when i received my acceptance letter to the San Francisco Art Institute last spring, I was buzzing with the prospect of my potential proximity to filmmaker George Kuchar. Unfortunately, as I arrived for my first semester of grad school last fall, George had been admitted to hospice, and less than a week later this legend had passed on to the great beyond. (i imagine him now in a whirling kaleidoscope of UFO’s, nudity, bizarre weather patterns and brightly colored starlights.) On the bright side, his brother, Mike, took over his classes and continues to teach “Electrographic Sinema” in the infamous Studio 8 at SFAI.
Anyway, i created this blog as a way of exploring micro-issues that occur in the chasm between high and low art. if any one person could embody that collapsed divide, it is George Kuchar.
In the 1960s, George Kuchar created artistic, critical films via vernacular means, carving a place in the canon for like-minded cineastes. From the 1980s to his untimely and tragic death in 2011, Kuchar taught others to do the same. His egalitarian approach to film epitomizes the style of participatory culture in which consumer becomes user.
Inspired by Hollywood melodramas, George Kuchar began making 8mm films with his brother Mike at the age of twelve. I like to think of Kuchar sitting in a theatre with 3D glasses over his black-rimmed spectacles. I like to think of his process as he translated the cinema on the silver screen into his own environment, casting his friends and putting garish makeup onto his sidekick-cum-starlets.
Kuchar would exaggerate the melodrama and styling typical of Hollywood films, reveling in extreme excess.
“The faces, bodies and gestures of Kuchar’s actors and their environments may seem bizarre, even outrageous in their failure to live up to the standards implied by the filmic forms Kuchar is using; but these are in fact the real people and places Kuchar knows, and the stories they enact are based on Kuchar’s experiences.” (MacDonald and Kuchar, George Kuchar: An Interview 1985).
Molding Hollywood tropes inspired by the silver screen into low-budget DIY versions, Kuchar was able to translate the models of big-budget filmmaking into a vernacular form.
Kuchar’s greatest success is his ability to digest cultural industry, from didactic and unilateral Hollywood mass culture films, into a democratic form.
Underground films such as Kuchar’s fit in the interstice – where the distinctions between producers and consumers become blurred. Devoid of the Hollywood production values, anyone with a Super 8 and a vision could produce a motion picture.
“One of the more provocative developments of the 1970s was the use by a group of filmmakers in New York of inexpensive Super-8 technology to reject both the big-budget, mass-entertainment assumptions of Hollywood and the artistic pretentions of the formalist cinema that fascinated and frustrated many critics and viewers during the late 1960s and the 1970s.” (MacDonald, A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers 1988).
The idea of “picture-making” (over directing, producing, or writing) democratizes the form, leaving it open to anyone. It serves to deconstruct inherent cultural hierarchies and class structures wherein the director or writer or producer of the film is in some way better than its viewer. The culture industry becomes less mystical. It is less of an industry, more of a job, and therefore something anyone can participate in. Kuchar recreates the unilateral cultural mode into a participatory model.
Liberating film from its Hollywood cage and liberating the 8mm film format into the feature-length realm, “in Kuchar’s world anyone can, and should, be a movie star; everyone can use movies as a vehicle for self-expression and interaction.” (MacDonald and Kuchar, George Kuchar: An Interview 1985).
His individualized aesthetic, coupled with the accessible filming format, proved galvanizing for many would-be picture makers. This democratized cinema process was later adopted by ingénue filmmakers like John Waters and Andy Warhol to create feature length films like Pink Flamingos and Chelsea Girls. Inspired by Kuchar, these consumers became successful users and producers.
Kuchar later joined forces with the San Francisco Art Institute, to teach a series of semester long classes, titled “Electrographic Sin-ema”. The goal of the class was to transmit Kuchar’s unique knowledge of DIY picture-making.
By virtue of the class, Kuchar transferred his knowledge, allowing every student to have direct insight into his working process. Kuchar enacted a version of participatory culture that allowed for immediate and direct interaction and collaboration.
Each class collaborated with Kuchar to make its own picture. The students act simultaneously as producers, actors and writers, inventing plot turns and scripts, characters and lighting combinations. At the end of the class, the picture is screened for the students, who serve as the audience. Given a copy of the film to keep, the class is then in charge of distribution, dispensing the film among friends and family. As the controls of the circulation methods of the film, the students are able to manipulate the films reception from the immediate class members to a wider array of viewership.
I hope not to valorize Kuchar’s work in some utopic realm where the concerns of production, commodity exchange, consumerism and capital do not exist, where they can be seen as merely overlapping qualities. I hope instead, to show Kuchar as a working alternative, where producer and consumer collapse and unify. Scott MacDonald, in the preface to his interview with George Kuchar, says, “I would contend that Kuchar’s approach to film is essentially an attempt to humanize and democratize a medium which conventionally has been for the people without being of them or by them” (MacDonald and Kuchar, George Kuchar: An Interview 1985).
The active viewership necessitated by Kuchar’s electrographic sin-ema is one of community engagement and formation of inspiration. The life of his films are prolonged indefinitely, to inspire future filmmakers and future productions ad infinitum. By working in the valleys between cultural consumer and producer, the argument follows that Kuchar also created a bridge between the islands of high and low art. Such an act illuminates the incongruity between the artistic elite and forms of easily digested culture, while still allowing for criticality.
Alright, enough with academics. Let’s just bask in the radiant gel colored lights and titillating titles and props forever and ever, amen.
here’s to color, here’s to light. Here’s to UFO’s and weather diaries; to mongreloids and mothers. here’s to the underground, the aboveground and the middle ground between. here’s to trying and failing, trying and flying; here’s to Thundercrack!, The Fury of Frau Frankenstein(2005), The Devil’s Cleavage(1975), I Was a Teenage Rumpot(1960), and here’s to Hold Me While I’m Naked(1966). Here’s to George Kuchar and every life he touched, saved, inspired or just made more colorful.
MacDonald, Scott. A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
MacDonald, Scott, and George Kuchar. “George Kuchar: An Interview.” Film Quarterly (University of California Press) 38, no. 3 (Spring 1985): 2-15.