Legendary underground director George Kuchar passed away from prostate cancer earlier this week. While Kuchar may not be a household name, he was a remarkably beloved and influential filmmaker. For those who cast their cinematic gaze not towards the rarified air of Hollywood, but towards garishly lit back alleys and cold-water flats filled with teenage rumpots running amok, Kuchar was your man.
Kuchar came of age in the Bronx of the 50s. George and his twin brother Mike lost themselves in the Hollywood melodramas of the time and began making their own malodorous melodramas on 8mm, films that were filled with sin, unrestrained id, lurid energies, and extreme eye make up.
Hollywood sells us a dream that anybody can become a star. Kuchar took that ethos to heart, grinding out over 500 films in which he proved that, in fact, anyone could become a star. His films were populated by a rogues gallery of characters–300 pound she-devils, picturesque behemoths, men in gorilla suits, his dog Backo, his cat Blackie, and even tornadoes played pivotal roles in the Kuchar cannon.
When it was all said and done, Kuchar left behind a tremendous legacy. Hundreds of short and feature-length films. Narratives, personal docs, ruminations on the weather, UFOs, and what he ate for dinner the previous evening. Whatever the topic, whatever the style, Kuchar’s films are filled with joy, a sense of humor, and irreverence. Florid language, over the top acting, garish costuming, and tawdry plots cascading together to create a singular and bizarre cinematic stew.
George, along with brother Mike, were huge influences on John Waters, who continually sings the praises of the Kuchars as filmmakers who gave him the courage to unleash his early Balto monstrosities on the world. In addition to Waters’ reverence, Kuchar’s legacy looms especially large in the Bay Area where he took up residence and began teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1971. The Art Institute was a hotbed of experimental filmmaking, had a progressive curriculum, and ideas flowed between faculty and students. Kuchar roped the students into his garish productions and vice versa. Filmmaker Curt McDowell was a Kuchar protégé and lover. The two teamed up for one of the great underground, experimental porn classics, Thundercrack. Under McDowell’s direction, Kuchar plays an animal wrangler from the circus who happens upon a mansion on a dark and stormy night. Things get weird and naked and by films end, George is in a dress marrying a gorilla. This is just the sort of image you expect to see in a Kuchar movie, but here we see George giving it all for one of his students. Kuchar taught at the Art Institute for over 30 years and each semester he’d embark on making a film with his students. This class was a right of passage for may Bay Area filmmakers and the films write the book on no-budget, fluid-filled, art school angst.
As a filmmaker, Kuchar continued to reinvent himself. When Hi-8 video became available, Kuchar jumped on the bandwagon abandoning celluloid. Purists were horrified, but Kuchar embraced the low fi, cheapo technology. He could knock out his pictures quicker and cheaper. And for George it was always about the pictures.
George & Mike’s book, Reflections From A Cinematic Cesspool is a fantastic read that shines much light on the on the inner workings of George’s mind. Kuchar comes across as someone who takes making films seriously, but refuses to take himself seriously. You also get lots of nice insight into George’s fixations on bad skin, body odor and gastrointestinal problems. Jennifer Kroot’s fantastic doc It Came From Kuchar is also highly recommended and an excellent gateway into the world of Kuchar for the uninitiated.
Ultimately George showed us that anything is possible. No idea too lurid. No cinematic emission too low brow. No style off limits. No obstacle too big to overcome. He lived in and created a world where anything goes and the possibilities were limitless.
At the end of the day, you simply have to seek out the films. The Mongreloid (1978), Wild Night In El Reno (1977), Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966), I Was A Teenage Rumpot (1960), and The Devil’s Cleavage (1975) are just a few guaranteed to make you think about film and the universe in a slightly different way.
George perhaps summed it up best himself. “Remember to work in obscurity and never have your first film become a giant hit because then you are in trouble and in danger of being a major flash-in-the-pan. Become a big soft plop-in-the-bowl, but create such a stink with your picture that people cannot ignore it. Things that stink become even more potent with age.”
George appears in his brother Mike’s film The Craven Sluck, available on Fandor.