George Kuchar enjoys a moment backstage at SF360 Presents Essential SF tribute last year before presenting an award to Anne McGuire.

Radical Light: ‘Movie Factory’

George Kuchar September 7, 2011

Editor’s note: Legendary San Francisco filmmaker and professor George Kuchar passed away last night, September 6, 2011. As an appreciation of this irreducible figure and inspired presence, we offer Kuchar’s own thoughts, as excerpted from Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000 (Berkeley: University of California Press and The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2010). Copyright (c) 2010 by the Regents of the University of California. The book can be purchased at UC Press.

In the early 1970s I moved out to California from the Bronx, New York, to teach at the San Francisco Art Institute. I got the job because the students seemed to want outside blood to infuse the film department with new citality (at least that’s what Curt McDowell said—although other bodily fluids may have been higher on his agenda). Curt, who had taken a summer course I taught there on a temporary basis, felt that a permanent position should be maintained for my gangling frame. In those days I was a lot thinner and closer to the age of the enrollees.

At that time in history the school had drinking on the campus and dogs sniffed the halls unleashed. Some female teachers wore floor-length prairie dresses that hid their combat boots. The male faculty appeared casual and muscular beneath frequently unshaven jaws. As for the appealing student body: long, scraggly tresses on both boys and girls failed to hide bedroom eyes, and hand-rolled cigarettes dangled from lips that frequently puckered and puffed on more potent pleasures. The campus was a pleasant, sun-drenched environment, with any hint of tears and sweat kept to a minimum. At least on the surface. But like the earth beneath our feet, the California experience was riddled with potentially violent cracks that could shake one up pretty bad. Making films was a way for me to sidestep the physical and psychological angst inherent to that place. When my colleagues decided that the film students were fed up with theory and wanted action instead, I was only too happy to oblige them by volunteering to shoot movies in the classroom. My group was to lens the dramas, while another class, run by one of the other instructors, was to edit the results. It did not turn out that way, as my students didn’t want alien digits diddling with their doings.

We were going to grind the productions out from start to finish, and so the student-teacher movie factory opened for business: the business of education, art, entertainment, and creative expression on a shoestring budget; a kind of trash cinema that used actual trash for sets and strived to elevate the garbage into excrements of excellence. We aimed high and plopped all over the place, but only time will tell if the stench was worth it. Our first picture was black-and-white with no sound track. I narrated the thing whenever it happened to be screened (which wasn’t often).

Instead of starting out modestly in terms of plot and overall conception, the movie was about an ill-fated rocket voyage to Saturn (a planet populated by badly choreographed humanoids). One of the students played the captain of a spaceship whose cohorts on Earth were involved in buffalo stampedes, robot assaults, Indian massacres, and a tornado disaster. It all ends in a violent showdown between lovers at the Academy Awards in Hollywood, where one of the stars is knifed in the back and the other machine-gunned in front of a mortified crowd. The rest of the plot involved gangsters, a man-eating plant, and asteroid bombardment. The budget for Destination Damnation (1972) was $200.

I recall one girl in the class who was rather sweet, yet somewhat ebbing in brain waves. A story circulated that one night she had returned home to find a stranger in her pad. She was startled and inquired as to his motivation, asking what he wanted: “Do you want to rob me?” No response. She rattled off a couple of other possibilities and then asked the tongue-tied intruder if he wanted to rape her: “Is that it? Do you want to rape me?” At this suggestion he seemed to respond in the affirmative, and so she proceeded to bring to fruition the act that her probing pinpointed. This episode eventually found its way into the plot of another production I made about a decade later.

We shot these movies in 16mm using the school’s Bolex camera. On the next picture it was decided that color was needed to render a story of lovers lost in time travel. The heroine of this production winds up in a prehistoric jungle while her boyfriend inadvertently transports a cavegirl into the twentieth century. The movie’s Tyrannosaurus rex was drawn on paper and had a slit cut in the area of the lower jaw so that another sheet of paper, representing his bottom teeth, could slide up and down, making it look like the thing was chewing. A cone of black paper stood in for the inevitable erupting volcano, and this construction was filmed upside down so that we could spill glitter and red paint through the opening, which looked effective when spliced into the film right side up. The string of firecrackers the crew decided to ignite for the final convulsion blasted the prop apart and leapt into full view as the paper shredded. The students made real flaming torches for a sacrificial dance routine and held them high in the classroom studio (which today forbids even the striking of match to cigarette).

What seemed odd to me was that while we were engaged in this somewhat childlike endeavor, behind the scenes my student teaching assistant was taking the principal players, his colleagues from the student body, and showcasing them in filmed sex acts for his own movie. I got to see some of the students in a whole new light, and I didn’t quite know how to switch gears to deal with the detour. This was a facet of the San Francisco film scene in the early seventies that was both disconcerting and enticing.

Since we had attempted color on The Carnal Bipeds (1973) it was now time to tackle a sync-sound movie. The Art Institute had a nice big 16mm sound camera that was pulled out to make I Married a Heathen (1974). The idea for this plot was generated by a student whose relatives had owned a lucrative hamburger business. He was nice-looking and had a hunky brother who was in the class, too. His girlfriend was also enrolled, and she had her sights set on an acting career. They were all in cahoots with my teaching assistant, who was starring them in his tawdry epics. It was quite a hotbed of inbred talent, and the picture was chock-full of talking heads spouting endless monologues about sexual frustration and marital woes.

Rents in the neighborhood of the school were cheaper then, and so we shot on location in some of the students’ apartments. They enjoyed placing huge, artificial turds in their toilets and splashing fake vomit on the bathroom fixtures. This film was a sprawling talkie and led to our collaborating on other sync-sound movies. In those days the film-devouring sound camera and tape recorder were in great demand as film stock was as cheap as the trashy plots we lensed. Many of the heavily made-up talking heads appeared in films I made outside of the classroom; these energetic students helped me create The Devil’s Cleavage (1973) and other obscure potboilers. This was always a great tradition in the film department of the San Francisco Art Institute: students formed close-knit crews to help each other out in the various chores of moviemaking both behind and in front of the camera. It is a custom that continues today, although maybe it is not as inbred and laced with hanky-panky as before. Many more rules of conduct have descended upon the academic environment that have frozen spontaneous actions. But that may be easing up of late as new generations mutate.

Well, that was the 1970s. In the 1980s the students and I continued to grind out two films a year even while in the grip of unwholesome addictions that were sweeping the nation. Perhaps the films were more like therapy sessions than anything else, as tawdry deeds of the week were reconstituted in psychedelic displays of chiaroscuro lighting and grotesque staging that had us all in stitches. There was plenty of personal material to mine for these sordid tales of spiritual upheaval and sexual abandonment. Once, when I had brought in a real-life psychotherapist to portray a character in one of our dramas, a female student approached the woman after class and broke down in tears. She needed advice on the road to womanhood and sought her expertise (not realizing that the therapist herself was a nut case). Nuts, it seemed, were welcome in these classes because making a movie is crazy anyway, and everyone appears normal in such a setting. Mental anguish and emotional immaturity are the hallmarks of superstardom, as the camera sometimes reads these flaws as electrifying magnetism.

The 1980s were also a time of transition from film to video. Although the new medium was looked upon as a threat to the throne of celluloid, I actually welcomed its entrance into our low-budget world. You couldn’t get any lower than that in the eyes of my peers, and so it helped ostracize the class to the Friday boondocks (a time slot devoid of any interaction with fellow colleagues in my department), the day of the week noted for burnt-out students and noisy parties. The class was quarantined like a sick sibling who drooled bile. Our bile splashed onto the screen after each semester, as a picture started should always become a picture finished. The movie was the main impetus for being there, no matter how rotten the circumstances. And some of them were pretty rotten: political intrigue and anal attentiveness would occasionally smear my name with a litany of the usual slurs deemed damning for the times. These only helped inflame our so-called transgressions with extra passion and more exposed rear ends to pay attention to!

In the 1990s mini-DV came into prominence, and the computer joined our list of gadgets to mold these collaborative concoctions. The actual stock we worked on had shrunk, but the pictures got bigger in scope. Character development and plot took a backseat to digitally manipulated sequences designed to please the graphic sensibilities of our editor, Dr. Butcher. Since usually no one understood our pictures anyway (being that the original cast sometimes didn’t show up for shooting sessions, and the plots had to mirror who or what was available at the time), no tears were shed over this new development. I, by the way, was Dr. Butcher. Somebody had to try and save those monstrosities from being complete disasters, and I took it upon my shoulders to carry these world-weary visions to a place of rejuvenation via the technology of tomorrow. Yesterday and today were fine, too, but we were supposed to be the avant-garde—so why the big stink about electronic experimentation? The videos certainly didn’t stink any more than the films!

Let me finish up with this brief exposition: Making pictures with students at the San Francisco Art Institute was an adventure in terror with some moments of horror thrown in. It was also a hell of a lot of fun—with HELL in capital letters! Thinking of plot development and lines of dialogue on the spot will hopefully be a factor in warding off the onset of Alzheimer’s as I inexorably age, and maybe the close proximity of the young will rub off onto my crinkling flesh like a Revlon elixir. These class productions stand as moving yearbooks that should be delivered in plain brown wrappers. We put our hearts and souls into these movies, along with the rotten acting and inept direction. Without all these elements we would not be human, and even though puppets and dummies were used when the humans refused to show up for class, we forged ahead and didn’t look back. For if we had we would have been depressed at the mess we made of the studio (it was just about impossible to keep things neat and clean). I rationalized the disorder by saying that we made junk art and therefore needed a trashed environment for aesthetic sustenance. But the truth is that junk and trash are both garbage, and only time can sanitize all three. So I wait with baited breath, as the stench is too pungent to inhale right now.

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