It Came from Kuchar

Long ago, in a class on modern art, a professor once explained to me the value of art deemed avant-garde, underground, or even offensive. One point stuck out and has stayed with me over the years: Art that pushes the edges of accepted aesthetics, tastes, and standards—and, sometimes breaks free of them—keeps that mode of art from becoming too safe, narrow, and confined.  The theory is that if a few artists push the boundaries far beyond the norms and conventions, then those artists that prefer the middle of the road work within a broader range, preventing the art form from becoming stale, repetitive, and hollow. Not only should there be artists who push the edges, but there should be outlets for the public to see, hear, or experience that art, even if they are appalled, bored, or offended by it. It expands culture by broadening the tastes and tolerance of the mainstream public.

This theory can be applied to the popular arts, despite their dependency on formula, pattern, and traditions.  In past eras of film history, experimental or avant-garde film had a higher profile and more funding was available for its makers.  In our current  era, funding and venues for avant-garde, experimental, or truly independent film have dried up with the economy, while conservative or oblivious audiences fear edgy filmmaking or have no interest in seeing it. The lack of experimentation in form and content in the current independent scene indirectly affects mainstream Hollywood films, which have become extremely narrow in range and confined to a few genres, a few stars, a few tones.  The result is the continual narrowing down of the tastes and movie-going experiences of the young audiences that are targeted with these films.

MICHAEL AND GEORGE KUCHAR TODAY

This week at Facets, where I work as a writer and researcher, our cinematheque is showing It Came from Kuchar, a documentary by Jennifer Kroot about George and Michael Kuchar, who are legends in the history of underground cinema.  The Kuchars reminded me of my former professor’s theory regarding art on the fringes, and Kroot’s documentary about them is a tribute to all filmmakers who thrive along the margins of an art form. During the late 1950s and 1960s, the Kuchars produced extremely low-budget, 8mm films such as Night of the Bomb, Hold Me While I Am Naked, and I Was a Teenage Rumpot, which emulated the conventions of Hollywood movies while spinning those conventions in a different direction. The brothers’ low-budget aesthetics, humor, and campy sensibilities attracted the era’s burgeoning underground film movement, who embraced them.  Learning about the Kuchars and their films offers a window into the underground/experimental scene at a peak time in its history. A film like I Was a Teenage Rumpot (my favorite Kuchar title) also expands our understanding of the familiar forms and traditions of Hollywood movies because they are used in another context. Plus, the movies of the Kuchar Brothers are just plain funny.

The twin sons of a truck driver and housewife, the Kuchars grew up in a working class neighborhood in the Bronx. They escaped the doldrums of elementary school and their unimaginative schoolmates through frequent trips to the movies, often seeing the same film over and over. George recalls watching Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind about a dozen times. When they were 11 years old, an aunt gave them her closet full of 8mm vacation movies, which they edited and re-edited into goofy narratives. The following year, they were given an 8mm DeJur movie camera, which they used over the next several years to make their oddball concoctions of Hollywood references and personal obsessions.  After high school, both George and Michael enrolled in the Manhattan School of Art and Design to learn about commercial art.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NjRVtnP4FTw]

At first, their films were improvised riffs on the tone and conventions of melodrama, such as Screwball in 1957 and The Thief and the Stripper in 1959. In the former, the Kuchars intended to shoot one continuous love scene, but the result was an exercise in monotony, so the brothers switched gears during production and had the protagonist go mad and strangle his leading lady. The latter follows the story of an artist who murders his wife after falling madly in love with a stripper, who prefers the attention of a burglar. All die in the end after an improbable twist in the story finds the stripper to be the sister of the murdered wife.  In the low-budget, hyper-exaggerated style of the Kuchars, The Thief and the Stripper is funny, but the plot would be a matter of course in a commercial melodrama or soap opera.  Like their storylines, the titles of their films were  take-offs on actual commercial movie titles: I Was a Teenage Rumpot recalls I Was a Teenage Werewolf; Pussy on a Hot Tin Roof spoofs Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The Kuchars claim the melodramas of Douglas Sirk and Otto Preminger as influences as well as the films of Howard Hawks, Frank Tashlin, Roger Corman, and Jack Arnold.

FROM "I WAS A TEENAGE RUMPOT," LEAVING NO DOUBT AS TO WHAT THE MOVIE IS ABOUT.

Around 1963, an actor who had been in some of the Kuchars’ films suggested the brothers take one of their films to the informal screenings held by filmmaker Ken Jacobs in his Manhattan loft. Jacobs and other experimental filmmakers, gay artists, beatnik writers, and intellectuals were part of the underground movement emerging in New York City, and they regularly shared their work with each other. One evening Michael and George showed up at Jacobs’ loft with I Was a Teenage Rumpot, and the brothers were instantly accepted by the underground. Critic Jonas Mekas began writing about them regularly in the Village Voice and Film Culture, and the brothers rubbed elbows with filmmakers like Stan Brakhage, Andy Warhol, and Kenneth Anger. The Kuchars’s response to their new circle was to satirize the underground in one of their movies, Lovers of Eternity, which reveled in bohemian decadence and artistic angst.

As the decade progressed, the Kuchars upgraded to 8mm Kodachrome-2  film stock and then switched to 16mm for their version of film noir, a 1965 potboiler called Corruption of the Damned, which owed something to Stanley Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss. Around this time, the brothers went their separate ways as each developed different interests. Michael produced a color science-fiction film, which he financed through his job as a photo retoucher. Sins of the Fleshapoids thrives on color—an exaggerated, indulgent use of color in the costumes, jewelry, and set design.  Taking place a million years in the future, Fleshapoids is an apocalyptic story about a human population that has forsaken science for the pleasures of the flesh, art, and the bohemian life. Robots do all the work, but one rebel robot seeks what his masters have—a life of sex and sin. Fleshapoids became an underground hit that played in legitimate theaters, making it a recognizable title outside the underground scene.

FROM "SINS OF THE FLESHAPOIDS"

George Kuchar’s biggest hit was probably Hold Me While I’m Naked, a ten-minute, 16mm short released in 1966. Called his signature film, Hold Me not only parodied Hollywood styles and forms but also captured George’s personal traumas and frustrations at the time, making it a highly personal film not unlike other underground works of the period. George’s work continued to reflect his personal preferences, interests, and issues, such as melodrama conventions and a love of tornadoes and extreme weather conditions. Michael’s work became less personal and more formal.

In 1971, George met San Francisco filmmaker Lawrence Jordan at a film festival. Jordan was teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute and invited George to teach there as a visiting professor.  Before long, George was on staff permanently. The work of Jordan, who is interviewed in It Came From Kuchar, is quite different from that of the Kuchar twins.  Jordan is a filmmaker who specializes in delicate cut-out animation along the lines of Terry Gilliam’s work when he was with Monty Python. Their styles are so similar that I suspect Jordan was an influence on Gilliam. A couple of years ago, Facets released a retrospective of Jordan’s work on DVD titled The Lawrence Jordan Album, which I was fortunate enough to be involved with. Jordan’s masterpiece is a version of Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in which his imaginative cut-out animation is combined with prints by Gustave Dore to illustrate Coleridge’s  famous poem. Jordan asked Orson Welles to read the poem, and the actor’s deep voice makes for the perfect voice-over. If you are an animation aficionado, I highly recommend renting or buying Jordan’s collection of work. Personally, I prefer Jordan’s sincere, delicate animation over the Kuchars’ exploitation-style underground films, though I can understand the appeal of the brothers’ humor.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qJ7fjTB9xbw&feature=related]

Both Kuchar and Jordan still teach at the San Francisco Art Institute, where the director of It Came from Kuchar took classes from George. As a grand old man of underground cinema, Kuchar is at a time in his life when he is receiving  accolades and tributes for his contributions to cinema history, but he continues to make shorts  on mini-DV, a medium perfectly suited to his low-budget, fast-paced sensibilities. Michael continued to make films throughout the decades and now occasionally tours his work in Europe and the United States.

BUCK HENRY CHATS WITH GEORGE KUCHAR.

Straightforward and smoothly crafted, It Came from Kuchar offers a profile of the two brothers, clips from 46 films, and testimonials from the likes of Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter; Chloe), Buck Henry (Get Smart; To Die For; The Graduate), and Wayne Wang (Chan Is Missing; Last Holiday; Maid in Manhattan), who claim the Kuchars as influences. The latter is proof of the impact of the Kuchars—and the experimental mode—on mainstream narrative filmmakers.  Yet, no amount of exposure will make the Kuchar Brothers household names, which is okay by George who notes, “I’m always in the shadows. I work better that way. It’s freer.”

After playing at Facets this week, It Came From Kuchar will play other cinematheques and alternative venues around the country, including those in Portland, Oregon, Santa Fe, Boston, and Austin. If you are lucky enough to live near one of these venues, check it out.

18 Responses It Came from Kuchar
Posted By debbe : April 19, 2010 3:58 pm

wow. fascinating suzidoll. To be honest, Ihave never heard of them… and never knew anyone who studied with George at SFAI. But you can bet I will be on the look out for their films and for this documentary. thank you for introducing your readership to yet another important moment in film history.

Posted By debbe : April 19, 2010 3:58 pm

wow. fascinating suzidoll. To be honest, Ihave never heard of them… and never knew anyone who studied with George at SFAI. But you can bet I will be on the look out for their films and for this documentary. thank you for introducing your readership to yet another important moment in film history.

Posted By Jerry 42nd Street Memories : April 20, 2010 8:01 am

A year or so ago, Sins of the Fleshapoids and other Kuchar was available on youtube. May still be there.

Posted By Jerry 42nd Street Memories : April 20, 2010 8:01 am

A year or so ago, Sins of the Fleshapoids and other Kuchar was available on youtube. May still be there.

Posted By Phil : April 20, 2010 1:30 pm

I saw IT CAME FROM KUCHAR this weekend. It’s a must-see. The brothers are wonderfully kooky with some great stories on the hey-day of underground cinema. The clips of their films are wild, too, and valuable. Their classic SINS OF THE FLESHAPOIDS is on DVD and another Kuchar short is included in an avant-garde treasures collection, but most are unavailable for home viewing. IT CAME FROM KUCHAR provides a rare chance to actually see the brothers’ work. Sincerely, folks–see this film.

Posted By Phil : April 20, 2010 1:30 pm

I saw IT CAME FROM KUCHAR this weekend. It’s a must-see. The brothers are wonderfully kooky with some great stories on the hey-day of underground cinema. The clips of their films are wild, too, and valuable. Their classic SINS OF THE FLESHAPOIDS is on DVD and another Kuchar short is included in an avant-garde treasures collection, but most are unavailable for home viewing. IT CAME FROM KUCHAR provides a rare chance to actually see the brothers’ work. Sincerely, folks–see this film.

Posted By Lew : April 20, 2010 3:50 pm

I plan on seeing the film tomorrow. Very interested for sure.

Posted By Lew : April 20, 2010 3:50 pm

I plan on seeing the film tomorrow. Very interested for sure.

Posted By patrick : April 20, 2010 4:20 pm

Really interesting stuff….This film is must see viewing for fans of the oddball film or so I am wagering!

Posted By patrick : April 20, 2010 4:20 pm

Really interesting stuff….This film is must see viewing for fans of the oddball film or so I am wagering!

Posted By Michelle Z : April 20, 2010 10:46 pm

I saw this tonight, Suzi, and loved it! The filmmakers who talked about the Kuchar’s~ John Waters and Guy Maddin especially, were so obviously influenced by these two! This film made me want to come home and make movies!

Posted By Michelle Z : April 20, 2010 10:46 pm

I saw this tonight, Suzi, and loved it! The filmmakers who talked about the Kuchar’s~ John Waters and Guy Maddin especially, were so obviously influenced by these two! This film made me want to come home and make movies!

Posted By wilbur twinhorse : April 21, 2010 7:28 pm

Bruce Posner curated a 7 dvd set put out by Image Entertainment titled, “Unseen Cinema”, in 2005. It’s subtitled “Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941″, so an earlier look at the unmainstream than the Kuchars. Thanks for the intriguing post .

Posted By wilbur twinhorse : April 21, 2010 7:28 pm

Bruce Posner curated a 7 dvd set put out by Image Entertainment titled, “Unseen Cinema”, in 2005. It’s subtitled “Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941″, so an earlier look at the unmainstream than the Kuchars. Thanks for the intriguing post .

Posted By Lisa Wright : April 22, 2010 11:31 pm

I just finished reading a friend’s blog where I learned that Malcolm McLaren has died and so I was just thinking about avant garde art and fashion and music and your post just rounded it out for me! From my first viewing of Pink Flamingos, I was dumbfounded and thrilled that someone could succeed in making a movie that was so… crazy. People like the Kuchar brothers are the folks that influence the artists our society tends to revere yet they seem to get short shrift. I may or may not like their films, but I’m interested to learn about who they are now!!! Thanks!

Posted By Lisa Wright : April 22, 2010 11:31 pm

I just finished reading a friend’s blog where I learned that Malcolm McLaren has died and so I was just thinking about avant garde art and fashion and music and your post just rounded it out for me! From my first viewing of Pink Flamingos, I was dumbfounded and thrilled that someone could succeed in making a movie that was so… crazy. People like the Kuchar brothers are the folks that influence the artists our society tends to revere yet they seem to get short shrift. I may or may not like their films, but I’m interested to learn about who they are now!!! Thanks!

Posted By SHORESLADY : April 25, 2010 9:22 pm

Thanks for this and the understanding of the role of the avant garde, a message we “cannot choose but hear” which makes the link to “The Rime” especially sweet.

Just because I’m not in a hurry to see “I Was A Teenage Rumpot” doesn’t mean I’m not glad for those who are.

Posted By SHORESLADY : April 25, 2010 9:22 pm

Thanks for this and the understanding of the role of the avant garde, a message we “cannot choose but hear” which makes the link to “The Rime” especially sweet.

Just because I’m not in a hurry to see “I Was A Teenage Rumpot” doesn’t mean I’m not glad for those who are.

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