I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Camp and Counterculture: George Kuchar


by Kerry Flint
Feb. 28, 2012

George Kuchar, with over 60 films and 100 videos now to his credit, was a pioneering experimental filmmaker most admired for his ability to make films on a shoestring budget. Along with his brother, Mike Kuchar, he made 8mm and later 16mm experimental films as part of the burgeoning underground avant-garde film scene in the 1960's. The Kuchars were key figures in 1960’s underground cinema and inspired many filmmakers including John Waters, Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage. What made Kuchar so distinctive was that he was influenced by commercialisation but at the same time also managed to embrace the brave new attitudes of the 1960’s counterculture.

Born in 1942, Kuchar grew up in the Bronx and was greatly influenced by Hollywood melodrama and by his trucker father’s penchant for trashy television and novels. George and his twin brother set out to replicate the fantasy of Hollywood in their own low-budget films. The Kuchar’s films are garishly over the top and regularly described as 'camp', a term penned in 1964 in Susan Sontag's  seminal essay, “Notes on Camp” in which she sought to define an increasingly prevalent cultural trend, described as ‘a sensibility of passionate extravagance'. Kuchar's films were central to this trend, offering audiences a series of over the top scenes in which the overacting forefronts the film's superficiality.

Kuchar adopted and developed this style perhaps because, unlike many of his contemporaries, he was not from an artistic background, was self-taught and therefore rejected traditional ideas of art and film making. The Kuchars studied at the Manhattan School of Art and Design, which specialized in training for commercial art. This approach to art influenced their film style as they embraced consumer populist culture and set to create superficial camp films, ‘seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization’ (9). As a result of his high ambitions and low-budget, Kuchar’s films are obviously constructed -- and all the better for it. As Sean Smithson describes, ‘Kuchar took threadbare components by design, and molded them into something far greater than their individual parts.' Kuchar’s films were honest, raw, and stripped bare, like many of his characters (and as indicated by this particular film's title). His haphazard aesthetic also derived from an anarchic approach to the challenge of filmmaking on a low budget. Kuchar himself commented in an interview, ‘But it can be hell too, especially if you’re doing a scene and the question arises, “What do we do?” I don’t know what the hell to do’ (3). This rebellious DIY style, coupled with the off-beat content of his films, has resulted in Kuchar being hailed as pioneers to today’s development of online independent film networks and channels such as YouTube.

A film within a film, Hold me While I'm Naked is widely considered to be Kuchar’s seminal work, and it highlights the struggles faced by an independent film maker by baring the process of film making. The film is semi-autobiographical, with Kuchar playing a soft-porn director, and self-parodic, as it shows the director struggling with the actors. During filming, the lead actress caught pneumonia after spending hours in a cold shower, and left the project. Kuchar wrote this scene into the movie (it's worth noting that Kuchar’s father was also a connoisseur of pornography and Kuchar would regularly explore explicit sexuality in his films).

There is an obvious sexual motivation to Hold me While I'm Naked, symbolised by the director's request that the actress remove her brassiere because of its contrast with the 'mysticism of the stained glass'. The reference to religion is used both to shock and to announce the counterculture as a new kind of religion or moral discourse. Kuchar worked to create films that caught audience’s attention and were spectacles. This meant that he usually favoured superficiality and pleasure over nature, and this is reflected in the objectification of the actors in the film. The film also contains a woodland scene in which a young man holds a bird. This scene feels uncomfortable and unnatural. as though the bird is being objectified as much as the people are -- suggesting the extent to which 1960’s counterculture was a response to and critique of traditional moral values and ideas.

At the end of the Hold Me While I'm Naked, the young man asks his mother (played by Kuchar’s actual mother, Stella) the question 'there are more things in life worth living for, aren't there?’ This sentence captures the essence of youth culture in that it is denounces the mundane and seeks greater fulfilment. Kuchar’s maverick and ambitious can-do attitude corresponded with the experimental artists and filmmakers working in the 1960s. He aimed to provoke a youthful attitude of rebellion and liberation through the senses. In an interview with Bernstein, he describes how he favours controversy: in the 1960’s people saw him as a ‘pervert who was poisoning the cultural landscape.’ He claims to have never wanted a good review. What he did want was to make and impact. In that, he definitely succeeded. 

1. http://bit.ly/y6c0Ys - Vice Magazine

2. http://bit.ly/ybLeNb  - Senses of Cinema

3. http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Kuchar.php - Bernstein Interviews

4. http://amzn.to/yUptT8 - Reflections from a Cinematic Cesspool

5. http://nyti.ms/niiJWt - Obituary by Paul Pitello, NY Times

6. http://www.imdb.com/news/ni15069193/

7. http://bit.ly/qfjiVZ - Twitch Film

8. http://bit.ly/nfeTrH - The Bay Citizen

9. http://bit.ly/AvNfP - "Notes on Camp," Susan Sontag

Kerry is a Writer, Stylist, Digital Consultant, Editor, Blogger and Vintage Dealer based in London. Kerry writes for and edits a number of publications alongside managing Marketing Campaigns for Fashion clients, Digital Consultancy and offering a creative input to a variety of campaigns and projects. Also a published Poet and Vintage Fashion dealer Kerry spends her spare time on Market stalls and writing the blog www.tricky-customers@blogspot.com.