Thursday, August 25, 2011

Return to Planet Kuchar

It's been several days now since we paid our annual respects to George Kuchar at the Harvard Film Archives. He usually makes an appearance here during his summer jaunt to Provincetown, and these are lively screenings; his work invites plenty of discussion, he's really funny, and he never stops talking.

This time he couldn't attend due to health problems, but he joined us via Skype for an intro and a Q & A, and we could see that he was on a sunny porch with family and friends around him. Much as I remember him from last year, he was warm and generous, and nostalgic for his younger days in San Francisco, when he associated with the artists Bill Griffith and Art Spiegelman.

The program this year opened with the 16mm film Wild Night in El Reno, a quick, wordless collage of wind, rain and lightning that Kuchar filmed at a motel in El Reno, Oklahoma in 1977. The images are strikingly beautiful, and it occurred to me that I couldn't remember ever before seeing a real bolt of lightning in a movie. I certainly can't think of another film that gazes up at the sky and simply watches lightning.

Kuchar has returned to El Reno nearly every year since in search of a tornado. In 1986, he went with a Sony Handycam and made Weather Diary 1, which was the next piece we saw in the program. It is his chronicle of a full month spent at the motel. There is some gazing at the clouds, but mostly we see him gaze at other things- the television, the bad food he's eating, the pocket radio that crackles with weather bulletins, the rain coming down, the trash and the animals, alive or dead, that he finds in the fields and along the highway, and the activity of other people, some of them his vague acquaintances, as they pass by his motel window.

It may sound almost sad, like he's shuffling through a kind of prisoner's existence, but to him, there is a glory in the simplicity of it. This is a fairly complete map of solitude itself- of what happens when you have nothing but time on your hands, the things you do, the places your mind goes. He says aloud whatever might come into his head. He has conversations with a dog that seems to live outside the motel. He creates little moments of cinema with the articles in his room. And just as many of us do when alone, he becomes obsessed with the common grotesqueries of his own person; we, the hapless audience, are presented with shameless close-ups of almost everything on or produced by his body, including a massive turd before it is flushed. (In the Q&A, he recalled the many big reactions his poop shot has gotten over the years, and speculated that there could be a new kind of horror movie that used defecation instead of murder to shock people.)

Somewhere in the beginning we may ask "What is he doing there? Seriously, why the self-imposed exile?" but at some later point, we may come to understand at least somewhat. There is a self-sufficient merriness that carries on in the center of the bleakness.

By the end, we were more than ready for it to wind up- 75 minutes is quite long for this kind of material- but I was often mesmerized by it, and I'm grateful to have seen it, and to be able to consider it in retrospect. There is even a beauty to its low fidelity, to the way the weak CCD of George's camcorder struggles to capture the spectrum of a sunset, and to the blue noise churning in the black signal as he peers out the open door of his room into the night.

After the screening, I asked him about the experience. I wanted him to confirm my theories. Did he really enjoy this? Was there beauty for him in being alone? He said that it's nice to be alone after constantly working with people, and that he gets some of his best ideas out there with all that time to think. I thought back then, and realized that the diary is full of moments in which a narrative seems to occur to George for just a moment- it's just about to coalesce from out of his daily experience and idle mind, the beginnings of an idea or a story, and we catch a glimpse of it, and then it seems to be forgotten as pedestrian life, vast and meaningless, grinds on. We can see here that the creative process is a steady feature of solitude, certainly for George, and perhaps for everyone.

Stories are everywhere, but they have to be rescued from the chaos. That never happens in this piece, but the environment buzzes with possibility. George's encounters with other people- or even glimpses of them from his window- fill one with questions. Who are they, and what are their lives like? The people running the Chinese restaurant: what stories could they tell you about their lives, about moving to Oklahoma? The woman who lives in the trailer: was her home damaged by the storms? If not this time, how much longer can her home last in this hostile climate? And the couple in that lovely final shot of the piece: what might they have said to each other just then?

P.S. I was surprised to find several of Kuchar's films available to watch on this website, including Wild Night in El Reno and Weather Diary 1.