Sep 24, 2015

A Reason to Live

At the very end of his film Hold Me While I'm Naked (1966), tasteful trash auteur George Kuchar (Pagan Rhapsody, The Devil's Cleavage) looks directly into the camera and asks the rhetorical question, “I guess there’s a lot of things in life worth living for…isn’t there?,” to which he seems to attempt to answer in his inordinately beauteous yet nonetheless sometimes scatological micro-masterpiece A Reason to Live (1976), which depicts the absurdist tragedy that ensues when a melancholy man whore who is cheating on his wife decides to ditch both of his babes and move from San Francisco to Oklahoma to fulfill his dream of living in a sleazy motel in tornado territory instead of rotting away like some banal bourgeois bastard in a lame apartment in fag city.  Starring his then-lover/student/longtime best friend, filmmaker-cum-pornographer Curt McDowell (Thundercrack!, Loads), in the lead role as a fairly pathetic mensch who gets a fair amount of pussy but seems completely apathetic to the couple of dames that want to down his dong, especially his wifey, Kuchar’s film tells the joyously cynical story about how following one’s dreams can lead one to lying naked and dead in some cheap Oklahoma motel, which becomes all the more curious when one considers that the lead character actually dies as a result of doing something that the auteur did on a yearly basis. In fact, not unlike the protagonist of the film, Kuchar would travel annually to Oklahoma where he would stay in the same cheap hotel so as to observe the weather and clouds as demonstrated by his shockingly entertaining video documents like Weather Diary 1 (1986). Apparently co-directed by female lead Marion Eaton, A Reason to Live is an endlessly entrancing 25-minute melodramatic fever dream that oftentimes degenerates into a histrionic mock-ominous nightmare where a man’s fate is both literally and figuratively in the clouds, at least until he finally decides to take action for what is probably the first time in his life and eventually must pay the ultimate price for a seemingly benign choice. Easily the most bizarre tornado flick ever made as a work that even makes Michael Almereyda’s debut absurdist family dramedy Twister (1989) seem terribly tame by comparison, Kuchar's film is a sordid little cinematic work that mimics the tableaux and melodramatic hysterics of filmmakers like Josef von Sternberg and Douglas Sirk in the way that borderlines the line between respectful homage and preposterous parody. Of course, like his other masterpieces like Hold Me While I'm Naked and Eclipse of the Sun Virgin (1967), the film is genius in that it somehow manages to do the seemingly nonsensical by juggling camp and kitsch with Weltschmerz and melancholy in a way that makes it seem as if Kuchar is so hopelessly self-denigrating and neurotic that he cannot even take his own abject misery seriously, hence its singular brilliance as a an outstandingly aesthetically pleasing piece of phantasmagorical celluloid trash with a preternatural degree of class. A mix of nihilistic nerd neuroticism, pathological cinephilia, crypto-cocksucker longing and despair, shadowy (anti)glamour and gloss, and morbid suicide fetishization, A Reason to Live is ultimately auteur cinema in the truest sense, even if Kuchar opted to give one of his stars a co-director credit when it is obvious that the film is 100% his own personal vision. Indeed, only George Kuchar could make a small apartment living room seem as mystifyingly foreboding as the famous swamp scene from F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927). A totally improvised work where Kuchar apparently created and personally dubbed all the dialogue after the film was shot, the campy genre-bending horror-thriller-melodrama hybrid with pseudo-mystical undertones is notable for being probably the only film ever made where taking out the garbage and a taking shit are depicted as climatic events that are worthy of extended screen time.

 A Reason to Live begins with a shadowy woman (Marion Eaton of Thundercrack!) that looks like a drag queen attempting to impersonate Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950) creeping up on her beau Vince (Curt McDowell) while he is less than gracefully sleeping on an ugly sofa and surprising him with a passionate kiss on the lips that he is less than passionate about. After kissing her boy toy, the woman stares out of a window and states to her assumed husband, “Wake up, darling. It’s dawn” and then walks over to a plant and says while stroking one of its branches like it is a hard cock, “I’m going to gave thanks to god for making dawn shed its light on my beloved.” Vince reacts to his beloved’s romantic words by pulling a blanket over his face, thus more than hinting that he is absolutely disgusted by the exaggerated love and affection his wife regularly showers him with. When his insufferable lady love goes to make breakfast for him, Vince secretly gets on the telephone and tries to call his busty blonde-haired sister Julia who, for whatever reason, has positioned a hose with water pouring out of it between her leg, as if she has a bad case of penis envy. Somewhat strangely, the sound of the ringing telephone proves to be a borderline tragic experience for Julia as it causes her to collapse on the ground. After his aborted attempt at calling his sis, Vince’s wife asks him who he tried to call and he curiously ignores her question and instead replies, “I saw some cirrus clouds this morning and I had high hopes. I hoped that they turn into cirrocumulus then altostratus, then maybe a big nimbostratus would move in….But.” Indeed, as the film reveals, Vince is more interested in clouds than cunts. 

 After Vince’s wife declares to him, “I’ll get you your pecan pie,” the fairly grating 1950s melodic Sirk-inspired musical score of the film is abruptly replaced by a sort of erotic and energetic celestial synthesizer score and then the protagonist proceeds to call his slob mistress Chichi, who is moronically passed out on her couch with a lit cigarette in between her fingers and tons of trash all around her floor, including a pizza box with half-eaten pieces of crust, countless empty Pepsi and beer cans, and other items that indicate that the less than gorgeous harlot lacks even the slightest inkling of dignity and does not exactly care about her health. When Chichi picks up the phone after stumbling around trash that is lying around her apartment, Vince asks her if she was sleeping and she lies and states, “No, darling…I was in the garden planting vegetables,” which seems to arouse the hopelessly naive protagonist as indicated by his excited reply, “I like you…you’re natural.” From there, Vince proceeds to fondle and finger a small statue of a topless aborigine chick, which somehow magically turns on not only just Chichi, but also his wife too, who is secretly listening to the entire conversation on the other line in another room. At the end of their largely wordless orgasmic phone conversation, Vince declares to Chichi, “I’ll meet you at moonrise.” After his worried wife asks, “Going already?” and proceeds to cry, Vince begins walking through the street of San Francisco to meet Chichi, but tragedy strikes for his slobbish mistress when she is in such pain as a result of intestinal issues that she has to crawl to the bathroom and subsequently takes such a massive dump that she has to use a large stake to get the turd pile down the toilet when it fails to flush. Meanwhile, after scrawling on the ground near a skull, Vince’s sister Julia goes outside and states to a fellow dirty blonde that may or may not be her girlfriend, “Nora, I tried to kill myself.”  Somewhat humorously, annoyingly happy-go-lucky Nora, who is tending her garden, responds to Julia’s mundanely stated confession by passionately embracing her, calling her “foolish,” and then giving her the following timeless advice, “Remember…there are three things in this world that you can do: you can do good, you can do bad…or you can do nothing.” Obnoxious optimist Nora also states to Julia, “Lookout there, Julia. A fog is coming to us…it will give you strength,” but not long after ominous music begins to play and fog proceeds to engulf the SF suburbs in a scene that eerily foreshadows the series of absurd tragedies that will soon destroy most of the characters in the film. 

 After finally managing to get her giant turd(s) flushed down the toilet, Chichi, who is late as a result of her major bowel problems, makes a frenetic attempt to meet Vince in time for the moonrise and in the process she absurdly attempts to wave down a taxi in an open field and then subsequently falls off of a cliff after carelessly not watching her step in her valiant struggle to get to her boy toy. Meanwhile, Vince’s wayward wife almost suffers a complete mental breakdown while taking out the trash. As a result of the fact that Chichi did not meet him in time for the moonrise and thus probably assumes that she stood him out, Vince goes to see Julia, complains to her, “Sis, I feel sort of bad,” and while sharing a coke with her during an extra touching brother-sister moment proudly declares, “I’m leaving this place, Sis.” After confiding in Julia, “I saw some cirrus clouds this morning and I had high hopes. I hoped that they turn into cirrocumulus then altostratus, then maybe a big nimbostratus would move in, but I’m leaving this place, Sis,” Vince goes back to his place and reads a book entitled Oklahoma Weather by meteorologist Gary England (who is apparently a pop culture icon in Oklahoma City and who had a cameo in Dutch master cinematographer turned Hollywood hack filmmaker Jan de Bont's blockbuster Twister (1996)). In the next scene, Vince is featured standing stoically in front of a large airplane during a sunny day while putting on a pair of sunglasses on like he is a man on the mission yet he ultimately ends up at a sleazy motel in Oklahoma where he plans to start his supposed dream life. Unfortunately, while downing a banana like it is a pulsating purple-headed monster, Vince sees a news report on TV about a tornado warning in his area, but of course he makes no attempt to seek safety elsewhere because he has come to Oklahoma to experience the splendor of mother nature's destruction. After Julia catches a news program about how a tornado ravaged Oklahoma, Vince's unclad corpse is featured on the floor of his ravaged motel room and next to one of his feet is a newspaper with the headline “Twisters, High Winds Rip Area” and “Tornado Hits Apartments.”  After seeing a young muscular negro father and his two young children appear on the news, Julia immediately turns off her TV, heads to her bathroom, fills up the bathtub, stands inside said bathtub, and then puts her fingers inside a light bulb socket, thereupon finally achieving her dream of committing suicide and possibly reuniting with her recently deceased brother, who arguably committed a sort of passive self-slaughter. While Nora is horrified upon hearing Julia’s gruesome ear-piercing screams while she is outside fiddling with her garden, she soon gets happy upon seeing fog entering the area, as she sees it as another good omen, even though all the recent series of events have affirmatively proven otherwise. Of course, Nora’s happiness does not last long when Julia’s skeleton appears from an upstairs window and cynically states, “Look, look out there! The fog is coming. It will give you strength” while smoke oozes out of the eye-sockets of her completely fleshless skull, which resembles one of the various corpses of German citizens that were burned alive during the Allied bombing of Dresden during World War II due to the fact that it still covered with a head full of hair.  Indeed, A Reason to Live may begin as a lurid melodrama but it concludes as a sort of pseudo-supernatural horror flick.

 As far as I am concerned, when it comes to the seemingly oxymoronic category of truly cultivated psychotronic celluloid, A Reason to Live is like the Black Narcissus (1947) of the trash avant-garde, albeit featuring debauched dames with bad dye jobs instead of naughty nuns and clouds and tornadoes instead of mountains, among other things. Evoking films ranging from William Dieterle’s Fog Over Frisco (1934) to von Sternberg’s Ana-ta-han (1953) to Sirk’s William Faulkner adaptation The Tarnished Angels (1957) and featuring lavish and vaguely oneiric phosphorescent black-and-white celluloid, the film is really like no other (aside for some of Kuchar's other flicks) yet it has only ever been released on VHS as part of a ‘Best Of’ video compilation entitled Color Me Lurid (1966-1978), which also features Hold Me While I'm Naked (1966), Wild Night in El Reno (1977), I, an Actress (1977), and The Mongreloid (1978). Like his Weather Diary videos, Kuchar’s Wild Night in El Reno is notable for continuing the filmmaker’s weather watching fetish. Notably, Kuchar would reveal that there are ancestral roots attached to his storm and weather fetish in Jennifer M. Kroot’s doc It Came from Kuchar (2009) where he tells the seemingly apocryphal story, “Mom was born in the Ukraine. She was a farm girl. There was a lightning storm. One of the farm boys ran into a bale of hay to escape the rain and lightening hit and incinerated him…And that’s why she’s always been afraid of electrical storms. You couldn’t calm her down. I’ve always liked lightning and thunder and I’d always be by the window and she’s say, ‘Get away from the window!,’ and she’d be very agitated.” Indeed, like much of his work, A Reason to Live seems to be at least partly rooted in Kuchar's somewhat morbid mommy issues, albeit in a more rebellious way since Mrs. Kuchar apparently was horrified by inclement weather yet the filmmaker loved it.  As to whether or not Kuchar wanted to be killed by a tornado, that remains to be seen but I suspect that he felt it would be a romantic way to die, especially after watching his film.

 As quoted in the book Queer Looks (1993), Kuchar remarked regarding certain minor problems he had with his ostensible ‘co-director’, “I had fun photographing A REASON TO LIVE—it was all done with a Bolex, and the sound was dubbed in later. Plus I loved designing Marion Eaton, although she was horrified at the result; because it was black and white, I wanted the lipstick to look just right, to stand out, and I had to redesign her eyebrows. I liked the way the sofa looked when you took the cushions off—you could see the shapes of the springs underneath. Marion couldn't understand why I'd want such a horrible-looking sofa in the film. I explained that this movie was about a relationship falling apart, about disillusionment, I guess.”  Apparently, Eaton, who is probably best known for her performance in the Kuchar penned and McDowell directed epic ‘old dark house’ porn flick Thundercrack! (1975), had somewhat mixed yet largely positive feelings about the film, or as she once stated herself regarding her experiences, “A REASON TO LIVE was the first time I did a film for George that was not scripted. It was pure improvisation and it wouldn’t have sync sound, so I wouldn’t be using his language, his feelings. And it was a learning experience for me, that I got to share with him […] George wanted me to empty the garbage [laughing] wearing this dress. It was a little hard for me to get that together until it finally clicked through my mind that when I empty the garbage myself in my house in Mill Valley, I would go out and walk up the stairs in this beautiful day and that’s when I’d usually think about the poetry that was going on my mind while doing this mundane task. So, I was really pleased with the shot, the way it came out, because this woman who is feeling a great deal of emotional dramatic tension has to perform this mundane act and so there’s…I can’t finish that; I don’t know why; I got lost…” 

 With its crypto-cocksucker material that emphasizes camp over actual cocksucking as personified by Kuchar’s then-lover playing a sort of dime-store Don Juan who is adored by various lecherous ladies, A Reason to Live offers a great example as to why the filmmaker once stated regarding his loathing of being described as a fag filmmaker, “I don't see myself as a gay filmmaker....I don't think other people see me as a gay filmmaker either because certain of my films don't deal with that—and because I don't grab my student audience and fondle them on the side. Curt felt the gay scene was a ghetto. He loved mixed crowds because he liked straight guys. Another friend of mine, Dan Turner, was saying how he liked interchange situations. That's where I come from.” Indeed, one of Kuchar’s greatest talents as a filmmaker is that, not unlike Andy Milligan and to a lesser extent John Waters, he was oftentimes able to mask his homo sensibilities and give them an ostensibly hetero form and ultimately assembled with A Reason to Live a delectably disturbing subtextual melodrama that puts all the films of Sirk to shame in terms of its scathing critique and ironical cynicism in regard to seemingly banal subjects like love and romance, which is something that people of all sexual persuasions can relate to. Somewhat ironically considering its various depictions of brutal deaths, A Reason to Live really does offer some reasons to live, albeit some fanatically self-destructive ones like tornado hunting, sexual promiscuity, and suicide ideation. Of course, as Kuchar once stated in regard to a scene in Weather Diary 3 (1988) where there is a shot of him taking a piss, “Everyone wants to be a stripper, but if you don't do it now, you'll go to your grave bitter. That's how I felt. What could be better in your past than a nude scene? It's a dream come true. We all want a scandalous past—it's what Hollywood pictures were always made about. I think it's the dream of our nation, to be a person like that.” 

-Ty E

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