It Came From Kuchar (2009) dir. Jennifer M. Kroot
Starring: George Kuchar, Mike Kuchar, John Waters, Bill Griffith, Buck Henry, B. Ruby Rich, Wayne Wang, Guy Maddin, Christopher Coppola and Atom Egoyan.
By Greg Klymkiw
Over the years, whenever I have asked young filmmakers whose work they adore, and more importantly, what work they find especially cool, I always get the same pathetic responses: Christopher ("One Idea") Nolan, Wes ("Geek Chic") Anderson, Quentin ("I finally made a genuinely Great movie") Tarantino, Noah ("My generation is so downtrodden") Baumbaugh and, God Help Us, George ("I used to make cool movies before Star Wars") Lucas.
On rare occasions, I breathe a sigh of relief when someone mentions David Lynch.
However, when I mention the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky, John Waters, The Brothers Quay, Jan Svankmajer, Ulrich Seidl or Doris Wishman, their faces become as blank as a white sheet of paper. More disturbing to me, though, is that when I mention the Kuchar Brothers (George and Mike), their faces seem to dissipate into some sort of optical effect of nothingness that reminds me of Claude Rains transforming into "The Invisible Man".
This was and is truly depressing.
The answer is simple: The Kuchar Brothers are as important to cinema as any genius iconoclasts like Dovzhenko, Eisenstein, Welles, Corman, Altman, Bergman and among others, yes, even Quentin Tarantino (post "Pulp Fiction").
And guess what? The Kuchars aren't only important, they're cool.
And Thank Christ Almighty, someone has finally enshrined these cool cats in a feature length tribute worthy of their status.
"It Came From Kuchar" is a finely honed and entertaining documentary that also carries with it a considerable degree of import to burgeoning filmmakers as well as cineastes. Some documentaries are important for content, some for form, and yet others for both. The fact that this documentary focuses so winningly upon their work, their influence and their personal lives is enough to make it a must-see motion picture.
I'd even argue that cinephiles aren't the only people who might derive considerable pleasure from this picture - by so clearly introducing the movies and the men behind the movies, there's a considerable chance (if they get an opportunity to see the doc) that even some relatively "normal" audiences may want to see the Kuchar pictures.
Such is the filmmaking dexterity of the doc's director Jennifer M. Kroot. Granted, she is one of the converted - she was, after all George Kuchar's student at the San Francisco Art institute where he became her mentor, but she goes out of her way to paint both a loving portrait and a movie with a strong narrative arc that draws audiences magnetically to its subjects.
The first portion of the movie simply, seamlessly and amusingly places the Kuchars within the context of 20th century cinema. First and foremost, we get a sense of their place as filmmakers with a series of introductory interviews with the likes of Buck Henry, Atom Egoyan, John Waters and Guy Maddin - interviews that are laudatory, to say the least. We get a nice taste of the whole underground cinema scene of the 60s and most importantly, we get a strong sense of what influenced the Kuchars.
Mike Kuchar talks about how they adored going to the movies in the 50s and he describes movie theatres as "temples" which, of course, they were. This was long before the age of the multiplex - where one could be sitting in a packed-to-the-rafters picture palace (many of which boasted thousands of seats). The movies the Kuchars adored were garishly colour-dappled melodramas by the likes of Douglas Sirk or such overblown Hollywood star turns like "Butterfield 8" with Liz Taylor.
Kroot also wisely focuses on introducing us to the underground cinema scene of the early 60s where in contrast to the picture palaces, young hipsters went to tiny hole-in-the-wall joints like The Bridge in New York City to groove on ultra low budget experimental works. Many of the projects were super cerebral and contrasted the narrative qualities and huge entertainment value inherent in the works of the Kuchar Brothers.
I especially love the simple, direct way doc director Kroot juxtaposes the films of the Kuchar Brothers with the blockbuster soap operatic features they loved. Seeing samples of such works as "The Craven Sluck" or "The Devil's Cleavage" up against their loftier influences such as "Imitation of Life" and "Butterfield 8" respectively displays how much they loved movies. This for me, is one of the things I personally always loved about the Kuchars - their almost slavish devotion to motion pictures, yet placed within the context of worship.
The Kuchars were funny, but their renderings of the likes of Liz Taylor did not, for me, fall into the often despicable form of spoof or even parody - the pictures they made had a satiric edge wherein they overplayed the conventions of melodramatic mainstream cinema, yet did so not to mock the cinema itself, but to expose innumerable truths found in everyday human behaviour and relationships.
What is so astounding about the work of the Kuchar Brothers is that for all the lurid details, the shock value, the intensely overblown melodrama, the cult-ish qualities, these movies are so uniquely personal that they are often extremely moving. One alternates between laughing and crying - and sometimes, both laughter and tears mingle with a force that one seldom sees in the cinema.
One of the few relatively contemporary films that manages to do this is David Lynch's "Eraserhead" which, in spite (or because) of the nightmare qualities brings us smack into the narrative wall that is inescapable - that this is ultimately the harrowing portrait of a single parent struggling with a sick child.
The Kuchars, however, manage to do this magical blend of the grotesque and heartbreakingly emotional truths again and again and again.
These guys are true Masters.
These guys are the real thing!
And certainly, one the things I love about this documentary is seeing and hearing how the Kuchar Brothers' love of melodrama created their own unique work, which in turn, inspired the next generation of filmmakers. When I hear Guy Maddin waxing eloquently about George's use of makeup - especially on women - wherein their eyebrows are ludicrously inflated to look like "chocolate bars", I can only smile and recall Guy's own unflagging boldness in applying raccoon-eye styled makeup on all his female characters. Guy also cites the "aggressively stylized voices" of the actors, I can only think of the same voice style employed by John Waters and even Guy himself, though in his repressed, muted fashion.
The Kuchar Brothers were born in New York City at Bellevue Hospital, which as George notes in the doc, is known as the hospital where 50s/60s heart-throb Tab Hunter was also born, and most notably as a hospital devoted to treating the insane. A few years later, the Kuchar family moved to the Bronx - a neighbourhood of blasted-out empty buildings and endless vacant lots. This is where George and Mike (twins, though neither knows if they are identical or fraternal) really discovered themselves. They loved the Bronx and using their bountiful imaginations, they turned this seemingly grotesque world of the abandoned into a veritable paradise - Disneyland for the sons of working class Eastern Europeans.
Their Dad was a handsome, rough and tough truck driver of Hungarian descent and Mom was a gentle, supportive book binder of Ukrainian descent. Dad had an eye for the ladies, or as George says in the doc, he was "very carnal". This resulted in continual friction, but the boys dismiss it as typical family squabbling. I especially was fond of George's recollections of how his own Dad eventually came around to partially accepting their love of filmmaking when the boys started putting lots of nudity in the work. Dad, as it turns out, was an avid collector of "Red Reels" (8mm porno films for home consumption) and he avidly encouraged the boys. Gotta love it when fathers and sons find common ground. That said, George drew a line at refusing his Dad's request for some private porn requests.
Very few stones are left unturned in Kroot's documentary. We get generous footage and background on George's work as a film professor and mentor at the San Francisco Art Institute, a tremendously moving section on George's creative and romantic relationship with the late filmmaker Curt McDowell, some wonderful early recollections on George and Mike's career as graphic artists on Madison Avenue (yikes!) as well as George's friendship with Art Spiegelman and Bill Griffiths that led to his work as a cartoonist in Arcade and Bill Griffiths's astounding revelation that Zippy the Pinhead was partially inspired by George. Mike's illustrations of gay porno comic books, George's incredible Weather Diaries, the brothers' devotion to caring for their aging (now deceased) Mother and even the differences in approach to storytelling when the brothers work apart are all on the table.
It's all fascinating material.
And while the wealth of information in this movie is staggering, it NEVER feels like everything but the kitchen sink. Each piece of information, each recollection, each clip, each interview, each piece of the puzzle that is the Kuchar Brothers is meticulously placed and honed to move the story forward in an entertaining and informative fashion.
Most importantly, we are blessed with George Kuchar's secret to providing the exquisite turds on display in so many of his movies.
My life is now complete.
"It Came From Kuchar" begins a limited run in Toronto at the fabulous rep cinema The Bloor and can also be seen in festival and other special screenings all over the world.