JENNIFER KROOT, “IT CAME FROM KUCHAR”
George and Mike Kuchar are two of the great camp experimental filmmakers of all time. They represented a pastiche heavy, less self-serious strand of the New American Cinema’s downtown explosion in the early 1960s. Evangelized by Jonas Mekas in the pages of The Village Voice, their work spans over 700 short and feature films, almost all of the executed on the flimsiest of budgets, many of them made in an almost artisanal, fiercely individualistic mode. In a Critics’ Poll of the 100 best films of the 20th century, appearing originally in the January 4, 2000 edition of The Village Voice, their classic 1966 short Hold Me While I’m Naked was ranked 52nd.
For the past forty years, George has taught a filmmaking course at the San Francisco Art Institute. This is were Jennifer Kroot, who’s fascinating documentary It Came From Kuchar sheds a great deal of light on this surprisingly important filmmaking duo, met George, having taken his characteristically free spirited and eclectic class. Profiling the brothers, she discusses their wide influence with filmmakers such as Guy Maddin, John Waters and Atom Egoyan while capturing their idiosyncratic working methods and great charm.
It Came From Kuchar opens at Anthology Film Archives on Friday, which will also revive a number of the subjects’ most well known films during the run.
Filmmaker: When did you become aware of the Kuchar Brothers work? How did that awareness grow into this film?
Kroot: I was a student of George’s at San Francisco Art Institute. I hadn’t heard of the Kuchar’s before that time. I was studying film and heard that George had a really fun class, so I signed up [laughs]. Basically the first day I was there I was mesmerized by the weirdness and the fun of his class. George showed a movie that’s based on The Love Boat that same day called The Desperate and The Deep. I loved it. I thought it was the strangest thing I’d ever seen. Then I saw a lot of his video diaries in the class and I loved those too but they were really different than his other work. I met Mike when one day George had to be out of town during our class and Mike was substituting. So the kids showed up and instead of George there was someone who looked like George with a beard. We didn’t know he had a twin brother or anything, so it was pretty crazy. His temperament is so different that everyone was in shock. It was just as intriguing to meet Mike in his own way; he showed us bizarre soap opera type movies as well as Statute in the Park which we have footage of in the film, it’s the one with the guy cleaning the bathroom. I love that one. He showed us more serious experimental films as opposed to the sillier titles that George showed.
I stayed friends with George after that. I had always sort of fantasized about making a film about him mostly because I could never describe how insane the class was or how funny and charismatic he is and inspiration he is as a teacher. When I learned about all these more mainstream characters that he influenced, it seemed like an idea I really wanted to pursue. They are just so charming and engaging in their own ways, but George and Mike have really had this impact on… Hollywood and Art and yet they’re relatively unknown. I thought they’d make an incredible story. I had already known George for ten years when we started. I got to know Mike more during the process. I got much more exposed to their films after I started making this project. I had seen many of their films before obviously, but since they’ve made so many films, George himself has made over 500 films, it can be really hard to make a dent in that. So in making the film I was able to really look into different period of his work and Mike’s as well. Mike has made over 200 films from what I’m told. I wasn’t as familiar with their earlier works until I started making the film. I loved them as soon as I saw them, I found them so funny and bizarrely touching at the same time.
Filmmaker: Was George’s class primarily geared toward camp filmmaking? Is there a theory component? In the film it comes across as this very free wheeling, effervescent chance to just work with him.
Kroot: It is effervescent. You go to the class and George comes up with the script and the dialogue. His stories, they are always no budget. I don’t think the school gives him any money anymore, I think he just brings in 300 dollars and pays for everything. That’s very low budget and they’re usually like forty-five minutes long. I think low budget work lends itself to camp and that’s the style he’s worked in, although his video diaries, they’re sort of campy, but not traditional camp, they’re quirky. It’s certainly not the only thing he could be doing. I think his class films are the campiest of the films he’s making now are among the campiest films he’s made. I think there’s a lot behind them. Camp gets a bad name sometimes, people think it’s this vacant, silly thing. He really has a lot of human shame and anxiety and humanity that’s sort of masked in the camp, although it always comes through to an extent. Seventy-year old Linda Martinez, who stars, in the nude, in his class films, I think he sees her as his alter ego. I think that’s about him feeling that he’s getting older and isn’t sure how attractive he is, and so its funny that she’s in these leading roles, but its kind of sad to, because its like, “she doesn’t fit, she’s so much older”, but it’s about how he’s feeling. So they are campy, low budget movies, but the students go and they participate and see how he’s doing things and a lot of them are very serious about filmmaking and some go on and become campy filmmakers but a lot of them are experimental filmmakers who are doing slower, artier, traditionally serious kind of work, but they appreciate him nonetheless and they appreciate what he puts into his films. He’s very good at lighting and shooting very quickly. So a lot of those students have gone one to work in film in a variety of aspects, big films and small films, campy films and Hollywood films. So I think it’s a class for everybody, you have to be a boring or really humorless person not to enjoy that class and get something out of it.
Guy Maddin is someone who has been greatly influenced by George’s work. Guy’s films are campy, but they also have very serious moments and very scary moments. It is certainly very different interpretation of camp, you can see the line from one to the other.
Filmmaker: What’s your favorite Kuchar work? I remember when I first saw Hold Me While I’m Naked and thinking that what I was seeing was the most profound use of what at the time I would have called cheesiness and would now call camp that I can remember. At a certain point I stopped being able to have a sort of emotional distance from it that one might expect. It really sneaks up on you.
Kroot: It’s hard to pick one. I do love Hold Me Whiled I’m Naked. I’ve always loved that. It’s so honest and accessible. It starts off so funny and I don’t know why, but that movie just grabs you. It’s just so honest and touching. His humor and disappointments, I think everyone can relate to it. There is such honesty in it that I just love.
The Devil’s Cleavage is really beautiful. It’s a black and white feature film George made that really inspired Guy Maddin’s whole career. The frames are so textured and it has this wonderful busy quality about it. It is campy, but it has an ethereal beauty that’s rare for a film that campy. It captures an element of San Francisco in the 70s that I find really interesting. Art Spiegelman is in it, as are the people doing underground comics in San Francisco at the time, that whole scene is captured in it. Anything goes in that film. You’re just not really sure where George is coming from.
From Mike, I really love Sins of the Flesh of Fleshapoids. I think it’s just really a masterpiece. I think its inspired so many other science-fiction works. I love the robots in it, I love the actors, I like the sets. George stars in it. He’s really over the top. He’s funny and yet you see the emotion even through the strange campiness. It has cartoon bubbles when they talk. There is no sync sound, It’s just music. When they talk it’s a comic thought bubble. George really captures the angst of the character he’s playing. There are these bizarre animated sequences in it. It’s colorful and has inspired so many things, you see it an realize, “wow, Mike Kuchar did this first!”
Filmmaker: What about the nascent underground film culture that they were a part of in the 1960s did you discover during the making of the film that you found most interesting?
Kroot: One thing is how different it was from now it terms of how you had these people making different kinds of experimental films, some were slower, some were campy, the Kuchars of course would be in the campy realm although I don’t want to limit them with that, anyways people would find these places to show them that weren’t even theaters. I think in the film Ruby Rich says you had to be cool enough to be on the inside of this scene to be told where these screenings would be occurring and were invited. If you were really into the scene you could find out and you were a part of it to, so I think they thought of their audiences as being more a part of their community than we think of it today. Today people are a home, it’s a really great thing to be able to click on to YouTube and say, “oh, that’s the movie that so and so was talking about”, but there is also some magic in something being a little harder to find. That disappears when everything is at your fingertips.
People ask me, “don’t you think George and Mike would be putting their work on YouTube if they were young?” I don’t know if that would be the case. I think it might be sort of the opposite. I’m note advocating against YouTube in any way, but it’s just a totally different thing. There was a time when people would go way out of their way to have these movie screenings, in churches, in basements, and some of the material in these underground films were the first time their was homosexual or trangressive sex, not specifically in the Kuchar’s films, but they were taking politic risks in screening them. Some of the screenings got shut down. They were doing this cool thing but it was more than a just a bit political. The thought of young people being so moved by an art movement that they’re out wondering where is the underground screening tonight, is it at this church, in that basement, at this old theatre, it just seems so different from where we’re at now, I can’t imagine anyone doing that these days.
Filmmaker: What is the archival situation with George and Mike’s films? Anthology Film Archives obviously is the home of much of their work, but how could people discovering their films for the first time in your doc get a hold of their work?
Kroot: There is a number of ways. On DVD, there is a collection of Mike’s early work, like Sins of the Fleshapoids, there is also another collection that he’s in, it’s part of a group of horror films, he has a film called Born of the Wind, which is really excellent, I think those are all put out through the Other Cinema, and you can get those through Amazon.
The old super 8mm films are housed at Anthology. Some of those have been transferred to 16mm to be preserved. You can rent those but you have to be more of a school or a museum in order to do that. I’m pretty sure everyone can rent some of the ones from the late 60s and 70s from Canyon Cinema. They don’t always have DVD or video however. There is a video collection of George’s that is out through some school but I can remember what school. It’s some of his later work from the 80s, especially the video diaries. At Video Data Bank in Chicago you can rent them, but I’m not sure if you need to be a school or not.