[13 July 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
We call them filters - filmmakers who take their entire life experience, both entertainment and otherwise, and channel it in a way that is both creatively novel and artistically new. For those unfamiliar with the numerous references and homages being tossed at the screen, these individuals seem unique and inventive. For anyone in touch with their particular muse, however, the reinvented callbacks and insular asides are nothing short of genius (or a joke). Quentin Tarantino is such a motion picture sieve. So are Brian DePalma and John Waters. Perhaps the most outrageous and talked about examples of the cinematic sifter were brothers George and Michael Kuchar. Combining their love of old world Hollywood with the growing underground scene, they forged a oeuvre so original that, even today, their “anything goes” approach rivals anything attempted by their peers.
As infamous in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s as Kenneth Anger and Andy Warhol, the twins are today regarded as the godfathers of the trash punk aesthetic, a campy combination of genre jumping designs and outsider imagination that cherry-picks apart various filmic archetypes to deliver a masterful reinvention of already established elements. In layman terms, their films are the very definition of a fever dream - pitched performances, megalomaniacal melodrama, and brilliant procedural shortcuts necessitated by budget, narrative, and scope. They are perhaps best known for their insane sci-fi riff Sins of the Fleshapoids, a witty emasculation of every Flash Gordon serial and big screen soap opera ever attempted. But with hundreds of movies in their individual and collaborative canon, the men remain perennial name checks for a myriad of savants synced up to their iconic idiosyncrasies.
In her stellar documentary, It Came from Kuchar, filmmaker Jennifer M. Kroot catches up with the 67 year old “boys”, each now following their own discernible career path. George continues to make movies, mostly as part of his position as an instructor at the San Francisco Art Institute. With willing students in tow and a few found “stars”, he is still mining a rich vein of b-movie schlock and heighten theatrics to craft his eccentric bursts of inspiration. Mike, on the other hand, is more remote and - dare it be said - spiritual. Far less productive than his sibling, he has traveled the world and remained just outside the streams of celebrity. Still active if content to sit back and let the rest of the world spin without his particular take on it, he ‘dabbles’ in his former craft. Together, they form an unusual bond that breaches convention as much as it embraces it, arguing for their place in the history of the medium as much as it questions their considerable name check reputation.
As it typical with stories like this, it all began with a home movie camera. Given as a gift, it gave the Kuchar boys an outlet for their growing need for self expressions. Almost instantly, they were mimicking their favorite Tinseltown types, turning remembered bits of Douglas Sirk and other big screen potboilers into their own combination of kitsch and emerging gay aesthetic. Homosexuality would play a big part in the Kuchar approach, from the flamboyancy of the homemade art and costume design to the specific genre-bending ways the brothers worked. While never specifically addressed in the documentary, it’s clear that sexual orientation permeates the Kuchar conceit (as it does with the equally important underground auteur Kenneth Anger). It adds a heightened sense of the dramatic and fashion, pushing ideas and their realization to fascination, sometimes surreal extremes.
From the clips presented, we instantly understand the impact. Kroot sifts through a wonderful array of Kuchar product, from their earliest home movie experiments to well known entries such as I Was a Teenage Rumpot, Lust for Ecstasy, Hold Me While I’m Naked, and The Secret of Wendel Samson. Intercut with interview materials and a behind the scenes look at George’s latest student body production, we get a real feel for how the duo dreamt up their often odd ideas. One particularly noteworthy sequence sees Kroot intercutting between an original Hollywood soap spectacular that inspired the boys, and the Kuchar’s insane interpretation of it. Another offers scatter glimpses of what are iconic performances to the guys (Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8) as well as clear examples of their interpretive outsized surrealism. Though they will argue for their material’s link to the logical and realistic, the Kuchar’s clearly dance to their own deranged drummer.
Of course, those most heavily influenced by them offer their own unique perspective as part of the celebration. Perhaps more telling than anyone else, Canadian auteur Guy Maddin makes it very clear that the Kuchar’s represent the root of everything he is struggling to say, while certified student John Waters acknowledges that his entire career has been in service to imitating the boys. Friends like Buck Henry provide a more personal reveal. While joking incessantly, he makes it known that the brothers truly live their art. While not necessarily locked in their own lunatic fringe existence, the view we get of George’s apartment in particular highlights a universe unto its own. Kroot even gets the owner to open up and talk a little about his paintings and passions. It’s about as close to getting to know a Kuchar as we might ever get (the DVD has an equally eye-opening commentary from the duo that offers a lot of inferential truths).
For those lucky enough to have witness the wonders of something Fleshapoids (or who’ve been exposed to the more “mature” delights of the psycho-porno Thundercrack!), this superb documentary will be the filmmaking footnote you’ve always longed for. It’s a primer on how two unusual artists found a means of making their otherwise idiosyncratic views viable in a medium already in the process of redefining itself. As part of the post-modern movement, they were the proto-rebels, the visionaries who mined the past in order to figure out the future. They were also quirky and undeniably kitsch, their original isolation working with their affections to produce something wholly original and unique. George and Michael Kuchar might not be household names, but their influence has permeated every aspect of film. It may have originally “come” from their amiable madness, but it now belongs to cinema as a whole.