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ESSAYS

The Pervert’s Diary: George Kuchar

by Travis Jeppesen

 

Extraterrestrial spaces are enclosed within the space of the Earth itself.

—Pierre Guyotat

 

The bad artist, in some sense, doesn’t live in this world—“this world” being the sphere of existence governed by a real or imagined consensus—or else, dwells in this world in order to contaminate it, to draw attention to those things ungovernable by the socius. That which is excessive, that which we look away from in disgust. These things, this scum, being the primary focus of artists like Dieter Roth and George Kuchar throughout the duration of their long working lives. As one critic aptly puts it, “Roth’s five-decade career turned on the provocation of admitting decomposing matter and other dross into sanctioned art spaces, then delighting in the aggressive unsalability of the art that ensued. […] It’s difficult to decide whether Roth’s collapse of art into life yielded a radical, Dadaist dispersal or a heroization of the artist as a privileged figure whose every gesture qualifies as art. The answer, it seems, is that Roth achieved both—a position that makes his art by turns fascinating and fascinatingly vexed.” One could say that Kuchar, though working in a different medium—narrative film—and with a markedly different sensibility, attained something similar in his six-decade-long career.

“I’ve always believed in looking in the garbage for inspiration,” said Kuchar in a 2005 interview. For Kuchar, the brutal banality of the everyday bucolic, the scatological, dances with its anti-counterpart, the celestial, in a lifetime project of understanding through his own manic vehicularity. “If we need action,” says the voice of Kuchar at one point in Weather Diary 5 (1989) as the camera pans up toward an ominous gray sky, “we know where to look.” The joke is typical Kuchar fare, commingling his frustration with the lack of sexual stimulation in the cooped-up motel room he’s isolated himself in with the inherent dangers of the locality: the Tornado Alley region of Oklahoma that the filmmaker visited each spring for more than three decades. The artist’s body—its functions, failures, and peregrinations across the trashy landscape of a Middle American Nowheresville—is as much the subject, the object—the sobjectas the severe weather that he fears and is simultaneously fascinated by. There is something quasi spiritual, almost Rabelaisian about the quest. Want answers for the urges troubling us down here? Look to the skies! The result is a seemingly endless, very personal theater of absurdity, the likes of which have no cinematic parallel.

 

 

George Kuchar’s career as a filmmaker can readily be divided into three discernible phases: his earliest collaborations with twin brother, Mike, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the two emerged as pioneers of the early New York underground film scene (alongside fellow luminaries Andy Warhol, Jonas Mekas, and Kenneth Anger); the chaotic and colorful films he made with his students each year, at the San Francisco Art Institute, from the early 1970s up until his death in 2011; and his later, more personal, diaristic video works.

The Kuchars were not yet teenagers when they began creating their own versions of the B-grade matinee cinema they often skipped school to take in. These early works were inspired equally by the melodramas of Douglas Sirk—George later claimed to have seen Written on the Wind (1956) eleven times when it came out—as well as the double-feature monster flicks that filled cinema marquees throughout the 1950s—in short, the lowest of the lowbrow. Working with friends and using materials acquired from thrift shops and parents’ closets as props and costumes, they used 8 mm cameras and shot on rooftops so as to have access to as much natural light as possible, since of course there was no budget for real sets, costumes, and lights.

By the time the 1960s rolled around, they were being feted by the downtown avant-garde for 8 mm productions like I Was a Teenage Rumpot (1957), The Naked and the Nude (1958), and Pussy on a Hot Tin Roof (1963)—even though, with their geeky suits and thick, working-class Bronx accents, they did not exactly fit the hip downtown bohemian artist caricature. As Jesse Lerner notes, “For Mekas and company, the Kuchars were authentic cine-primitives, intuitive naïfs who achieved greatness in their profane innocence.” 3

Although they would continue living together in a shared apartment up until George’s death in 2011, the twins would soon go their separate ways as filmmakers and artists, while also embarking upon remarkably distinct life paths. The turning point came in 1965, by which time they had upgraded to 16 mm film. Midway through production of Corruption of the Damned (1966), Mike suddenly lost interest and began working on his own sci-fi flick, Sins of the Fleshapoids (1966). George would finish Corruption on his own, and the two films were respectively the brothers’ first solo credits as filmmakers. The following year, George would make his most famous film to date, Hold Me while I’m Naked (1966), which has been aptly summarized by Mark Finch: “George is a filmmaker frustrated by a leading lady who runs away with one of her co-stars. He is unable to find a suitable replacement because all his pals are having sex in their showers. He himself takes a shower, interrupted by his mother’s call to dinner. Faced with a plate of overcooked beets and other burnt offerings, George wonders whether there is indeed anything worth living for.”4 The film is notable for its establishing characteristics of what would become George’s definitive style, which blackly combines elements of the cinematic fantasy world the artist’s imagination had been deeply entrenched in since early childhood with the bitter, harsh reality of a quotidian working-class existence. The blend is effortless—as in the film’s opening sequence, with dramatic symphonic music underlining the turmoil of an upcoming chase scene, which is immediately followed by the sound of George’s voice fervently directing the leading lady to run for her life as she escapes from an apartment building in a panic. For George, there is no real difference between the constructedness of the scene and the constructing of the scene; they are both equal players in the cinematic act.

Perhaps the only commonality the twins would come to share in the end was their heavy Bronx accent—you could never be quite sure which you were speaking with on the telephone—as well as their queerness, which often manifested itself through their work in tortuous relation to their Catholic upbringing. Mike, with his long guru-esque beard and somewhat withdrawn personality, would embark on a decidedly more spiritual quest—which included a journey to India, where he was spiked with strong psychedelic drugs, an experience that would mark him for life. George, clean-shaven and an outgoing chatterbox, always eager to communicate with anyone around him, was recruited to teach at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1971. He would remain on the faculty until his death forty years later, always teaching the same class, essentially an apprenticeship: whoever signed up for it got to work on a George Kuchar film, either as actor or crew member. By merging his teaching and filmmaking practices, Kuchar managed in this regard to produce an astonishing quantity of films and videos over the years; though no definitive number yet exists, his output is believed to number in the hundreds.

It is the third phase of Kuchar’s work, beginning in the 1980s with the wider availability of consumer-grade camcorders on the market, which is worth examining in more detail. While many of the “pictures,” in Kucharian lingo, retain the lurid, B movie–style titles of Kuchar’s other work, much of Kuchar’s output from the 1980s until his death in 2011 consists of edited video diaries of the artist’s milieu and travels. The work that has arguably been the centerpiece of Kuchar’s vast oeuvre in these later years is the Weather Diary series, documenting his annual visits to the El Reno Motel in El Reno, Oklahoma, a series that, in the words of one critic, flies “in the face of all we have been taught about good video-making, good taste, or good meteorology.”

 

 

While “spring break,” in American parlance, inevitably conjures up images of buff dudes and bikinied babes released from college dorms for a couple weeks of beer-drenched debauchery on sandy shores, George Kuchar would use his annual time off from the San Francisco Art Institute to temporarily escape the muck of urban life, while simultaneously indulging the artist’s childhood fascination with, and fear of, extreme weather. Having lived on either coast for his entire life, his presence in the heartland of Middle America was very much that of a stranger in a strange land. For several decades, he opted to stay in the rundown El Reno Motel. Initially, on these visits, while waiting for the bad weather to arrive, he would read and paint, though eventually, the idea arrived to bring his camera along and begin filming his escapades, as he later relayed in a filmed interview.

The Weather Diaries have their genesis in Kuchar’s childhood, as he explained in an introduction posted online on the occasion of a retrospective screening at Harvard Film Archives: “Since I was a city boy, living in The Bronx, nature came to me via the colorful tapestry of sky that loomed above the tenements. The awe of summer thunderstorms, smothering blizzards and window rattling nor’easters left a lasting impression on me. I sought out, via library books, the superstars of this meteorological majesty and read up on hurricanes, tornadoes and other terrors that occasionally whirled into urban awareness.” Elsewhere, Kuchar identified the disruptive force of unruly nature as being the prime motivator behind his fascination. This disruption—both as an imaginative entity and a real-life phenomenon that one could readily follow in the news—provided a welcome escape from the trials of adolescence. “My childhood? It was … well I guess … torture, except I was a nature lover, since I was born in a city and lived in a city, New York, all my life, born in Manhattan and then moved to the Bronx at an early age, so I worshipped nature and storms … anything that came into the city and disrupted it, in a ‘nature way.’” 5

Wild Night in El Reno was the first entry in the Weather Diaries series, and is the only one to be shot on actual film, with Kuchar’s old Bolex camera that he used throughout the 1970s. The silent film, dating from 1977, clocks in at less than six minutes in length, and is in some ways the most abstract entry in the series, consisting purely of images of raging winds and electric lightning in the skies and landscape surrounding his motel. Considering its purely visual nature and lack of any narrative structure, it would perhaps be more fitting to regard Wild Night in El Reno as the prologue to the Weather Diaries.

By the time Weather Diary 1 was made, some nine years later, the technological landscape of the audiovisual world had shifted to become more democratic, in some ways, with the wide availability of affordable VHS camcorders on the market. Kuchar moved with it: his shift to video was complete. Kuchar began working with a VHS camcorder in the 1980s because, in his words, it was a “despised medium,” ugly and amateur: the stuff of home movies, maybe, but hardly the correct vehicle for high art. Not everyone was fond of Kuchar’s transition:

Well I know when I started making video, I did in a way disappoint, or anger some people, or they thought I was making crap. Of course I was beginning making video so I was just trying to develop my style, get a feel for it, and learn how to edit in the camera, and do everything in the camera. And very few people encouraged me. But there were those people who did encourage me, after seeing some work, and told me to please go on. Which I would have anyway, but, ah, very few people did encourage me. Very few filmmakers encouraged me. 6

Indeed, for those accustomed to more polished cinematic presentations, Kuchar’s crude VHS diaristic works are hard to digest. Upon initial viewing, it is easy to write off the Weather Diaries as the work of an artless amateur—were it not for the fact that Kuchar is, in fact, an avid stylist very much aware of the crudity of both the medium and his vision: “The movie develops its own style, when you see what you have and you see the limitations, and you work with the limitations, the style begins to develop.” 7 With his great gift of prescience, Kuchar immediately sensed that the most interesting way of dealing with video’s limitations would be to exploit them. The resulting oeuvre can be read as a single, continuous opus with individual films serving as chapters, ranging in length from under ten minutes to over an hour. Stylistically, it is neither home movie nor lowbrow art, but perhaps a little of both. It forms a self-portrait of the artist—his journeys, his friends, and his daily motions—all transmitted through Kuchar’s self-deprecating, Bronx-accented narration. Beyond that, the Kuchar oeuvre is also an archeology of the banal, the budget of each film being the price of the VHS cassette tape it was shot on (and, often, the fast food and snacks we watch the filmmaker consume on camera).

Contrary to his critics’ objections, Kuchar’s move to video was very much a deliberate one, motivated by a range of aesthetic and personal factors—which, for Kuchar, were always one and the same. In a prolonged meditation on the differences between film and video, Kuchar explained how these considerations informed his decision. “I got attracted to video because it was a despised a medium, and because film got to be too puffed up financially for me.” When he was working in film, the financial constraints often affected not only the production, but the final output. Kuchar was thus forced to evolve a cinematic language that he described as “short-hand”:

Film, I tried to squeeze the essence out of each scene because each scene was expensive. I don’t really know if that was on my mind while I was making it, but I did know I had a certain language in film. And that was like, do away with extraneous scenes like coming and going out of doors and telling people where you were and who these people were. Just have them go around doing their business, and their business, while you’re photographing, should be very high key, at that moment. Emotional peaks. So that became my movie style. 8

While his turn to VHS might have shocked critics and fellow filmmakers, Kuchar saw little essential difference between the two media:

I look at it as—you know, it’s stock, and, ah, you slip it into your cassette player and it gets thrown onto a screen, and the screen’s a hell of a lot smaller, but, it’s fine with me. I will always enjoy going to the movies. […] And I enjoy making movies … But … you see, I made a lot of movies and I don’t really know how I made them. I don’t know how I put all that effort into making them. And I’ve been sidetracked so often, I’ve been hit with such terrible vices … that I don’t know how I managed to pull off the pictures. But, for some reason, maybe in order to overcome my vices, or, maybe that movie-making was a vice on my part, I was able to turn out these things and go through all the steps that you have to go through making a movie … And then you go into the lab, you bring it in, you get your movie and there’s the premiere and people look at it and … of course it’s like, how did this horror ever get made? So … making movies is a very peculiar thing. But if I have difficulty … am paying $600 or $700 for a 20-minute movie, you know, that gets shown on a screen and gets pooh-poohed because it’s either not “politically correct” or for some other reason. And I could make something that’s even more offensive for $6 or $8, and that’s so offensive it would even offend the filmmakers—because I’m workin’ in video. I would option for the more offensive medium. 9

Thus, the reduced content of Kuchar’s video works purposefully sets out to match the medium’s inherent constraints. Despite the title, in the Weather Diaries, much of the footage is centered on Kuchar’s motel room: a collage of banal narrative ultimately veering into the grotesque (as we are constantly informed of the artist’s canned-meat and fast-food diet—and its gastrointestinal consequences) interspersed with weather reports from television and radio, as well as “action” shots of the (impending) storms outside the window. Occasionally, he ventures out for strained interactions with the locals; in Weather Diary 5, we accompany Kuchar to the empty beauty salon, where the proprietress gives us an in-depth tour of all the hair products. In Weather Diary 3 (1988), he befriends a student storm chaser staying in the room next door. His romantic infatuation with the young man is rooted more in Kuchar’s own awe of the meteorology student’s bravery than a straightforward sexual attraction—not to mention the artist’s boredom.

After all, what becomes immediately apparent, in Weather Diary 1 (1986), the first and—at seventy-five minutes—longest tape in the series, is the inherent boringness of the endeavor. For a lifelong city resident like Kuchar, his three-to-four-week stints in El Reno each year can be excruciating, forcing him, as they do, to confront the existential muck of life that one is otherwise able to ignore in more lively environments. The irony of weather, of course, is that it is really only interesting when it is severe. The raw facts of meteorology—as Kenneth Goldsmith’s 2005 tome, The Weather, a transcription of a year’s worth of hourly weather bulletins on a New York radio station, makes clear—are boring. “Not much goes on in this town,” Kuchar notes in Weather Diary 1 over a montage of scenes from the El Reno town center, with its limited range of remaining Old West historical relics. “Whatever did happen, came and went.”

Weather’s other main quality is its unpredictability. One never knows when or where the storm will manifest. In yet another of his many nostalgic ruminations on his childhood storm obsession, Kuchar noted:

Yeah, I did like storms, and twisters, tornadoes. I don’t know why. I think in the ’50s a big one had gone through Worcester, Massachusetts. And I guess there was talk about it in New York, and it was in the news, and for some reason it excited me. The great storm smashing up towns, and blowing into people’s lives, and changing it. Not so much that I was interested in the carnage, but the fact of … whirling clouds and big winds and stuff like that. It was weather on the rampage, it was nature unleashed, nature loosed. It was dramatic. From all descriptions the sky is a weird color, the clouds are boiling, and etc., etc. It struck my fancy. And I think most people that are interested in meteorology are fascinated by that particular character in meteorology, the tornado. 10

Inevitably—and perhaps fortunately, for Kuchar’s well-being—the tornado never hits El Reno, but nearby towns in Oklahoma. Thus, he spends a considerable amount of time filming footage from local TV news in his hotel room.

What else is there to do? He watches Godzilla on television. He spies on his neighbors from the window—denizens of the trailer park across the street and the few other guests of the motel; gossips and speculates about the motel owners’ personal lives. He becomes fixated on Gloria, the absent daughter of Ruth, the establishment’s elderly matron. At sporadic moments when boredom threatens to overcome him, he intones her name. Near the end of the video, which is crammed with a sudden burst of social activity—as though the light of immediate departure has filled our cinematic guide with the sudden desire to spend as much time as possible interacting with those around him, all the freaks and unknowable human detritus of white-trash small-town Americana, whom he previously dreaded encountering—we learn from Ruth that Gloria’s husband has recently left her after she caught him in bed with another woman down in Houston, where the couple had been living. Kuchar’s sole companion is a stray dog, Runt, who follows him around on his nature strolls around the motel, and who, according to Kuchar, “smells terrible”; in one of many scenes of grotesquerie, Kuchar refuses to allow the dog into his room because he has been “rolling around in dead animals.”

Rather than interacting with others, Kuchar turns his focus constantly back to his own body and its lower functions—particularly the flatulence and state of his bowel movements resulting from a pure junk-food diet and total absence of fruits and vegetables. As Margaret Morse wryly notes, “The tape ultimately addresses all the big questions—death, origin and family, religion—as well as the small discomforts of the body, only to reverse their order of importance.” 11

At the same time, we begin to understand Kuchar’s horror of those around him when he manages to get himself invited to Ruth’s Bible study meeting near the end of the tape. “I like Ruth and Roy,” Kuchar narrates. “They’re decent people. Decent enough to try and convert me to the Cult of the Christianities! Of course, I went when I heard that refreshments were going to be served.” Surrounded by Great Plains church ladies of a certain age, Kuchar begins to feel the absurdity of his presence in El Reno. When queried on his religious predilections by Ruth, he responds, “I was a Catholic. I became a hedonistic sinner.”

“What’s that?” Ruth replies.

“Well, I was a Catholic. I would go to church all the time, but I would pray for the wrong things. And unfortunately, I got them.”

The clash of values signals it’s time to go back to the safe confines of the city. Until next year …

Just as Kuchar has a love-hate relationship with El Reno, his relationship with mainstream cinema has always been one of give-and-take. While there’s nothing here resembling a conventional plot, the action is always fast moving, with most shots in the Hollywood three-and-a-half to five-second range, thus refuting the strategic slowness on which oppositional strategists of “art cinema” so often rely. Kuchar, then, can be thought of as anti-anti; his art is the deployment of a deliberate artlessness. With its wandering gaze, lo-fi effects, and obsessive need to document and find meaning in the unspectacular, Kuchar’s vision remains, in spite of itself, one of the most endearing in American cinema.

Weather Diary 1 is the longest video in the series. By the time Weather Diary 3 rolls around, Kuchar has reduced the films to the episodic temporal structures of television. The video opens with a shot of water boiling in a pot on a hot plate in Kuchar’s motel room. Cut to a close-up of Kuchar’s face with a serious expression, an expression that can be read as somewhat psychotic, as it is accompanied by stabbing music à la Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).

“I ruined my welcome,” Kuchar laments, as he spills hot water from his teacup on to the “Welcome” paper towel beneath it. For that, the gods seem to be punishing him: the video cuts to a weather shot of a pristine sunny day. There are thick white clouds on the horizon, true, but they hardly look threatening. Rather, they are fluffy—much like the paper towels obsessed over in the opening shots.

Kuchar walks down the railroad tracks toward downtown. With a large hole in the knee of his pants, he looks something like a hobo. He cannot buy pants in town, he informs us, because all the clothing for sale here is made out of itchy polyester. Shots of small-town Americana, scenes that appear quaint and idyllic at the outset, until one considers the possibility of living there and is immediately reminded of the sinister horror of eternal boredom that such places inevitably deliver. Kuchar has never learned to drive, and thus is always quite stuck on these annual sojourns to Tornado Valley. This is why, as he tells someone later on in the video, he has never been able to become a storm chaser; rather, he identifies as a storm squatter.

In town, Kuchar picks up the photographs he had dropped off to get developed. They are mementoes of his recent trip to Ohio for a film festival in the town of Athens, which he shows us. Interspersed with them are photos of his cat back in San Francisco, as well as his brother.

Directly outside his room, two Chihuahuas in a wire cage bark ceaselessly, much to the artist’s annoyance. For diversion, he wanders about with his camera, spying on shirtless young men playing football and swimming at a nearby pool. A medium close-up shows Kuchar licking his lips. “Hot,” he says—referring more to the sight of the young men’s bodies than the weather, of course.

The “heat”—in the double sense of the term—of the previous scenes is then relieved. We are subjected to an extreme close-up of what at first appears to be torrential rains, but then reveals itself to be the shower in Kuchar’s motel room, where the artist is subsequently shot masturbating.

Meanwhile, the dogs outside continue barking. Standing outside amidst the barking animals and a group of neighborhood children, who smile and stare into the camera shyly, Kuchar states in a graven voice, “Those things wake the devil in me. All fury and caged lust. I know exactly how they feel. The dogs …” Cut to a close-up of the uncooked hot dogs that appear to be Kuchar’s sole means of sustenance these days. The sequence is concluded with a montage of close-ups of the hot dogs in boiling water on the hot plate and Kuchar’s erect penis as he masturbates in the shower. To conclude the string of visual metaphors that much of the video has consisted of thus far, we see shots of a local baseball game. “It’s a paradise of balls and bats,” Kuchar’s voice deadpans over the scene.

Nearly ten minutes into the video, the entire tone of the work changes abruptly with the arrival of Mike, a twenty-one-year-old storm chaser staying in a room next door. Although he is not identified as being a prior acquaintance in the video, Kuchar later explained in his Harvard Film Archive text, “He was someone I met in Wisconsin at a screening of my films/videos a few years before. This was his first visit to Oklahoma to chase tornadoes, but the storm season proved to be a dry one. His presence lubricated me on a more personal level, and our friendship helped to sweeten the sourness that happens when nature doesn’t ‘put out.’”

Indeed, Mike becomes the focus of the rest of the video—much as he becomes the (secret) focus of Kuchar’s lust. The two while away their time hanging out in El Reno, eating junk food, talking in their motel rooms, and walking through the town together. “Oh, wow!” exclaims Kuchar on one of these walks. “Look at all the good stuff in Walmart!” Quick cut to the toilet bowel in Kuchar room, where a bunch of the artist’s turds are floating …

Kuchar and Mike’s hatred of El Reno is shared, but both are temporarily stuck in a sort of No Exit game—Kuchar in his self-imposed exile, Mike as he awaits the bad weather that will bring with it the National Storm Laboratory’s truck that he has been granted permission to ride in.

Finally, Mike arranges to have a friend with a truck come rescue him from the state of perpetual ennui, that is, El Reno, Oklahoma. “I’ll be sad to see you go,” says Kuchar as they await the friend’s arrival.

“Yeah, these past few days have been a lot of fun, but this place is killing my soul,” replies Mike.

The friend finally arrives. The truck is seen pulling out of the motel’s empty parking lot, leaving Kuchar alone as he was at the beginning, in Dead Soulsville. In the closing sequence, we see him wandering shirtless through an empty field—no friends in sight, no bad weather on the horizon—just the brutality of the early summer sun. He entertains himself with the reading material brought on this trip: male physique mags, Fangoria, UFO books and magazines, and a copy of The Abominable Snowman. The show must go on, after all, and the camera keeps rolling, until the video fizzles out into its anticlimax.

Each Weather Diary entry proceeds according to its own situational and formal logic. Weather Diary 6, shot in 1990, for instance, is more about portraying Oklahoma as a bizarre zone of danger among the bucolic banality of the Great Plains states; in the absence of bad weather, after all, one has to improvise. Unlike previous tapes in the series, the entirety of the tape was edited to include a soundtrack of music. Since they were children, the Kuchars obsessively collected vinyl recordings of film scores, which they plagiarize gratuitously in their own films—often to very comic effect. In fact—hardly a usual obsession for cine-buffs—Kuchar even became obsessed with certain cinematic composers such as Bernard Herrmann, Franz Waxman, and Alex North. As a teenager, his choice of what film to go see would often be determined by which composer had scored it.

Weather Diary 6 is a good example of how music is utilized as one of the pivotal components of Kuchar’s frameless, cinematic writing. The video opens with a shot of a vintage postcard reading “Hay from Oklahoma!” and featuring a photograph of a farmyard with bales of hay and a rainbow in the distance. The following intertitle, painted in Kuchar’s own flashy cursive, reads “Scenes from a Vacation.” Quaint symphonic music plays as a montage of images of ducks on Lake El Reno going about their business on a sunny day unfurls. Kuchar is seen in his motel room, seated on the bed and reading a book called Confrontations: A Scientist’s Search for Alien Contact. (Kuchar’s sporadic encounters with UFOs throughout the 1970s, a subject of numerous films and videos, give his obsession with the sky a further significance.) This is followed by shots of the sky in various phases of temporal and climatic conditions.

There is considerably less of Kuchar in Weather Diary 6 than in previous entries to the series (barring, of course, Wild Night in El Reno, in which he does not appear at all). While his voice chirping animatedly from behind the camera is a fixture of nearly all his diaristic video work—and film work, stretching back to at least Hold Me While I’m Naked—no other sounds except for music can be heard in Weather Diary 5 (save for a short segment near the end when a local weather report on a severe tornado is recorded from his motel room’s television set). As a visit, this one is clearly a bit of a disappointment for Kuchar; the sky constantly veers into near-disaster, with vintage horror music accompanying each dive, but then always returns back to idyllic sunniness. (In this sense, the visit is similar to that recorded in Weather Diary 3, which is largely a recording of Kuchar’s encounter with a storm chaser.) Indeed, one of the most attractive features of the weather for Kuchar is its inherent unpredictability; nature is something that simply, by definition, cannot be controlled. As his brother Mike pointed out, this indicates one of the key differences between the two brothers’ aesthetic approaches to making films: “My brother’s latest films are a sort of diary or interpretation of the world around him. Me, I’m sort of a control freak. My brother, he goes to visit and whatever happens, happens. His are sort of unpredictable. With mine, I kind of direct more.” 12

With regard to the question of directing, the Weather Diaries in particular takes on a more documentary approach—the few scenes that do seem staged have an improvisational feel, and are often the contrivances and depictions of Kuchar alone—and most of the “directing” thus takes place in the editing room, with the addition of sound effects, music, and extraneous narration. (It should be noted, however, that with other projects, namely, the student films, Kuchar continued to “direct” in a conventional narrative cinema fashion.)

Then again, directionlessness—or the seeming state of directionlessness—is very much Kuchar’s direction—his “line of flight,” to put it in Deleuzo-Guattarian terms. Like Ryan Trecartin’s work, Kuchar’s videos can be seen as yet another example of writing outside the frame. And that which moves this particular method of writing is a wandering agency, as opposed to a static agency.

Writing, in fact, is everywhere in Kuchar’s work. One could say he is just as much a writer as he is a filmmaker—if not more so. In the book he coauthored with his brother, Reflections from a Cinematic Cesspool, George wrote the majority of the text, which serves as a showcase for his outrageously florid prose:

Realism only comes to the screen when the film jams in the projector and the image begins to bubble. An instinctual fear of the dark manifests when the projection light fails … heightened by the little furry things with long tails that scamper beneath the seats. The electrical nature of sex becomes apparent as the hair on your neck bristles when that pervert to your left makes knee contact. In these moments of truth, cinema reveals her face of realism. But she is a two-faced creature; the other countenance being a rainbow palette of dyed coiffures, pancake makeup and pancake-bloated guts crammed into costumes designed by cock-eyed midgets for superstars who beat their children with wire coat hangers and then peddle soft drinks potent enough to rot their dentures. 13

Writing, for Kuchar, is a sort of machine, one in a state of constant generation—which is why, in a sense, he can never shut up in most of his videos. For that would cause the entire machine to break down. Kuchar is an automaticist.

What is automaticism, anyway? It is a particular way of working that we find in a lot of the artists engaged in making bad art—or at least what we are calling bad art here. It is rooted in the awareness that creation is not merely a mental process, but a physical, bodily one, as well. No Cartesian splits acknowledged by the automaticist, by the bad artist. Instead, the principle of extension rules: wherein mind is but an extension of body, and vice versa. Do not let that “vice versa” confuse you, however: for the automaticist, the body always comes first in the equation. We can thus conceive of the automaticist being as a body-mind machine. As a machine, what automaticism essentially means is you program yourself. For the automaticist does not merely conceive of herself as a mere machine, but as a particular kind of machine—one that defies the staticity that harnesses most human beings to a particular mode or frame of existence. The automaticist is constantly trying to evade the frame, to go outside the territorial entrapments of the socius. For that reason, it is best that we call the machine what it is: a vehicle. For vehicles are defined by motion.

The bad artist, then, is the self-contained machine whose sole purpose is movement, motion. The work produced is bad, because it is but the by-product, the exhaust, of the process. This is why, as is so often the case, what we find is a triumph of quantity over supposed quality—the latter is annihilated in the explosion of the former.

Kuchar’s vehicularity was most pronounced in his switch to video—anything necessary to keep the vehicle in constant motion, without slowing down—despite the resistance he met with among fans and colleagues. Those voices, Kuchar realized, did not belong to the people expressing their disapproval: they belonged, in actuality, to the law.

“From the point of view of a supposed transcendence of the law,” write Deleuze and Guattari in their book on Kafka,

there must be a certain necessary connection of the law with guilt, with the unknowable, with the sentence or the utterance. Guilt must in fact be the a priori that corresponds to transcendence, for each person or for everyone, guilty or innocent. Having no object and being only pure form, the law cannot be a domain of knowledge but is exclusively the domain of an absolute practical necessity: the priest in the cathedral explains that “it is not necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as necessary.” Finally, because it has no object of knowledge, the law is operative only in being stated and is stated only in the act of punishment: a statement directly inscribed on the real, on the body and the flesh; a practical statement opposed to any sort of speculative proposition. 14

If the law is pure form—the empty frame—what content is it meant to contain? What is the law’s non-object, as mentioned by Deleuze and Guattari above? The answer: bodies.

            For many bad artists working from the wandering stance of body-mind vehicularity, the “badness” of their project seems to imply an exaggerated assertion of body over mind. This is articulated quite well by Kuchar throughout the Weather Diaries, particularly with regard to his own body and its base functions.

Kuchar views his body and its functions with a mixture of shame, disgust, and degradation, yet he can never, ever resist turning away from it—it might even be said that the artist’s body is the sole focus of the work. Even when the camera’s gaze is focused elsewhere, the sky, it enters into the scene through reference in one of Kuchar’s breathless, eternally punning monologues. Kuchar’s obsessions, one might say, are perverted, though one must also keep in mind that perverts are the sole creation of the socius—that is to say, the Law. In Kuchar’s particular case, as is made perfectly clear in the closing segments of Weather Diary 1, the Law that created this particular pervert was the Catholic Church. Some perverts are eternally stigmatized, unable to live with the burden imposed upon them, while others gladly revel in the delights of this burden, going so far as to impose them upon others—whether through their art, their activism, their quest for “community,” for mutual indulgence …

These represent two different ways of dealing with, confronting the Law that has created you, the Pervert. Either recognize the sovereignty of the Law and submit to it: to live a life of shame. Or, the alternative, what we might call the Pervert’s Recognition: the Law was created for the sole purpose of being broken. As Deleuze and Guattari state, the Law has no content, no truth—it is but empty utterance, devoid of meaning beyond its own assertion of governing presence. Before the Law existed in this hovering ghost state, it was not possible to break it; thus, there was no perversion. Normality is, in fact, an effect of regulation. Program your vehicle to substitute your own law for the Law: to make your content overflow the governing form, the frame. This is akin to Deleuze and Guattari’s conception of a minor literature, which can only exist in relation, in constant opposition, to a major literature.

We might go even further here and brand Kuchar an invert. Not just a homosexual, but one whose sexuality is turned inward. To himself, his own body-mind vehicle, his own functions and processes. He is, of course, obsessed with the bodies of others, but those other bodies appear so distant and foreign to him, the closest thing he can grab is always his own—and he does so, repeatedly. His sexuality is not antisocial, but against the socius. (For the pervert, the invert, recognition of the socius yields a distrust of the entire species; a negation of the perceived— because imposed—value system of the collective whole.)

Catholicism, the socius: both law. Another form of the law, however, is the Hollywood system: the major literature to Kuchar’s minor. While enthralled with Hollywood melodramas in his youth, Kuchar never attempted to break into that mold of filmmaking, never tried to infiltrate the system with his vision—or, rather, allow his vision to conform to that law’s dictates. Moviemaking in Hollywood, Kuchar sensed, “seemed too much like a job,” as he stated in a filmed interview. The body-mind vehicle doesn’t work; it just goes. But it is not as though Kuchar simply ignored it as a model. Rather, he inflected it through his own work: through his movies, through his writing. Kuchar’s Hollywood:

Aging women take endless enemas so as not to wind up in horror films and virile he-men doomed to an excruciating regimen of exercises keep their sodomized posteriors picture-perfect. EST trained actresses show the world what it is like to be liberated and free of cellulite. Alcoholic celebrities barf up their past in book form so that all can marvel at the hideous mess that has been cleaned up by a Christian re-birth. Harpies with herpes rip apart, in print, plump fornicators whose every performance they slander with type-set juju curses. Innocent children sing and dance down the yellow brick road to drug addiction and toxic box office poison. This is the other face of cinema… the side that sells tabloids and makes legends; a trillion dollar heritage of human refuse devoured by a cyclopean eye designed to entertain, to titillate with tit, to teach. THE art form of the 20th century. 15

The difficult entry point for many to appreciating Kuchar’s Weather Diaries—and, indeed, the vast majority of his video works—besides their content, and its oppositional stance to the Hollywood model—is their personal, diaristic nature. Other writers have noted the problematics of the diaristic mode in contemporary art-making practices. Chris Kraus: “I teach a diary-writing class in an MFA Studio Art program. Here, diary-keeping is not a popular art. It sounds too much like something girls do. Theories of subjectivity sounds sexier and more important. Since diary-writing is subjective practice, it’s more fragile, looser, messier. As a transcription of live thought, diary-writing’s destined for confusion because the mind does not stay still for very long. As an art-making practice, it’s incoherent and therefore essentially flawed.” 16

Part of the “problem” of the diary mode is that, by definition, it is not intended for an audience. Address yourself to an audience of zero, which is to say: to yourself. What does it mean, then, to go and publish that diary, to present yourself unedited, as a work of art, to the harsh, uncomprehending masses? Kuchar long had an aversion to theory, refuted identity politics, wished his work, when he wasn’t sarcastically denigrating it, to be viewed on its absolute own terms; he would rather have it disappear than appear under the scrutiny of someone else’s “theory of subjectivity.”

We could go even further and say that the fact of filmmaking here is accidentalthat Kuchar’s art is his roving personality, which just happens to be captured on film. The extension principle once again: the camera becomes an extension of the artist’s body-mind vehicle—much like his voice. Like Ryan Trecartin, Kuchar offers an example of a total writing—a record of pure mind. Thus: total flawed incoherency.

 

Excerpt from “Bad Writing” to be published in 2019 by Sternberg Press

 

[1] Courtney Fiske, “Critic’s Picks: ‘Dieter Roth. Björn Roth,’” Artforum, February 2013, https://www.artforum.com/index.php?pn=picks&id=39361&view=print
[2] George Kuchar, “Interview,” The World of George Kuchar. Dir. George Kuchar. Disc 5, DVD box set. Video Data Bank, 2005.
[3] Jesse Lerner, “Storm Squatting at El Reno,” Cabinet, no. 3 (Summer 2001), http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/3/stormsquatting.php
[4] Mark Finch, “George Kuchar: Half the Story,” in Queer Looks: Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video, ed. Martha Gever, John Greyson, and Pratibha Parmar (New York: Routledge, 1993), 77.
[5] Stevenson, Jack. Desperate Visions: the Films of John Waters and the Kuchar Brothers (London: Creation Books, 1996), 186.
[6] Ibid., 199–200.
[7] Ibid., 200.
[8] Ibid., 198.
[9] Ibid., 199.
[10] Ibid., 194.
[11] Margaret Morse, “Introduction, Weather Diary 1,” UbuWeb, n.d. http://www.vdb.org/titles/weather-diary-1, accessed March 5, 2013.
[12] Vogrin, Kevin, dir. “Mike Kuchar – Geroge (sic) Kuchar’s work, at Berk’s Filmmakers.” Online video clip. Youtube.com, 8 February 2012. Web. 27 January 2016.
[13] George Kuchar and Mike Kuchar. Reflections from a Cinematic Cesspool (New York: Zanja Press, 1997), 45.
[14] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 44–45.
[15] Kuchar and Kuchar, 45-46.
[16] Chris Kraus, Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2004), 139 (my emphasis).

 

 

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