THE WORLDS OF GEORGE KUCHAR
March 18 - 21, 2008
at Emory University and Eyedrum
Curated by Andy Ditzler
co-sponsored by the following Emory University organizations: the Hightower Fund; the Race & Difference Initiative of the Strategic Plan; the Studies in Sexualities Initiative; the Marian K. Heilbrun Music and Media Library; the Office of LGBT Life; and the departments of Film Studies, Art History, American Studies, and the Institute of Liberal Arts.
The American film director George Kuchar is one of the legends of independent filmmaking. Beginning as a teenager in the 1950s with his twin brother Mike, Kuchar directed movies which upended Hollywood melodramas into small-scale epics, noted for their creative low-budget effects, over-the-top plots, eye-poppingly lusty performances by their cast of friends, and titles like “Sins of the Fleshapoids,” “Pagan Rhapsody” and “Corruption of the Damned.” Kuchar’s classic film “Hold Me While I’m Naked” is beloved by several generations of fans and filmmakers, and was voted one of the 100 best films of the 20th century by the critics of the Village Voice.
In the mid-1980s, Kuchar turned to videomaking, and created what is possibly the largest single collection of video diaries. This ongoing chronicle of the artist’s life is called “unique in film history” by the scholar Gene Youngblood. In Kuchar’s video universe, nothing is safe from the camera – George’s friendships, lusts, anxieties, fears, and bodily functions are all addressed onscreen, often accompanied by his outrageously funny commentary. And yet below the farcical surface lie witty, profound and moving meditations on human existence.
– Andy Ditzler
TUESDAY, MARCH 18, 2008
The Video Diaries of George Kuchar: a presentation by Gene Youngblood
8:00 PM, 206 White Hall, Emory University
Gene Youngblood has extensively studied and written on Kuchar’s video diaries, having viewed all of the 160 selections. He is currently preparing a book and website on the diaries and has been awarded the first Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writing Grant for his work on them. His lecture will give an overview of the themes and the importance of Kuchar’s diary works, using clips from Youngblood’s own collection.
THURSDAY, MARCH 20, 2008
Stormy Weather: George Kuchar in the Elements
8:00 PM, White Hall room 101, Emory University
Throughout Kuchar’s storied career, the elements have loomed large. Tornados interrupt steamy affairs, and intimate nature hikes reveal torrid urges. In the Weather Diaries, the midwestern storms which fascinate and terrify George are matched only by his romantic turmoil and epic bouts of gastric distress.
A Town Called Tempest (1963, 33 minutes, 8mm to 16mm)
Wild Night in El Reno (1977, 16mm, 6 minutes, color, sound)
Rainy Season (1987, 28 minutes, digital video)
Season of Sorrow (1996, 15 minutes, digital video)
Supercell (2004, 9 minutes, digital video)
NOTES ON THE FILMS
by Andy Ditzler
A TOWN CALLED TEMPEST
Made in 1963 when the Kuchar brothers were twenty-one, A Town Called Tempest exemplifies their over-the-top style of melodrama and extreme resourcefulness in moviemaking. A young man in a small town is obsessed with storm shelters. (Even when his father sends him to a hooker to straighten him out, all he can do is examine her room to see how it would withstand a storm.) Meanwhile, a shy, sensitive young woman finds solace only via her heroin dealer.
When the inevitable storm comes, it’s a doozy – complete with blood-red skies, twirling buildings, and flying electrical towers. The Kuchars rain destruction on Tempest in a do-it-yourself filmmaking extravaganza that, in visual interest and emotional effect, quite outstrips far more technically sophisticated productions. (This is one mark of the Kuchars’ greatness as moviemakers.) As throughout George Kuchar’s career, destructive weather can be seen here as both a metaphor for personal turmoil and as a tabula rasa plot device.
From here, the plot takes a jarring (though typical) turn for the left field. The hooker is converted to a sort of Mother Teresa figure for the storm victims, but with a murderous desire to hide her dark past. Suddenly there are hand grenades everywhere – literal ones on the screen, and a figurative one tossed by the Kuchars at their own film.
WILD NIGHT IN EL RENO
This short, exuberant film marks the beginning of Kuchar’s now thirty-year annual residence in El Reno, Oklahoma, where he chases (or “squats”) the summer storms. The one documented here was certainly worth the trip, but even more amazing is the music soundtrack. Kitschy, catchy, quirky and virtuosic all at once, the music clues us in that however spectacular the storm, the real subject here is the pure joy of filmmaking. The bizarre-but-hilarious self portrait which Kuchar inserts midway through Wild Night is entirely typical, and the repetition of this image in symmetrical fashion anticipates the formal properties of the later video diaries.
Made in San Francisco during Thanksgiving 1987, Rainy Season is one of the first videos in a now two-decade-long diary project, in which every facet of Kuchar’s life is seen through the mirror of his camcorder and the lens of his constantly reoccurring cinematic obsessions: our unquenchable appetites for food, sex, and “brain-frying atrocities”; the tenuous comfort given by our animal friends, despite the impossibility of communicating with them; the often anxious and tentative communication with other humans; the passage of time; and the weather, a constant metaphor for the turbulence of existence and the workings of the body.
Kuchar’s relentless documenting brings a steady stream of friends, acquaintances and strangers in contact with the camera. Most are taken aback, embarrassed, surprised, or unsure of how to proceed in the camera’s gaze. (Since we can easily empathize with their plight, the discomfort can be both funny and disturbing to watch.) When a photographer friend observes to George, “Don’t people always look at you funny?,” she could very well be referring to the constant presence of the camera. (Kuchar’s only response – edited in later, of course – is, “Go focus your equipment.”)
In particular, George’s lover is going through a rough patch in his life and is clearly irritated at George’s incessant taping, his intrusive inquiries and forced cheerfulness. But unlike one of George’s melodramas, there are no apocalyptic tornados to clean the cosmic slate and wipe away the demons. There is only the slow steady drizzle of the rainy season. The camera is “a five-pound lie detector,” and the anger, loneliness and despair are all too real.
But “the show must go on,” and appropriately this diary tape ends with the premiere screening of Kuchar’s latest class video production. However, even the applause of the audience cannot console him. On the drive home, a friend assures George, “you’ll survive.” “Survive,” he responds (edited in later), “so I can face my future.” In that future, another storm is already brewing, and only one thing is certain: more videos.
SEASON OF SORROW
Memorial Day, 1996. As in Rainy Season, a holiday is the occasion for deep sadness. George is on his annual trip to El Reno, Oklahoma, to observe the summer storms. A bulletin informs us that “The Reno Motel has been converted to a care home.” The rain lashes the windows, and George receives news from San Francisco: Blackie, the beloved cat who was George’s confessor in Rainy Season, has died.
Season of Sorrow is a melancholy, understated work containing few hints of the sexual or gastric excesses found in other weather diary tapes. Kuchar’s grief is presented as an extended, almost frozen moment. Images reoccur as if on a loop: George’s tearful face in candlelight; the TV weatherman’s cheerful delivery of bad forecasts; pictures of Blackie; the sad expressions on the face of Karen, George’s friend and fellow mourner.
Far from home, alone, and grieving – what can provide any comfort in this desolation? An incongruous Christmas tree, plastic statues of religious figures, candles everywhere. Kitsch items like this are a constant presence in the diaries, and are always double-edged. Kuchar recognizes their ridiculousness, but knows their value as well. George ends the video with a dedication: To Blackie – I miss you so much. Like the figurines, it’s nakedly sentimental – and it hits home.
“I love clouds, they’re like mountains that appear and disappear,” says George, and while Supercell touches on many Kuchar themes in a mere eight minutes, disappearance is the real subject here. Examples are numerous, but most explicitly, George himself appears and disappears several times, in sequences of exquisite poignancy and visual beauty.
But it wouldn’t be a real “George Kuchar Cloudscape” without more noxious clouds, namely the chorus of post-Krispy Kreme farts that brings us back to earth. “Bacon!,” George exclaims, identifying a source of one eruption. “That’s terrible,” he groans in mock embarrassment. He utters his last line, “When will I ever grow up?,” and promptly fades out of the frame. Don’t grow up, George – don’t disappear!
FRIDAY, MARCH 21, 2008
A Zest for Life: classic early films by the Kuchars
8:00 PM at Eyedrum
The stuff of legend, George and Mike Kuchar’s early films influenced generations of filmmakers, starting with Andy Warhol and John Waters. This screening showcases pristine new restorations of the Kuchar’s earliest 8mm films, along with the classic “Hold Me While I’m Naked.” And the evening starts with “I, an Actress” – a vintage directing lesson from George.
I, An Actress (1977, 9 minutes, 16mm, black & white, sound)
Anita Needs Me (1963, 16 minutes, 8mm to 16mm, 18 fps, sound on CD)
I Was a Teenage Rumpot (1960, 10 minutes, 8mm to 16mm, 18fps, sound on CD)
Sylvia’s Promise (circa 1962, 9 minutes, 8mm to 16mm, color, sound)
Hold Me While I’m Naked (1965, 15 minutes, 16mm, color, sound)
Eclipse of the Sun Virgin (1967, 15 minutes, 16mm, color, sound)
Knocturne (1968, 9 minutes, 16mm, color, sound)
The Mongreloid (1978, 10 minutes, color, sound)
NOTES ON THE FILMS
by Andy Ditzler and James Steffen
I, AN ACTRESS
"This film was shot in ten minutes with four or five students of mine at the San Francisco Art Institute. It was to be a screen-test for a girl in the class. She wanted something to show producers of theatrical productions, as the girl was interested in an acting career. By the time all the heavy equipment was set up the class was just about over; all we had was ten minutes...I had to get into the act to speed things up so, in a way, this film gives an insight into my directing techniques while under pressure." - G.K.
At first glance, I, An Actress appears to be a casual record of a class exercise. But as always with Kuchar, a closer viewing reveals unexpected depths. The film becomes a commentary on his own camp persona (the title refers as much to Kuchar as to the actress he’s coaching), and on the eternal problem of directing actors with wills and personalities of their own. A great introduction to Kuchar’s work. –J.S.
ANITA NEEDS ME
Anita Needs Me is a tour de force – a panting, overheated Bronx tale of lust, guilt, sacrifice, redemption, and...mother. The Kuchars’ response to the French New Wave comes complete with a voiceover narration by George in definitively purple prose, a typically brilliant music soundtrack, and a visual sense to rival any of their contemporaries. Most remarkably, George’s handheld camera work, with its subjective protagonist’s view and Kuchar’s own hand reaching into the frame, is a major precursor of his diary video style – twenty-five years avant la lettre. –A.D.
I WAS A TEENAGE RUMPOT
“Betty Lou Got a New Pair of Shoes,” and jealousy, mayhem and chaos ensue. The earliest film in our series, Rumpot was made in 1960, when George and Mike, the twin brothers Kuchar, were all of eighteen years old. Though their films would grow in thematic complexity, Rumpot already shows the visual energy, dynamic music, and anarchic, twisted plot development that so endear the Kuchars to audiences. The outlandish makeup and onscreen behavior would make the Jack Smith of Flaming Creatures proud. In this context, a sudden moment of feigned modesty (when one woman is discovered undressing) is ironic indeed. –A.D.
“Love comes in all sizes. But the bonds of love extract a terrible price to be paid in flesh. A vow weighs heavily on the heart. Sylvia makes a promise but can she keep it?” – G.K.
Sylvia’s Promise is one of the most energetic and visually spectacular of all the Kuchar brothers’ films. Mike plays a villainous and abusive boyfriend; Sylvia is his buxom girlfriend, who promises to change if he’ll marry her. Midway through, Mike leaves for the bar, and we are treated to an extended pop art sequence of early 60s rock music and dancing, with one bar patron’s red dress typical of the Kuchars’ sharp, vibrant color sense. “Seven years later,” Sylvia has kept her promise, sort of, and the aerobics continue in a memorable left-field ending that undoubtedly left its mark on John Waters. –A.D.
HOLD ME WHILE I’M NAKED
“There’s a lot of things in life worth living for, isn’t there?” – G.K. in Hold Me While I’m Naked
A zero-budget take on Hollywood melodramas like Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful, condensed into fifteen minutes and shot on luridly colored 16mm film stock, with dollops of self-reflexivity (recalling Fellini’s 8 ½) and comic deflation spooned on top. An amateur filmmaker’s obsession with disrobing his lead actress throws her into an emotional crisis and endangers the whole endeavor, while the director remains trapped in the world of his own bizarre sexual fantasies.
Beyond the obvious camp aesthetic that colors the entire film, it’s a virtuoso display of editing that meets European art films such as Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) or Sergei Paradjanov’s The Color of Pomegranates (1969) on their own terms. Deliberately jarring edits emphasize abrupt shifts in mood and give the sense that we’re viewing a montage of highlights from a much longer film. Kuchar’s use of jump cuts even extends to the music track. Especially remarkable is how he uses jump cuts to join repeated actions and multiple takes of the same shot. Experimental cinema is rarely this concise and engaging. –J.S.
ECLIPSE OF THE SUN VIRGIN
The title deliberately invokes the kitsch musical exotica of Yma Sumac, but the film itself is more an exploration of the exquisite conflict between Roman Catholicism and adolescent longings. Against a cannily organized soundtrack we see: the cult of the Madonna and motherhood as embodied in Kuchar’s relationship with his own mother and various other women; the director’s frustrated adolescent longings; his fascination with the human body in all its fleshy, pimply glory; and a shocking, surgical “mortification of the flesh” consumed as a kind of pornography. –J.S.
The title suggests a cracked musical composition, and perhaps this film is best understood as such. Here Kuchar largely jettisons the narratives (or narrative fragments) that typically structure his films, diving head-first into a picturesque but brackish pond of surrealism. But Kuchar’s version of surrealism is always recognizably his own, populated with disconnected fragments of lush orchestral music, abused dolls, corpulent women, and lovingly composed landscapes. –J.S.
"A man, his dog, and the regions they inhabited, each leaving his own distinctive mark on the landscape. Not even time can wash the residue of what they left behind." - G.K.
The Mongreloid explores at the problems and joys of human-pet relationships from Kuchar’s typically cracked perspective. He engages in what appears to be a one-way conversation with his dog Bocko, his reminiscences intercut with photos and film footage from the times in question. Kuchar’s companion Curt McDowell also makes an appearance, albeit at one level of remove from reality. –J.S.
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