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“Pop Cinema at Its Best Pop”: George Kuchar’s Hold Me While I’m Naked

By Ed Halter

By the time George Kuchar completed Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966) at the tender age of 23, he was already a celebrated director with more than 17 films under his belt, all made with his fraternal twin, Mike. The siblings had launched their heretofore conjoined career eight years earlier, making their first films by borrowing their aunt’s 8mm home-movie camera and their mother’s nightgown, and later perfected how to shoot and edit through scrutinizing the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Douglas Sirk, and Roger Corman at local movie theaters. Bearing titles like The Naked and the Nude (1957), Pussy On A Hot Tin Roof (1961), and Lust For Ecstasy (1963), the Kuchars’ luridly colorful micro-melodramas circulated in the amateur film clubs of their day, where the Bronx teens had been enthusiastic participants.

By 1964, the pair found a new audience within the burgeoning underground film scene in Manhattan, screening alongside the likes of Kenneth Anger, Bruce Conner, Jack Smith, and Andy Warhol. “The Kuchar brothers have arrived on the movie scene,” Jonas Mekas announced in the Village Voice in March of that year. “Here is the most macabre sense of humor at work… Here is the Pop Cinema at its best pop… Here are banality and corniness transposed into their grotesque opposites.”

The boys’ love of movies in all their tawdry glory had inspired them to ape big-screen excess on a tiny scale, which thereby granted their overblown homages an edge of parody, even of critique. The Kuchars’ paucity of means, paired with a surplus of invention, marked their collaborations as among the best of an emerging counter-cinema; they epitomized Parker Tyler’s observation, in his landmark study Underground Film: A Critical History (1970), that “provided a filmmaker is ingenious and creative enough, the marvelous can take place in an ordinary-sized room or a small studio set of obvious dimensions.” Warhol and, later, John Waters took cues from their methods. Remarkably, this pair of kids from the Bronx became two of the most influential artists of the post-war avant-garde.

Shot on the larger 16mm gauge, Hold Me While I’m Naked was the first truly solo directorial project by George, made just after Mike finished his own sci-fi parody Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965); an earlier effort on 16mm, Corruption of the Damned (1964), had been begun by Mike but finished by George. Perhaps consequently, Hold Me is a lament of artistic isolation. In the film, George plays Philip, a bespectacled, pockmarked young man obsessed with making low-budget skin flicks amongst the tenements and alleyways of an outer-borough neighborhood. In the opening scenes, he directs his starlet, Helen (Donna Kerness, who would appear in his films for decades), as she scrambles through abandoned city streets decked out in an emerald-green gown, white gloves, and pearls, her frenzied glamor interrupted by a shot of the would-be auteur’s geeky, snaggle-toothed smile as he holds his tiny 8mm camera. After shooting an artful nude scene through the abstracting refractions of a stained-glass window, Philip’s star abandons him, complaining to her analyst that she’s “sick and tired of being naked in almost every scene.” Dejected, Philip calls other women in an attempt to recast his star, but to no avail. The film nears its conclusion with a parallel sequence, set to a symphonic crescendo: as Helen and a muscular young man grope one another in a shower (her wet dress, kept on for cinematic modesty, nevertheless slipping to reveal a breast), Philip strips and showers alone at home, banging his head against the wall in dismay as, elsewhere, Helen and her lover writhe in soggy joy. Philip’s self-abuse is interrupted by his mother, who screeches at him to come to dinner: “Get out, for Christ’s sake! You’ve been in there an hour!” Hold Me ends with Philip contemplating a plate of burned toast and soggy beets. “There’s a lotta things in life worth living for,” he declares. “Isn’t there?”

If Hold Me can be read as a kind of loony-lensed autobiography, this meaning is grounded in a particular bit of cinematography that would remain an important part of George’s idiomatic visual vocabulary throughout his life. About halfway through the film, his character goes for a walk through a park, and we see his journey through a shot of his own face, taken from a low angle from his outstretched arm. In 1996, critic Jack Stevenson struggled to describe this unusual device as a “house-of-mirrors close-up,” but today we could simply liken it to a selfie shot, achieved more forty years before Instagram. Yet unlike today’s vernacular selfies, most often employed to place an almost certainly unimportant person at the center of some narrative sequence of vacations, parties, and other happy cliches, George uses the hand-held self-portrait to provide an intensely self-critical view, one that would continue for decades as a core structural element in his later video diaries.

Though George’s masterful videos should now be viewed as formal precedents for our 21st-century obsession with self-broadcasting, for many years they were seen as something lesser than his celluloid productions. In 1988, scholar Scott MacDonald wrote that “there’s been an unfortunate tendency to see Kuchar’s subsequent work as a failure to live up to the promise of Hold Me While I’m Naked.” Yet there is an unmistakable continuity that runs from the Sirkian travesties of Hold Me While I’m Naked through the consumer-grade defaults at play in his camcorder confessions: throughout, George always seeks to express something deeply personal, even profound, through the most hackneyed banalities and conventions.

Despite Mekas’s early support, it took decades before the artistry of George and Mike Kuchar would be more fully appreciated. In several interviews, George tells a story about one particular screening of Hold Me that took place not long after its premiere. At the suggestion of his friend, Red Grooms, George was invited to show the film at a luncheon for Pop artists held by Harry M. Abrams, the publisher of Abrams art books. Seated in attendance were Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Marisol, Robert Rauschenberg, and others. George was merely invited as “the entertainment,” though he should have been seen as a peer. Mekas identified this connection early on in his comparison of the Kuchar brothers with Pop Art, which similarly appropriated the seemingly flat surfaces of advertising for more complex purposes.

Likewise, in an undated, handwritten note in the collection of Anthology Film Archives, recently published for the first time in the posthumous collection The George Kuchar Scrapbook (2014), George describes Hold Me in language nicked from ad copy: “A color bath of sparkling sensuality surrounded by the frigid porcelin [sic] of white virginity unable to break free because of drain cloggage. It foams with heady lather of truth completely unrinsed by mineralized morality in non-breakable plastic tubes that never leave unsightly bathtub ring. Zesty color, that makes you nice to be near, helps to elevate this flowring [sic] film to the level of liquid conciousness [sic] that is so poignant it floats!”

Ed Halter is a critic and curator living in New York. A founder and director of Light Industry, his writing has appeared in Artforum, The Believer, Bookforum, Cinema Scope, frieze, Rhizome, Triple Canopy, the Village Voice, and elsewhere. He teaches at Bard College and is currently writing a history of contemporary experimental cinema in America. Halter curated the International Pop Cinema currently on view in the International Pop exhibition, and he recently wrote for the Walker about William Klein’s pop politics.

George Kuchar, Hold Me While I’m Naked, 1966

© The Estate of George Kuchar

George Kuchar, Hold Me While I’m Naked, 1966

Photo: courtesy The Estate of George Kuchar

George Kuchar in Hold Me While I’m Naked, 1966

Photo: courtesy The Estate of George Kuchar