George Kuchar 1942-2011


George Kuchar, the Bronx-raised filmmaker who began his career, along with twin brother Mike, at age 12, died this week in San Francisco after a long battle with prostate cancer.

Beginning with The Wet Destruction of the Atlantic Empire (1954) and continuing through The Naked and the Nude (1957), I Was a Teenaged Rumpot (1960), and beyond, George and Mike’s 8mm juvenilia broke new ground in cinematic hysteria. Featuring the brother’s friends and neighbors (“They were fat but they wanted to be Marilyn Monroe,” Mike once said), these largely improvised comedies anticipated the ridiculous theater of the mid ’60s, using Hollywood clichés to (barely) channel their makers’ adolescent ids. Accompanied by taped soundtracks of hot mambos and florid dialogue, the Kuchars’ steamy, hyperbolic melodramas (Tennessee Williams directed by Douglas Sirk for Betty Boop) played out in a distinctive atmosphere of grotesque violence, sexual frenzy, simulated natural disaster and rooftop vistas of the Jerome Avenue El. “It has to be a Reader’s Digest condensation of a Hollywood life,” George once explained.

After Pussy on a Hot Tin Roof (1961) caused a scandal at the New York Eight Millimeter Club, the Kuchars came to the attention of underground filmmaker Ken Jacob and Village Voice film critic Jonas Mekas; appreciated by the beatnik vanguard as holy primitives, they helped to create a small 8mm wedge with the New American Cinema. “You know what?” wrote Mekas in his April 18, 1963 Voice column, “It is the 8mm movie that will save us.” A few months later, he positioned a projector on a balustrade of the Gramercy Arts Theatre and held the first 8mm program ever screened in a movie house. Three movies on the bill were by the Kuchars–who would respond to serious recognition by producing The Lovers of Eternity (1964), a burlesque of bohemian squalor set on the Lower East Side and featuring a monstrous cockroach, as well as several avant-garde filmmakers (notably Jack Smith).

George and Mike graduated to 16mm in the mid ’60s and began working separately. Notable among George’s first solo was the poignant and hilarious Hold Me While I’m Naked — a mock autobiographical portrait of an underground filmmaker who directs all manner of erotic action but gets none himself. In 1971, George relocated to San Francisco where he taught for many years at the San Francisco Art Institute. In movies like I An Actress (1977) and Symphony for a Sinner (1978), Kuchar used his students in much the same way as he had his West Bronx neighbors, benignly catering to their unselfconscious desire to be glamorous movie stars. The times had changed but not the attitude — scenes of voluptuous simulating humping were scored to “The March of the Wooden Soldiers” or a chipmunk version of “The Shadow of Your Smile.”

Actual or faux naïf, Kuchar never lost his thick Bronx accent, his garrulous enthusiasm, or his teenage appreciation for movie madness: “I believe in constant turbulence from beginning to end,” is how he described his aesthetic when I interviewed him as a cub reporter in 1975. No underground filmmaker ever used the film-language of Hollywood more knowingly or to more uproarious effect. His influence is pervasive. Not just John Waters and the punk and transgressive super-8 filmmakers of the 1980s, but more commercial types like Greg Araki and the Farrelly brothers and all purveyors of gross-out comedy followed the trail that George and Mike blazed. Few, however, could match their essential sweetness. Though it piled outrage on outrage, George Kuchar’s work maintained the obstreperous innocence of an unhousebroken pup.