Last month, I was shopping at the Farmer’s Market in Los Angeles when a friend called me about George. She told me he was dying of terminal cancer. I could not process this piece of information at first. I wandered the produce aisles in a daze for about twenty minutes.
The shoppers continued shopping as if nothing were amiss while I floated inside my personal bubble of grief. This was not a collective tragedy like 9/11 but I remember the exact moment when I heard the news. After the initial blow, I called George’s brother Mike. He confirmed my worst fears. I bought a plane ticket for San Francisco forthwith.
Outside of my immediate family, George was one of the few people who visited me during my own medical misfortunes. I had undergone a very painful, complicated operation and no amount of Dilaudid could lift my spirits. George did what no narcotic could do. He made me laugh. I owed him a visit. But, in truth, I owed him a hell of a lot more than that.
For those who haven’t heard of George Kuchar, he made DIY films before anyone coined the term. Co-directing the pictures with his twin brother Mike, George shot no-budget epics on the rooftops of the Bronx in the 1950s. They had no money. They had no famous actors. They only had their imagination and an 8mm camera. The brothers worked within their limitations and unleashed an endless slew of hilariously grotesque melodramas and horror films. The films did not conform to any genre. They subverted genre, partly in jest, partly in tribute.
Years before Susan Sontag wrote her famous treatise on “camp,” the brothers were brewing it up in the Bronx. Word got out fast. Lord High Curator Jonas Mekas gave them a big “thumbs up” and the twins were on their way to becoming underground superstars. Their work inspired a young filmmaker by the name of John Waters to start making his own warped masterpieces. Though the Kuchars remained on the margins of Hollywood, an endless list of renowned auteurs like Todd Haynes and Guy Maddin acknowledge their influence.
George Kuchar lived an epic life of minute proportions. He made hundreds of films for hundreds of dollars. His IMDB page lists an ultra-prolific filmography but that is only the tip of the iceberg. George lived in a state of perpetual shooting and editing. Besides his numerous features, diary films, and class productions he directed at the San Francisco Art Institute, Kuchar shot countless home videos. With the changing of the seasons, he would show us his annual “Christmas Film” or his latest trip to Miami. As far as I know, most of these videos never screened at festivals or in other public forums. The only way to see them was to come to George’s apartment for a private viewing.
I don’t have many anecdotes about crazy adventures with George. Most of the time spent together was quiet, casual and private. For a long time, we had a ritual every other Saturday. My friend Dan Carbone and I would meet George for dinner at The Red Jade, a Chinese restaurant on 16th and Market. He arrived at 8pm on the dot after working out at Gold’s Gym in the Castro. Once we read our fortune cookies, we returned to chez Kuchar for the evening. Mike would welcome us at the door.
The brothers lived together and each of them had a bedroom with a TV and DVD console. They used to call their bedrooms “Cinema 1” and “Cinema 2.” In Cinema 1, Mike would show us his latest video or dig out something he made from the last 40 years. George would do the same in Cinema 2. After the short subjects, they selected a B-movie from their extensive home video library. George introduced us to such oddities as “The Leech Woman” (with a brilliantly erratic performances by noir actress Marie Windsor). Coffee and farewells followed the feature presentation and then we did it all over a week or two later.
And that was how I spent most of my time with the Kuchars. We talked about film and told a lot of jokes. And, in the course of those many evenings, I got to know the legend that was George Kuchar. Having acquainted myself with a few notable artists, I often discover they have a public and private persona. The public one is for fans. The private one is for friends.
The measure of a man is not found in his public deeds but in his private acts. When the spotlight has been shut off, we discover the true character of a person. George was very decent. He never forgot to call me on my birthday. After he met my parents, Kuchar sent them Christmas cards. These isolated details stick with me. Even though George had a “larger than life” personality, it was not an act. I’ve met stand-up comedians who never make a joke except when they are on stage. George always made jokes. He had a dark sense of humor but his antics never crossed the line into mean-spiritedness.
I particularly admired how George treated people with equal kindness and irreverence. The director was acknowledged as a great artist in his time and met many important people. Yet he seemed oblivious to a person’s station. He would speak to the head of a major film festival with the same lack of self-consciousness as to a hot dog vendor. The world of cinema is riddled with rigid hierarchies and petty politics. Yet like a saintly fool, George seemed to be blissfully unaware of such distractions.
After seeing Jennifer Kroot’s documentary, “It Came From Kuchar,” I didn’t understand — at first — why audiences responded to it so strongly. Other than the fact I could not join their onscreen banter, it felt like a typical visit to their home. I say that not to disparage this excellent film. It conveys their charm and warmth perfectly. Rather, the doc’s success is a testament to the force of George’s personality. People who never met him feel they knew him from his films. All I can say is that he was at least as entertaining in person.
As an artist, George was a great inspiration. However, he never fancied himself a profound ideologue. Kuchar led by example. For more than a half-century, George made original and influential films outside of the studio system. He just went out there and did it. And he did it again. And then again. I admire the fact George never tried to become a “big-time” indie director. He probably could have done very well for himself but I don’t think that fame or money particularly interested him.
In that regard, George eschewed commercial distribution though yours truly tried to “seduce” him a few years ago. Back when I worked in home video, I begged and pleaded with George to release his 16mm films on DVD. He turned me down flat and explained: “Noel, you gotta understand my films are legendary. But if people actually saw them, they’d realize the films aren’t any good. We’ve got to preserve the mystery. You’ll blow my cover!” Again, he had a wicked sense of humor.
Though I was disappointed at the time, I appreciate George’s decision in hindsight. The problem with art – film in particular – is that very few people create work outside systems of exchange. I’d like to see more art that is not for sale. The world needs more acts of selfless beauty. It needs people who create without expectation of compensation. It needs a renewed belief that the process is the reward. For me, that spirit of unbound artistic independence is the legacy of George Kuchar.
Though this has been a terrible week, all is not lost. In a sense, George Kuchar has achieved a degree of audiovisual immortality through self-documenting his life more thoroughly and creatively than any other artist I know of. More importantly, George is survived by his twin brother Mike, a great filmmaker in his own right. Mike will take over George’s legendary film production class that has been offered at the San Francisco Art Institute since 1971. Though one can only imagine the pain he is enduring at the death of his brother, I expect he will carry the Banner of Kuchar into the 21st century.
George, if you are reading this from that great multiplex in the sky, I just wanted to thank you for being my friend and letting me into your life. I’ll never forget you.
Author’s Note: I hope this account does not come off as solipsistic. I spent a long time trying to leave myself out of it but found the result incomplete. As my colleague Jack Stevenson noted in his wonderful and extensive reminiscences of the director, “I soon came to realize that it was impossible to write about George Kuchar in anything but the first-person. In his presence, one was never allowed to be just a spectator… His life and his filmmaking, which embodies the essence of personal cinema, was all done with the immediacy and engagement of the first-person form, and any tribute to the guy has to be something of the same spirit.” I concur in his sentiment.