[23 December 2005]
Aficionados of the “nudie-cutie” movies of the 1960s—you know who you are—will note a familiar feel to the trio of short films assembled for the new Other Video DVD, Sins of the Fleshapoids. It’s a tough mood to describe, but fans of, say, Doris Wishman, or the Ed Wood of Glen or Glenda, will recognize it readily.
Like Wood and Wishman, director Mike Kuchar is known as an early practitioner of “camp,” that ill-defined cinematic confluence of artistic sensibility, humor, sexuality, and modest budget. (At times Kuchar and his compatriots worked and consorted with fellow campers John Waters and Andy Warhol.) And as with Wishman and Wood, in Kuchar’s films the modest budget is likely the thing you’ll notice first. In the 1960s, 16mm camera equipment was just becoming affordable to independent filmmakers, but sound synchronization was still an intractable problem for anyone without the resources of a major studio. As a result, many ultra-low budget movies of the time featured certain signatures, such as clumsily lip-synched post-production dialogue that gives them the sense of having been translated from another language, or an over-reliance on a needle-drop musical score, often so broadly rendered as to leave the end product with the exaggerated quality of cartoon.
Although the three short movies on the Sins of the Fleshapoids DVD have this uniquely ‘60s zero-budget feel to them, their ambitions outpace those of your typical grindhouse quickie. In fact, they make a virtue of hardship by taking up grindhouse as a subject. All three, in one way or another, deal in self-conscious fashion with the theme of desire, and more pointedly, with making the object of desire something other than human, this being the stock in trade of grindhouse and pornography more generally.
Take the eponymous 1965 two-reeler, in which the “fleshapoids” are revealed to be the descendants of robots designed to minister to the needs of layabout humans a million years in the future. “Sins of the Fleshapoids” adopts a durable science fiction premise—a nuclear war that does away with organized society—but it’s also a kind of pornotopia. Its shiftless homo sapiens, having determined that science leads inevitably to war, abandon the pursuit of knowledge and instead hang around in Greek garb indulging in pleasures of the flesh. (The movie typically indicates this by having them eat lots of grapes, but when narrator Bob Cowan informs us that “the humans do nothing to pump the mind with knowledge” but instead “pump their mouths with nature’s fruit” and “indulge in the fulfillment of the senses,” it’s pretty clear what he’s really talking about.)
At length the story gets tricky to follow—as the liner notes explain, Kuchar and his fellow auteurs were making it up as they went along—but suffice it to say the fleshapoids eventually develop emotions and self-awareness and turn on their human masters. The “sins” of the title refer mainly to the crimes of our fleshapoid protagonists, homely Zarn (Cowan) and comely Melenka (Maren Thomas), who fall in android love and conspire to kill their masters so they can be together. In its many fine moments “Fleshapoids” calls to mind the funhouse surrealism of German silent-era expressionist cinema, but throughout its investment is plainly in “lower” genres (grindhouse and B-movie science fiction) and its overarching concern is with the irreducible virtue of sentience. Much of “Fleshapoids” is either played for laughs or accidentally funny, but there’s an inarguable value to Zarn and Melenka’s struggle for redemption, something that in a perfect world would be the birthright of any creature endowed with consciousness.
The second entry, “The Secret Life of Wendell Samson” (also 1965), is easily the most elegant. Book-ended by highly stylized, almost balletic sequences—set, improbably, in an abandoned lot surrounded by coarse apartment buildings—“Samson” is about a gay man (erstwhile pop star Red Grooms) trapped in a heterosexual relationship. In the broad middle of the film, Wendell alternates between guilt over his inability to tell the truth to his girlfriend Margret (Mimi Gross) and paranoia as he fears the opprobrium of straight society. As with “Sins,” the improvisational style of “Samson” makes it inscrutable at times but it’s truly lovely when it departs from its ad-libbed narrative in favor of the strictly visual. Its closing shot—Wendell, newly single, walks alone down a carless Manhattan street in a bath of lens flares from the morning sun—is among the finest you’ll see in movies.
In the final film, “The Craven Sluck” (1967), protagonist Floraine Connors (as herself) is trapped in a loveless marriage and assuages her misery with fantasies of movie stardom. (In a bit of clever ontological play, “Sluck” is also book-ended—this time with a faux preview for itself, featuring Floraine as the star of a movie in which she dreams of stardom.) One day she happens on a handsome stranger (Mike Kushar’s brother George), who is also trapped in a bad relationship with wife Florence (played due to casting difficulties by Bob Cowan in fetching polka-dotted drag). After a brief romantic dogwalk through the park, the new couple promises to meet again, but when the stranger calls off their second date, Floraine has a psychotic lapse and is swallowed up by marauding aliens from outer space. (Need I reiterate that Kuchar was making it up as he went along?)
Each short film comes with an optional commentary track in which Kuchar shares chestnuts about the circumstances of its making—he bought most of his costumes at a nearby thrift shop for the “Fleshapoids” shoot, for instance, and Maren Thomas was at the time in the midst of a nervous breakdown—and reiterates that each had no script. In terms of these movies’ frequently incoherent narratives, this improvisational spirit is often evident. But in terms of their visual and thematic impact, they feel planned and deliberate. Commenting on “Fleshapoids,” Kuchar accounts for his rejection of prewritten scripts by saying that he wants his movies to come from the subconscious rather than the conscious—and though the text in the result is often muddled, the subtext is deep and rich.