Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Style is Cheap, or, George Kuchar

At the L.A. Film Festival there was a large, blissed-out audience at the Billy Wilder Theater for ten short films by George and/or Mike Kuchar. The Kuchars, twin brothers from the Bronx, began making 8 mm films starring their friends and families as children in the fifties; the films shown at the Festival were made from 1958 to 1963. These are mostly silent, except for pirated music, and use intertitles. George Kuchar went on to "experimental" films in the same DIY-smart aleck vein--a little artier, and with a gradually increasing component of explicit homoeroticism, but no different in spirit from the childhood projects--in 16 mm and digital video, and since 1971 has taught at the San Francisco Art Institute. (A selection of George Kuchar's films is available on UBUWEB.) L.A. seems to be afloat on Kucharmania. The festival audience would¹ve been delighted to stay all night--the authorities at the Hammer had to ask the audience and the Kuchars to leave. Cinefamily is screening a series of camp films curated by George Kuchar and two nights of his mid- and later films that more or less take up where the Film Festival left off. The second of these evenings, covering his work in San Francisco, is August 3.

George and Mike Kuchar were present for the Wilder screening, and George commented on each film from his chair in the dark as though we were watching home movies, which we were. On a budget on which you could either make a film or buy a toaster, Kuchar plugs friends and neighbors like "the Leibowitz family" into the rudimentary formulae and--to a startling degree--the elegant shots of the Hollywood genres, especially over-the-top melodrama. While the storylines often head straight for chaos, textbook specimens of minute compositional conventions shape almost every frame: the turning doorknob, the dolly back to reveal you¹ve been looking out a window, the alienation of TV antennae, the shadow of the fistfight on the stairs, the pathos of the windowsill, etc.--each one a compact myth. Almost none of the films is missing its neo-Sirkian mirror shot. In Hold Me While I¹m Naked (1965), a beautiful woman comes through a door three times to answer the same ringing phone, an effect that reminds me of the repeated zoom toward Delphine Seyrig's outstretched arms in Last Year at Marienbad (1961).

In Knockturne (1968), guests at a party, including Edie Sedgwick (!), peel away from the center of the screen finally to reveal Warhol's Jackie on the distant wall.

The narratives run at 78 rpm, the dialogue is pulpy, and the music is usually a painfully crude '50s pop. The acting is "bad" and therefore Brechtian, as in profound schlock like Edward Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space. Watched on their own time, the films are hilarious. Viewed as a series of stills, the images have lyrical melancholy, even when they're deranged, like outtakes from Godard. The audience does not feel this as a contradiction; one level doesn't seem truer than the other.

(Hold Me While I'm Naked)

(Mike Kuchar in The Corruption of the Damned [1965])

(Mike Kuchar in The Corruption of the Damned)

(Hold Me While I'm Naked)

In a mainstream melodrama like George Stevens's Penny Serenade, pathos comes from the distance between what the film is able to do ideologically and what it seems to yearn to do, as the Time Out Film Guide notes in its summary of the film:

A classic "women's picture" in every sense: an emotional/sentimental switchback, nostalgically framed (Dunne, on the point of leaving Grant, reminisces the family-romance narrative to gramophone accompaniment) and a construction of the "ideal woman" (fulfilled in motherhood, naturally) so upfront as to be almost disarming--though not, as in similar work by Douglas Sirk, pushed quite so far that it might be construed as being critical. Either with it or at it, or more likely both, you'll weep.

With it or at it. Melodrama becomes interestingly difficult when you cry not only with it but at it, since the film¹s limitations then unwittingly reinforce its characteristic theme, the restriction of a character by society. When you cry at a melodrama, it's pointed you mutely to what it can¹t acknowledge--outdone itself. Camp embraces its inabilities, but that may not rule out lament. In Warhol, only approach the paintings traditionally as portraits of the outer and inner states of their subjects and you feel like busting out, because you realize you're in the graveyard of the reified. In Kuchar, the film takes so much pleasure in being a film at all that it's hard to say what limits the film either claims or has.

The meta-film Hold Me While I¹m Naked argues, classically, that cinema is the sublimation of reality, well of course! A director, played by Kuchar, is forced to suspend production when his actress decides (correctly) that he's only a pervert who wants to see her in the nude: he had asked her to remove her bra "because the mysticism of the stained glass window and the profanity of that brassiere do not go well together." Stranded, he applies lipstick to a plastic doll and literally wallows in his own wasted reels among intercut scenes of "real women" having sexual interludes with other guys. In some cases, though, it¹s not clear whether these women (the rebellious actress, for example) are getting it on in the present, in the director's morbid and cinematic imagination, or in scenes of the lost film. An ordinary life appears--the director twirling in the shower alone, sitting in the kitchen with his battleaxe mother and her awful cuisine--that is the very melodramatic image of "unmelodramatic life." The film seems to differ not from a social reality that limits it but just from the unfilmed. The unfilmed is an unknown state altogether, something we can't assume anything about and that the films don't want to know anything about.

(...the beauty of the space between Kuchar and the doll....)

At the end of Hold Me Kuchar looks into the camera and asks, "There's a lot of things in life worth living for. Isn't there?" Things "in life" are unspeakable and feared dead, like the untransmogrified matter on the dinner plate. In Kuchar's virtuostic editing, almost every shot comes as a huge surprise. So much so that an equally huge fear of sameness is implied. In George and Mike Kuchar's Town Called Tempest (1962), an ex-prostitute whose new life of pious service risks being unmasked by the reappearance of the film¹s protagonist, an old acquaintance, comes up with a grenade and lobs it at him in the second she perceives the threat. No hesitation--goodbye, protagonist. This was one of the most uproarious and delightful moments at the Wilder. Who would go so far? (Early Fassbinder? Godard in Every Man for Himself, when the director starts shooting with a pistol as well as with a camera?) We noticed the same narrative originality in the mini-stories Kuchar emitted in the dark. Of the Leibowitzes, for example, he said: "The parents are dead, of course. And the animals. But Larry is still alive. And the house is a complete mess." The little story is edited for unpredictability. Like it, the films realize the resources of disloyalty, distraction, and anticlimax. The cliche, "the house is a complete mess," in the wrong place is euphoric. The films can feed on their own self-destruction, they burden classic shots with material--events, words, clothes, bric-a-bric, settings and human substance--that's dross and needs to be dross so that the films can show their lack of obligation to it. That any thing can be as interesting on film as any other is repeatedly proven by filming crap in a state of flux. (As Kuchar noted in the theater, he's also been "typecast," as he put it, as literally a photographer of turds.) Some of Kuchar's recent projects sound as though they move from playing with rhetorical obstacles, obstacles representing "recalcitrant matter," to a kind of minimalism that plays with lack of resistance--"weather diaries" in which he travels to Oklahoma to observe cyclones but films whatever happens, including nothing. The question that never gets answered is what has worth when not filmed. What's not filmed is dead meat, or so we're afraid. But that doesn't need to concern us as long as we're filming or watching films, and composition costs nothing. Style is cheap; life is cheaper.

Image of Kuchar that appears at the end of Wild Night in El Reno

Acknowledgments: Thanks to comrades at the screenings for dialogue: Eyal Amiran, Joe Mahoney, Daniel Tiffany, Toshi Tomori. This post was written for Oh! Industry, and appears in similar form there: thank you to Karen Tongson and Team Oh! Industry.

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