George Kuchar celebrated his 65th birthday earlier this month at the Telluride Film Festival, where he was saluted with a tribute and a Pepperidge Farm cake. That last detail makes perfect sense; all the others require a bit of effort to digest. Kuchar started out making no-budget movies with his twin brother Mike in the Bronx; half a century after “A Tub Named Desire” he continues to shoot offbeat video diaries wherever he goes and campy melodramas with his students at the S.F. Art Institute. He is the perennially innocent child, the enthusiastically ageless artist, especially when he has a camera in his hand. How could he be hitting a Social Security milestone? As for the Telluride honor, there’s something incongruous about the Mission District icon being feted the same year as Daniel Day-Lewis. Kuchar recognized that the air was thinner up there; sitting on a panel about music and the movies with legendary composer Michel Legrand, he said to himself, ‘What am I doing here?’ He figured it out pretty quickly, though. On the phone this weekend he confided, in typical Kucharese, “It’s nice to be accepted, not as a boil or a blister, but as a member of the community.”
We live in an age where camp masquerades as high culture — consider the revival of the musical on Broadway, or the staging of the Best Song nominees at the Academy Awards — so it’s impossible to imagine the effect of George and Mike Kuchar’s films back in the day. They were a unique, hilarious blend of underground grotesquerie and Hollywood knockoff, which paid homage to studio glamour and transgressive desire in the same frame. John Waters was an early admirer, although he learned from somebody other than the Kuchars how to parlay a quirky, vaguely subversive persona into lucrative cult stardom. The brothers are not exactly household names outside the film world, and George’s Telluride tribute sure isn’t going to change that. That’s just fine with him. “I’m always in the shadows,” he says. “I work better that way. It’s freer.”
Telluride guest programmer Edith Kramer presented a batch of George’s recent videos as well as a program of older films, but the vintage celluloid drew most of the attention. The Pacific Film Archive, which Kramer brilliantly led as director and senior curator for many years before her retirement in 2005, reprises the show of short films next Tues., Sept. 18 with “It’s a Funny, Mad, Sad World: The Movies of George Kuchar.” The lineup includes “Night of the Bomb” (made with Mike, 1962), “Hold Me While I’m Naked” (1966), “Knocturne” (1968), “A Reason to Live” (1976) and “I An Actress” (1977).
Although it’s a wonderful thing that George’s earlier work has achieved a kind of acceptance, stature and even immortality, it has the unintended side effect of overshadowing his recent and considerable output. Kuchar embraced video several years ago, and he hardly goes anywhere without his mini-DV camera. Several of his weather pieces, shot in various locales around the U.S., have been shown by S.F. Cinematheque and the Other Cinema. Kuchar was the unbilled star of a Manhattan gallery show this summer that included three of his fabulous paintings and featured “Ascension of the Demonoids” projected on a wall. That night, he met a character named Larry “Ratso” Sloman, ghostwriter of Howard Stern’s best-sellers and co-author of “The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero,” and ending up making a portrait film of him.
Kuchar plainly loves digital video, which enables him to edit at home or in a hotel room and complete films the way most people knock out a couple of journal entries. As we speak, he’s finishing up a 14-minute, 16×9 widescreen doc he shot at Telluride. (It might end up on the bill at PFA, but more likely you’ll have to catch it another time and venue. That’s one of the perks of being a SFAI student of George’s — he screens his latest work in class. You can also seek out “The World of George Kuchar,” a five-DVD box set released by Video Data Bank that spans the years 1987-2005.) With a nod to the fandom that belatedly developed for his early films, Kuchar says with a laugh, “Maybe wait 20 years and these will catch on.”
George Kuchar has never lost his New York accent or edge, but he’s unmistakably a San Francisco character. As such, he’s an endangered species. Thankfully, Jennifer Kroot, a former student and director of the garish and marvelous indie feature “Sirens of the 23rd Century,” is making a documentary entitled “It Came From Kuchar” that captures his irrepressible spirit. (Check out the trailer at www.kucharfilm.com, especially if you’ve never had the pleasure of meeting its subject firsthand.) Kroot accompanied Kuchar to Telluride, so one day we’ll have the pleasure (as a DVD extra, hopefully) of seeing his bizarre onstage conversation with surprise interviewer Buck Henry. (“He was a fan of ‘Thundercrack,’ Kuchar explains. “That’s where I met him.’)
The PFA show, and even the Telluride tribute, are not even slight indications that Kuchar is nearing the end of his career, or even slowing down. “You don’t have to close shop when you’re a certain age,” Kuchar declares. Amen to that, brother.
“It’s a Funny, Mad, Sad World: The Movies of George Kuchar” screens Tuesday, Sept. 18 at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.
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