George & Mike Kuchar
In the history of experimental film, George and Mike Kuchar stand out like a luridly lit, throbbing purple thumb. Along with Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, Ken Jacobs, et al., the twin Kuchars are among the most emblematic avant-garde filmmakers of their...
Sep 1 2009, 12:00am
GEORGE & MIKE KUCHAR
INTERVIEWS BY STEVE LAFRENIERE
PHOTOS BY JEFF ENLOW
In the history of experimental film, George and Mike Kuchar stand out like a luridly lit, throbbing purple thumb. Along with Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, Ken Jacobs, et al., the twin Kuchars are among the most emblematic avant-garde filmmakers of their generation. Unlike some of their more educated fellows, their careers began in 1954 when they tore the wrapping paper off an 8-mm camera on their 12th birthday. They quickly taught themselves to use it and set about shooting brilliant, exotic, absurd features starring their friends, inspired by the Hollywood blockbusters and B movies they obsessed over at their local theaters in the Bronx. George and Mike were still in their teens when, years later, serendipity brought their work to the attention of the Manhattan underground-film world, where they were championed by none other than Jonas Mekas, said scene’s godfather. Their films were also the central inspiration for another young filmmaker—John Waters refers to the Kuchars as “my heroes.” More than 50 years later, they haven’t stopped. At last count George has over 200 movies under his belt, and Mike, an illustrator and painter, continues to make video shorts starring people he meets along the path of his life.
We were going to interview them in a conference call, but as their voices sound so much alike, we realized it would be a transcribing nightmare. So let’s do George first, then Mike.
Vice: Were there a lot of big movie palaces in the Bronx when you were teenagers in the 50s?
George Kuchar: There were a lot of theaters, and a lot of people in the Bronx went to the movies. The big one was the Paradise. It was on the Grand Concourse near Fordham Road, and that was quite a spectacular theater. It looked Roman. They had stars twinkling on the ceiling and clouds moving by. There was another theater around Southern Boulevard that played foreign pictures, Antonioni movies. I remember going there and the place was packed to see L’Avventura. And they always had a sign that said “Air-Conditioned.” You’d walk by in the summer and, man, the blast of cold air that came out of that place.
How often did you go?
Three times a week. Sometimes we’d see the same movie three times.
Do you remember the ones that made you want to make movies?
I went to see a lot of Douglas Sirk. That was like going to see work by adults. You felt like it was grown-ups making those pictures, and they really looked good. But then there were the Roger Corman pictures. They were done cheap and we thought, “Gee, it could be fun making those.” They would be double bills. Sometimes there would be pictures about Indians with Marla English, and then one of the low-budget horror movies. I used to love seeing those.
Marla English is criminally forgotten. Did you follow certain stars?
Yeah. And it didn’t have to be the big ones, sometimes it was the stars of the B movies. Or a lot of times I went to a movie because they had listed who did the music. If Bernard Herrmann’s name was on the ad, I went to the movie. I loved the sound of the score in the movie theater.
You and Mike started making movies when you got a camera for your 12th birthday. Was it expensive to process the film?
The film was $2.65, and the developing couldn’t have been more than that. You’d bring it into a drugstore, and they would process it at a place locally. But it wasn’t very good. After a few years it would crack, the emulsion would come out, and it would look like a fresco. So we would send it to Kodak. They did a much better job. A projector didn’t cost that much money in those days. They were kind of tin-looking things, with little plastic reels. If you got a better projector it could take bigger reels, so you could make longer movies.
How did two teenagers from the Bronx connect with the underground-film crowd in Manhattan?
We had friends, like bohemians or whatever they were called. A friend of mine, Donna Kerness, she was very pretty. We went to high school together, and then I started putting her in pictures. She made friends with this man, Bob Cowan, who was about ten years older, an artist. He came down from Canada with two other Canadian artists, Mike Snow and Joyce Wieland, to get into the culture scene. He was infatuated with Donna, and she introduced me to them, and they introduced my brother and me to that whole art world in New York that was going on.
Ken Jacobs helped you guys out, right?
We went to Ken Jacobs’s loft because Bob Cowan, I think, was acting in his 8-mm movies. At that time it was like a little theater there, and every Friday or Saturday night he would play underground movies. So my brother and I came with our pictures, people liked them, and we were asked to come back. Ken Jacobs told Jonas Mekas about us, and that’s how the whole ball started rolling.
Even though you were teenagers and didn’t have an art background like those other people, you were accepted?
Yeah! That place used to be full of painters and other artists making movies. We sort of became part of that crowd and began showing at the same venues, and an audience developed. But we had never known anyone like this. These were crazy people. They didn’t behave like the people we were working with at our jobs. A lot of them had never grown up. They were sort of fun, wild, and free.
Click to enlargeWhere was Warhol in all of this?
I would see him on the street with his entourage, and then he would come to our shows. I remember him coming once with a whole group of people five minutes into the screening. At that time I was also friends with Red Grooms, who was making some 8-mm movies. He asked me if wanted to go to a luncheon that Harry Abrams was holding for pop artists. Since I’d just finished Hold Me While I’m Naked in 16 mm, he asked me if I’d like to bring a projector. Warhol was there, and Rauschenberg, and Oldenburg. We showed the movie, and afterward Warhol said, “It’s good, George. It’s too good. Go back to your old style with the 8 mm.”
He got a lot of his ideas from you and Jack Smith.
Actually, at that time there was a big crosscurrent of people looking at Jack’s work. But he was an odd character, Jack Smith. He was way off in left field or something. He was very talented and all, but he had no stability. The rug was pulled. I put him into a movie because he was living next door to the guy that I was using as the star. Jack was going to the Factory one afternoon and he took me along. Warhol was doing a silk screen when we got there. Jack Smith had acted in a Warhol picture and he was mad because he had been off-camera during his biggest scenes and Warhol never told him, “You’re out of the frame.” Warhol didn’t seem to get too disturbed. He just kept silk-screening.
It’s funny that right after the macho Beat era, here come all these queeny guys like Smith and Warhol.
It was just what was happening. Around the Beat time they all wore ties and shirts and jackets. They’re kind of dressed up, you know what I mean? But then this other thing, this strange exotica, came in. It just happened.
Was it hard to direct actors to work so over the top? I’m thinking of Bob Cowan as the android in Sins of the Fleshapoids. Or Donna Kerness in anything.
At first I would try to show Donna facial movements I wanted, and she would try to do them. It looked preposterous. So after a while I would just try to guide them, but they had their own ideas of how to do a scene. They didn’t want to be told or wouldn’t pay attention. They had their own style. It got to the point that they were all on the same wavelength anyway.
Floraine Connors is one of the most compelling actresses ever put on-screen. I honestly used to think she was a guy in drag.
She’s still around. I’ve been making video diaries with her. She likes acting, so I make these diaries but then I add in an element of a story with her. She was in a wheelchair for a while, but she’s doing OK now.
She’s in California?
No, she’s in Manhattan. Floraine doesn’t like flying. She once went on an airplane where someone had a hand grenade. There was a battle, and the hand grenade rolled down the aisle. It traumatized her.
One more—Francis Leibowitz, the heavyset woman that played your and Mike’s mom in Corruption of the Damned. That scene where she commits hara-kiri at the town dump is like Kurosawa directing Red Desert or something.
Yeah. She could drive a car, so she took us out there. That woman was a lot of fun. She wasn’t a stodgy mother. She never tried to stop us from doing anything.
What happened to all these people when you moved to California in the 70s?
Bob paints and he also composes music. He’s got one of these machines you do the music on... a synthesizer. He makes these home movies where he goes to a shopping mall and shoots Peruvian bands and stuff like that. Donna Kerness is doing a painting class. But after me nobody put them in a picture.
Do you prefer editing to shooting?
I like it all. I like shooting because it’s like one big party. You get a chance to do compositions, lighting, and your wardrobe and makeup. It’s excitement. But it can be hell too, especially if you’re doing a scene and the question arises, “What do we do?” I don’t know what the hell to do.
You improvise that much?
Yeah. So you have to say, “Excuse me, I have to go to the bathroom,” and then you can get your thoughts together. When the cameras were bigger and I didn’t know what to do to progress a scene, I’d just hide behind the camera. It was big enough to hide your face and you’d make believe you were adjusting the framing.
Click to enlargeMaybe it’s because the plots are so much about your own, uh...
Probably obsessions. They always peek out. Sometimes there’s a seam of something that’s on your mind or bothering you. Or else you find somebody interesting and you wind up putting them in a plot, and somehow the plot unravels in the picture. But it’s other people playing them, so it’s all sort of dressed up. And 15 years later you realize what this picture was about, or that it was a pre-shadow of something. Pictures are kind of spooky. Especially when you handle the film yourself, and you got yourself in there. I compare them to little voodoo dolls.
Kenneth Anger believes that film collects more than just light and shadow. He said it made it hard to tell when they were finished.
Sometimes I finish a picture I’m working on and I think, “What a monstrosity.” Then I play it for a group of people and they sit there like, what just happened? And I think, “Uh-oh, what have I unleashed?” But if there’s something wrong with the picture, I fix it. The thing never gets finished unless it gets my complete seal of approval. Otherwise I’m haunted by it.
I looked on IMDb, and apparently you’ve made 215 films. What kind of magic energy do you have?
It’s weird. Sometimes years later I look at a movie and say, “Gee, how the hell was I able to do this?” You realize it’s kind of massive and where the hell did you get the energy to finish the damned thing? Why did you even start it? The trick about moviemaking is don’t think about what you’ve got to do until you get it all finished. Once you start there’s a whole bunch of processes, and with me each one is tackled anew. I never know how to edit them until I get the footage shot. The same thing with what kind of music goes on here and there. And sometimes even, what’s the name of the picture? Even while you’re making it, what’s going on with this film? How come so-and-so got on the phone? And who’s on the other end?
Are the films you make in your production classes at the San Francisco Art Institute all improvised?
I make my diary movies—portraits of animals, portraits of people and places—but at the school I still make story pictures too. We’re all together there and we concoct these things.
Give me an example.
Recently there was some guy in the class and he brought in a friend. The friend was very striking looking. I said, “I gotta get you in the picture.” He said, “Well, I can only stay 20 minutes.” We got the camera out and he became this sailor. The light was terrible. I was just fumbling along. At the time there was some union thing going on at the school, and there were these union buttons. So I had him hand this girl—the star of the picture—this button and she puts it on. Later I took this footage and wove it into the plot, so it became a scene where this girl gives a button to another girl, and she has a flashback to when she knew this sailor, who gave her a button. So it turned out she was jilted by someone she loved very much and so she wound up in the plot hooked up with this dope addict, trying to forget this doomed romance with the sailor. So from this lousy footage that I put together and saved, I got something else.
Aren’t all your films diary films, then?
Yeah, you could say that. In the past, when I had to leave an apartment, I would specifically make a film there a few days before, so I could record the apartment. And if I’m going on vacation somewhere, I bring the camera and try to get the vacation into the plot.
One of my favorite things in your old films is the special effects. There were two kinds: lightning storms and UFO invasions. You had an endless repertoire of ways to pull them off.
Thanks, I’m glad you liked them. There was a documentary recently made about me and my brother, and they had one of the premieres at Skywalker Ranch. The big special-effects artist who did Jurassic Park and all, he came, and he got a kick out of ours. He said, “Nothing stopped you! You needed a big scene where a flying saucer crashed into a building and you had a budget of a few dollars. Very good.”
I think they’re scarier than digital effects. I’m also fascinated with your films about animals. The Mongreloid, the one about your dog, is hilarious.
With Mongreloid we got stuck there in the country because Curt McDowell, who was in the movie, didn’t put antifreeze in the car and the temperature dropped below freezing. We were stuck in a motel, and he had to walk to another town. He was angry at me, and I didn’t know if he was going to come back and pick me up, or go back to San Francisco and leave me in this small town with a dog. I only had 15 cents, you know what I mean? That’s why you have to have a happy set, because every time you look at a movie later you recall the time that you had making it.
The hysterical and beautiful films of George Kuchar. Click each column for enlargements.
You were involved in Curt McDowell’s notorious underground film Thundercrack!
Strange era, the 70s. The bottom fell out, sex-wise. There was a great sense of craziness and freedom here in Frisco. But then it also had its problems. I wrote the script for Thundercrack!, and I wanted it to be literate. I didn’t want to use any four-letter worlds. [laughs] Curt very much saw sex as a celebration and stuff. I always saw it as a horrible trauma in people’s lives. Feelings they couldn’t control. We were very opposite.
It looks like everyone in it was tripping their tits off. Pretty wild time on the set?
Actually, no. Some people who acted in porn movies were in it, but between scenes they’d just be reading a paperback. And you had certain rules. Like if you were in a room and they were doing a sex scene in the other room, you couldn’t tell jokes because they’d hear you laughing and think you were laughing about them. I was lighting scenes and it made it difficult for them—to see some lighting guy going around while they’re trying to get in the mood and do some humping.
McDowell was a student of yours when you started teaching at the Art Institute. How were you received there?
This would have been in 1971. At that time it was OK because they all wore prairie dresses. The hippie era. Then as it went on, art became maybe more serious and some members were thinking, “Get him out of there.” He’s a nonartist. They would try to poison the other faculty, but it didn’t work. The other students got wind of it and said, “We want him here.”
That’s pretty nice.
But yeah, you weather everything, including the way certain people develop tunnel vision, depending on the era they were trained in. You fall out of favor. Then it’s “He’s hopeless, he’s beyond help. You can’t possibly straighten this guy out.” So, luckily, you’re completely ostracized. Therefore you go on and you make your stuff, and you even make stuff to ostracize yourself more from that whole group. Which gives you incentives to make more pictures. Then eventually that falls apart and then there may be more interest in you again. It just goes on like that.
Do you like working with students?
Oh yeah. A colleague of mine who was teaching for a long time, she said, “How do you make films with all these different students? I’d blow my top.” Like students would have strange accents because they came from other countries and so on. But I’d say, “No, the thicker the accent, the more it makes the pictures seem international. It has more prestige.”
Vice: What were your early influences?
Mike Kuchar: In the early days I was more struck by the visual presentation of pictures. The movie theaters back then were temples. I mean, there were goldfish ponds in them. I would go and see these biblical epics and costume spectacles. They impressed me a lot—the sets, the glamour, the music. It was like another world was going on simultaneously with this one. There were certain people who inhabited it that you would see again and again. I didn’t realize it at first, but as I was watching them, I was studying the vocabulary of these two-dimensional spectacles. Later on I’d go to a picture if I saw a particular director was involved. But that was later.
Who directed wasn’t such a big question at first?
No, it was just the effect of entering this other world of big glamorous people. And when I started picking up the camera myself I began to reflect on these things. Of course in my movies they go somewhat wrong.
I’m not so sure they do.
Well, my pictures are considered somewhat camp.
Critics label any Kuchar film outrageous and camp. It’s pretty offensive.
My definition of “camp” is setting up a tent in a recreational area. But yeah, I’m aware of that aspect of them.
There’s something else going on there that pushes the same buttons as von Sternberg. They wouldn’t be so good if they were just camp.
I’m interested in lush escapism and a kind of joy. When I make these pictures I take them seriously. I can’t help it. I go into a trance. All my pictures are self-motivated—something might haunt me and I try to capture it. Or certain people have a quality I can use. There are all kinds of reasons, but they’re very deep to me. I have to do it. Or sometimes... mmm, yeah. Go ahead, you talk.
No, all of that comes through. Even just the way you juxtapose shots. Do you work intuitively?
It’s intuitive, but I am conscious of what I’m doing. What I feel, I see, and what I see, I feel. I like to work with colors, but they just kind of fall together.
Once you got into color, the influence of watching all those Technicolor movies became obvious.
Other filmmakers asked, well, what are you photographing in? I’d tell them Kodachrome, this home-movie film with a thick emulsion. You could get really dense colors. And they’d say, oh no, when you bring it to the lab the contrast is going to gather, and they won’t be able to control the color. And I thought, yeah, that sounds good.
Click to enlargeIs your work more intuitive than George’s?
I guess I’d leave that up to you or other people to figure out. Feel free to.
OK, are your movies as improvised as his?
My pictures are never written out beforehand. There’s always a start, and from there I’m bringing out things that are in my subconscious. There are all kinds of stories in there. I have certain urges, or the way I react to people. And then it begins to snowball and as I work on it I begin to realize what it’s gaining momentum toward. And then I can start to see a kind of conclusion or solution to it.
Is it easier to work with actors this way than in the context of a more scripted film?
You know what it is? They’re not actors. You know what they do? They give themselves over to me completely. I guess because they respect what they’ve seen that I’ve done. And I can’t pay them, so we work fast.
Were you a fan of your fellow underground filmmakers in the early 60s?
I found it inspiring because we were all busy on our visions. We wouldn’t hang out and have conferences. We’d meet each other in the lobbies when we saw each other’s pictures. But I enjoyed Gregory Markopoulos.
Yeah, I thought you might.
I liked his attitude, his very dignified approach toward his medium. He had a vision and he was so dedicated to it. Very inspiring.
I used to buy Gay Heartthrobs comics. Those were hilarious. But it wasn’t until I was researching you that I realized you used to draw their covers.
That was back in the 70s, but I did continue on drawing.
Do you show this work?
Yes. A couple of years ago there was a show at Matthew Marks Gallery in New York, a summer show with five of my illustrations in it. They all sold.
They’re beautiful, horny, and really funny. A lot like your film work, actually.
I always think a table should have many legs to stand on. There’s the story, also there’s the way you’re doing it, and hopefully there’s also the craft, and there’s the humor. Also, to have things that you don’t see in that genre. Like I would put glasses on the nude guys, or have them forget to take off their tie. In real life these things tend to happen.
Click each column for enlargements.