OFFBEAT KUCHAR BROTHERS INFLUENCED FILMMAKERS
Pretty much all you need to know about underground filmmaking legends George and Mike Kuchar, 67, is contained in the titles of their movies - or "pictures," as the Bronx-born twins call them.
George Kuchar, who teaches film at San Francisco Art Institute, counts "I Was a Teenage Rumpot" (1960), "Pussy on a Hot Tin Roof" (1961), "Hold Me While I'm Naked" (1966), "The Devil's Cleavage" (1975) and "Munchkins of Melody Manor" (1990) among his 200-plus directorial credits (some of which he co-directed with his brother).
Mike Kuchar, who has been less prolific than his twin but still makes more movies than most directors, is responsible for "A Tub Named Desire" (1956), "Sins of the Fleshapoids" (1965), "The Craven Sluck" (1967) and many more.
While the brothers have been well known in the film world for decades - their odd, homemade pictures have been screened around the globe - the public would be forgiven for never having heard of them. To help right that wrong, San Francisco documentary filmmaker Jennifer Kroot, who was a student of George Kuchar's at SFAI, has made "It Came From Kuchar," which will be screened at the Frameline Film Festival. An award will also be presented to the brothers.
"I was shocked no one else had made a movie on them," Kroot said in a cafe near the Kuchar brothers' Mission District apartment. Referring to Terry Zwigoff's documentary about cartoonist R. Crumb, Kroot said, "I took George's class around the same time as 'Crumb' came out, and I thought George was at least as interesting as him."
As Kroot's movie makes clear, the Kuchars are an idiosyncratic pair, to say the least. Kroot began working on the film 3 1/2 years ago, intending to focus on George, until she got to know Mike. They have been consistently ahead of their time as experimental filmmakers and yet seem oddly anachronistic. "High theatrics but no budget" is how Kroot sums up their work. "Crazy, genre-destroying films that don't have plots exactly" and feature "unskilled actors" is how Yerba Buena Center for the Arts film curator Joel Shepard puts it.
The Kuchars have had a do-it-yourself philosophy toward filmmaking since their earliest teenage experiments, eschewing fancy cameras and opting for a strange galaxy of stars. Their mother, their friend's mom, their friends all took on dramatic roles with grotesque makeup. (George is especially well known for drawing thick, angled eyebrows on his leading ladies.)
But as silly and funny as, say, the intergalactic warfare and romance of "Sins of the Fleshapoids" is, the Kuchars have a dark side. "A lot of people think they are kind of like campy, and they do have that aspect, but that's not really what they are," Shepard said. "They are really deeply emotional films. It's serious what is going on under the surface."
Search for beauty
Mike Kuchar puts it a slightly different way. He and his brother, he said, are involved in a "search for beauty."
The twins grew up in the Bronx in the '50s, raised Catholic by a remote father and a doting mother. From an early age, movies captivated them - the glossy surfaces of Douglas Sirk heavily influenced their earliest work. After graduating from a commercial art high school - with classmates Gerald Malanga (an Andy Warhol collaborator) and Calvin Klein - Mike took a job as an air brusher at a magazine, and George drew weather maps at a local news show. (Weather would turn out to be a recurring theme in his movies.)
Soon, though, they turned away from conventional careers and became part of the underground film scene in New York City. It was the '60s, when Warhol, Kenneth Anger and others were making a splash with their avant-garde films. The Kuchar brothers, who were taking turns starring, writing and acting in each other's movies, may not have intended to join such a chic crowd, but with support from film critic Jonas Mekas, their movies influenced a generation of filmmakers. In Kroot's documentary, directors John Waters, Guy Maddin and Wayne Wang talk in glowing terms about their exposure to the 8mm early works of the Kuchars.
In the early '70s, George Kuchar headed to San Francisco, working in the underground comix world with Art Spiegelman (who appeared in a few films), Bill Griffith (who credits George with partial inspiration of his Zippy character) and others. Mike stayed in New York and embarked on a trip to Nepal and the Himalayas. George became a teacher at SFAI in 1971.
While the two have much in common, they are very different people and filmmakers. A more gregarious character, George has been intensely prolific, making films with his students and also experimenting with video projects like "The Weather Diaries," a series begun in the '80s, where he turns the camera on himself and his friends. Mike, a quieter person, tends to make more intimate, psychological rather than theatrical films. "To put an image on the screen, it needs to have an essence. ... I want to illuminate feelings, atmosphere, hold the eyes," he said, sitting in the sunlit living room in the apartment he and his brother share.
The Kuchar brothers have always openly and enthusiastically depicted sexuality and the human condition in their movies - Waters says that their use of feces in a film prefigured his famous scene in "Pink Flamingos" - but they rarely talk about their personal lives. Kroot treads lightly around the topic in her film, never explicitly stating with whom the two might have been involved. "Let's say they have a non-mainstream orientation. They certainly aren't people who want to belong to any specific group," Kroot said.
While the pair hold a special place in film history, as influencers and auteurs, the Kuchars remain an active part of the Bay Area film community: Over the past 25 years, George has had hundreds of students and worked on hundreds of student-fueled films; he teaches by example. "Partly because of his position at the Art Institute, partly because of his personality, if you spend any time with him, it's a marking experience," noted former SFAI film Professor Brook Hinton. "He's a touchstone."
Human and approachable
Plus, Hinton says, he manages to be "legendary" yet remain "human and approachable." YBCA's Shepard, whose gallery is organizing a collaboration between George and his former student Miguel Calderon, echoes this, saying that the Kuchars "as important as Warhol and Stan Brakhage, but less known" and also "totally accessible guys."
"You know, I'm actually in one of George's movies," Shepard volunteered. Called "The Pitiful Pixies," Kuchar featured a few local film programmers in a short film. "That's how you know if you've made it in the Bay Area film world," Shepard said, "if you're in one of their films."
— By Reyhan Harmanci