A colorful sign reads, “MOTEL Reno.” The sky is dark with clouds in an array of white and black. Rain patters the awning and roof of the motel and sounds like sizzling bacon through digital video. The camera shifts, and as the sound of rain continues the scene changes. Now, a hand-drawn sign appears over an abstract sky done in prismatic swirls: Weather Diary 1. A meteorologist’s voice joins the rain; he’s reading a weather broadcast. Cut back to the motel sign and the distant fields of El Reno, and the rain and robotic voice persist.
You’ve now begun a bizarre study of Oklahoma weather.
On May 8, 1986, a tornado passed through Edmond, Oklahoma, causing $15 million in damage and injuring 15 residents—no one was killed. The same week, 30 miles east of Edmond, American underground filmmaker George Kuchar checked in at the Motel Reno.
What seems innocent at first (how threatening can footage of idyllic wheat fields and distant storms on the plains be?) slowly reveals the fear and awe with which we regard nature. During the three weeks Kuchar spends in El Reno, personality is born, matures, and dies before the audience.
After checking into the motel with a single bag and digital video camera, Kuchar films himself watching Oklahomans talk about losing their homes on TV, washing his underwear in the sink, eating fast food, and experiencing several storms firsthand. Viewers feel as though they’re sharing the motel room with Kuchar.
Kuchar’s long, quiet shots of the sky, his television set, and the trailer park outside the motel amplify his outsider status. He marvels at the weather with a passion the El Reno residents lack. His odd quirks, such as filming his shit and eventually his penis (for a split second) or talking to a stray dog, keep the film interesting. Snide comments about the locals also worm their way into the film, and the diary’s lewd dénouement might leave more conservative viewers upset that Kuchar even set foot in the state.
Several times throughout, Kuchar is friendly with the owners of the motel and expresses a fascination with their daughter. She inspires a meditation on divorce and life in the Midwest: “She was too attractive, too voluptuous to be trapped in a world of Dairy Queen fatsos,” Kuchar says in a blunt, though earnest, Bronx accent. “But I’m digressing; these storms are heading towards Oklahoma City.”
Kuchar’s fascination with weather and his history with Oklahoma began years before filming the Weather Diary series. In 1950s New York City, a young Kuchar roamed around Manhattan with his brother Mike and their 8mm camera. The pair made films into their teens, but George would go on to direct hundreds of solo projects, teach at the San Francisco Art Institute, and work alongside Kenneth Anger and Andy Warhol. The pioneer of “trash” filmmaking John Waters would claim Kuchar as his greatest inspiration.
Before film, Kuchar’s job was drawing weather maps for an NBC affiliate station. Weather became Kuchar’s hobby. Among the concrete and steel of NYC, Kuchar’s idea of nature was the weather he experienced: sweltering summers and blizzards in the winter. His fascination with weather continued into adulthood and inspired his pilgrimages to Oklahoma.
“I had been reading all about those Great Plains electrical storms and tornadoes and knew all kinds of stories of people witnessing those storms,” Kuchar said in an interview about his Weather Diaries in 1996. “I decided I better go and see for myself what the storms are like. The first time I went, I only stayed two or three days. I went back to Oklahoma City the following year… The first time I stayed there, there were no storms for two weeks, but the last week was big. I’ve gone back ever since.”
Originally published in This Land: Spring 2016