Recent Exhibition: Living in Studio Kuchar, A Short Introduction
San Francisco Art Institute, March 9-April 21, 2012
“Realism only comes to the screen when the film jams in the projector and the image begins to bubble.”
– George Kuchar
The immediate impression upon entering the exhibition was the amount of noise in the room and the disorienting, chaotic images, text and pictures flashing on the walls and screens all around. The multi-media atmosphere created a comprehensive sensory experience that well reflected what it really must have felt like to “live in Studio Kuchar.”
George Kuchar was born in New York City in 1942. With his twin brother, Mike Kuchar (a director himself), he started making movies when he was 12 years old. According to his own account, because he was unable to get real girls to act, he made a “transvestite movie” on the roof, for which his mother ultimately scolded him. Nevertheless, the pair continued to obsessively make many more movies.
George moved to the Bay Area in 1971 and became an instructor at the San Francisco Art Institute, where the exhibition was held. There, he and his students collaborated to complete a film every term. Former students have testified to the intense level of creativity and exuberance that permeated the class and its projects. This dedication is visible in the documentary film, It Came From Kuchar, made by former student Jennifer Kroot (as an illustration of his influence, several of George’s former students’ films were available for viewing at one of the DVD stations in the exhibition). George died in September 2011.
A detailed budget that was on display calculating the anticipated mere $20,000.00 that an upcoming film would cost attested to the fiercely independent, innovative, and inexpensive nature of George’s work. In his films, dramatic cinematic effects were expertly recreated with a touch of camp, as in a flower pressed meditatively against the lips or two lovers running towards each other in slow motion. The Hindenburg was represented by a card-board cut-out floating above a sea of waving hands. Such simple gestures were costumed and framed impeccably, creating lasting images despite the low budgets. The movies were a pure distillation of the entire cinematic medium, from the classic Hollywood tradition to its opposite, the independent B-movies. This influence from the latter school was most evident in the majority of George’s fantastical titles, such as The Devil’s Cleavage, Corruption of the Damned, and Eclipse of the Sun Virgin.
Appropriately, the exhibition was primarily dedicated to allowing the visitor to actually watch George’s movies. Immediately in the first room, a 16mm print of I, an Actress (1977, now in the Library of Congress National Film Registry) was projected on the wall. In addition to the four other wall projections, seven TV viewing stations with headphones allowed the visitor to pick from numerous DVDs or VHS tapes and sit down to watch them at leisure. A portion of George’s record collection, including the expected amount of exotica, commercial and electronic music, was available for listening, and his books, mostly on UFO, occult and other esoteric subject matter, sat on shelves throughout. It is important to realize that all of these seemingly disparate elements were actually key ingredients to George’s work.
In a side screening room, six different 16mm films were available for viewing. Described as George’s “seminal works”, these included what was probably his most famous film, Hold Me While I’m Naked. The celebrated 15-minute short from 1966, admired by Andy Warhol and John Waters, documented the young filmmaker’s frustrated efforts to complete a movie. After a series of adventures centered around obtaining and keeping a lead actress, he ends up sitting dejectedly at the kitchen table eating a breakfast prepared by his nagging mother and ironically realizing that, “There are a lot of things in life worth living for, aren’t there?” The highly personal and ambitious nature of the work is clearly evident when George, backed by extremely dramatic music, tries to kiss a fake bird on his finger, which stiffly falls off. Poignancy achieved through garbage (their work has been self-described by the Kuchars as a “cinematic cesspool”).
From the same selection, the documentary An Afternoon with George Kuchar, filmed in San Francisco in 1976, served as an excellent corollary to the exhibition itself. It showed the brothers at work and in interviews at home. A long tracking shot through George’s extremely colorful and eclectic apartment, crammed with interesting books, records, film canisters, and other ephemera, provided a central highlight to the film. The movie touched on all areas of his creative work as a filmmaker, photographer, cartoonist, and teacher, and a small selection of his distinctive cartoons, pictures, and drawings were also on display in the exhibition.
Like the exhibition itself, there is a disjointed, chaotic nature to much of Kuchar’s work, where the real and the imaginary meet. He himself appeared in many of his movies, and they chronicled all aspects of his private life, including friendships, lusts, fears, and bodily functions. The exhibition catalogue further notes how his approximately 160 volume The Weather Diaries may be the longest video diary ever created. More importantly, the piece serves an illustration of how George continued to change his medium in order to keep up with developments in film-making technology. Nevertheless, as a corollary to these highly personal characteristics, many of Kuchar’s features hinge on the depiction of artificially dramatic situations and rely heavily on a variety of sex and violence (for example, in the early “transvestite movie” or the infamous Thundercrack). As the lead actress in Hold Me while I’m Naked complained, “I’m sick and tired of being naked in nearly every scene.”
The frequent depiction of such over-the-top situations, which overshadows the otherwise glaringly limited resources with which the movies were made, was a typical feature of both the exploitation and B-movie traditions as well as the contemporary New York underground film world, as seen in movies by Jack Smith, Andy Milligan and Andy Warhol. The history and influence of this scene, in which the Kuchars started, and its participants on later filmmakers need no elaboration here. Perhaps one of the most successful carriers of the tradition is John Waters, who wrote the introduction to the Kuchars’s memoir, Reflections from a Cinematic Cesspool. He will, fittingly enough, be in San Francisco on Wednesday, April 25, 2012, to introduce a screening of his movie A Dirty Shame (for more information, see http://www.cca.edu/calendar/2012/lecture-john-waters).
It Came from Kuchar, a documentary by Jennifer Kroot (kucharfilm.com)
Kuchar, George and Mike: Reflections from a Cinematic Cesspool (Zanja Press, 1997)
Morales, Julio Cesar: Made by Kuchar (2010, unpublished and excerpted in the Living In Studio Kuchar exhibition catalogue)