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Ken Paul Rosenthal img
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urine jar

Reflections on
George Kuchar

by Ken Paul Rosenthal © 2012


In the Fall of 1987, I participated in George Kuchar’s ‘Underground Film’ class at the San Francisco Art Institute. George bore no resemblance to his on-screen portrayals such as the tutu-adorned, gorilla-enamored animal keeper in ‘Thundercrack’, or the tortured, self-effacing anti-hero’s of his video essays for which he was most revered. Instead, I found him to be a tender, soft-spoken gentleman of exceptional charm, wit, and humility. As an artist, his true—and underrated genius—was that he directed color and light as if they were characters unto themselves.

My most cherished memory is of George patiently demonstrating how to produce a lightning effect. I was perched upon a scaffold with a slide projector as George stood beneath me and flicked a piece of folded paper in and out of the light beam with a staccato rhythm that I couldn’t seem to memorize. George handed me the paper and, after a series of random flicks on my part, took the paper back and showed me again. We went back and forth like this five or six times, and though I honestly could not see how my flicking was different than his, his intensity and gentle persistence piqued my curiosity. What did he see that I could not?

Soon thereafter, George began screening the first of his ‘Weather Diary’ series, shot during the tornado season in El Reno, Oklahoma. Unlike the excesses of post-Sirkian melodrama that characterized much of his ‘60’s and ‘70’s-era 16mm work, the brilliance of his early video poems are in their economy of vision. They had everything in common with Japanese block prints and Haiku, and nothing whatsoever to do with potty humor. His camera gently traced the languid descent of a light-infused raindrop on a windshield, or tenderly corralled an approaching tornado in a way that would have made Dorothy pause for an extended glance before running for cover. The first time his lens invited me to gaze into the electrical veins of a thunderstorm silently crackling in the distance, I immediately flashed back on his lightning demonstration and realized it was George’s keen sensitivity to natural phenomena that inspired such meticulous attention to his lighting effects.

From then on, I often stood as close as was physically possible to George as he shot in class, trying to see what he saw, even taking still pictures through the lens of his glasses as they sat on his face. What I learned from George is that how we see the world is who we are. And that the images we make of it reflect our authentic selves. George wore his authenticity on his sleeves with such naked candor—often quite graphically onscreen—it was difficult not to find him quite irresistible. My student/teacher crush on him was less than sexual but more than romantic. He allowed me to feel erotic in my heart. As a young art student inspired by the dearth of turd shots in his films, I fancied myself clever and flirtatious at once by leaving Baby Ruth candy bars in his mailbox.

Out of the blue he invited me to apartment sit for him. What a thrill to sleep in my hero’s bed, while overlooked by a ceiling to floor, corner to corner frame enlargement of his face. Puttering around, I accidently broke open the little box that contained the cremated bones of his dog, Bocko. When I confessed to spilling some of Bocko’s pebble-like remains on the floor, he quipped, “Good, he needed a walk!” I also took nude self-portraits all around his apartment, which I gave to him expecting what, I don’t know. But George’s zesty, lusty vibe could inspire such gestures without fear of rejection or disdain.

Besides, it wasn’t the man I wanted to possess—rather that holy grail of a spark that made him the artist he was. Stalking him with my camera in class and in his home was my excuse to rub up against him, if only for a bit of his artistry to rub off on me. He was seriously committed to making his work, but never took himself or the film community that adored him too seriously. That credo—or lack of one—was at the core of his mojo.

But he also bore a profound sadness that weighed heavy on his shoulders, bending him closer by the year to his editing bay, where he mined digital gems that sparkled with equal parts melancholy and hilarity. It was this intimate, simultaneous embrace of the tragic and the absurd in his human heart—and at the heart of his work—that distinguished George’s gorgeous soul. He could flip from self-deprecation to lampooning his mother in the blink of a pixel, engendering empathy through laughter. Like any good comic, he was the foil by which we could reflect on our own shortcomings with more compassion.

Though our film work could not be more distinct by design, I think about George Kuchar in the heat of creative process more frequently than any other artist. It comes back to light, and the uncanny, syncopated pulse of his editing, connecting the fissures and fault lines of human nature to the unstable topography and mercurial weather patterns of the San Francisco Bay Area. His lens gleaning light, sopping it up like a sponge to water. It is impossible for me to engage the animate world without George’s obsessively reverent, almost religious embrace of light suffusing my own cinematography. In this way, he will always be with me.

A few days before George passed, I brought him BBQ in hospice. He shared intimate details of his love life, his incredulousness that people regarded his career so highly, and his desire to vote for Sarah Palin, reasoning that if so many people hated her, there must be something right about her. That was George; dropping his pants to the very end. All that had changed was the mischievous, giddy ferocity of his laughter, now humbled to a gentle chuckle.

Of all that is George that remains with us—the films and videos, his mentorship, the Studio 8 prop closet—this radiant truth was his most brilliant gift to us all: walk to the beat of your own drum, or strum, or hum—whatever your instrument may be—and play it conspicuously, play it madly, and hold yourself nakedly while you do it.