Note to young hipsters who want to claim famed underground filmmaker George Kuchar as their own: You're 40 years too late. Although Kuchar is hotter than ever with disaffected young film fans, his oeuvre of oddball movies actually belongs to your parents -- assuming your parents are the sort of folks who hung out in passion-pit theaters, smoking hash and watching cool indie films like Kuchar's The Naked and the Nude (1957) and House of the White People (1968) and, of course, his infamous opus, Hold Me While I'm Naked (1966).
The San Francisco-based filmmaker's bizarre no-budget movies, many of them made with his twin brother Mike in the Bronx in the late '50s and early '60s, made him a major figure in the American underground film movement. Kuchar is considered a pioneer of the camp/pop aesthetic whose work influenced the careers of Andy Warhol, John Waters, and David Lynch. He's coming to town on April 3 for a rare personal appearance at the Phoenix Art Museum, where he'll screen several of his newer works before attending a mini-festival of his more famous early films at Modified Arts that same evening. In a phone chat from the San Francisco Art Institute, where he's taught filmmaking since the early '70s, Kuchar discussed thalidomide babies, sex as trauma, and the advantages of posthumous fame.
New Times: You started back in the '50s, making 8mm films that you showed to your friends.
George Kuchar: Yeah. Then I bought a book for two dollars called How to Shoot a Movie Story, and that kind of helped. My brother and I would use our friends in the pictures, and we'd appear in them too, playing all the parts -- men, women, gorillas.
NT: You've made a case against this notion that the '50s was a golden age, especially for teenagers.
Kuchar: It was a terrible time to be any age. And any time is a bad time to be a teenager. In the '50s there were all the gang wars and things in the paper about juvenile delinquency. It was no picnic, but the good thing about all that is it inspired a really great genre of film, the JD movie. Which was a lot better than the movies that were being made with Sandra Dee and a bunch of people in their 40s playing teenagers.
NT: You were a member of New York's 8mm Motion Picture Club, but you got booted for showing a comedy you'd made about thalidomide babies.
Kuchar: And it's the only time they ever gave a picture a bad review. Big deal. It was a pompous group of old ladies who got all dressed up to play their home movies in a ballroom with a chandelier. My movie was a comedy, but these older people took it kind of seriously.
NT: I wonder what they would have thought of some of your later films, like Pussy on a Hot Tin Roof and I Was a Teenage Rumpot.
Kuchar: Some of those movies are still playing. They were blown up to 16mm by [film preservation center] Anthology Film Archives. They got a grant and blew up 10 of my movies, and now they're going to do some more. I did one picture that was so rock-bottom, we didn't have money for costumes, so we just put a lampshade on one lady's head, and that was her costume. But we didn't take the plastic off the lampshade, which looked fine in this little cheap 8mm movie. But then they blew it up to 16mm and it played at Lincoln Center, and all of a sudden there's pretty big proof that you didn't have a costume budget. I guess we weren't planning on playing Lincoln Center when we shot that one.
NT: An awful lot has been written about the look of your early films -- the way they're deeply color-saturated, almost as if they were hand-colored.
Kuchar: Yeah, we used to use Kodachrome Two, which is a very good amateur film that gives you really high contrast and boosted color. Also, we used to shoot in rooms with bright colors that bounced back because we had no set. We used to shoot in people's houses; we didn't have lighting rigs and makeup crews. Most of my work that shows at museums now is stuff I shot in somebody's borrowed apartment. And now I'm doing that again with my portraits.
NT: Your portraits?
Kuchar: They're what I do now. I do these portraits that are like little documentaries of people. Like I did one about some man who makes sexual fetish movies. He was turning 60 and he wanted a documentary made about him. I just followed him around for a couple of weeks with a camera. A lot of these video documentaries will be showing in Phoenix, but nobody seems to want to play the one about the sex-fetish guy.
NT: Speaking of fetishes, your star Marion Eaton is amazing. She looks like a man in a dress. She's a female female impersonator.
Kuchar: Oh, yeah. She was a find. She was a stage actress who wanted to get into movies, but back then in the '70s that meant all you could get was pornos. She tried that, but she thought the dialogue wasn't very interesting. Also in pornos you have to really get to know your leading man, and that turned her off a bit. But [in 1975] we were making Thundercrack, and she saw the script and she said, "This is the part I've been waiting for." We made a lot of pictures together, but she thought working with me was difficult, because I'm sometimes not prepared. I wouldn't know what the character was about, and she thought my makeup for her was always hideous. She had to get drunk sometimes to film scenes for me.
NT: I've read about Thundercrack. That's your movie where people are just sort of talking nonstop while they're fucking.
Kuchar: Yeah. At the time I was interested in how people talked to one another, so I bought a book called How to Write a Screenplay. And I wrote in ballpoint pen so that I couldn't erase. At that time [filmmakers] were interested in making movies about sex as a celebration, but I was more interested in sex as a trauma in people's lives. At first, audiences hated that picture because there was too much talk for a porno; they were saying, "What the hell is this?" Then [Los Angeles Times film critic] John Russell Taylor discovered the picture and it got real popular.
NT: John Waters has said that the films you and your brother made were what made him want to become a filmmaker. Now he's a famous gazillionaire.
Kuchar: Sometimes you think you're working in a vacuum, then you find out that others whose movies you've been enjoying also really loved yours. It makes making pictures less lonely.
NT: You're well-known among a subset of film fanatics. Are you sad that you're not more generally famous?
Kuchar: Well, fame is better after you're dead, because if you get famous while you're alive then you can't go to dirty bookstores without being recognized. You have to behave. It's better to have the kind of fame where you're un-famous, really out of the spotlight. Like me.
NT: Is there such a thing as "underground filmmaking" today?
Kuchar: Yeah. They're called art films now. They show in storefronts and in galleries. Nowadays there are whole schools where people sign up to make underground films. And the guys who used to be the underground filmmakers teach the courses. [At these schools] you can't tell other students that after you graduate you want to go do big Hollywood films, because they'll beat you up.
NT: Would you ever shoot a big-budget film starring Meryl Streep and George Clooney and one of those new Hollywood bimbos, like Lindsay Lohan?
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Kuchar: Yeah, probably. But if it was a flop I would feel bad about wasting someone else's money. And working with [professional] actors would be hard, because they usually like to know what exactly is going on, and I don't work that way. Also the idea of punching a clock is odd. Hollywood doesn't need me.
NT: What's your legacy?
Kuchar: I don't know. A whole bunch of films sitting in the closet, I guess. They're piling up. I really have to get them out of there in case the house catches fire one day.