I don’t recall the first time I saw one of George Kuchar’s movies, but I’m certain it must have been in the early 1970s at the Fox Venice Theatre, the legendary L.A. area grindhouse that introduced vast numbers of underground, cult and outlaw movies to an entire generation of young filmgoers. I want to think it was Portrait of Romona (1971), but it could have easily been any of several dozen 16mm shorts that George produced (either singly or with his twin brother Mike) starting in 1954 when the boys were a mere 12-years-old.
What is easily remembered and vividly about that first Kuchar movie is just how funny, outrageous and way over-the-top it seemed, a sensation that would persist and grow over the years and through dozens of other films with unforgettable titles like Pagan Rhapsody (1974), The Devil’s Cleavage (1975), A Wild Night in El Reno (1977), The Nocturnal Immaculation (1980), Ascension of the Demonoids (1985) or, deliciously, The Deafening Goo (1989).
The hilarious and overwrought names of Kuchar’s films tellingly reflect the satiric sensibility and playful irony that inform or, rather, run riot in each and every one of his movies. All of them are in equal part homage to and parody of that greater, glittering artificiality that is the product of the Hollywood dream factory and, in their crude and garish surfaces, it is Hollywood’s most sacred cows that are viciously skewered and served piping hot off Kuchar’s cinemagraphic grill.
His films are not in the strict sense films about film, but instead are movies about the cinematic imagination, specifically about pushing the limits of that imagination to their very farthest and ultimately most (il)logical conclusion. In this effort to transcend (or, if you prefer, transgress) the stifling pieties of conventional Hollywood filmmaking, Kuchar produces something that is instantly recognizable and comfortingly familiar and yet still manages to be wholly subversive.
In Kuchar’s films, all of Hollywood’s favored tropes and techniques are made grist for his low or no budget mill — lush orchestral soundtracks, elaborate costumes and make-up, loving close-ups and epic panoramas – all are systematically subverted in a wild and uproarious romp that is astonishingly good-natured and fun. Distorted, trashed and turned on their heads, conventional cinema’s verities are stripped of their sanctimony and seriousness, leaving us laughing at the hapless emperor in all his glorious and grainy nudity.
Like all great comedic directors, Kuchar tackles the big themes – love, sex, war and, of course, aliens from outer space – and he does it with a touch so light and so uniquely his own that he might easily be dubbed the Lubitsch of the underground. His work resembles the great Viennese director in its heartfelt celebration of the commonality of human frailty and the humor that ensues from our vainglorious attempts to depict it. The difference (and it’s an important one, separating as it does mainstream from underground) is Kuchar’s embrace of the absurd, his innate sarcasm and his almost obsessive adoration of pop culture.
His films are a hoot all right, but they’re a hoot that cannot help but make us think and wonder and walk away with a little more than what we started with. The death of someone like George Kuchar diminishes more than an artistic community tragically short of revolutionary perspectives, it leaves us yearning for an artist who can articulate the absurd, the ludicrous, the crazy part of ourselves that was created by the movies we watched and the TV shows in whose flickering shadow we were formed.
In 1977 I moved to San Francisco and found myself involved in the burgeoning punk scene. A few years later, mutatis mutandis, I started a small underground zine called Damage and, for the premier issue, I resolved to do an interview with George Kuchar who, conveniently enough, was teaching and making films at the nearby San Francisco Art Institute. We arranged to meet at a café in North Beach and I spent the days before the interview carefully crafting the questions I wanted to ask. When at last we sat down to do the interview, I pulled out my tape-recorder and watched in astonishment as George’s face drained of color. In a lifetime of doing interviews, I’ve never seen anyone so freaked. I dutifully asked my questions and he haltingly, hesitatingly answered almost monosyllabically. It was like pulling teeth and I was feeling increasingly desperate. To make matters worse, when I looked down at the tape recorder, I suddenly realized the cassette wasn’t turning. The batteries had died. “Oh man,” I moaned, “this is a total disaster.” George’s reaction was to instantly perk up, like he’d been born anew. “No problem,” he said, smiling widely, “no problem at all. I’ll tell you what, I’ll interview myself. I’ll do the whole thing. It’ll be great.” Well, I didn’t have much of a choice and, to tell the truth, the idea sounded way better than anything I could’ve come up with. George had only one stipulation, his autobiographic authorship was to remain strictly entre nous. “It’ll be our secret,” he said, chuckling, “just between you and me, you know?”
And I did know and now so do you. May he rest in peace forever and always and may the pagan angels sing him rhapsodically to sleep.
“What I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least one can demand.”
This weekend, the San Francisco Zine Fest will host a panel on First-Wave Punk Zines of the Bay Area (http://goteblud.livejournal.com/). Since I am unable to attend in person, I was asked to submit a statement that will be read in my absence:
While I trust that the magazine speaks for itself, both for good and ill, I suppose I could say by way of explanation that, beyond all the sex, drugs and rock’n'roll, that is, beyond the pure visceral FUN of punk and life in the underground, there were also deeply serious issues of politics, of social justice and, above all, of aesthetics that connected and inspired the many people involved in the Damage project. Because these concerns were particularly articulated in the scene as it existed in San Francisco three decades ago, Damage’s importance today, like that of the other zines, is as a kind of constant witness to an unique time, place and circumstance; one that spoke and one hopes still speaks to the immanent primacy of youthful idealism and to the notion that there is a deep and abiding value in a radical, even desperate rejection of the commonplace, the accepted, the normal. Conformity and regimentation then, as now, are the foresworn enemies of the creative energy that is the essence and the wellspring of youth. That stance of absolute defiance to which the punk aesthetic aspires and which, in fact, is it’s raison d’etre is no less a viable ideal today than it was 30 years ago. If anything, it is more necessary and more important. Damage sought, in its own small way, to encompass all the twisted, topsy-turvy and convulsive energies of a scene (or series of scenes) that defied easy definition, seeking to discover in the multiplicity of personalities and creative expressions a commonality of interest that could speak to the eternal youth in us all, the spiky-haired, black-garbed snarling punk boy or girl whose “blue eyes gleam with a necessary cruelty” (Aragon). That we both succeeded admirably and failed miserably is finally and equally a tribute to our own exquisite innocence and to the dark realities that all too often doom our youthful ideals to feckless compromise and even extinction.
All is well here in the Eternal City, even if the weather has been, well, eternally gloomy. Having spent most of my so-called “formative” years in sunny climes, I fear I am ill-prepared for day after day of cloudy skies, rain and chilly temperatures. I find myself yearning for California’s perpetual sunshine and temperate warmth. Alas, I seem destined to live in places with cold winters and infernally hot summers.
We have been ben occupato with plenty of work, social whirl-a-gigging and the usual run of art shows. Of the latter, by far the most important has been the new Caravaggio exhibition up the street from our digs at the Scuderie. With a mere 27 canvases, it is unquestionably a life-changing event for anyone who loves art. Brilliant, beautiful and deeply moving on as many levels as one has head and heart to experience. I truly cannot remember a time when I was so reluctant to leave a gallery, feeling as if the hours spent hardly began to encompass the treasures that were there present. There is of course something eerily modern in Caravaggio’s flat surfaces redolent with startling, almost abstract, explosions of color and shadow. There were times when I found myself unable to actually grasp — at least on a physical level — that these were works produced over 400 years ago, so contemporary was their affect. We plan on returning several more times before the show closes in the middle of June.
While the Caravaggio show is manifestly the must-see event this season, we also had a pretty swell time touring the vast Fascist-era Ministry of Corporations (1932) designed by Marcello Piancentini and featuring what has to be one of the most extraordinary stained-glass windows I’ve ever seen, this by the great Mario Sironi, as well as a series of eight mind-bogglingly exquisite (and downright WEIRD) tapestries by Ferruccio Ferrazzi. Whilst they purport to depict the various corporations into which the Fascist economy was (dis)organized, they read more like something out of science fiction, think Phillip K. Dick meets Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. My favorite shows veri-colored male figures being born out of some bizarre industrial process akin to steel-making or the manufacture of umbrellas. In a famililar phrase, fun ahoy!
Gagosian’s gallery here is featuring a new installation by Chris Burden which we plan on taking in sometime soon. I haven’t really seen anything he’s done recently, but the word on the street is BIG YAWN and I really can’t pretend to be surprised. Burden was here for a day or so for the opening and submitted himself to one of those horrible public “question and answer” things. I would have liked to have gone just for old time’s sake, but ennui and the bad weather left me feeling that there’s greater pleasure in letting the dead bury the dead.
This afternoon: “Boldini and the Italians in Paris” show at the Chiostro del Bramante. We went to see the Boldini’s and, while we were certainly not disappointed, it was the work of Antonio Mancini, experienced for the first time, that left me reeling with admiration and surprise. This is art that is radically, transformatively beautiful, almost shockingly so and created with a sensibility that somehow seems as unlikely (for its time and place) as it is unique and singularly lovely.
There were only a few pieces in the exhibition, but it was not difficult to see why John Singer Sargent famously proclaimed Mancini the “greatest living artist.” Following a recent purchase of 15 canvases, the Philadelphia Museum of Art presented the first U.S. show wholly devoted to the artist in 2007. Here’s an excerpt from their website:
Mancini worked at the forefront of Verismo, an indigenous Italian response to nineteenth-century realism, producing haunting portrayals of circus performers, street musicians, and impoverished children taken from the streets of Naples. After suffering a disabling mental illness, Mancini settled in Rome, and with the support of American and Dutch patrons managed for many years to eke out a precarious existence. Many of Mancini’s paintings incorporated thick impasto, whose glittering light effects he enhanced by adding bits of glass, metal foil, and other materials.
The New York Times in the guise of Roberta Smith reviewed the exhibition with considerable verve in January 2008 and very thoughtfully provided a multi-media slideshow of the works in the Philadelphia collection. In addition, Yale has published a new book on the artist by Ulrich Hiesinger entitled Antonio Mancini: Nineteenth Century Italian Master. If a century too late, it would appear that Mancini’s 15 minutes have indeed arrived.