George Kuchar: Demented in All the Best Ways

By Jeff Jackson 

New Frequencies at McColl Center presents The Sins of George Kuchar / Selected Short Films on Friday, May 20, 2016 at 8 PM.

George Kuchar (1942-2011) was an underground film legend and the subject of the popular documentary It Came from Kuchar. His ingenious and irreverent films have influenced countless other artists, including Andy Warhol, John Waters, and David Lynch. Noted for his humor and a “no budget, no problem” attitude, Kuchar’s work encompassed everything from spoofs of Hollywood melodramas to intimate documents of his everyday life. 

Kuchar made roughly 350 films and videos during his life – which makes putting together a program of his work somewhat daunting. New Frequencies at McColl Center film curator Ross Wilbanks and I contacted Kuchar expert Andrew Lampert to help us select some of his best short videos – later work that hasn’t received much exposure but still makes for an ideal introduction to Kuchar’s singular world. 

Andrew Lampert is an acclaimed filmmaker, as well as archivist and curator of collections at the legendary Anthology Film Archives in New York City. He’s the editor of The George Kuchar Reader (2014) and featured in the documentary It Came from Kuchar. He’s given talks at numerous screenings and symposiums about George Kuchar. I interviewed him via email about Kuchar’s work and his personal relationship with the legendary filmmaker. 

George Kuchar is best known for his early 16mm films. How would say his work changed when he moved to video?

Andrew Lampert: Video permitted George to be more spontaneous and to carry a camera with him in his everyday life. He was not particularly a diary filmmaker when using 8mm and later 16mm, but the video camera became a constant companion that allowed him to document his travels, his friends, his meals, and his moods. It also allowed him to shoot with sound, which is much different than using film. While George appeared in some of his earlier films, with video he could finally become the protagonist in his own works. Video gave him the ability to work in a number of different genres and stylistic modes, and as a result the works became even more personal and direct. The low cost of shooting video meant that he had much more freedom to experiment, as well as to endlessly make new work. Beyond this, video also provided him with the ability to apply special effects to great abandon. 

Are there particular aspects of his video work that you think should be highlighted? Or that are overlooked and under-rated?

I’m always impressed, no make that amazed, by the amount of different styles that he embraced and all the techniques that he employed. I would argue that most of his film and video work is under-rated and also overlooked. There are a few reasons for this, but one significant factor is his prolific productivity. George made over 350 film and video works, so it is hard for anyone to really know of have a grasp of them all. He had early success with the film Hold Me While I’m Naked, and while it certainly is a magnum opus, I feel like it somewhat obscured the hundreds of works that follow. It's still his most rented work today, and many people just don't look far beyond it into his back catalog and all the different types of sensations that it offers. His “greatest hits,” which definitely include Weather Diary 1, The Mongreloid, and I, An Actress, seem to have delightfully distracted us from looking at a lot of other potential candidates for masterpiece status. 

When it comes to video, I also think that the works he made with students at the San Francisco Art Institute and other contexts tends to receive less notice than his other works. These pieces tend to be highly demented and hard to follow in all the best ways. They feature some of his most inventive experimentation and have a playfully refreshing anything goes quality about them. There are a number of these crazed productions that are among the very best pieces he ever made. 

How did you first meet George Kuchar?

We first came into contact when I programmed his videos in the New York Underground Film Festival sometime in the late 1990s. His work had been submitted via his distributor, Video Data Bank, and I was so pleased to be showing one of his latest pieces. I called him on the phone and we ended up having a fantastic conversation that led to meeting in person during his next trip to New York City. From there, I was always thrilled to cross paths with George while he was in town, or during my periodic visits to San Francisco. A few years later, I became the Archivist at Anthology Film Archives and one of my first projects was to preserve the 8mm films that he and his twin brother, Mike, made together in the 1950s and early 1960s. Working on those titles remains one of the greatest thrills of my life. 

Kuchar appears in and plays a large part in many of the videos that we’re showing at New Frequencies at McColl Center. Do his videos accurately capture his personality and the person you knew?

In a way they do, but there is another George that he did not really present on camera. George was a very social person, but in some ways when you were with him he was playing the role of George Kuchar. He was irreverent and loved food and is very much everything he portrayed himself to be in his work, which is to say hilarious. At the same time George was insightful and very self-aware. I think that filmmaking and teaching provided George with a community and without these he might have been very introverted. Making movies brought people into his life and broke him out of his shell. When I hear performers recite lines in his films I can hear these words coming straight out of George’s mouth. 

If you want to know the “real” George, I would advise you to read the lengthy autobiographical email confessions reproduced in The George Kuchar Reader book that I edited a couple years back. These letters detail the last year-plus of his life and his secret affair with a man known as “Mr. 3 A.M.” These poignant, heartbreaking writings were sent to his beloved high school friend and muse Donna Kerness. George’s real voice comes shining through here, and reading them helps us to understand the George Kuchar persona that he crafted on and off screen.

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New Frequencies at McColl Center presents The Sins of George Kuchar / Selected Short Films on Friday, May 20, 2016 at 8 PM. Limited seating. Advance tickets are available now.

Jeff Jackson is a novelist, playwright, and curator of the New Frequencies at McColl Center series.