As much as there remains some graspable appeal to each man’s video work – George’s comic personality and the humorous reckoning with his own legacy, and Carl’s peculiar brand of amateur SOV aesthetic terrorism – the ultimate facet of these shorts and features are their personal concerns.
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The compatibility of homemade amateur features with the avant-garde video art scene is becoming more and more apparent as audience sensibilities for unconventional works develop and expand. The sole difference at times seems to be one’s preference for one category over the other, and as a result, the outlets and opportunities afforded to them. To my knowledge, few if any amateur-produced genre films made on analog or digital video have been showcased in a museum environment. This is somewhat surprising, given the unquestionably low-culture origins of much avant-garde film art, from the disposable consumer products cherished by the Surrealists, to the pop music and muscle magazine fetishes of Kenneth Anger. Distinctions between high and low art forms have all but been eroded by this point in time, but there is still an undeniable divide between the presumed audiences for each sensibility, and with this a complicated embrace of the furthest regions of obscure media. Analog video was long the bastard child of serious film art, on both a commercial and academic level, despite advances with the form from its earliest days in the 1970s onward. In the realm of commercial cinema, the amateur unprofessionalism of the video image has long been a subject of derision, never fully reckoned with by wider audiences even as the industrial standard of celluloid production has waned in the last two decades.
An early development in the world of consumer-grade video art was George Kuchar’s adoption of the format for his series of video diaries in the mid-1980s. Using the low-cost availability of Hi-8 video, George found a means of sidestepping the costly prohibitions of celluloid filmmaking, a source of frustration for both avant-garde artists between grants and independent narrative filmmakers. This technological development also found its way into the hands of enterprising anti-auteurs and exploitation outlets that harnessed home video to unleash micro-budget genre films to unsuspecting renters. This cross-pollination of technology and thrift has largely been relegated to the respective niche audiences of each form. Avant-garde and conceptual art crowds have historically disregarded the shot-on-video (SOV) horror movement, just as audiences at large have resisted its inept charms. Conversely, cult and trash horror fans attuned to SOV horror’s peculiar form of insular madness often – though hardly entirely – dismiss the formal rigidity of the academically inclined art world.
George’s reputation was founded on the series of 8mm and Super 8 home movies produced with his twin brother, Mike, in the 1950s and 1960s. Ranging from knowing, overdone parodies and tributes to Sirkian melodramas, sci-fi invasion and paranoia epics, and even splattery schlock-horror shorts, these informed, passionate efforts caught the notice of the emerging New York City underground film movement. Despite their lack of formal experimentation at this stage, the brothers’ works found them caught very much in the moment, showing their unschooled projects at the same outlets as Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage. This also led to both brothers finding careers as instructors in the following decades, torch-bearing elders ready to guide the next generation of independent artists. Along the way, each had his hands in a number of certifiable underground classics: Mike’s Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965), George’s Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966), not to mention his screenplay for Curt McDowell’s infamous hardcore haunted house screwball comedy Thundercrack! (1975). George settled into a career teaching film and video at the San Francisco Art Institute by the 1980s, and his video diaries – the work for which he may be best known today, and which is certainly the most readily available – are revelations of innovative and striking personal expression.
George’s video diaries – filmed starting in 1985 on annual vacations to Oklahoma – peel away the professional gloss of the production process, much as Hold Me While I’m Naked had done in 1966, to reveal the inner working, daily doings, and obsessions of the man behind (and often in front of) the camera. Even in the vignettes with a distinct focus – the prairie storm season of the Weather Diaries, his receipt of the Maya Deren Award in Award – George’s camera deviates and distracts from the primary action, offering musings, worries, and observations about the people, objects, and places surrounding him. There’s a pronounced focus on scatological matter, with any diary just as likely to show us George’s bowel movements or his stained underwear, him masturbating in the shower or lying naked in bed, as well as endless scenes of him eating and the resultant indigestion. These moments are centered less for shock value than for their realism, with every minute moment of disgust and mortality interwoven into the larger portrait of his daily life. Mixed in all at once, however, are moments of profundity that capture tragedy and crisis far more intimately than many traditional documentaries. Video Album 5: The Thursday People is an extended tribute to Curt McDowell, then dying of AIDS, which includes visits to the artist on his deathbed. Creeping Crimson is a musing on the coming of fall and the changes in life much like the weather, grounded by George and Mike visiting their mother in the hospital for an illness. Season of Sorrow is a eulogy for George’s beloved cat, Blackie, that displays the gnawing grief of loss without shame and a candor that alone justifies the personal approach of the diary format.
All of these tragedies, as well as the various indignities life inflicts on bodies and minds, are at the emotional core of these short confessionals, but there is also a meandering attention paid to marginalia and everyday distractions. Often this ties into the larger themes of loss and aging, such as George’s thoughts on a skeleton toy found in his mother’s hospital suite. He also demonstrates his eye for beautiful visuals, capturing not just the storm season months of the Oklahoma summer, but also autumnal landscapes of changing leaves and festive domesticity in Halloween decorations. Most fascinating at times is the unrestrained weirdness allowed into the segments, as well as a passion for various low-cultural elements. Weather Diary 3 repeatedly features a spread from Fangoria magazine, and Uncle Evil interpolates clips from Andrea Bianchi’s Italian zombie exploitationer Burial Ground. Route 666 is a demented depiction of the creative process, and possibly possession, which features inventive split-screen editing and a haunting clown marionette that seems to control George’s thoughts. These moments, despite the documentary function of George’s projects, align his sensibility at least marginally with the SOV horror trend, as much as his video diaries remain rooted in the world of the academic avant-garde. Above all, what remains between the two movements is the shared urge to document the self, as well as the people, places, and things that bear importance in the filmmakers’ lives. Beyond the approaches taken to the material (narrative vs. nonfiction), the key difference is in the outlet provided to the filmmaker as well as his visibility, something afforded to few of the underground horror artists working with the same concerns and medium.
Carl Sukenick has had no special opportunities afforded to him: no opportune timing or presence at the crest of a cinematic movement, no ready-made audience save the adventurous devotees of fanzine mail-order ads, and even more importantly, none of the economic means to consistently realize his visions on a level beyond his own property. For a fan filmmaker like Carl, the home video camcorder was the most accessible opportunity for creative expression and confession that could exist. Announcing his arrival via the back pages of Fangoria, as well as larger ads in Film Threat Video Guide and other underground publications, Carl stood apart from the gallery of post-Cinema of Transgression provocateurs and faceless splatter filmmakers of the day. Debuting with 1991’s Mutant Massacre and following in rapid succession with Mutant Massacre 2 and Alien Beasts – all ostensibly re-edits of the same two hours of footage – Carl attracted notice for the incomprehensibility and ludicrous contents of his tapes. These three early features feature an invasion of mutants/aliens/Iranian spies into suburbia, centered on a military base that is unashamedly Carl’s family home. Over each tape’s seventy-minute runtime, there are endless scenes of horribly choreographed fights in the front and back yards, minutes-long profile shots of the everyman cast members, and plenty of footage of Carl smoking cigarettes and yelling at his camera to provide narrative context. There are also a handful of men in mutant/alien masks wandering the suburbs and attacking people, as well as an impressive Super 8 stop-motion animation climax wherein Carl dismantles an alien attacker to save the day.
These are ostensibly narrative features, as much as they deviate from all conventions of traditional filmmaking. By this virtue alone, there’s a compelling case to be made for their status as avant-garde, or at least outsider, art. There’s no indication that Carl has ever stopped making videos, and likely no possibility of even tracing just how many products he has unleashed over the years due to his relentless prolificacy and the micro-run of so many tapes. Following the death of his mother and his relocation to a care facility, Carl’s focus has shifted from the backyard sci-fi narratives of the 1990s to a more restrained and personal, if no less singular, form. Filming his friends and the other residents of the home, Carl’s work since 2000 or so has shifted to a blend of sci-fi/horror aesthetics and confessional diaries that bear an incredible resemblance to George’s own video work. There still remain the traces of his early narrative preoccupations – a variety of monster masks, non-acting victims being unconvincingly strangled by creatures, half-developed conspiracy plots to explain the strange occurrences – but with the reduction of scale and opportunity, the focus often shifts to Carl himself and his life in the moment of production. Later tapes such as Kill Room vol.1, LSD Killer, and Space Psychos often devote more screen time to Carl sitting on his bed, smoking cigarettes, and recounting his daily habits. There are discussions with his girlfriend about going out to buy candy, confessions of grief surrounding his mother’s death, and briefly, honest revelations of his struggles with mental illness. Just as with George’s own blend of profound realizations and crude bodily functions, Carl is also likely to film himself masturbating or clipping his toenails as much as he cries over his lost loved ones. The frantic nature of these later confessionals – remarkable due to the languid pacing and almost entirely static camera work – is unnerving in a way that George’s diaries often are. We see firsthand how he ages over the years, how his surroundings and personal life deteriorate, all due to his unwavering willingness to share every piece of his life. Carl offers little outright profundity, and seems to be doing so unintentionally at times, but there’s still an undeniable sadness in his circumstances, the fact that he was never afforded the opportunity to make the mark he desired, yet took whatever means were at his disposal and put himself out into the world via video to communicate and express himself. That makes the triumph of his marginal success all the more inspiring.
As much as there remains some graspable appeal to each man’s video work – George’s comic personality and the humorous reckoning with his own legacy, and Carl’s peculiar brand of amateur SOV aesthetic terrorism – the ultimate facet of these shorts and features are their personal concerns. Video as a medium is often inherently insular, from its everyday employment as a home video document for average families, to the larger, if often undocumented, world of amateur genre features that integrate fantastic narratives into this model of accessible vérité. As much as George’s diaries have been sanctioned by the academic world, there’s still an inaccessibility to their form that results from their lack of narrative focus and journalistic revelations of a personality. Carl’s videos have found no acceptance outside of the sub-cult world of shot-on-video collectors and fans and are admittedly far more off-putting and difficult than George’s work, even disregarding the latter’s built-in reputation. What emerges, then, is not so much a question of why one over the other has been welcomed by the world of legitimate criticism, but rather why either oeuvre appeals to viewer sensibilities. Just what is the attraction to these ostensibly personal works, particularly given the crude and often unflattering subject matter? Foremost is the undeniable fact that these were intended for release, personal documents made public whether for their resonant possibilities with audiences or their feverish expression of subjective obsessions and concerns. George manages to make each of his investigations entertaining and humorous, as much as they touch upon serious personal issues. Carl does not achieve this so much as he presents fascinating insights into the mind of a non-traditional filmmaker working on the fringes of even the underground horror subculture. That his videos can be more interminable than entertaining is a large part of their inaccessibility, as is their obscurity.
George has had nearly lifelong academic and artistic support. Carl would be a forgotten footnote if not for the handful of obsessive collectors who saw fit to continue releasing his work and cherish the original tapes decades after their release. In some ways, even access to their work is a mirror image: George and brother Mike’s own avant-garde video shorts are trapped within the network of the academic institution, unavailable on commercial video save out-of-print VHS tapes, and only able to be rented at exorbitant prices for institutional uses. Carl’s videos are long out-of-print, highly collectable in their original self-distributed forms and subject to eBay bidding wars. His newer and archival releases by a number of independent video distributers are in limited runs sometimes as low as twenty-five copies, and disappear quickly, feeding into the cycle of online collecting. At the same time, nobody but the most devoted and even masochistic video collectors have much desire to consume their contents. George’s work, more easily accessed if not affordably so, can feed discussions of video art as a movement, as well as provide a fuller picture of his life as an iconoclastic filmmaker. As much as I’ve tried to demonstrate their similarities and compatibilities as examples of diaristic film art, there are undeniable deviations from this comparison. George uses one device that seems to escape Carl: editing, which makes his works less indulgent even as they ground the viewer in his unique perspective. To those not attuned to the particular demands of the avant-garde world, Carl’s early features offer an entry point by way of inept genre filmmaking, though they manage to defy the badfilm paradigm in their singularity. There’s also an unfortunate instinct in this reading strategy to ridicule the rudimentary construction of the works, which can easily slide into a problematic view of Carl as simply a mentally ill individual. By the same token, his outsider status is troublingly valorized, foregrounding his identity in a way that he himself rarely recognizes.
In the end, these two bodies of work are not the same, and do not even occupy the same world, much as I believe they can be inserted into dialogue with one another. In each filmmaker’s work one is just as likely to see either masturbating, mumbling to themselves, eating, yelling at their mother, or filming their cast in various states of undress. Ultimately, despite their disparate aims, these shorts and features are a form of honest, open communication relying on the egalitarian potential of video itself. Both filmmakers would likely have made these works regardless of the outlets available to them, and the fact of their differing receptions on all levels does not deter one from the content itself. They are by turns funny, horrifying, tragic, and exhilarating, capturing the full range of human experience through the distinctive lens of two unique artists, and for this they remain valid despite their obscurity.