This one post covers a two night program of films made by twin brothers, Mike and George Kuchar. At the age of twelve they began making home movies with 8mm cameras. By their late teens and early twenties the Brothers Kuchar had nearly perfected a personal style a multitude of homespun, genre-bending films. Growing up in the Bronx, but pining for Hollywood George and Mike combined melodrama with horror, homemade special effects with a wild cast of eclectic friends, and they laced every film with keen sense of campy humor. Strung along by riotously funny inter-titles and mix tape soundtracks each film looks as if it were as fun to make as it is to watch – each film is a spontaneous party, lovingly photographed and projected.
Program One – Monday, April 18th
The Thief and the Stripper
An artist tempted by a stripper, a thief who steals women’s hearts, a dead wife a nosy neighbor watches, and phantom spirits all create a tapestry of sins that culminates in a deadly moral. This film has it all – the super natural, the super sleazy, the super funny – it’s just plain super. It feels like just like the sort of film John Waters would make and with this film its no surprise that Waters is heavily influenced by the Kuchar Brothers.
Born of the Wind
An over the top horror story so hammy that it could be called Spammy. A lovesick doctor uses human blood to revive the remains of a mummified Egyptian princess. Of course, once a live she’s got eyes for other and an undying thirst for more blood. Douglas Sirk meets James Whale and The Kuchar Brothers really show off their special effects skills with storybook like animations of the mad doctor’s castle, lightning bolts, and swarms of bats. Of course, the interiors look all too much like someone’s apartment, but that’s half the charm.
A Town Called Tempest
Tempest, Kansas is a town full of hypocrites, thus making it the perfect target for a vengeful act of God. Laughed at by his own parents, one young teenager dedicates himself to building a top-notch storm cellar. When the tempest finally comes the teen gets his revenge by locking his parents out and saving himself. After the storm passes he resurfaces to find that he is not the only one spared. A Catholic crank junkie and the Born-again town whore have both evaded God’s fury leaving the teenager to wonder if there is a god at all.
Mike Kuchar stars as an abusive, cheating husband who only agrees to marry his overweight girlfriend after she promises to drop a few pounds. They get married and have a kid. He remains a louse. She gets fatter. The family situation spirals into anarchy and comic violence.
Program Two – Tuesday, April 19th
A Woman Distressed
For no real reason a pregnant woman is confined to an insane asylum. Her roommates are a disturbing sleazebag and a sock-monkey sucking idiot. The staff is no saner. She screams for help. She tries to break free. Finally, a doctor lets her go home to give birth to a midget, with a title card telling us that the small child grows up wanting to grow up.
Night of the Bomb
Teens party their lives away not knowing that at any instance an atomic bomb might forever alter their destinies. The Kuchar’s avoid all suspense, never showing the bomb. Minutes of wild partying are suddenly interrupted by a flash of light, very corny effects, and the chaos that comes after a nuclear blast. But even after the bomb drops there is still hope for true romance.
The Confessions of Babette
She’s done it all. She’s seen it all. This fifteen minute short is a hilarious romp through one woman’s depravity, but it’s so caring that it’s more sweet than sick. Mike Kuchar has his tongue so deeply buried in his cheek that is leaves the whole film feeling cheeky. A bit one-note, but well sustained.
Anita Needs Me
As one man learns of another man’s troubled relationship he understands how to handle his own troubles at home. The only film to have any dialog, this tale of tragedy and the scars it leaves on the human psyche is wonderfully told through a voice-over monologue that dives into the deepest shades purple prose.
I Was A Teenage Rumpot
The most promising title leads to one of the most disappoint films. It still provides ample amounts of overacting, wild antics, and loads of melodrama, but not the masterpiece that title might suggest. If anything this film expresses the Kuchar’s ability to make anyone a star.
A killer, one real ugly one, is loose and racking up victims at an expensive resort. Every room is labeled with a handwritten sign tacked to the door and the local cops pay a woman five whole dollars to use her “goods” to attract the mad slasher. Things were cheaper back in 1958, but this is still a low-budget gem in the over saturated horror/comedy genre.
1) These Films are Dangerous: As I watched the campy work of the Kuchar Brothers I looked around the theatre at the younger audience members and worried what these films might be doing to their impressionable minds. I had no fear of them delving into a life of depravity or homicide. The wild world of George and Mike Kuchar is pretty tame by today’s standards. Most youngsters have seen enough killing on television and enough depravity as well, but what they haven’t seen is good use of camp humor. I fear that they will only see the low-production value of each film and consider making their own films. The Kuchar’s are great filmmakers even if their acting, set design, and costuming is all less than professional. In spirit, the Kuchar’s are mimicking Hollywood and lovingly trying to great the excitement and entertainment that Hollywood has always tried to provide. Most of the films during this two night program were over fifteen minutes long which is short by Hollywood standards, but can feel like an eternity when done poorly. Few if any of the Kuchar 8mm films drag. I can’t say the same thing about so many low-quality student shorts.
2) Through Being Cool: Once being an outsider meant something. Today the outsiders are the new insiders. The work of Todd Solondz, Wes Anderson, and the success of Napoleon Dynamite has proven that being uncool is now cool. When George and Mike Kuchar were making films there was probably a sense of coolness that was shared amongst their outsider friends, but it did not stretch far past that small circle of fellow outsiders. Today, homosexuals, cross-dressers, and strippers are not restrained to the darker recesses of society. While not wholly accepted or given equal respect by all aspects of society, each of these sects of the outsider cultural landscape has found a sense of glamorous respectability. Watching the Kuchar films is like watching elements from a time capsule when these groups were still considered to be the fringes of society. One can still get this feeling with early John Waters films and the work of Warhol/Morrissey, but today’s attempts to great cinematic outsides into heroes only seems to lead to new fashion trends. Perhaps we have our newly opened minds to thank for this or perhaps we have our embrace of irony to blame for this. The heir to the Kuchar’s is not these hipster-dorks that peddle their too-cool to be cool characters. No, the real heir to the Kuchar’s appears to be Harmony Korine. Between Gummo and Julien Donkey Boy and Harmony’s use of mentally handicapped actors and other real-life non-stars he has tapped into a spirit that seems directly related to the homemade films of George and Mike Kuchar.
3) The Beauty around the Ugly: By no stretch of the imagination could you call the people in George and Mike’s films photogenic or cinematic, at least not by the standards of Hollywood. They aren’t even Hollywood ugly. Though, most of the actors in all their work have a distinct look that leaves a lasting impression, but more than the actors I walked away from each of these films remembering individual shots that were so cinematic you’d swear they stole it from a big time production. A setting sun through winter trees, two bodies in silhouette, a lush orange carpeted room, articles on a sun soaked table – these were the flashes of beauty that bookend the action. Seeing these wonderful 8mm films blown up to 16mm enlarged the grainy, saturated beauty of these small, wonderful images.
4) You’ve Got To Do It First: If Avant-Garde literally mean “the advanced guard”, a military team meaning the first soldiers to the fight, then The Kuchar’s are avant-garde because they were the first to make 8mm home movies that mimicked Hollywood while laughing at their own limitations. Today, to make a film like this is to just ape what someone else has done. Being campy just to be campy is no good. You have to love the films you make. You can’t just try to be a bad filmmaker. I never once felt the Kuchar’s were trying to make bad films. If anything they were reveling in their limitations and doing their best to push them. If they couldn’t make someone’s apartment look like an insane asylum or a cast they let the actors fill the space with larger than life performances and they never tried to fool the audience. They too knew their limits and rather than stretch them they just find innovate ways to keep the audience interested, like constantly changing the direction of their stories and being razor sharp with their humor. The Kuchar’s of fans of film. They never tried to make a bad film. That would be traitorous. They are great filmmakers because they were the first to make bad movies that are smart – thus they made great films.