Bright Lights Film Journal

George Kuchar and the Great Beyond

by Bob Moricz

[Editor’s note: This is our second tribute to George Kuchar, who passed away in San Francisco on Tuesday, September 6, 2011, age 69, from prostate cancer. He was beloved by many, and was certainly a “bright Light” to us at the magazine. Here filmmaker and Kuchar pal Bob Moricz talks about George.]

George Kuchar (left), Bob Moricz, and Mike Kuchar

I’m having a hard time with the idea of a world without George Kuchar. No more of his class pictures. No more weather diaries. No more of his personal brand of short cinema. No more drawings, cartoons, or paintings. That one-of-a-kind Bronxy voice is gone. I think a lot about his twin brother, Mike, left alone in their Mission Street railroad flat walk-up surrounded by the haunted remnants of a life dedicated to making hopeful motion pictures illustrating human loneliness and perseverance amidst the hard knocks of life. Losing a sibling must be tough. Losing a twin is a harder thing to wrap a brain around.

I called George to wish him a happy birthday while he was in hospice waiting for the show to end. “This is a lousy situation, Bob.” I keep hearing those words. So lousy. A week later, the final reel of George’s life was up and the film strip still flaps up against the projector. But the bulb continues to glow. His image and essence will always live on in the voluminous and copiously corporeal annals of the Kuchar motion picture oeuvre. The brothers’ movies are extensions of their very souls, illuminating the human condition within the microcosm of their own personal struggles. George comes back to life every time someone watches one of his pictures. He was a profound inspiration to many of us.

When I was four years old I knew I was going to be a filmmaker. My parents, God love and bless them, didn’t understand my interest in the arts, having sacrificed friends, family, their culture for a better life here in the USA, away from the horrors of post-WWII Communist Hungary. For me they wanted a good job that paid the bills. That job was certainly not making films. But I, too, was more than willing to make sacrifices for a life making the kinds of movies I wanted to make. Of course, this never jived well with my folks.

Though my parents were none too pleased with my ambition to be a starving artist, my dad, an amateur photographer, filmmaker, and gear head, let me use his bulky camera attached by cable to a strap-on VHS deck for my own movie knockoffs in the third grade. They let me rent whatever I wanted at the video store. They bought me books about films. At the age of ten I saw George’s name in Kim Newman’s great book Nightmare Movies. It mentioned him along with former lover Curt McDowell and their movie entitled Thundercrack! What a title! It even had an exclamation mark at the end! Newman wrote something about how it was the one and only haunted house bisexual porno film. That sounded incredible! I knew I had to see this film. I kept looking at that strange and exotic name. Kuchar. Five or six years later, I found a write-up of Hold Me While I’m Naked in a college film textbook. There was that name again. George Kuchar. And again, a completely mind-blowing movie title. Who was he and how the hell could I find a copy of one of his movies?!

Reflections from a Cinematic Cesspool

In my early twenties I worked for a San Francisco-based independent film production company and witnessed firsthand the waste, stupidity, and creative torpor of “real” film-making. I was crushed. There was no way I could make movies in such an inane universe. I did not want to be an accessory to that stupid world. But then, like manna from heaven, something special came into my life. While perusing the film section at City Lights Book Store, an oddly shaped monochromatic book jumped out at me and I picked it up. It was Reflections from a Cinematic Cesspool by George and Mike Kuchar. I read it in one day. The next day I quit working in the film business and resumed shooting my own lo-fi productions on Hi-8 video. Reading the Kuchar brothers’ book changed me. I discovered I had the power to make movies the way I wanted to make them. And I never looked back.

I fired off a quick fan letter to George at the hallowed halls of the San Francisco Art Institute, where he worked as an associate professor teaching a class called AC/DC Psychotronic Teleplays. Surprisingly, he wrote back within a week, inviting me to come to his class and witness the goings-on. I did and was dumbfounded. It was the complete opposite of what I had witnessed in the “real” film world. It was fun and creative. People were having a good time. Attractive men and women in various stages of costumed undress simulated orgiastic couplings while George gave them cheeky directions from behind a tiny handheld consumer Sony camcorder, giggling along with the students/actors the whole way.

After class George invited me out for some Chinese food. We gulped it down as if we were racing each other to finish the steaming mounds of heaping hot Asian goodness. The stuff was so spicy my eyes and nose were running into a single salty stream of snot, but I didn’t even notice because it was so much fun hanging out and talking movies, UFOs, weather, cryptozoology with this true auteur. Until that point I thought artists acted like assholes. George provided me with a very different model. He was for real, funny and upfront about his insecurities and foibles. He was giving and kind, introducing me as an up-and-coming underground filmmaker to his friends while I was still struggling to find my own cinematic voice. He helped me believe in myself and in my own artistic vision. In a way, he was like a surrogate parent or uncle. He gave me something my parents never could. He gave me the confidence to believe in my art, to follow through and make the stuff and get it screened somewhere.

Like me, George came from hearty, emotionally volatile Eastern European stock. His mother was born in the Ukraine, and his dad was a NYC Hungarian. The Old World ways imbue one with certain social graces and niceties like asking people about what’s been going on in their lives and always offering a snack or something to drink when people visit. I was always somewhat at odds with those old values, but being in George’s presence helped me to accept and integrate them into my personality. One can’t fight against one’s genetic code.

George, Archee the Poodle, Irina Beffa, and Bob Moricz during one of George’s visits to Portland

With George it was always fun exchanging stories about maternal warpaths and their destructive wake. There were always tales to tell. His mother was a powerful force, living to the venerable age of ninety-four. The brothers would take turns taking care of her. They would switch residences, George living in the Bronx with mom for the summer during his time away from work and Mike trading George for his Mission Street flat. I’m sure it was nice for Mike to take a little break from Mom and the sweltering Big Apple summer, but neither of them ever complained. They saw it as their duty to take care of the woman who brought them into this big and crazy world, although I’m sure it wasn’t easy. I loved hearing George tell of his nonagenarian mom flipping out at the UPS guy, refusing to sign the computerized clipboard. shrieking and wailing at the puzzled postal, George blocking the door to protect the offender while Mom’s weathered remains, violently cursing, flapped spasmodically behind him. The absurdity, hilarity, and pathos of this image is one with the emotions seething in the brothers’ motion pictures. I always marvelled at how they could express such emotional ambivalence so clearly and so powerfully in their work.

There was also a truly magical and mystical element attached to George. Animals and other strange creatures were drawn to him. For a time UFOs were regularly showing up in his life. Reading a book on Eastern yogis and mystics, I found a particularly moving and inspirational passage. Upon further perusal, I found a picture of the wise man to whom the quote was attributed to . . . and he looked exactly like George! The photographic reproduction of the yogi contained the exact same quizzically impish look contained in George’s eyes. He even had the same mustache!

I house-sat for George once while he was out on a trip with John Keel, author of The Mothman Prophecies. I had such a blast watching the movies made by George and Mike, one after another, the whole time on the rickety VCR in the living room I had seen in so many of his personal productions. The pad was a strange and haunted abode and I didn’t snoop around too much. But I did find his beloved pooch Bocko’s ashes in a canister on the mantle, near a beautiful painting of the beast, resplendently rolling around on his back, exposing his canine package completely lewd with animal innocence.

A few hours before George was due to arrive with Keel, who was to sleep on Mike’s bed, I noticed a foul smell coming from Mike’s room and upon investigating noticed the poo poo platter littered all over the bed. The cats, pissed that their master had left them in the care of some young nebbish who watched movies all day and night, demonstrated their frustrations by leaving turds all over the bed. I was shocked and appalled. I never had pets and I didn’t know what to do. Too young and dumb and terrified to take the bedding to a seedy local laundromat, I put it off. The previous night there was a shooting across the street adjacent to the house of suds.

Upon their arrival I was mortified. Keel in his mid-seventies at the time, a legend in certain circles, was in ailing health, and I did nothing to rectify the messy situation. After the long ride home, George was gracious. He told me to not worry about it and that he’d take care of it. I saw the look on Keel’s face and sank into the muck of my own miasmic self-loathing. Needless to say George never asked me to house-sit for him again. But he tried to make me feel like I didn’t screw up, even though I felt like a complete ass. I wish I had that quality , an ability to be polite and sensitive, to help people feel at ease. Instead I tend to blow through towns and people’s lives like the tempestuous twister in the Kuchar brothers’ early 8mm short A Town Called Tempest. Maybe when I’m older I’ll be more refined and gracious, but so far I don’t really notice the development of that tendency.

Upon their arrival that fateful evening, George was like a kid greeting his pet pussies, rubbing up and rough-housing the fey felines with a look of pure joy on his face. I’ll never forget that. Though he was a man well into middle age at the time, he had an innate ability to access his own youthful vigor. I often felt old and cynical in his presence, though I am over thirty years his junior. At the time I spat upon Hollywood dreck while George celebrated and used it to inform his own work. George went to see every movie. He loved that one with Sandra Bullock and Ben Affleck. I tried to figure it out. How could the man who made A Reason to Live, Pagan Rhapsody, and Eclipse of the Sun Virgin be a fan of Forces of Nature? This struck me as puzzling at the time, but now it’s something that demonstrates the profound scope of George Kuchar.

Linda Martinez and Bob Moricz during production of Queen Conga

Before I moved from the Bay Area to Portland, Oregon, I appeared in his 2006 class picture Queen Conga. When I asked him what to wear for my scene, George told me to wear what I wore “in that movie you made with all those masks.” The class was shooting the obligatory orgy sequence, and I was to play one of the participants so I assumed he meant the sock I wore over my business in The Dopa Show, a grim little short video I made, which I had recently shown to George, about a day in the life of a man with some funky fetishes. I got into my “costume” and when it was time for my reveal, the student actors were laughing and squealing, shocked and surprised by the spectacle of my dangling woven cotton. I dove into the writhing mass of supple young flesh with aplomb, and someone screamed something about getting gonorrhea. In the gyrating brouhaha, the sock came off. I was a little embarrassed, but Linda Martinez, septuagenarian star of countless Kuchar productions, told me she really liked my package. I felt a mile high! This was a singular art school experience. George Kuchar was not only a video production instructor at an esteemed art institution, but an incendiary device!

I really miss him.

As he was dying, friends, former students, fans, and admirers were showing up in droves to pay their respects. I’m glad I got a chance to talk with him over the phone less than a week before his passing. George was still George. Completely with it and witty, yet he made no attempt to pull any punches with his frustration at his impending demise. There was no attempt to mask the edge. “This is a lousy situation, Bob.” I told him what he meant to me and wondered if I could be capable of the same candor when it will be time for my folks to pass from this mortal realm.

A collage tribute to George by Irina Beffa and Bob Moricz

In a way George saved me. He showed me that you don’t have to do things the way they are prescribed by a cruel and greedy system. He leaves a mighty mark, inspiring generations of filmmakers ranging from the mainstream to the underground. There is an army of us out there that continues to grow, moved by the man, his pictures, and his methods. He lives on through us and the movies we make.

Since his passing I’ve been watching lots of his movies, and they give me a bittersweet feeling. He’s so alive in those pictures. And now we’re all stuck here without him.

But those are the breaks. One day it will be you and me. I guess the final words in Hold Me While I’m Naked can serve as a fitting conclusion: “There’s a lot of things in life worth living for, isn’t there?”