There are some movies you needn’t sit through to get. Andy Warhol’s five-hour Sleep is one. Artie and Marty Rosenblatt’s Baby Pictures is another. Years ago, I saw this self-explanatory 8mm item listed in the Film-Makers’ Cooperative catalog, and a projection bulb switched on in my head. That, too, was cinema!
Spontaneous yet self-conscious, the home movie is the humblest form of narcissism, the most artless sort of psychodrama, the purest example of temps perdu. “There is practically no family which does not boast an album crowded with generations of dear ones before varying backgrounds,” Siegfried Kracauer wrote in Theory of Film. “As the recollections they embody fade away, they increasingly assume documentary functions; their impact as photographic records definitely overshadows their original appeal as memory aids. Leafing through the family album, the grandmother will re-experience her honeymoon, while the children will curiously study bizarre gondolas, obsolete fashions, and old young faces they never saw.”
So, too, old home movies, cell phone travelogues, amateur porn, surveillance tapes, and dramas made by kids in imitation of the big screen. All are crucial to the evolution of the technologically driven democratized image-making that has its current apogee on Facebook and YouTube. Predicated on the simple act of recording, such efforts need not subscribe to conventional language—they are free to reinvent the wheel. The filmmaking is spontaneous yet self-conscious and, as Kracauer understood, the films often reveal more than they know.
Artists love this stuff—although the teenage brothers Mike and George Kuchar were among the few sufficiently primitive to actually produce it. Ken Jacobs, who found the Rosenblatt footage and placed it in distribution, would subsequently exhibit an assemblage of amateur movies (made by his wife’s family). So have several Hungarian filmmakers, notably Péter Forgács, and now Czech documentarian Jan ikl. But rather than bizarre gondolas and idiosyncratic behavior, these Central Europeans find evidence of an impersonal, implacable destiny that may supersede individual choice—witness ikl’s eight-part chronicle, Private Century, this week at the Museum of Modern Art.
Heedlessly posing against an invisibly crumbling landscape, the subject creators of Private Century‘s 52-minute episodes are all displaced—whether by the Russian Revolution, World War II, or the 1948 Communist coup. Although these people represent only a small part of the Czech population, namely those with the urge to document their lives and a 16mm camera with which to do so, their circumstances vary—newly wealthy and newly impoverished, urban and rural, capitalist and communist, bourgeois and small-B bohemian.
ikl’s archives share the universal concerns of home-movie making—people at play, on vacation, visiting the circus or dancing in their swimsuits; childhood idylls that may conceal personal unhappiness. For ikl, home movies are not so much folk art as unofficial history, less alienated nostalgia for a lost past than a sort of petrified innocence enjoyed before the fall. The naïveté is not aesthetic, but political.
Do we look at these movies or through them? Annotated by bits of music and the voice-over narrations of surviving family members, Private Century raises two ontological questions: Who shot the original footage, and what principles guided ikl in reshaping it? The answer to the latter is most evident in the order he’s given his chronicle. The first half tracks the disintegration of two extended families. One is headed by a wealthy German farmer, the “king” of a Sudetenland village. The other is that of a successful Russian émigré who, arriving in Prague in the early ’20s, spent the rest of his life living (also as a king) among his fellow exiles. Each man’s episode sets up a second, narrated by a granddaughter, which attests to the family’s postwar dislocation. King of Velichovky‘s happy harvest is followed, in Daddy and Lili Marlene, by the bitter tale of the next generation’s expulsion from their Czech paradise. Low-Level Flight, sequel to Small Russian Clouds of Smoke, is an even stranger example of chickens coming home to roost as the granddaughter of the Russian émigré follows her Czech husband, a MiG pilot, to an isolated Soviet military town, full of drunks and sluts, in a movie marked by its illegal documentations of military installations.
Private Century‘s second half follows the fate of two notable individuals (a composer and a sculptor) and two families (one in the film business, the other in studio photography) through the brave new world of Czech communism. Despite setbacks, the artist protagonists of A Stroke of Butterfly Wings and The Statuary of Granddad Vinda accommodate themselves and even thrive. By contrast, the small business people of See You in Denver and With Kisses From Your Love suffer reversals and persecution. That these episodes were produced with professional knowledge of film and photography gives them additional coherence as motion pictures; that their narratives are provided by central characters heightens the poignancy—more than the other sections, these could stand alone, even as, in their reference to the course of Czech history, they build on all that has been previously shown.
Denver‘s movie-mad family, the Hvanharas, suggests a sort of counterculture, fascinated by America and jazz; the beautiful teenagers of With Kisses are a golden couple, intoxicated with each other and oblivious to their jeopardized privilege. As these lovers film each other swimming in some sylvan pond or honeymooning on the beach at Dubrovník, the soundtrack gives us the boy’s future letters from prison. His arrest is inevitable. What’s shocking is the government’s destruction of his family’s century-old photo archive—possible evidence that then current leaders were wartime collaborators. As Private Century builds to a devastating attack on Czech communism, this movie of memories argues that the greatest sin is memory’s willful obliteration.
See You in Denver is filled with clips from a particular sort of home movie—the amateur theatrical. When Frantiek Hvanhara’s movie theater was nationalized and his collection of American Westerns confiscated in 1948, his sons made their own (shades of Be Kind, Rewind), projecting them in a basement screening room for an audience of friends and neighbors. Mutatis mutandis, such homemade-movie movies were also being made in the Free World. Around the same time and at approximately the same age, the Kuchar twins, George and Mike, began producing their 8mm extravaganzas in the Bronx.
The Kuchars would enjoy separate careers as independent filmmakers, but their juvenilia—preserved by and showing this week at Anthology—remains remarkably fresh. The brothers’ earliest extent work, The Naked and the Nude (1957), a World War II epic made in Van Cortlandt Park when they were 15, uses deeply appreciated Hollywood clichés to (barely) structure hilarious eruptions of the adolescent id. The patriotic title song proclaims “a realm of ecstasy, of love and liberty” but the Japanese enemy, largely played by schoolmates of color, has all the girls and most of the fun, at least until their cook poisons them.
Throughout high school and after, the Kuchars made outlandish, violent melodramas explicated in flowery inter-titles (“Meanwhile, the bacchanal continues unawares”) and accompanied by tape-recorded musical tracks (movie themes mixed with sound effects, Yma Sumac, and Frankie Lyman). Performances were kabuki, mise-en-scène pragmatic. The murderous artist in The Thief and the Stripper (1959) paints his wife by the light of a menorah. In 1961, the Kuchars provoked a scandal at the New York Eight Millimeter Motion Picture Club with Pussy on a Hot Tin Roof. As a nun’s confession is read in a ridiculously affected voice, the camera feasts on the spectacle of three teenage girls as they lounge around smoking cigs and changing outfits. The trio is joined by their dates for a ferocious twist party that ends with all six piled on the bed— but this is a morality play. A cigarette ignites a conflagration that, accompanied by liturgical music, consumes everything save the fact that the girls were enjoying themselves far too much.
Eighty-sixed from polite amateur filmmaking, the Kuchars were discovered by the New York underground—and vice versa. One of the gargoyles in another orgy film, Night of the Bomb (1962), ostentatiously clutches a copy of Film Culture. The brother’s 8mm swan song Lovers of Eternity (1964) is a low-rent La Bohème set among the East Village’s humongous cockroaches and arty poseurs—including Jack Smith as a beer-swilling painter. Suddenly, there are aesthetic values. Opening with a piano rhapsody swiped from a Douglas Sirk flick, the movie’s been put together with the narrative logic of a Griffith (or Sennett) two-reeler. Having turned 22, the Kuchars were ready to make real movies.
No more manic grotesqueries like A Town Called Tempest (1963), set in a “hospital of sin,” punctuated by weather montages more hysterical than Teuvo Tulio’s, and climaxing with the birth of a plastic baby doll; never again the priceless documentary of East 156th Street’s trash-strewn lots and cruddy storefronts found in the indescribable I Was a Teenage Rumpot (1960). Proletarian fatties don funny hats and clown with a regressive energy that even the movie’s resident five-year-old can’t equal. Asserting every American’s right to be a public spectacle, this is a family album Siegfried Kracauer could never have imagined.