LAST SUMMER, when it became clear that cancer would inevitably take his life, George Kuchar entered a hospice in San Francisco. He brought his video equipment with him, shooting and editing footage inside what would serve as his final residence. At age sixty-nine, the underground film legend was reportedly the youngest person in the hospice at that momentappropriate for a guy who began his career as a teenage director and always retained the energy of a gum-snapping adolescent. Even at the end, he could play the kid with the camera.
This was not the first time Kuchar had recorded such a bleak scenario. One of his earliest tapes, Video Album 5: The Thursday People (1987), depicts his former lover, filmmaker Curt McDowell, emaciated in a hospital bed, dying from AIDS. After decades of shooting film, Kuchar had taken to Hi8 video in the mid-1980s, at a time when his most of his celluloid-loving colleagues had nothing but disdain for the consumer-grade medium. “You couldn’t get any lower than that in the eyes of my peers,” he later wrote. In the video, Kuchar arrives to greet his friend with an oddly upbeat hello, telling McDowell that the San Francisco Film Festival has announced it will dedicate its upcoming edition to himin effect informing McDowell about an event akin to his own memorial. A few moments later in the tape, Kuchar sits at home, reading a magazine, then lets loose a fart. “I guess that’s one thing I don’t have,” he says directly afterward, “dignity.” Death is just one more humiliating episode in the ongoing mortifications of quotidian existence.
Kuchar’s career started out as a more purely lighthearted affair. His early 8-mm film collaborations with his twin brother, Mike, begun in New York in the late 1950s when both were barely teens, were candy-colored travesties of big-screen melodramas and monster movies, made on dime-store budgets with friends from their Bronx neighborhood as actors, set to syrupy instrumentals from the brothers’ record collection. The Naked and the Nude (1957), A Tub Named Desire (1960), I Was a Teenage Rumpot (1960), Pussy on a Hot Tin Roof (1961)these lurid titles alone telegraph the Kuchars’ epic camp ambitions, simultaneously parodying Hollywood’s conventions while donning them with fannish adoration, a dynamic played out to a ridiculously scrupulous degree through every aspect of production. Soon the twins found their way to downtown Manhattan, where their cockeyed home movies synced right in with the exploding underground film scene of the 1960s, influencing Andy Warhol, John Waters, and many others. After switching to 16 mm, each brother worked independently, and George cast himself as nebbish-protagonist in nerdy-dirty works like Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966) and Eclipse of the Sun Virgin (1967), countering contemporary celebrations of free love with fractured ballads of sexual frustration.
Kuchar moved to the West Coast in 1971, thanks to an invitation to teach at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he remained on faculty up until his death on September 6. Semester-long productions made with his students became the most infamous aspect of his pedagogy, and through these communal efforts he passed on his lavishly no-budget techniques to new generations. In his own work, however, fictional storytelling dropped out of the repertoire; after his switch to video, the diary became his primary mode, allowing him to decorate scenes from everyday life with the jankiest effects his Casablanca editing system could generate. The transition to nonfiction was a natural one, since cinema à la Kuchar pivoted on the dialectic between overblown fantasy and schlumpy reality, the films always working double time as documentaries of their own making. At the core of what would become an enormous videographywell over two hundred titles!were his ongoing “Weather Diaries,” which chronicled time spent in and around the El Reno Motel in Oklahoma, where he trekked annually (beginning in 1986) in hopes of witnessing tornadoes.
Despite the Kuchars’ early popularity and influence, bolstered by ardent critical support from Jonas Mekas in the Village Voice, neither P. Adams Sitney’s Visionary Film nor Amos Vogel’s Film as a Subversive Art, both published in 1974, bears any mention of the twins. Even camp-savvy Parker Tyler’s 1969 study Underground Film: A Critical History cites them but briefly. Only later generations of writers and curators would take the Kuchars’ experimental comedies seriously. Recently, George saw the art world embrace him as well. A former student, John Pollard of ADA Gallery in Richmond, Virginia, began exhibiting Kuchar’s work in 2008, including paintings, comics, and photographs, and the filmmaker was included in the 2009 Berlin Biennale. MoMA PS1’s retrospective “George Kuchar: Pagan Rhapsodies,” which opened last November, was planned before his death, as was his inclusion in next month’s Whitney Biennial.
George’s works on paper express all the sharp-eyed, squiggly vitality of his filmmaking, but his video diaries are where he lays bare his most complex existential engagements. For Kuchar, the video camera was like an extrasensory organ, a part of him that had never stopped evolving new ways of processing the social world. He was the great comedian of experimental cinema, but also its fleshy conscience, filling his diaries with munching mouths, sultry skin, and unflushed toilets. While his contemporaries plumbed the depths of inner vision or constructed elaborate image-games, he said that his own work should stimulate “the head, heart, and hairy area below the stomach.”
Ed Halter is a founder and director of Light Industry, New York, and a curator of the film and video program for the 2012 Whitney Biennial.