Beyond the planet of the Kuchars
'It Came from Kuchar' profiles twin underground filmmakers
by David Lamble
"Not everyone digs underground movies, but those who do can dig them here." This backhanded compliment could easily serve as an epitaph to a pair of Bronx-born twin brothers, but as you'll quickly discover watching It Came from Kuchar, Jennifer M. Kroot's incisive, humane and at times hilarious portrait of George and Mike Kuchar, these guys are still very much alive and kicking, and making almost indescribably crazy movies. With witty and wise guest-star appearances from Kuchar fans John Waters, Atom Egoyan, Buck Henry and B. Ruby Rich, It Came from Kuchar is virtually a 90-minute seminar on American filmmakers who defy easy labels. Kroot demonstrates how early Kuchar epics like Sins of the Fleshapoids were inspired by Douglas Sirk melodramas, while in turn prompting commercial imitators such as Roger Vadim's Barbarella.
The more outgoing twin, George has a rapier wit and sense of the ridiculous that puts the late-night TV white guys to shame. He gradually abducts the movie with his 1960s masterwork Hold Me While I'm Naked, his horny guerrilla-porn comedy Thundercrack (made with his late buddy Curt McDowell), his yearly vacations to Oklahoma's tornado alley, and his hands-on, irrepressibly funny film classes. Waters notes that Kuchar is perhaps the only film instructor who can teach his goofy but brilliantly intuitive methods on the run.
Brother Mike, whose personality underwent a sea change during an inadvertent hashish trip while visiting Nepal, gives a revealing insight into the brothers' odd ability to get their rocks off with their cameras. Alluding to a movie he shot with a pretty blonde hunk scrubbing a floor, with beads of water erotically glistening off his skin: "It's a way of making love to somebody you can't have, you can make love to them with the camera." Mike explains why he and George refused to get naked in a bathtub for fellow queer film buddy James Broughton: "That would be incest."
My phone chat with George Kuchar began with his odd-fellow friendship with Hollywood screenwriter Buck Henry, continued through his audacious collaboration with the late Curt McDowell, the secret behind the indecent fun he seems to be having with his San Francisco Art Institute film classes, and the weird symbiosis between Hollywood and underground films. A half-century later, George's Bronx accent is still intact, and adds a lovely flavor to his views.
David Lamble: When did you meet Buck Henry? I love where you two go off on a kind of camping trip.
George Kuchar: Me and Curt [McDowell] made Thundercrack – we went down to the Los Angeles Film Festival [FILMEX], and Buck Henry happened to a juror on that festival. The other jurors, when they saw Thundercrack in the pre-screening, they wanted to throw it out. Buck said, "No, if you throw that picture out, I'm leaving, I won't be a juror." So he was responsible for getting that picture in there. I didn't see him much until he came to show the picture he wrote, The Graduate, at PFA [Pacific Film Archive], and he asked me to dinner, and we became closer.
Where did you develop the technique of being able to teach what you do so well?
At first it used to be talking and having them talk, but I never liked that much because people always took sides about what they thought films meant, and students never got to know each other. Then Larry Jordan came up with the idea, "Let's turn this into a film factory. Have one class shoot pictures, give it to another one, and they'll edit the stuff." Then when we shot the footage and it was time to edit it, my students didn't want to give it to another class because they thought they'd botch it up. So I edited the picture.
Some of your students have gone on to great things, right?
Yeah, Christopher Coppola made horror films, lately he's made film for the Web. Courtney Love took the class one time. She was young and she wasn't there all the time, but she was rather nice, like a big rag doll.
You have a rather unique take on horror, comedy and sexuality. How do you think that comes about?
To Curt, sex was like a celebration. To me, it was something sinister, something you couldn't really control, and you had weird obsessions: "Where the hell did I get this?" He created the characters and who they were supposed to be interested in, but I added in all the conflicts, as they were working out their sex things.
Of all the gay male filmmakers, McDowell really stood out in his ability to be explicit and honest and very genuine. His early death was a great loss to queer filmmaking.
Well, he believed in giving the audience what they wanted, so the audiences were mixed – there were men and women there. He felt perfectly comfortable in giving the women what they might be interested in, and men who wanted to see men and women having sex, and men who just wanted men and men. Because he came from Indiana, all of his movies would have this homespun thing, but there would be this weird twist to it, a detour.
It Came From Kuchar recalls that brief moment when the mainstream media were looking to the underground scene to determine where the baby boom generation was heading. Roger Vadim's Barbarella really ripped off your films' sensibility, and didn't do it as well.
They used to play underground movies to ad agencies, and they got new ideas for cutting. In a way that was good, but it also had its downside. I remember when they asked a cab driver if he liked underground movies, and he snarled, "Aw, they're just like commercials." So they blurred the line completely.
Douglas Sirk was an important influence.
It was like grownups making movies, it was that fine acting and it had color coordination, and the music in all the scenes worked, production values, it seemed like people totally in control of this movie. I was fascinated by the Roger Corman pictures where the lack of time and money was the essence: they just had to make this damn movie and get it in the can, and it had to weigh a certain amount. That fascinated me because you didn't feel this hideous burden like you had to make like a Battleship Potemkin .
What would you have done with one of Sirk's leading men, Rock Hudson?
Probably a beach picture – he looked good in a bathing suit – once and a while you see him shirtless. I mean, you play the sex appeal. He's not a bad actor, you know, but the time I was looking at movies, he was never considered an actor of merit.
Opens Friday at the Roxie Theater in SF.