Although Curt McDowell's name does ring a bell in cineaste circles, he might still be misunderstood.
For instance, he is no known relation to Malcolm McDowell, who perhaps most famously played the milk-chugging and Beethoven-loving sociopath in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, nor to the late Roddy McDowall, the most famous of the apes in Planet of the Apes, but it should be pointed out that outrageous sex and primates have indeed figured into his work.
In fact, Curt McDowell's films have been called both experimental and explicit. But apparently, and most confusingly, they've also been said to have a great sense of humor. Evidence suggests a rare and perceptive openness, a kind of ribaldry that goes beyond mere camp because it seems less defensive.
"He really is a key figure in Bay Area film history," says Yerba Buena Center for the Arts film and video curator Joel Shepard, who's presenting a five-film selection of McDowell shorts -- fondly described as "weird, anarchic, messy and often sex-driven" -- tonight. "But his work has been neglected."
True that. Here, in its entirety, is a prudish and half-grudging obituary from the June 6, 1987, edition of the New York Times: "Curt McDowell, a prominent underground filmmaker, died of AIDS Wednesday in his San Francisco home, according to The Associated Press. He was 42 years old. Mr. McDowell's avant-garde films included 'Sparkie's Tavern,' 'Loads,' 'A Visit to Indiana,' 'Pornogra Follies,' a musical described as a 'bisexual scatological revue,' and 'Nudes,' a collection of sexual sketches."
With McDowell's apparent M.O. in mind, there's something quite charming about the image of the Gray Lady trying not to blush. More recently, McDowell's work caught the attention of Fox News, when Thundercrack!, his 1975 midnight-movie favorite (created with frequent collaborator, former lover and beloved local trash maestro George Kuchar) was screened by Frameline with NEA stimulus support. It was just as charming to hear Glenn Beck describe "the world's only underground kinky art porno horror film, complete with four men, three women and a gorilla."
So far, the only McDowell short I remember seeing -- and I'm getting the impression that if I'd seen any others, I wouldn't forget them -- is 1971's Confessions, in which he comes out of the closet to his parents in extreme and increasingly hilarious detail.
In addition to Confessions, Shepard's selections include Tasteless Trilogy, Boggy Depot, Fly Me to the Moon and the aforementioned Nudes (A Sketchbook), in which Kuchar appears. They range in length from 7 to 30 minutes.
"Unfortunately, no one has ever bothered to transfer his films to tape or DVD," Shepard says. "They only exist as the 16mm film prints we will be showing."
But isn't it more adventurous to see such things in public anyway?
Short Films by Curt McDowell screens tonight, Thursday December 17, 7:30pm at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. For more information, visit ybca.org.