The Celluloid Cesspool / Brothers built an oeuvre on flesh, flatulence
In the 1960s, when independent films were still called "underground" and nascent filmmakers didn't fashion their work as Hollywood audition pieces, twin brothers George and Mike Kuchar were stars. They made 8mm and 16mm movies for peanuts, gave them titles like "I Was a Teenage Rumpot" and "The Naked and the Nude," and stocked them with lurid obsessions, taboo fantasies and raunchy thrills.
If cinematic excess had been grounds for arrest, they would have spent their youth behind bars. Today, 40 years after discovering their muse in the Bronx, where they grew up with a Ukrainian mother and truck driver father, the Kuchars are still making brilliantly insane pictures with absolutely no commercial potential -- these days on video.
In their new book, "Reflections on a Cinematic Cesspool" (182 pages, $19.95), written jointly and published by Zanja Press of Berkeley, the Kuchars, 55, look back on four decades of artistic insubordination, wax nostalgic for lost friends and saucy youth, and give a peek at the private lives that inspired such bizarre, deliriously original films.
JOHN WATERS' INSPIRATION
The brothers appear at 7 p.m. tomorrow at City Lights Bookstore to sign copies of "Reflections," which includes a large section by the prolific, overtly eccentric George; a much shorter portion by shy, saturnine Mike; a list of 260 films and videos made together and separately; and an introduction by filmmaker John Waters, who credits the Kuchars as his first inspiration.
Growing up in Baltimore in the mid-'60s, Waters writes, he saw George's "Hold Me While I'm Naked" and Mike's "Sins of the Fleshapoids" and discovered "directors I could idolize -- complete crackpots without an ounce of pretension, outsiders to even 'underground' sensibilities who made exactly the films they wanted to make without any money, starring their friends."
It was Waters, in fact, who persuaded Mike, who doubted that anyone gave a hoot about his life, to collaborate on the book. "That was the boost I needed, like a signal that somebody out there was interested," he says.
Mike's section focuses on the filmmaker's process, describing the "divine errors" that filmmakers rely upon and ways to channel the unconscious for creative endeavor. George's part, like his films, is much funnier: rendered in plush, pulpy prose and obsessed with sex, food, flatulence and body odors, it reads as if it were written on the john under coercion of aliens. When he arrived in San Francisco in the unhinged '60s, George writes, "I fell victim (happily) to this quagmire of heaving and humping viscosity and embarked on an orgy of flesh-debasing delinquency that knew no bounds."
George also recalls his relationship with Curt McDowell, a filmmaker ("Thundercrack!") who died of AIDS in 1987; his late dog Bocko and departed cat Blackie; his long-standing teaching gig at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he makes videos with his students for $1,000; and his fascination with earthquakes, hurricanes and electrical storms.
He often journeys to El Reno, Okla., to witness weather extremes close-up. "I am not a storm-chaser," he writes, "because I never learned to drive a car. It is my sad fate to just get a cheap motel room and get battered by whatever passes through."
During a conversation in the funky Mission District railroad flat they've shared for 16 years, the Kuchars spoke about their book and their films, dodged questions about their private lives and said there's nothing abnormal about twin brothers living together amidst dust-laden kitsch, bric-a-brac and boxes of old LPs.
George, the more animated twin, said he wrote his chapters in -- longhand and made second drafts on a pawn shop typewriter that he bought for $29. "I wanted the book to have literary importance," he says in his thick Bronx accent. "I wanted it to have weight. Whether it sinks or not, who knows?"
"I don't think Mike even read my part of the book," George says. "When you live together for 55 years, the best way to get along is not to look at each other or go too deeply into each other's lives. So you keep your distance."
After George had spoken, Mike sat down. He's rail thin, has a long gray beard and avoided eye contact for most of his interview. Anything you want to know is in his films, he says: "The movies are me. . . . It's like I'm on a psychoanalyst's couch and trying to sort things out."
There's something time-warpy about the Kuchars, something so out of synch with trend and fashion that you can't help but admire them. Neither brother drives. Both dress like shlumps. Like the Crumb family that Terry Zwigoff memorialized in his movie "Crumb," or the batty mother and daughter in the Maysles' "Grey Gardens," they inhabit their own, intensely peculiar universe.
Step into their kitchen and you find empty reels and cans of film in the cupboard. A collection of Jesus-in-the- manger lawn ornaments dominates one room, with Mexican marionettes, lava lamps, glitter-specked mermaids, "Wizard of Oz" figurines, photos and drawings of the Kuchars in their youth and albino amazons in octopus-tentacle skirts sprouting haphazardly down the hall. It looks as if they haven't cleaned or updated the place since the early '70s.
"I've pretty much stopped buying things," George says, adding that there's function as well as madness in his decor. If he didn't cover the walls in junk, he explains, he'd have to paint them. "It's a lot of work and it stinks."
Nine months each year, Mike departs San Francisco for New York, where he projects films at Millennium, a filmmaker's co-op, and looks in on Mrs. Kuchar, who still lives in the apartment in the Bronx where the twins were raised. Like George, who works regularly with his students and still does solo works like "Chow Down on Chenery Street" (an ode to a friend's arthritic dog), Mike still makes videos.
As much as their work is autobiographical, there's a deep sense of privacy about the Kuchar brothers. Asked to name the parts of his life that were most difficult to dredge up for the book, George said he made a point of omitting anything painful.
"You never reveal the whole thing," he says. "All burlesque stars know that. You can't just throw all your clothes off; you have to hold back a little."
– Edward Guthmann