VICE Shorts

I'm Short, Not Stupid Presents: 'I, an Actress'

By Jeffrey Bowers

Five years ago I moved to San Francisco and one of my main goals was to meet the enigmatic cult filmmaker George Kuchar. I was introduced to him and his twin brother Mike’s films in college and they changed my life. George essentially had two different outputs: "story pictures," which is what he called his schlocky and melodramatic narrative films, and "video diaries," which were his crudely shot and ecstatically edited portraits of places and people. The narratives made up the bulk of his early career and the diaries made up the latter. However, just peeking at his 217 films listed on IMDB, you get the sense that he was always working on something. If you’re interested in more of George and Mike’s work, check out the interview VICE did with them in their film issue a couple years back.

George left New York and moved to San Francisco in 1971 to start teaching film at the San Francisco Art Institute. Most of the films made in this period are highly improvisational and appear as if everyone in them was on drugs—even if they weren’t. Despite George never being accepted by the mainstream, students flocked to his classes for his over-the-top tutelage. One such student, Barbara Lapsley, wanted George to direct her in a screen test to show to Hollywood agents. Of course, no sane person would want the dude who had sex with a gorilla in Thundercrack! to direct them in anything they wanted to be taken seriously. Hell, they shot the screen test in one take during the last ten minutes of class. During the test, the poor actress desperately tried to read the absurdly melodramatic script with lines like, "Wipe that smirk off your face, before I mash my goddamn shoe in it," and "…Or is it just the thrill of old, withered hands touching your naked, muscled flesh? Flesh that I bruise with my kisses." George yelled directions at her, but all he really did was ramp up the ridiculousness of it all. And then all of a sudden he just jumped into the frame, told the crew not to cut the shot, and showed the actress how to do her job. He groped his chest and groaned out her lines. It was brilliant. 

One of the most enduring factors of Kuchar’s films is just how endearing his passion and peculiar personality was, especially when he was yelling things like "I’m on my knees, Harold, haven’t you seen women on their knees before or is it only on their backs?" He said that one while on his back during the screen test, kicking up at a dummy wearing a coat and a curly wig. The whole ordeal was supposed to be Barbara’s gateway into Hollywood, but George made it his own, tagging a title on the film when it was done. He called it I, an Actress, a George Kuchar picture © 1977. The clip blends his styles together great, maintaining both the exaggerated script reads and camp, while documenting an event in real time and showing the artifice from behind the camera. Watching I, an Actress makes me realize I had boring fucking teachers.  

So anyway, five years ago I was in San Francisco and hoping to meet the brothers, George and Mike. When I called them on the phone they immediately invited me over to their apartment for tea and movies the next day. I was stunned that they were so gracious, but then when I walked into their apartment and saw their nice cat, their mantelpiece littered with antique toys and knick-knacks, their mounted T-Rex head hanging in their living room, and Mike’s homoerotic paintings of a naked Tarzan and a well-endowed sailor plastering his bedroom walls, I realized they were just two regular dudes. Here’s to people making movies, creating all the time, and being who they are. Enjoy the film, it’s the best acting class you could ever want.  

George Kuchar was born in 1942 in Bronx, New York with his brother Mike. The two grew up making nothing-budget 8mm movies about aliens, unrequited love, and other crazy shit. They caught the eye of the 60s underground film leader Jonas Mekas, who championed their work as fine art. They developed a cult following and influenced the likes of John Waters, Andy Warhol, and David Lynch. George taught at the San Francisco Art Institute for the last 40 years of his life. He made a lot of movies and won awards for them. The two had a documentary made about them two years ago called It Came from Kuchar. George passed away in 2011 due to pancreatic cancer. He will be missed and will remain a legend.

Jeffrey Bowers is a tall mustached guy from Ohio who's seen too many weird movies. He currently lives in Brooklyn, working as an art and film curator. He is a programmer at the Hamptons International Film Festival and screens for the Tribeca Film Festival. He also self-publishes a super fancy mixed-media art serial called PRISM index.

@PRISMindex

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