Saturday, September 27, 2014


During my recent stay in San Francisco I had the opportunity to attend two separate events showcasing the short films of Curt McDowell. The first—under the aegis of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' seventh edition of Bay Area Now (BAN7) and in collaboration with [ 2nd floor projects ]—was a program of five shorts, screened in conjunction with the BAN7 exhibition EROS / ON. The second was a companion event at the Roxie Theater screening two more of McDowell's rarely-seen short films.

As synopsized by YBCA, Curt McDowell (1945–1987) was a filmmaker, actor, visual artist, and writer. He arrived in San Francisco in the mid-1960s to attend the San Francisco Art Institute in the painting department and quickly changed course to become a filmmaker to work with George Kuchar, within a period that witnessed the Summer of Love, gay liberation, and the onset of AIDS, to which he succumbed at the age of 42. The author of numerous films that recast the American dream of plenty in pansexual terms, McDowell, like so many artists of his generation, indulged in the era's carnal abundance, and his appetites and experiences are reflected in the work. Thundercrack! (1975), his well-known feature, was cowritten with George Kuchar. He directed over 30 films, such as Confessions (1971), Weiners and Buns Musical (1972), Loads (1980), and Sparkle's Tavern (1985), celebrating sex as well as genre riffing and autobiographical narratives that bear the influences of Jack Smith's lush, DIY camp aesthetic; Rainer Werner Fassbinder's explosive melodrama; and Nan Goldin's glimpses of countercultural bohemia. McDowell had a vast history with 101-year-old Roxie Theater in San Francisco. The theater was reinvented in the 1970s as a vital repertory and alternative first-run cinema by his partner Robert Evans, along with Bill Banning, Peter Moore, and Anita Monga.

Melinda McDowell [Milks], Curt's sibling and an actor in many of his films, was present to introduce both programs and to engage in Q&As at both venues. She qualified when she took to the YBCA screening room stage that she was not so good at coming up with things to say about her brother's films and was better at answering questions about them. "Because I know the answers." Pulling a list of the evening's scheduled films from her purse, she asserted how fortunate an audience we were to be able to see a rarely-seen video by George Kuchar that he made for a one-off show in Chicago a few years ago. No one but her has a copy. Melinda didn't know Kuchar had made this video until she attended the show in Chicago, which featured some of Kuchar's films along with McDowell's. The video is basically Kuchar talking about McDowell and introducing him to a film-viewing public who might not know much about him, including mention of their own romance. People who knew both of them, Melinda asserted, would find this video of special interest because of the opportunity to hear George's side of his interaction with McDowell.

As for McDowell's short film Confessions (1972), Melinda confirmed that her brother was literally confessing to their parents and telling them in detail every bad thing he'd ever done. Asked if her parents ever saw Confessions, Melinda answered no, of course not. "They would have been horrified." As insight into the film, Melinda noted that the patchwork quilt Curt lies on while confessing to their mom and dad was made by their mom, who also wrote the lyrics to the music playing in the background. Curt was a sentimental, loving son, Melinda insisted, and Confessions wasn't made out of disrespect. Rather, it was made out of respect for their Mom, who he loved.

In his lovely broadsheet / chapbook written to accompany the selection of films in the [ 2nd floor projects ] screening, Johnny Ray Huston recalls: "I saw Confessions for the first time, and it put the world together for me, breaking through silence and leaping across states to share three-ways and four-ways and so many secret jewels of experience with mom and dad." And asks: "How much joy and lust and friendship can be crammed into one 16-minute movie? 'To put it into words is just not that easy to do.' After a tearful confession, Curt casts one true love as a leading man and lets the images do most of the talking, so what you know about him is felt. The difference between a messy guy in bloom and a perfect lifeless doll. The beauty of women's faces and men's cocks in close-up, and dirty bare feet, stepping forward. A live-wire radio built by editing that switches from folk to blues in a heartbeat. Fanfare, a cum shot, and a burst of applause as the director walks away from the camera, into San Francisco daylight. There's no happier ending in cinema."

With regard to the third film on the program, Ronnie (1972), Melinda advised that Ronnie, the young man who is the subject of the film, never had a clue that anyone would ever actually be watching the film. He thought he was just doing something for a little bit of money that day and that would be the end of it. "Boy, was he wrong," Melinda laughed, "because so many people have seen Ronnie." But he never knew. Though he'd be an older man now, Melinda expressed interest in seeing him again to say hi, if anyone knew how to locate him. Watching Ronnie, Melinda said she holds her breath throughout the entire film.

Huston writes of Ronnie: "Ronnie shaving, the camera staring down at his tight torso. Ronnie lighting a cigarette, a valentine heart tattooed on his forearm, a man on a horse dangling from his necklace, and his tighty-whiteys peaking out over his khakis. Ronnie reclining on the hardwood floor. Ronnie standing erect as the camera glides up and down his body, from his stout face to the shiny black boots on his feet. Ronnie scratching his cock. Ronnie naked in monologue in front of the window overlooking the street, the camera looking up from between his legs. Ronnie with his hands held behind him, a belt welt on his hairy, meaty right cheek. Ronnie on his elbows, laying stomach down on the floor, his back arched and his legs spread to show off his glorious ass.

"Ronnie, 'a very fussy guy' who doesn't 'believe in letters,' but who is writing a book he hopes will be a 'good seller,' titled Black and White. Ronnie, who wishes 'the Lord could come down off the cross and change things.' Ronnie, who still could have been a model for Old Reliable, or the subject of a story in Boyd McDonald's Straight to Hell, if he wasn't lucky enough to be immortalized as the star of Ronnie, a gorgeous black-and-white movie directed by Curt McDowell."

The evening's fourth film, A Visit to Indiana (1970), has received a response over the years that Curt would never have dreamed possible. That it would be purchased by the Museum of Modern Art, that it would be included in the Library of Congress, Curt would not have had a clue that the film would come to be seen as a social commentary.

As for the final film of the evening, Boggy Depot (1973), Melinda was convinced curator Margaret Tedesco included it in the program specifically because it's one of Melinda's favorites. A musical, Boggy Depot starts Curt, George Kuchar, and Ainslie Pryor, a beautiful young lady who starred in several of Curt's and George's films. Johnny Ray Huston asked Melinda if she could talk about the songs in Boggy Depot, "because I really love them and they're hilarious." Melinda admitted to loving all of Curt's musicals. Weiners and Buns (1972) is another of her favorites. She said Curt and Mark Ellinger loved to make those songs together. She has numerous reel-to-reel tapes of the songs those two wrote together, though she wasn't actually there during the songwriting sessions and wasn't personally involved.

Curt made a lot of his short films as a consequence of the fact that film was expensive. If he was working on a bigger project like the 60-minute Peed Into the Wind (1972), or any of the films that were a little bit longer, if there was any film left at the end of the roll he wanted to use it up, every inch of it, so he would come up with some short film written right then and there.

To wrap up the program, they included the five-minute Thundercrack! trailer narrated by George Kuchar, partly to entice the audience to purchase the DVD next year when it's finally released to celebrate the film's 40th anniversary. Melinda promised a great DVD release party that everyone could attend.

Asked if Curt knew about George before he met him, Melinda confirmed that, yes, Curt had heard of George, was his champion, and even had something to do with George coming to teach at the San Francisco Art Institute. George left the Bronx behind, came to San Francisco, and stayed.

Admitting that Curt had kept explicit diaries since the age of 17, I asked if any of that material was going to be made available? "Heck no," Melinda answered, explaining that in his diaries Curt revealed every detail of every encounter with every person, naming names. For all the time that she was with him, Curt wrote about her in his diaries like they were her diaries too. She wouldn't have let anything be published about George because George was private. Curt wasn't. He didn't care who read his diary entries. If it was up to Curt, he would have had the diaries published; but, Melinda was concerned with liability and privacy issues about all of the people written about in the diaries, since Curt was admittedly promiscuous. She's sure many of those people would not want to be named. Even if she changed their names, people would be able to figure out who was who.

Margaret Tedesco brought up the fact that Curt's prolific output as an artist was made all the more remarkable for recognizing that he was blind in one eye. It gave him an advantage, Melinda suggested, because—when you look with two eyes—an image is three-dimensional. With one eye, an image is not three-dimensional and much easier to render two-dimensionally on paper, creating an illusion of three-dimensionality, which worked for him. Being blind in one eye was not a drawback for him. Further, as one could guess, Curt was quite the voyeur but binoculars were of no use to him. Melinda bought him a monocular and he was so proud of it and enjoyed it immensely. He could look out the window at guys across the street.

One piece of good news Melinda shared with her YBCA audience was that Mark Toscano, an archivist of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences—and formerly involved with Canyon Cinema—asked the Academy 10 years back if they would be interested in having Curt's films restored and preserved at the Academy and having new prints struck? They said no, of course not, no, because of the content. But just recently Melinda found out that the Academy has changed its mind, perhaps due to new blood, and has asked for all of Curt's films—including ones most people haven't even seen yet—to preserve them at the Academy.

A week or so later, Melinda was present to introduce a second set of Curt McDowell films at the Roxie Theater, specifically Taboo: The Single and the LP (1980), which Curt made based on some bizarre graffiti he discovered first in one restroom, then another, and then another, all around San Francisco. He couldn't help himself and had to make a film about the Abner family referenced in this graffiti, which included statements like "Abner slapped hard like blue magic." So Curt created a character named Blue Magic. The characters in Taboo, in fact, enact statements made in the graffiti. But the mystery remains: "Who wrote the graffiti?" There were only the three members of the family: Abner, Dorothy and Mary. Recently, Melinda determined through a Google search that they were real people. She found the gravestone of Abner and Dorothy and discovered that Mary—the part she played in the film—is alive and living near her. Mary would be 74 now, and though Melinda has never met her, she feels Mary would be horrified with Curt's interpretation of her family in Taboo. With that in mind, Melinda said we would be seeing familiar faces—George Kuchar, Marion Eaton, and herself—in this "strange little film."

Melinda isn't quite sure what Curt was trying to do with Taboo and asked her audience to give her a clue if they knew. What is clear is that Curt had a crush on Fahed Martin and wanted to see more of him, literally. The film might have been an excuse for that. George had shown her drawings and pictures Curt had made of this young man. He was clearly having a great time interacting with Fahed and making Taboo gave him a chance to film him scantily clad in wet pants.

Asked about Curt's involvement with the Roxie, Melinda recalled that he worked at the theater for many years. But he also fell in love and married Robert Evans, one of the original owners of the Roxie.

Sparkle's Tavern is another McDowell film that few people have seen. "Let's talk about what it is and what it isn't," Melinda suggested. It is not like Thundercrack! There are no hardcore scenes in Sparkle's Tavern. When Curt decided he wanted to make this film, he asked Melinda what her main fantasy was. She had just recently returned from Wyoming and she told him that her fantasy was to be in a room full of cowboys who all wanted her. So he made that happen in the film. What the film turned into, however, was a more personal story for Curt. He represented himself and Melinda as the brother and sister in Sparkle's Tavern whose naughtiness reflected their personal naughtiness in making films like Thundercrack!, etc. But what it was really about was Curt's desire to be publicly accepted by his parents. Even though he knew they loved him very much, he wanted to be acknowledged in public by them, which was hard for them to do at the time. What he created was a story that had this happy ending.

Melinda apologized after the screening for her performance in Sparkle's Tavern, reminding us she was not really an actress. "I'm not sorry I'm in it," she said, "just sorry you had to see it." She hoped we could get past her performance to see what the film was supposed to be. She praised Connie Richmond's performance as Brenda. And George Kuchar's performance as Mr. Pupik. She asked if anyone knew what "pupik" meant? In Yiddish, it means "belly button."

Melinda mentioned the scene with Brandon where she's lying on her bed crying. She didn't know how to cry for the camera so they literally shoved an onion under her pillow. But the tears at the end of the film were real because the little note she's handed in the scene was written by George who said, "There is shit on your shoe." He had to know that would make her cry. Curt didn't know why she was really crying at the end of that scene. He asked if she wanted to stop filming but she said no, and encouraged him to keep filming while she was crying (even if it was because of the note).

As for working with Marion Eaton, Melinda described her as being exceptionally professional and knowing all her lines at all times. She wanted to be like Melinda and Curt's mother and tried her best. She's local so she couldn't capture the true Midwestern accent their mother had, but she tried. Melinda never wanted to tell her that she didn't sound anything like their mother because she thought Marion's performance was great just the way it was.

A piece of good news Melinda recently discovered is that—out of the 65 films that the National Film Preservation Foundation have chosen to preserve this year—one of them is Sparkle's Tavern. Curt never would have dreamed that would happen and that Sparkle's Tavern would have been chosen to be preserved for posterity. He would have been so honored.

Once Melinda opened it up to the audience, I was quick to assert that—despite her own humility towards her acting chops—she was a radiant presence on the screen. Melinda said my comment made her "a smiling fool." My question, however, was about the film's spectacular costumes, especially her final costume. Curt created the costume, she answered, and she still has it, though admitting she can't fit into it anymore. It was unquestionably a spectacular creation with its Elizabethan stand-up collar and hand-beading.

One final piece of news is that—in preparing Thundercrack! for its DVD release, and its inclusion in the Academy archives—she came across some footage in the short print of Thundercrack! that had not been included in the long print. She explained that when Thundercrack! was experiencing its cult status at midnight movies, it was considered a little too long and was cut down to accommodate midnight crowds. That left only one long print. Making the situation even more problematic, Melinda recalled that several of the traveling prints of Thundercrack! were confiscated. The first time Curt took the film into England he had no trouble because he had written on the label of the film cannister: Thundercrack! Weather Conditions of the Southwest United States. They let it in. They didn't know. But the second time he tried to get into England with the film, they confiscated it at the border. Another time, the film was pulled out of the projector by the Montreal police at a film festival. So several of the prints have been lost and the effort is to compile one final version from all the elements left.

Of Thundercrack!, Johnny Ray Huston writes: "Though Thundercrack! is as unique as a pair of George Washington peepholes, it has deep roots in horror and comedy. The film's orgiastic cast are free-love descendants of the frighteningly funny eccentrics in James Whale's The Old Dark House. Its trip to a haunted house is a Midwestern rite of passage."

[My thanks to Johnny Ray Huston for permission to replicate passages from his broadsheet / chapbook entitled "the single and the LP" and lovingly inscribed, "For Michael, my compadre!" Johnny Ray's broadsheet is available for PDF download here.]