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Two members of the aging avant-garde/underground/experimental film world bit the dust in the last week.  Coming from somewhat polar opposite sides of the spectrum, each was celebrated back in the days when such things perhaps mattered.  Neither made commercially oriented work and hence made little money.  Nor, I suspect, did they care.  Today they had passed into the special oblivion which culture constructs for those who haven’t shifted with the sands of fashion.   The fashion of the last decades has been money – it’s making, spending, and the whole consumerist ethos which overtook the world at the prompting of our corporate overlords.  In these times, if something doesn’t make a mountain of money, it is deemed unimportant.  If it does, it is celebrated, no matter how socially damaging it is.  Times will change, again.

George Kuchar

George Kuchar, and his brother Mike, arrived in the early 60’s though they’d been making films from the early 50’s.  The time of the men in the gray flannel suits wasn’t ready for them then, and only in the rollicking 60’s did they burst through.  Hailing from the Bronx, they made campy, weird films, which staked out one sector of what was then called “underground cinema.”  Their corner was the outrageous, the sexually diverse and perverse – at the time taboo breaking.  It was a section shared with Warhol, Jack Smith and many others ready and willing to let Mr. Jones know what was really going on.  The aesthetic drew from Hollywood B-movies of the past, with lurid lighting and costumes to match the lurid content.  It was all done with a large tongue-in-cheek (or perhaps elsewhere.)  And despite the seeming vulgarity and a certain kind of crudeness, with considerable craft and art.  George moved to San Francisco in the 70’s, taking up teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute.  Mike stayed in New York.  I met George a handful of times out West, as I lived there and the artistic film community is small.   Mike I’ve seen any number of times where he works, when passing through New York and doing screenings at Howard Guttenplan’s Millennium Film Workshop on the lower East Side.

Back when there were dinosaurs and Hi-8 came out, George got one, and like myself, realized that it made it possible to make a film all in-camera.  These machines had a rough time-code and a button where you could set it to cut, cleanly, in, and then out, on the number you programmed – within a frame or two of accuracy.  Previous video cameras had not had that.   I liked the aesthetic of Hi-8 quite a lot – a bit grainy, high-contrast, gritty.  And I liked the idea of shooting a film in-camera, since anything really cheap appealed to me.  I plotted, and made some half-hearted attempts, but never did anything (my thoughts involved story-boards and such, anathema to me in film.)  But George jumped in and actually did it, in a manner much smarter and more creative than my ideas:  he’d lay down a kind of bass track, fill the whole cassette with a shot.  Then he’d go into that shot, drop in another, and by accretion build up a whole film.  His Weather Diary #1 shows what he did: pure genius, though I don’t like that word or concept.   This is a 90 minute film, and wonderful, in which he dropped a Hi-8 cassette into the camera, and when he pulled it out it was a finished, fascinating and anything but boring work.  When he wanted music for a scene, he played a boombox when doing the shot; the camera let you dub in sound and where he wanted voice-over, he did that.  One really smart, creative soul at work.

For some commentary and such on George, see this and this and this.   George was 69 when he died.

“Makin’ movies, see, sometimes you see a very beautiful person. And the first thing that comes to my mind is, I want to make a movie of that person. ’Cause I like puttin’ gauzes — ah, cheap, black cloth on the lens with a rubber band — and creating these, what look like 1940s movies, or movies of a beautiful Hollywood style, and blowing these people up bigger than life and making them into gods and goddesses. And I think in the movies that’s a wonderful way of pushing them on the public, and infusing the public with great objects of desire, and dreams, and things of great beauty.”

He added, after a long pause, “Living human beings of beauty.”   
George Kuchar

George KucharGeorge looks a heaven, 2009.  I am sure he’d appreciate the humor of the name of these clouds.

While I sincerely doubt that George believed in anything like a god, and was as firm an atheist in his manner as I am in mine, I am sure he’d enjoy the irony of my saying, “God bless you, George.”  (And you too, Mike.)

Pictures from Center for Visual Music’s Belson research pages,

Working in altogether another realm, another San Francisco filmmaker, of another generation, Jordan Belson, also died this week, at 85 spins around the sun.

I never met Jordan, I suppose owing to that little generational jump.  His work, begun in the 1950’s presaged what became known as psychedelia.  It was – back in the days of 16mm, and his work was done painstakingly in a form of animation and using an optical bench.  The results were cosmic, spiritual.   I suppose he did believe in some kind of god, or spiritual something that extended beyond our brief little earthly transit of consciousness.   Curiously, though I myself firmly believe otherwise, in the last years my own tendencies in work have been toward something that vaguely is akin to his work.  While not at all like his work in both the method of making or in many ways in the actual aesthetic involved, the tilt toward pure abstraction is there.   So, with no irony intended, ” May the atoms bless you, Jordan.”

Swimming in Nebraska

Pictures from Center for Visual Music’s Belson research pages,