In 1964, when I had been at Popular Photography only a few months, I was given the job of editing the movie section, an editorial sop to the ads that were run for 8mm cameras, projectors, and film, and for Super8, after it was introduced. The movie section consisted of two or three articles a month — mostly mundane stuff like how-to film your pets or kids. I was discontented with such content and began to run stories about people in the New York filmmaking scene, which amazingly, the boss let me do. I ran one story about Bronx filmmakers, brothers George and Mike Kuchar. who worked in 8mm. They were narrative filmmakers who made over-the-top productions that were parodies of feature films and television shows that were satirical and anguished views of American culture. The films were good – funny and moving and sweet natured and crude and sophisticated simultaneously. The Kuchars were expressing themselves perfectly because, as I got to know them, I realized that there was no disconnect between what was on the screen and who they were. They were a couple of kooky young brothers who were living at home with their parents. I lived in a dingy railroad flat on the upper Eastside of Manhattan in Germantown. I had access to movie gear including projectors and editing stuff and George would come by to screen his movies. And so we became friends.
I remember laughing so hard with George that I had to fight for breath. I remember one occasion when George laughed so hard that he fell out of his chair. Bob Christgau (now a music critic) and I ran a screening room, The Eventorium, on W. 100th St. near Broadway. We had open screenings (bring a movie and we’ll show it) on Friday nights that caught on and well-known underground filmmakers, if that is not contradiction, would attend. We had a couple hundred people packed in this little room watching movies. Once Gregory Marcopolis showed up and I kept his $2 admission check as a souvenir. We were part of the underground or independent film scene and at that time an independent filmmaker was not somebody who made a feature hoping it would be a stepping stone to a Hollywood career. The term referred to a countercultural artist who either ignored or despised the film industry and wished to pursue an alternative path. These were experimental filmmakers who were trying to find a way to express themselves beyond the theatrical cinema narrative structure – that was the doctrine. Cinema is capable of many things and only one of them is telling stories. George and his brother Mike resembled today’s independent filmmakers because they told narratives and were developing their own sensibility, not any wilder than that of John Waters or Tim Burton. George was a loony guy but he knew exactly what he was putting on the screen. He was a fine comedian. I suppose Hold Me While I’m Naked is considered his Masterpiece.
I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and a year later George came out. There was a flourishing underground film scene in the Bay Area just as there was a flourishing underground film scene in New York. The New York scene centered around The Filmmakers Cooperative which is located on the lower East side and the scene in the Bay Area centered around Canyon Cinema Co-op which at that time was located in Earl Bodine’s apartment in San Francisco near the Bay Bridge. In New York there were filmmakers like the painterly Stan Vanderbeek and Ed Emshwiller, and sybaritic Jack Smith, who were championed by the indefatigable Jonas Mekas in his Village Voice column. Jonas was the glue that kept the scene together. His diatribes awakened me to the independent filmmaking movement. An odd movement it was since the filmmakers were so different stylistically.
In the Bay Area there were filmmakers Robert Nelson, part of the Funk Movement, the lyrical filmmakers James Broughton and Bruce Baillie, and collagist Bruce Connor. Canyon Cinema started as a screening society and became a co-op distributor. Under its auspices screenings took place starting in the little Bay Area community of Canyon and then migrated to San Francisco at Glide Memorial Church. The screenings were organized by Emery Menefee, a chemist with the United States Department of Agriculture. Emery was the editor of Canyon Cinema News and once a month or so some of us pitched at his house in Richmond and assembled the News to ship to the membership. The screenings at Glide were raucous. Once there was a man who would not shut up during a film and Bruce Connor, who sat in the row in front of him, turned around and punched the guy in the face; a response that was in excess of the crime. But haven’t you wanted to do it?
My part in this was writing a weekly film column for the Berkeley Barb underground newspaper and making films of my own. It was a great time of my life and a time of community when George arrived on scene. He stayed with me for a bit and I showed him around and he liked the scene. He helped me with a film I was working on, Below the Fruited Plain. He added a voice-over track transforming a mundane how-to-do it film, on sandal making (shades of Popular Photography), into the story of a broken marriage. He went home to the Bronx and then returned to stay. And one day after George had been in the Bay Area for a while a friend of his from New York and he dropped by my apartment and the decisive event in our relationship occurred. I do not know how we got onto the topics area but his friend launched into a diatribe against black people. It was a fulsome vituperation and I yelled at the guy telling him he was racist and a jerk. That ended the visit and, as George was leaving, he said to me: “You bit Bob’s head off.”
From that day, until the day George died only a few days ago, we never spoke again. I would see George at screenings and try to say hello but he would avoid me. I wonder if shouting at the dope was the right thing to do? He was a guest. Should I have let it pass? Was the response worse than the offense, like Conner’s punch? Sure, I thought I was on the side of the angels but was it worth it?
George I will miss you but I have been missing you for the past 45 years.