The New Flesh
Leah Churner on the Kuchar Brothers
"If you are out of the spotlight for most of your career there will be no need to spray hair on your head if your scalp decides to call it quits…Buying a video camera will definitely cause other artists' creative juices to flow, especially other filmmakers, who will gladly spit at you with those juices. You will be beneath contempt and can therefore work unimpeded in the lower depths while the self-inflated egos of Eros and Ektachrome drift above the surface of moral existence." —George Kuchar, Confessions from a Cinematic Cesspool
Seen from the peanut gallery of non-Hollywood film history, today's "film versus digital" debate is more of a put-on than a sea change. Not that it isn't serious business—anyone who doubts the fall of celluloid can pay a visit to Rochester and survey the ruins of Kodak. The implications of digital media's inevitable replacement of film extend far beyond the CGI decadence in special postproduction. Soon, distribution and exhibition will be the business of computer geeks: multiplexes will stream movies and 35mm projection will become relegated to a highbrow museum fetish. The venerable film vault will yield to the giant hard drive. Still, the "film versus digital" hand-wringing, of the object (the tangible, analog, 35mm filmstrip) opposed to the algorithmic concept (the data file, an intangible string of digits) is a monster indigenous to Southern California. The apparent contest between them is an ahistoric myth. In the grand scheme, the romance of photochemistry in moving images ended long ago.
The film/digital dichotomy falls apart when we consider video. That insidious electronic bastard was born into the world of amateur and semi-professional recording in the Seventies. Before that, all motion-picture production outside of Hollywood, which included corporate and military productions, classroom propaganda, TV news reporting, police surveillance, home movies, and the majority of experimental and independent documentary fare, was created on film—primarily the substandard gauges, 16mm, 8mm and Super-8mm. Three inventions of the mid-Seventies, the Portapak, which introduced the era of electronic newsgathering, the time base correction device, which made all signals suitable for broadcast, and the videocassette, which signified the end of reel-to-reel technology, sounded the death knell for celluloid. By the mid-Eighties, video had replaced small-gauge film in all of these above contexts. The first wave of film extinction was a completely analog phenomenon.
Still lurking in the detritus are two fossils who lived through the renaissance of the amateur filmmaking empire, then abandoned it. Mike and George Kuchar have proudly marched in step with the consumer-grade vanguard for over fifty years. Their filmography, which covers big-ticket issues of the second half of the twentieth century (the atom bomb, thalidomide pregnancies, UFOs, the sexual revolution, AIDS, and F-4 tornados) is a tour of the "puny" formats: 8mm, 16mm, Video-8, Hi-8, and now MiniDV. Their story helps to sully the film/digital divide. When they switched from Bolex to camcorder in 1985, it was a paradigm shift; when they switched from analog to digital video in the Nineties, the difference was hardly discernable.
By way of introduction, Mike and George are responsible for underground classics I Was a Teenage Rumpot (1960), Born of the Wind (1962), and Hold Me While I'm Naked (1966). If famous at all, they are known for articulating the aesthetic that Paul Morrissey and John Waters would later call Trash. The defining characteristic of their work, the ironic spectacle, is a juxtaposition between the ambition of the filmmaker and the limitations of his budget and at the same time, the glaring disconnect between the transcendence of cinema and the banal shame of everyday living. Their work is both idealistic and incriminatingly autobiographical.
George and Mike Kuchar were born at Bellevue Hospital in 1942 and grew up uneasily in the Bronx. They spent most of their preadolescence at the RKO Chester and the Loews Paradise ingesting melodramas and creature features. At twelve their mother bought them an 8mm camera, and through a steady regimen of theatrical consumption and reading how-to pamphlets published by Kodak, they learned to mimic classical lighting, framing, and editing. At fifteen they completed their oldest surviving title, The Naked and the Nude, a WWII drama set in Japan, filmed at the Bronx Botanical Gardens. The trademark Kuchar approach was already in bloom when they were at this tender age. They used Kodachrome as a stand-in for Technicolor and maximized the impressionistic quality of 8mm's bulky grain. Since 8mm is silent, they used title cards (full of spelling errors) and taped the soundtrack from LPs in their parents' collection of mood music. Filmmaking was a social act; they cast their friends, neighbors, and mother. Through one of their stars, they received an invitation to exhibit their films at Ken Jacobs’s loft. There they dazzled Jacobs, Jonas Mekas, and Jack Smith, and were welcomed into the Underground fold.
In 1964, at age twenty-two, they had their first retrospective at the New Bowery Theater. Narrative films were a rarity in this crowd, and Mike and George were the first filmmakers to screen 8mm film in an art-house context. Even more conspicuous in these days of Brakhage’s Mothlight was the brothers’ way of channeling the B-directors and gimmick showmen of the Fifties with unchecked alliteration and other verbal ballyhoo. The titles of their films, Roger Ebert once said, "made Invasion of the Body Snatchers sound like something Laurence Olivier might have starred in." They certainly owed a debt to Ed Wood in this respect. The titles in this 8mm retrospective included The Thief and The Stripper (1959), Night of the Bomb (1962), Pussy on a Hot Tin Roof (1961), Tootsies in Autumn (1962), A Town Called Tempest (1963), Anita Needs Me (1963), and I Was a Teenage Rumpot. In a stroke of promotional genius, they presented one of their movies to the Eight Millimeter Motion Picture Club, but the organization of geriatric travel-film enthusiasts was quite unprepared for the graphic and pyromaniacal Pussy on a Hot Tin Roof. The club banished the Kuchars forever and ran an apology for the scandal in their newsletter.
With the passage of adolescence, Mike and George developed divergent styles. Both took jobs as commercial illustrators after high school (Mike retouched photos for a fashion magazine and George, drawn to meteorological disasters, drew clouds for the local TV weather report) and each could afford his own 16mm camera. In a reverent farewell to the home movie gauge, George wrote in 1964, “8mm is a tool of defense in this society of mechanized corruption because through 8mm and its puny size, we are closer to the dimensions of the atom…Now I'm going to make a 16mm picture called Corruption of the Damned and I'm making it in 16mm because I can't make it in 7mm.” Coincidentally or not, Mike and George abandoned 8mm for 16mm in 1965—the same year Super-8mm was introduced. Though Super-8 became the most popular amateur movie format, they never used it.
Sixteen millimeter doubled the frame size, projecting a brighter picture and providing a finer grain to capture dirt on the walls. Mike moved out of his parents' house and achieved success in 1966 with Sins of the Fleshapoids and The Secret of Wendell Samson, starring Red Grooms. Mike, the more obscure Kuchar, has always been quieter, and his style is much more difficult to pin down. Recurring themes include comic-book animation, futuristic fantasy, ancient Greek eroticism, and a fascination with garbage. Most salient aspects of John Waters’s mise-en-scène can be traced back to 1967's The Craven Sluck, which Mike describes as "one woman's struggle for identity, recognition, and a good lay, which lays bare the flabby bladders of the domestic Fleshpots, Rumpots, Sexpots and just plain Pots.”
Meanwhile George stayed at home and made the self-exploitation piece Hold Me While I'm Naked (1966), the first of many lamentations on the rudeness of his bodily frame and a number of other proto-camp specimens including Mosholu Holiday (1966), Color Me Shameless (1967), and The Mammal Palace (1969). He also began filming documentaries about artists, starting with George Segal (House of the White People) and Red Grooms (Encyclopedia of the Blessed). This, along with his out-of-town exhibitions, led to an invitation to the San Francisco Art Institute, where in 1971 he took his current position as instructor of film production. The SFAI student collaborations are weaker than his Bronx work, partially because George had less control over them, and partially because he was temporarily cured of his depression with an abundance of sunshine, sex, and drugs. Still he concocted great titles, such as I Married a Heathen, Carnal Bipeds, and The Devil's Cleavage (all from 1973). Aside from a brief stint teaching with George at SFAI in the early Eighties, Mike stayed in New York, teaching classes at the Millennium Film Workshop and experimenting with 16mm light and color studies. On opposite coasts, the brothers grew apart.
Mike and George have been able to produce such strange films for such a long time because they have always financed their own work. In the Eighties film production stopped making financial sense, so they switched to video. The first format they used was Video-8, a cassette tape eight millimeters wide. Sony and other companies stressed the "8" to hearken back to 8mm film and soften the transition from transparent celluloid to opaque, hands-off magnetic recording. Yet Mike and George quickly swore off film forever. The electronic mode had great appeal across the board, because the new camcorders were a cheaper and faster route to expression than 16mm. Compared to film, video is a virtually unlimited resource, because tapes could be erased and used over again. The ability to record for hours rendered editing in-camera unnecessary. It also sanitized the editing process, removing the razors and the goopy cement mess and freed them from the burden of syncing sound.
The camcorder became an appendage, an immediate extension of the self. Bizarrely, while the switch to video allowed each twin to fully actualize himself artistically, the abandonment of film form has made their work increasingly inaccessible to audiences. The difference between their film and video work is that their films make a mockery of aesthetics, while their videos abandon aesthetics altogether. No longer governed by the complexity and expense of film production, they have been steadily churning out inexplicable video diaries for twenty years. Image quality aside, the videos are militantly chintzy and amorphous. Mike's are protracted streams of consciousness, and it's hard for the viewer to make out heads or tails, while George's are a bit more structured and audience-friendly. George's first piece, Weather Diary 1 (1985), is a feature-length record of a one-month stint in a motel in Oklahoma’s Tornado Alley, which explores mysterious parallels between meteorological and gastrointestinal events. Several hilarious leitmotifs are present in all the tapes I've seen: a stress on the “special effects” potentialities of low-quality video (sluggishly spinning picture-in-picture boxes, tacky superimpositions); arbitrary close-ups (a tablecloth blowing in the wind) paired with blasts of maudlin strings; and disinterested interviews, in which George asks a question, then pans away to something in the middle distance as the subject voices a response. The look and feel of his analog and digital video work is the same, characterized by shabby mattes and noisy fades.
Attempting to launch a formal analysis on this work is like trying to dissect a rubber chicken—entirely irrelevant. Their permanent point of departure is the home movie. Mike and George don't consider themselves auteurs, even if Jonas Mekas labeled them as avant-garde wonders in their youth. Because they are their own target audience, they've yoked themselves to cheap and dirty formats for a lifetime. They're lackadaisical about money, and have never tried to break into the commercial sphere. When structuralism was popular in the Sixties, they presented toilet humor. Now, with fifty years under the bridge, they are regarded as camp pioneers. This is the benefit of hindsight. Today Mike and George are sexagenarians, and they still don't give a damn about anybody's attention span or digital dilemma or aesthetic preference. All they want to do is live their lives on crappy video in real-time. It may not resonate now, but who knows, something grand and invisible might be afoot.