flop on camera while the adrenaline pumped performers huffed and puffed their way through putrid plots, all inadequately funded. I loved it so much and that love hurled me into the realization that I too was destined for videographic Valhalla where the proud and the beautiful were shrunken down to fit into an electronic gizmo. That boxed gizmo itself was filled with other cubist containers all labeled with a Cocoa-Puff cosmology of cerealized serializations dramatizing pre-Sputnik space junk. The results to me, the viewer, were as sweet and flaky as the sponsor’s products and I drank it all in with an Ovaltine cocktail designed to rocket me into being a consumerized cosmonaut befitting the Eisenhower/Einstein, space-time continuum which continued to grind out these programs weekly on a boob tube devoid of boobs (except for maybe Xaviar Cugat’s new wife on one of the many variety shows that endangered the universe with gyrating ASS-teroids).
But unfortunately all was not sordid, as Loretta Young never had a costume malfunction while whirling through a door to introduce tepid teleplays. Nor did Howdy Doody make tangible his last name in the creases of his jeans, despite the fact that Clarabelle the clown squeezed incessantly at the rubber appendage of a horny hole near his mid section to excite the peanut gallery with a flatulating fracas.
I’m of course discoursing on early American, 1950s TV. Therefore this essay may mean absolutely nothing to those of European descent. My stimulating brush with continental TV was mainly in viewing Benny Hill programs. He was the shadow shape that followed such giants as Allister Cook who basked in the blazing brilliance of Masterpiece Theater thereby casting a darker doppelganger on the British telly (if there still be such a slang). I enjoyed his full figured shenanigans greatly even though the full figures of his stable of bevies weren’t exactly my cup of 4 o’clock tea. British mixed grills were always a bit skimpy on beefcake in that prime (rib) time.
For beefcake I had to settle for Joshua Logan musicals like South Pacific or the fan magazines that featured Tab Hunter shaving in the privacy of his privies (if, once again there be such a slang). Now-a-days there’s such a vacuum of words since so many have been considered off limits … banished except for the first letter. These will certainly make future dictionaries shockingly skimpy plus the human mouth will undoubtedly lose some of its provocative elasticity since it has already been hideously mutated with cosmetic injections. No muscular activation, because of vowel disembowelment, will be able to keep the lips operative during theatrical readings, causing the great classical orators of stage and screen to mimic the sound of farts from of a fist fucker’s familiar (pardon my olde English).
Speaking of the stage, only lately have I been attending live theater, as in the past the classic repertoire of Shubert Alley remained unexplored being that the “great white way” was too bright for the kind of activities I preferred in alleys. But age, and an increase in wallet girth, has changed all that. Before, the general trend was to purchase plays in soft cover editions and read them in the privacy of my own bedroom. Since most of the hot action occurred within the pages of those texts rather than under the sheets, I led a chaste life filled with lurid, and hopefully libido building aspirations where four letter words and deeds had been supplanted with the seeds of literary foliation. Filthy episodes in any medium should be rendered with delicate strokes of aspirational cravings for the hungry souls that desire its protein. Protein is bodybuilding but the energy to acquire that nutrient comes from the carbohydrates of carnality. It’s this transference of yin and yang that produces the poon tang powerhouse that we call great art.
For behind every man there stands a woman and behind both there looms a beast that demands the juices of both in order to ovulate the eternal. Whether that juice trickles into word or image, possibly both in my particular case, depends upon the squeezing this beast exerts in the ritual of triad termination. As the doomed die hot in the heat of crushing desires, the fat of their loins ignite, fueling future hell fires: conflagrations destined to singe our senses. Fire storms which burn eternal in the buns of Beelzebub, creating demon winds of inspiration that blast free from his constricting hell hole to fumigate our consciousness with a whiff of Shangri-La. Oh, sweet mysteries of light and shadow, how thy flickering upon the silver screen brings such gold into the teeth of our torment! And if it’s not the silver screen, but the cool glow of a plasmatic putrescence, then let the pixels dance with ruby slippers of scarlet, for black and white rubber is reserved for Hare Krishna footwear: insulated grounding to accompany chanting pin heads. And how many angels are on the head of a pinhead? That can only be guessed at from the droppings such cherubs leave behind. So be pure of intake yet potent in digestion for the remains of this nourishment will someday fertilize the unspeakable; and who cares (as you’ve probably surmised after reading this essay): a picture is worth a thousand words anyway.
ANDREW LAMPERT is Curator of Collections at Anthology Film Archives. His recent performance, SYNONYM FOR UNTITLED, was staged at the Whitney Museum in March 2013, and EL ADIOS LARGOS, a new video, premieres this fall.George Kuchar