'It Came from Kuchar,' Jennifer Kroot's documentary on the beloved Bay Area-based filmmaker, offered fans and non-fans alike a window into the family's genius. George Kuchar passed away September 6, 2011.

Kuchar, Belson Bid Adieu

Michael Fox September 8, 2011

San Francisco loses two of its cinema icons, pioneering 'camp humorist' George Kuchar and seminal experimental filmmaker Jordan Belson

George Kuchar, the beloved San Francisco filmmaker, teacher, mentor and friend, died Tuesday night, September 6, at the age of 69. He passed away at Coming Home Hospice in the Castro, where he resided for the last month. Kuchar had been diagnosed with cancer a year and a half ago, but the sad news was not conveyed beyond a circle of close friends until recently.

Kuchar and his twin brother, Mike, began making movies in their teens in their Bronx neighborhood in the late ’50s. Inspired by the florid emotions of Hollywood melodramas, they made 8mm narratives that were funny, twisted and unexpectedly influential. The brothers eventually went their own way as filmmakers, with George in particular viewed as a “camp humorist” by his cult of admirers, according to the critic Scott McDonald.

“I never say I’m going to make a comedy,” Kuchar told McDonald in the early ’80s. “The pictures have comical scenes in them. I laugh at scenes even when I’m making them. Picture-making is hard work, and you want to have a good time, so sometimes you do scenes where you have a good time. But I never tackle a film like it’s a comedy. In fact, I suffered through most all of the pictures. I mean making them I had a good time, but most of them were based on terrible experiences. I was a miserable wretch during certain periods, and those periods are documented in the movies.”

Kuchar moved to San Francisco in the early ’70s, teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute and continuing to make movies (on his own as well as with his students). Never a dogmatist, Kuchar was one of the first filmmakers to trade celluloid for video. His later work was distinguished by a series of weather diaries. Two recent films Kuchar made with his SFAI students, Lingo of the Lost (2010) and Empire of Evil (2011), will screen next month in the Views from the Avant-Garde sidebar of the New York Film Festival. Kuchar edited his introduction to the program while in hospice.

Kuchar welcomed a nonstop parade of visitors at Coming Home with his usual wry humor. Lynn Hershman Leeson, chair of SFAI’s film department, marveled at “his concern for other people’s well-being without letting them know about the suffering he was going through.”

“He was literally surrounded for the last several weeks by loved ones, adoring fans, former lovers and friends,” said Jennifer Kroot, a former student who directed the 2009 documentary It Came From Kuchar. “And he loved it. He really had a great time holding court for all these people who cared for him.

“The worst thing is that he was so young,” Kroot added. “Other than that, it was the most dignified and beautiful death anyone could hope for or imagine.”

Kuchar’s surviving brother, Mike, has stepped in to teach George’s longstanding collaborative filmmaking class, Electro-Graphic Sinema, this term at SFAI.

Jordan Belson, who also died Tuesday, at the age of 85, was of a previous generation. He studied painting at the California School of Fine Art (now SFAI) and University of California at Berkeley and was inspired to go into filmmaking by San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s legendary postwar experimental film series, Art in Cinema. He made his first film, Transmutation, in 1947.

Still from ‘Allures’ (1961), 16mm film by Jordan Belson. © Jordan Belson, courtesy Center for Visual Music

“His films have been called ‘cosmic cinema,’ and the imagery is not terrestrial — it is of skies, galaxies, halos, suns, stars, auroras,” Center for Visual Music archivist and curator Cindy Keefer wrote last fall when SFMOMA screened “Jordan Belson: Films Sacred and Profane.” “He works with a vocabulary of film images he’s created since the 1940s, but does not use computers. He withdrew his films from distribution decades ago, thus many are difficult to see. Belson doesn’t give interviews, write about his work, or discuss his methods, leaving the viewer to derive his/her own experiences and meanings from his films.”

In 1957, Belson created the Vortex Concerts with composer/DJ Henry Jacobs at Morrison Planetarium. These experiential light-projection shows inspired the rock’n’roll light shows of the ’60s and the Laserium shows of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Belson was credited with “special visual creations” for Philip Kaufman’s 1983 film, The Right Stuff, and received numerous retrospectives in Europe, Australia and the U.S. Pacific Film Archive will reprise the SFMOMA show on October 19.

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