Underground film legend George Kuchar taught film at SFAI from 1971 to 2011. Here’s a candid interview as published in our 1979–81 catalog.
Why are you making movies? Anybody can make a movie.
Don’t ever let a filthy rumor like that get around, or phonies like myself will be out of a teaching job!
Why do you use such a fantastic cast?
I use people because it’s less time consuming than animating paper cutouts.
How did your film career really start?
It started by me and my brother being taken to movies by our mom. She’s responsible for my career.
My dad gave me and Mike, my brother, a weekly allowance. He was our first producer, as we bought film with that allowance.
The Bronx was our movie lot and, frankly, it is unequaled for its incredible variety of terrain—in that one borough you can recreate jungles, forests, oceans, mountains, prairies, cities, arctic wastes, and Atlantean empires. It’s full of photogenic yentas and beatific Babas. The guys were all John Travoltas or Arnold Stangs. Sunsets were very vivid with all the smog and crap like that.
Sewers backed up frequently creating vast pools in which to mirror the landscape.The abundance of potato knishes guaranteed voluptuous starlets, and pimples caused by atmospheric irritants added splashes of color to every face. The proximity to other New York boroughs guaranteed a vast assortment of new faces, which meant that if you were making a movie about radioactive mutants you’d never be at a loss for actors.
How is your work received? Is there any difference between audience reaction in San Francisco, New York, or Europe?
My work is received okay. I find my audiences, and they find me. I like meeting them in dinky chambers behind store fronts. I enjoy stapling up a sheet of butcher paper in a college lecture hall so that the movies can have some sort of screen to be projected on. I like meeting kind people I never knew existed. I wish the rotten people would drop dead.
In San Francisco, they come out of the fog to see my stuff. In New York, they come out of the woodwork. In Europe…well, what else is new?
The Cinematheque recently screened your new films “Symphony for a Sinner,” “Forever and Always,” and “Mongreloid.” Tell us something about one or all of them, or one of the others, or how they all relate.
“Symphony for a Sinner” is made in the classroom and can be looked upon as a big lesson. Each sequence is a verbal and visual lecture…filmmaking gibberish. It is also a sort of college yearbook as it records the people in our class at the time, plus their friends, and anyone else who happened to be passing by.
“Forever and Always” is a baby I gave birth to at home. Most of the people in it were students of mine and so I guess it can be considered a homework assignment.
The “Mongreloid” documents my relationship with my dog, and parts of it were shot by an ex-student of mine. So I guess you can look at it as him getting his revenge since I was photographed in my own habitat, which makes me automatically look like an idiot.
What inspires your films?
God is dead and the devil is big box office these days. It was hard to be inspired by the Divine anyway. Especially when, as a youth, you had to sit through such massive biblical movies like “The Story of Esther” and “The Big Fisherman.” In such movies—no matter how horrible it sounds—I used to look forward to the crucifixion scene. Back then the special effects people would get to work and turn on the wind machines, clouds would boil, Hollywood lightning would crackle, and pagan temples would split open at the seams disgorging vomiting sinners! I guess all these planetary and meteorological pyrotechnics meant God to me, and I welcomed their climactic arrival when the bearded actors made their temporary exits.
All I really remember about “The Story of Esther” was that Peggy Wood was in it…and maybe Yvonne De Carlo, or was it Debra Paget? In any case, Peggy Wood used to be in “I Remember Mama,” a TV show I watched when I was a kid. I remember years later how shocked I was that she should appear at the Academy Awards presentation in a plunging neckline. It was a disgrace to mothers everywhere…and to God. But, Divine Wrath did not intercede: the walls of the crowded theatre didn’t split asunder sending forth a crushing stampede of painted harlots and effeminate men to trample the sin out of she who flaunts her nakedness in God’s very face! The injustice of it all.
I then realized that these were films not inspired by the Divine, and I looked elsewhere for the truth.
I found it in the films of Mamie Van Doren and John Drew Barrymore, Jr. Pictures such as “High School Confidential” and “Legion of the Zombies.” Sure, she was cheap and bleached her hair, but I knew she was deep inside.
These people and these films became my Divine inspiration in the world of cinema.
These movie goddesses served well the actors who became their screen lovers. Men such as Tom Conway and William Campbell. Men, who no matter how humiliating the script and production values, managed to add dignity and virility to the one-dimensional characters. In an era of stereoscopic cinema and the emergence of elongated rectangular screens, these people persevered in the black and white box format—while color and cinemascope smeared Robert Wagner and Terry Moore wall to wall.
I like a little black and white box because I realize all too well that we all wind up in an elongated box…in the end. One with brass handles and shining white satin. We wind up in that elongated box all painted up, perfumed, and powdered like a Percy Westmore creation.
George Kuchar was a member of the filmmaking faculty at SFAI. He has exhibited his works at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, American Independent Film Exhibition, London, and the Archives of the Austrian Film Museum, Vienna, among others. Kuchar was selected for American representation at the 7th Rotterdam International Film Festival, Holland, in 1978.
Image Credits: (1–7) George Kuchar, circa 1979. (8) George Kuchar, Symphony For A Sinner, 1977. 16mm color, sound film; 60 minutes.