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(12/21) A Kuchar Kristmas @HFA


No one is more of a Christmas curmudgeon than I am.  I take little delight in the media associated with our nation’s most popular consumer holiday, regardless of the romantic nostalgia that is shoveled down our throats by stop-motion holiday “classics” like Rankin/Bass’s Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer (1964).   No amount of slithery crooning can melt my icy heart (I’m talking to you, Bing Crosby), and I would rather light myself on fire than sit through ten minutes of  the Nutcracker Suite.
But when I heard that the Harvard Film Archive would be screening a selection of holiday-themed films by the avant-garde’s jovial genius George Kuchar, visions of sugarplums danced in my head.   Curated by HFA Film Curator and resident bad-ass Liz Coffey, A Kuchar Kristmas features four favorites from the collection, including soon-to-be classics like Dingleberry Jingles (1994) and Tummyache Times (2010).  Liz was a pal of George’s (he passed away in 2011) and is dedicated to preserving and promoting his work for posterity.  I asked her a few questions about the screening, and she generously shared the following insights:
Kuchar Production
(The following text courtesy of Liz Coffey)
George Kuchar began making movies with his twin brother Mike in the Bronx in the early 1960s.  The gay teenagers were big fans of classic Hollywood and they made their own over-the-top pictures about love, passion, and misfits.  Melodrama and science fiction were the genres of choice.  They made their friends, themselves, and their mother into movie stars.  At first, they tried to show the movies at the local amateur filmmakers club, but it was a club full of squares who did not approve of the sex and violence, and promptly threw them out.  The New York underground scene was a more accepting group, and the Kuchars were embraced by the avant-garde.
Mike and George KucharThe Kuchars eventually stopped making movies together, each continuing on their own, and George began teaching film-making at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1971.  (Since George’s death in 2011, Mike has taken over the position.)  George considered the classroom to be his own personal movie studio (a dream come true), with himself as the producer.  His vision highly influenced his students’ works, and he is generally considered co-director on these films.
George was always into making movies on the cheap.  He never had much of a budget, and although he is world-famous and made hundreds of movies, like many independent artists he always lived very modestly.  With the advent of small format video in the 1980s, George’s work expanded to personal documentary.   He made several “diary” videos every year, the most famous being the Weather Diary series.  George was obsessed with tornadoes and storms, and he spent a week every spring in El Reno, a small town in Oklahoma, hoping to see a twister.  He stayed every year at the same motel, and made a video diary of his time there.  Often, he met with no storms.  He made his final Weather Diary, Hotspell, in 2011, while suffering from the pain surrounding the prostate cancer he died from a few months later.  There was a big tornado that year that did a lot of damage.
From The Weather Diaries
Many of the videos are edited in-camera but he also used a cheap video editing system.  George loved the cheesy video effects made possible by this totally uncool system, and his work is rife with star wipes and kaleidoscopes.  George worked with 8mm video and later with MiniDV.  The diary films aren’t bound by limitations regarding bodily function, and like any kid with a camera, we are sometimes shown maybe a bit more than is polite.  George’s sense of humor and artistic eye drives the action, and his pictures (as he liked to call them) are marked by their titles and incredible dialogue.  The titles alone are bound to bring in an audience when they are written by a Kuchar: HOLD ME WHILE I’M NAKED, THE UNMENTIONABLES, KITTY PORN, SOCIETY SLUT just to  name a few.  When in doubt, use alliteration.  Certain themes show themselves again and again in George’s video diaries.  His love for his pets, brother, and mother are the backbone of many stories.  Food, holidays, and fellow artists are the other main topics.
George’s films are kept by three archives – the Pacific Film Archive at Berkeley, Anthology Film Archives in NYC, and the Harvard Film Archive.  The masters for his video work came to the HFA in 2011 when George was in hospice in the Castro.  He was happy to know someone would care for the work, and I think he thought it was hilarious that an institutions as hoity toity as Harvard would be the caretaker of his somewhat lowbrow “pictures.”
This is the first annual Christmas with Kuchar series.  George made a diary video at the holidays every year; most are combined with Thanksgiving or New Year’s. George’s love of food and family and friends make the “holiday specials” quite special.  Although George was very funny, and his movies have a lot of humor in them, they also retain a reassuring layer of melancholy and loneliness, which I think is a perfect flavor for the winter holiday season.
Many young filmmakers have been influenced by the Kuchars’ lack of pretension.   George used to give this advice to aspiring filmmakers: Here’s how you make a movie.  Borrow a camera.  Read the manual.  Make a movie.
 Kute Kuchar
A Kuchar Kristmas screens at the HFA on December 21st, 2013 at 7 pm.

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