"Loads of Curt McDowell" pays tribute to an underground legend
FILM Longtime San Francisco resident George Kuchar's death this September was a reminder of how many had been influenced by his loveably eccentric movies, from famous early fans like Andy Warhol and John Waters to the hundreds of students who passed through his San Francisco Art Institute courses over the decades. Among the latter, for a long time his most famous protégé — at least locally — was Curt McDowell, who started out as a teacher's pet, moved on to heavy petting with teacher, and remained close to Kuchar as both friend and collaborator until his own AIDS-related demise in 1987.
George Kuchar's half-century-plus output was always joyfully accessible "avant-garde" cinema, its mixture of the personal and the purple drawing on the conventions of those Hollywood melodramas he and brother Mike (who's taking over George's teaching responsibilities at SFAI) grew up watching in the 1950s Bronx. His films' popularity was perhaps most hindered by the simple fact that he only felt moved to direct something in the more marketable feature length form once — 1973's The Devil's Cleavage.
McDowell's films, often heavily influenced by George Kuchar's (even when the latter wasn't operating as scenarist and actor on them), also had a wide streak of camp parody, a Warholian mini-constellation of "stars," a vivid aesthetic, and impulse toward autobiography. They were much more aggressively sexual, and ambitious — during his much-too-short career he made no less than four features, two of which were porn in the graphic-content if not commercial sense. The hour-long Peed in the Wind (1972), the same year's Lunch, and 1985's very-long-in-the-making Sparkle's Tavern are basically forgotten now, the last not screened in the Bay Area for at least a decade, the others possibly unseen since the 1970s.
Thundercrack! (1975) — an even more daft shot at "adult" cinema than the experimental-minded Lunch — is better known, having had at least the beginnings of a midnight movie cult following. But with all its baroque, still-singular The Old Dark House (1932) meets Tennessee Williams charms (there is surely no other porn flick remotely like it), why isn't it now as well known as, say, Pink Flamingos (1972) or Eraserhead (1977)? Part of that doubtless has to do with the disarray McDowell's body of work has been in, access-wise, for nearly 25 years now. Some of his films are distributed by (but seldom rented from) Canyon Cinema. Others are in storage, or presumed lost. Nothing is available on DVD, and any videotapes have long gone out of print. Whether this is due to strife, disorganization, or financial limitations among the guardians of his trust remains as murky as it was in the 1990s, when the last, brief issue of Thundercrack! and some shorts on VHS occurred.
Thus, it's sadly rare to get a McDowell program even here in SF, where his memory should flourish rather than be slowly slipping from public awareness. Just such an occasion arrives this week at the Roxie — co-founded by his longtime creative and domestic partner, Robert Evans — as two shows spread over three days reprise some (relatively) familiar as well as barely-seen material.
The main attraction, as well as the scarcest, is 1980's 55-minute Taboo (The Single and the LP), which will be shown on projected VHS due to a typical bad-luck hurdle: its original materials, plus those for other films, were sent to New York's Museum of Modern Art years ago, only to go missing in transit.