Saturday 13 February 2010

It Came from Kuchar (2009)

Director: Jennifer M Kroot
George and Mike Kuchar are names that won't mean much to most people, but I have a feeling that those who have heard of them generally become confirmed fans for life, ever searching for another of their many nigh on impossible to find movies. They're underground filmmakers, probably the closest thing to the definition of that term beyond Jack Smith, who after Flaming Creatures quickly reached the decision that the only way he could avoid his films being banned was to deliberately not finish them. The Kuchars are very good at finishing their work, churning out hundreds of movies since the early sixties, George still going strong today, but they aren't in it for the money, so much so that even if they were showered with it they wouldn't change what they do or how they do it. They're cinematic artists, some of the very few, and so of course they're hugely influential.

As John Waters points out early in this documentary, four decades of filmmakers have been influenced by the Kuchars to make movies, including him. He even suggests here that Roger Vadim stole things from Mike Kuchar's 1965 film Sins of the Fleshapoids for his major 1968 release, Barbarella. I recently watched the debut episode of Jonathan Ross's The Incredibly Strange Film Show, a TV documentary series from the late eighties about precisely what you think given that title, in which Waters was the first focal point. He explained that he travelled regularly from Baltimore to New York in the early sixties to see the underground movies being shown there and written up by critic Jonas Mekas in The Village Voice. He specifically names the Kuchars as the biggest influence on him as a filmmaker and in particular on his first short, Hag in a Black Leather Jacket.

He isn't the only one, other modern filmmakers like Christopher Coppola, Atom Egoyan and Guy Maddin joining in here to speak to his influence. Jennifer Kroot, who directed this documentary, was one of George's students at the San Francisco Art Institute in the nineties, where he has taught film since 1971, collaborating on a few films every year with his students. She was in Rancho Roulette and we see clips here of the making of The Fury of Frau Frankenstein, as well as footage from its debut on screen and the departure of some of his students for pastures new. Kroot's other full length release, a fairy tale called Sirens of the 23rd Century, sounds very reminiscent of Kuchar material, even down the title, and may even have sprung from something triggered during his classes. Certainly George's infectious energy is evident in her documentary.

George Kuchar is an engaging character, one of the most fascinating cinematic figures I've ever been privileged to meet. When Atom Egoyan talks here about his enthusiasm he really isn't kidding. It pours off him in waves and is obviously palpable in his films, which are patently full of life and energy. His screen is always very busy, full of infectious detail and never afraid to add more. Even the way he talks is engaging and rather unique, linking together short snappy statements comprised of generally short words, in equal parts deliciously dry humour, childlike joy and some sort of attention deficit disorder.

It really feels like he has a number of what the medical establishment would call disorders, but refuses to see them as such and treats them instead as gifts. I really relate to this as I'm sure that if ever wanted to find out, I'd be diagnosed with ADHD and mild OCD along with who knows what else, but like George I'm happy that I have these things because they enable me. Whatever George has obviously enables him too, because he just can't quit making films and he never fails to find something interesting to throw into them. Born in the Wind, made in 1961 and released in 1964, is a great example. It's a sci-fi horror movie with animation, romance and special effects, all done in 8mm and edited in the camera. I'm sure there's plenty of social commentary in there too. He's even made a series of films about the weather, his Weather Diaries, in which the weather is the central character.

If there's anything better than listening to George Kuchar talk, it's listening to him talk in this film relating stories alongside his twin brother Mike. The key is that they're in different places at different times but they tell the same stories in the same way and Jennifer Kroot intercuts them at lightning speed to create an imaginary dialogue. It doesn't even matter what the stories are, to the degree that one is about a parakeet called Lulu that they had as kids and exercised on their record turntable, varying the speed as appropriate. I have no idea how much of this story is fact, how much is memory, how much is pure invention and really it doesn't matter. What matters is that engaging speech and its magnificent brevity and the sheer imagination that is conjured up. Most of all it's about the different perspectives that these twins had and what they continually brought to the world of film.

Unlike what other underground filmmakers of the early sixties were doing, they were really experimenting in order to learn. Andy Warhol was either about making artistic statements or about perverting what art was all about, depending on your viewpoint, but the Kuchars were making real films. Their experimentations were with how to switch angles and vary zooms and introduce music. Through their early underground films, they were teaching themselves how the language of film worked, all those component parts which look so memorable in the clips we see here, the editing and lighting, the music, even the movement into and within the frame. They were certainly innovative, even filming a tornado in a fish tank for one movie.

While Jack Smith's focal point seems to have been the exotic actress Maria Montez, as was fascinatingly exposed during a documentary on him, Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis, the Kuchars seem to have initially focused on the big screen soaps of the fifties, like the melodramas that director Douglas Sirk made for producer Ross Hunter. They'd go to the cinema to see films like Magnificent Obsession and All that Heaven Allows every night and learn from them. The word 'temples' is used here, suggesting a religious connotation too. And then they'd make their own movies, often grotesque parodies where they'd spoof people like glamorous Liz Taylor, turning her most glamorous scenes into something you might expect John Waters to make, with even more over the top voices and amazing eyebrows.

There are so many things in Kuchar films that seem utterly reminiscent of Waters, but of course they're who he got the ideas from. One thing that the Kuchars continually did that Waters has defined to the modern audience is to play with brutal honesty, putting into their films things that cinema traditionally saw as taboo. For instance, they noticed that in mainstream Hollywood characters rarely went to the bathroom and if they did you never saw a toilet, so George used toilets and bathrooms in his films all the time. Sometimes he even put turds in them or vomit or blood. Like Waters, they'd also populate their films with people they knew, not just friends but even their friends' middle aged mothers, giving them the underground star treatment. How Hollywood made actors into stars is something that obviously fascinated the Kuchars and fascinates George still.

The biggest problem with the Kuchars is the unfortunate paradox of the underground. After seeing It Came from Kuchar, I want to see everything they made, films like Pussy on a Hot Tin Roof, Hold Me While I'm Naked, Eclipse of the Sun Virgin, Sins of the Fleshapoids, The Mongreloid, Mecca of the Frigid, The Devil's Cleavage. How can anyone resist these titles? I want to write reviews of these films and tell you where you can see them yourself. I want to evangelise them to the world. The catch is that even if that were remotely possible it would change what they mean because they it would take them out of the underground and there's a power to the underground that relies on it staying underground.

Some of their films are available online, preserved at ubuweb or uploaded to peer to peer networks, but not many. Some have been given the compilation treatment, but even fewer. Some are apparently available at the Video Data Bank for expensive rental. Mostly the only way you're going to see them is how I did, at an event, in this instance one put together by another of George's former students, Steve Weiss of No Festival Required, who brought George out to introduce some of his more recent short films and talk about his career. You owe it to yourselves to check such an event out if one ever happens near you. In the meantime, the film's website is here:

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