George Kuchar is unrestrained and unapologetic. His films teem with camp and melodrama. They are outrageous. They are loud. They are crudely stylized. They have inspired the likes of David Lynch and John Waters. Kuchar, a legend in the underground film movement, has made a name for himself by crafting these lurid, experimental films for nearly five decades now.
Kuchar began making films with his twin brother Mike in the fifties, when the two were mere teenagers. Growing up in New York City, they shot 8mm films that were quirky and idiosyncratic, eventually joining Andy Warhol, Ken Jacobs, Jonas Mekas, and Jack Smith in the city’s underground film scene. Though the brothers would split apart by the mid-70s, their artistic visions diverging rapidly, they produced about fifteen films together.
These works, like many of the underground movement, exploit low-budget effects and untrained actors. Anita Needs Me (1963), for example, is the Kuchars’ video diary response to the popularity of the French New Wave, mixing faux-poetic voiceover narration with synthetic pop sounds. Kuchar’s most seminal work, Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966), named by Village Voice as one of the greatest films of the 20th century, opens with a dazzle of bright lights followed by the image of a young, nervous actress gyrating against the cityscape. Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965) is a science-fiction farce that falls somewhere between parody and horror.
Kuchar would come into his own by the seventies, inspired by the comic book stylings of such friends as Art Spiegelman. After being laid off from a commercial art job in New York City, Kuchar landed a teaching position at the San Francisco Art Institute’s film department. He has kept this post since 1971, and Kuchar has often collaborated with his own students in his work.
His individual output in the seventies ranged, on a stylistic level, from the grotesque to the absurd. His saturated color palettes and kitsch taste buds, two defining characteristics, take center stage. I, An Actress (1977) was originally meant to be a screen test for one of Kuchar’s students at the Art Institute. The improvisatory film is bathed in an ominous, unwelcoming green haze; his subjects shout with crude, distinctive voices, but the work is also funny and touching in places we wouldn’t expect.
For some, the type of filmmaking Kuchar typifies might seem overwhelming, even off-putting. His works are so far removed from mainstream conventions of New Hollywood that they can be called shock art. It’s true, of course, that Kuchar’s films are at least partly built upon a sensationalistic impulse. The worlds Kuchar creates are actively perverse.
In one film, for example, fat, elderly men decorate themselves in lipstick and smoke cigarettes. These are the kinds of images that are meant to surprise us and move us. They define camp, of course, but they go a step further than this mere shock level. In the eighties, Kuchar moved toward recording video diaries of himself. These video diaries hearken back to cinéma vérité yet play upon Kuchar’s highly theatrical, performative persona. This mix between truth and farce is essentially what Kuchar’s work is all about.
Considering that his contemporaries were such widely-celebrated names as Warhol and Brakhage, perhaps it’s strange that George Kuchar is not as well known as these artists have become. His work plays with our own cultural pastiches in a way that some may deem in bad taste, but there is an unexpected poignancy hidden behind the chaotic energy of his work.
A small exhibition of photographs, stills, and drawings by George Kuchar is open through September 4 at Mulherin Pollard Projects in New York.