It Came From Kuchar
by Richard von Busack
How to sum up the appeal of the Kuchar Brothers’ cinema? In some 40 years of strictly underground filmmaking, these two New York expatriates explored cinema in both parallel and separate directions, though never in any really lucrative form. Neither were climbers. Mike Kuchar had his mind permanently changed in the early 1970s by a hashish cake and an encounter with Himalayan monks; he approaches indie filmmaking from a symbolist stance, using mythical figures (as in his Midsummer’s Nightmare). Brother George has been a teacher of some three decades standing at San Francisco Art Institute.
Jennifer Kroot’s outstanding documentary It Came From Kuchar (upcoming at the Rialto Elmwood in Berkeley, and playing the Red Vic in San Francisco June 14-15) takes its structure from watching George and his SFAI class produce and direct The Fury of Frau Frankenstein (2005), a crazed narrative with superheroes, giant spiders and the witchy Linda Martinez, a 70 year old who doesn’t mind explicit upskirt scenes.
Yet it’s clear that Kuchar’s own efforts are less distinguished as horror parody (pretty much the first kind of movie a budding filmmaker does when he or she picks up a camera). What he loves most are the flagrant melodramas of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the days of bubble-coiffured, thickly powdered actresses, eyebrows painted to the size and shape of blood-engorged leeches. His is the cinema of nigh- Kabuki makeup, tatty lingerie, shadowed with lurid, cookaloris-induced shapes.
The shy but muscular brothers (perhaps identical twins; they’re not certain about it themselves) grew up as devout Catholics in a Bronx neighborhood that was just about to be bulldozed for Robert Moses’ expressways. “A perfect place,” George remembers it, with plenty of abandoned buildings and vacant lots to play in. If they speak with more fondness of a long-vanished parakeet than their own father (“A carnal man,” George calls this long-dead truck driver) it’s a little understandable. It sounds like Lulu was a great parakeet. George Kuchar’s introspective qualities, when he’s not on a set filming, makes him a natural animal fancier; his The Mongreloid (1978) is as sweet a movie as anyone ever made about a dog.
In Kroot’s series of concise and intelligent interviews with Buck Henry, Wayne Wang, John Waters, Atom Egoyan and Guy Maddin (the last named has the most artistic kinship with George), she emphasizes that the humble Kuchars made a place for themselves. They were artists in an era when there wasn’t much underground. In the early 1960s, alternative film consisted of rented spaces, 8mm film, and the hopes of catching the attention of pretty much the only man writing about such film, columnist Jonas Mekas in the Village Voice. The Kuchars were the contemporaries of Stan Brakhage, Jack Smith, and Andy Warhol. Among these big-name artists, they held the same place as Henri Rousseau did in the French avant-garde: working from a seat of the pants style, they were enjoyed as grade-a eccentrics.
George—a pioneer of the video diary form–alternates studies of himself with full-blown emulation of Hollywood at its most maniacal, in the Robert Aldrich/Richard Brooks vein. The titles themselves deserve a theater marquee 100 feet long: Hold Me While I’m Naked (George Kuchar’s 8 1/2); Lust for Ecstasy, Eclipse of the Sun Virgin, Sins of the Fleshapoids, and A Town Called Tempest (with its home-made cyclone, this movie beats the hell out of Twister).
The epic The Devil’s Cleavage (1973) flabbergasted me when I saw it: I suppose the idea of using stock footage to change a film’s location hadn’t occurred to me until I saw this film. Like all uneducated film viewers, I tended to take it on faith that if a movie cut to Tahiti, the whole film must have been shot there. (It’s surprising how few indie filmmakers risk a deliberate change of scene; almost none of them can see outside the restrictions of their particular art ghetto or suburb when—with a mere film clip of a street scene of Istanbul or Bali– they could have the whole world to chose from.) The changes of place in the sprawling, fevered film is less remarkable than the narrative and its hardboiled lines. One zircon in the trove: a trollop warning off her suitor with the line, “I stink so much it scares me.”
Turbulence, whether dramatic or meteorological, is George Kuchar’s métier. It’s no surprise that his hobby of many years was visiting a motel in El Reno, Oklahoma in the midst of tornado season, in the hopes of seeing what might develop in the skies. (His Wild Night in El Reno shows the unmatched drama of a severe Oklahoma thunderstorm.) As a firm Fortean, George introduces all sorts of arcane elements into his films: flying saucers (he’s seen one), Bigfoot, monsters of all shape. The work delights us with both boldness and the essential innocence; there’s nothing calculated about the Kuchar Brothers’ straight-faced satire.
George’s collaboration with Curt McDowell, an early casualty to AIDS, is part of Kroot’s story; in his friendship (or more) with McDowell, George entered more pornographic terrain: Thundercrack! is a polysexual teasing out of themes in James Whale’s The Old Dark House, complete with Kuchar playing a man in love with a gorilla. I’m also delighted to see that Kroot interviewed Bill Griffith (of Zippy the Pinhead) to describe Kuchar’s career as a San Francisco underground cartoonist. George’s piece on H. P. Lovecraft is a model for how to use the comic form for biography.
One doubts we’ll get a better biography of these important filmmakers. Still, it’s the old story: George Kuchar is yet another artist who didn’t get the props all the deserved because he stayed put in The Mission…though we see the Kuchars’ trip to the film festival at Telluride where some necessary attention is paid.
As both brothers are at an age when disappointment is as endemic as high blood pressure, it’s refreshing to see how enthusiastic Mike and George Kuchar still are: how the work keeps them young. But there is a note of deflation with the end of George’s 2005 project, as he says goodbye to his students, as they file off for the Christmas holidays. We note his sudden solitude and quietness as the students leave. Fortunately, his imagination hasn’t failed him yet.