Saturday, February 8, 2020

Mike and George Kuchar | Sins of the Brothers Kuchar / Jennifer Koot It Came from Kurchar

by Douglas Messerli

Mike and George Kuchar Sins of the Brothers Kuchar / I saw the film at REDCAT theater (the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) sitting next to the always exuberant Jackie Apple on Monday, February 3, 2020: Cattle Mutilations / 1983; Fallen Angels / 2013; I Was a Teenage Rumpot / 1960; Meltdown / 2012; The Stranger in Apartment 9F / 1998; Sylvia's Promise / 1962; Temple of Torment / 2006
Jennifer M. Krott It Came from Kuchar / 2009

Watching seven short films the other evening by the Kuchar brothers, Mike and George, I was reminded, just a little, of the documentary film, Capturing the Friedmans, simply for the fact that the two young twin brothers captured much of their imagination—if not their homelife experiences as had the Friedman brothers—on the 8  mm. camera they were awarded by their mother at age 11.
      These brothers, unlike the Friedman children, were unabashedly gay and yet, despite their living together in a San Francisco apartment during the 1960s until George’s death in 2011, were rather chaste, horrified by the San Francisco Chronicle photographer’s suggestion that they might pose together naked in their bathtub. These were not the famous gay porno Bartok twins from Hungary, nor even the skinny Peters brothers which the Bel-Ami studios made famous. Yes, I have watched gay porno!
      These two wild and crazy guys, were simply interested in expressing through their film-making and art creations a vision of the gay world that harkened back to their childhood experiences of seeing melodramatic cinemas such as Douglas Sirk, Vincente Minelli, and numerous others who put their gay and sometimes heterosexual desires onto a celluloid vision that, as George assures us, made him and his brother able to love what they might never been able to attain, to be in control of their own sometimes desperate desires through the actors whom they portrayed in their hilarious send-ups of Hollywood melodramatic plots of the 1950s and 1960s. “The camera allowed us to love and control our obsessions,” he states.

      Their films included not only the tropes of the secretive and often unexpressed gay films, but the Hammer horror stories and other Hollywood B-level horror films of the period. These Bronx-raised boys, living our their their rather abusive youths in the film palaces of the period, instinctively dissected the big productions they were witnessing, perceiving how the male/female characters (and yes, this was an early perception of gender differences) played out those roles on the big screen, analyzing them in a way that perhaps other adults at the time could simply not quite assimilate.
      And with their small, home-like camera—instead of like the Friedmans, turning it upon themselves—they almost immediately focused on satiric versions of the films they had seen, while nonetheless remaining slant/wise true to the vast cinematic colors of the films they had witnessed, creating, through their commercial-art training, with exaggerated makeup, costumes, and cinematic behavior that delighted the underground and sometimes art-aspiring world from the critic Jonas Mekas, to Andy Warhol, Buck Henry, and the film director who their work influenced more than any of the others, John Waters. I’d argue that without the Kuchar brothers’ films, Waters might never have even imagined his Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, and in the Jennifer Kroot’s documentary It Came from Kuchar, he even admits as much. Younger filmmakers such as my friend Felix Bernstein where equally influenced. Stupid I just never perceived it.
      Although the Kuchar films, often directed separately by one another, were often hilarious rifts on Hollywood films—with early visions of Divine-like figures (portrayed in their films by the local women they met such as Donna Kerness and Marie Losier) and by male idols and lovers such as Kurt McDowell, who died of AIDS—also evinced a sincere engagement with their sources, a kind of love that they recognized was slightly insane. And their short films represented that, alternating between utter parody and a truly poignant depiction of the dichotomy between the two visions. Their vision straddled always between the silliness of what they were doing with an utter seriousness of their grungy art, which is what made them so very appealing.

     The films I saw the other night—Mike Kuchar’s Meltdown, The Stranger in Apartment 9F, and Fallen Angels (some of my very favorites) and George’s Cattle Mutilations and Temple of Torment, as well as their shared directorship of the hilarious I Was a Teenage Rumpot and Sylvia’s Promise—revealed a wide range of women, often in wheelchairs, and handsome young men like Mike Diana devoted to them.
      We know immediately that those gay men are not truly interested in their oversized, both physically and sexually, women playmates; but that’s the fun of the Kuchar brother’s stories. In one film—predicting Water’s Divine’s later demand for cha-cha heels—a woman roommate is outraged by the song “These Shoes Are Made for Walking,” destroying her sister’s record in anger.
      The Kuchar brothers’ “sins” were that they reiterated the greater sins of Hollywood movie making, highly exaggerating the cinematic presentations that most of our parent’s generation truly believed. Their antic and yet loving representation of them made us realize just how untrue were their grand gestures to real life. If we today laugh at the Kuchars' gestures, we are also laughing at ourselves, the myths we once were captivated by, the lies into which our cultured encapsulated us.
      These films, as silly and quickly made as they were, make us realize, like Jack Smith and others showed us, how absurd were the pretensions of our lives. The situations and people we were seeing on the screen were nothing but theatrical artifices, and the Kuchar brothers, often uncomfortably, reminded us of our absolutely foolishness for even temporarily believing them.
      In deconstructing these large on-screen cinematic events, they made it clear that we and our parents were dumb-nuts who had bought into the larger US projection of how love and sexuality really existed. I now realize how, even while perceiving their false projections of what I felt, I too had been transmogrified into that world, terrified of tipping out of it into my real identity.
      Hooray for the Hollywood! these odd-fitting directors finally showed us.

Los Angeles, February 8, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (February 2020).

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