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It Came From Kuchar (DVD Review)

5 Jul, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$24.95 DVD
Not rated.

Purely as an exercise, I will momentarily eliminate all the really smart peers I grew up with — surgeons, lawyers, money sniffers of all kinds — who really don’t follow the movies very much. Then remove the ones who do, but only mainstream fare. And then exclude the enthusiasts who are willing to take the 20-mile drive one has to endure (even in larger cities) to get to a theater that shows subtitled films, documentaries or other specialized fare.

Eliminate them all, leaving the just super hardcore, and I still have only known one enthusiast of the Kuchar Brothers (George and Mike) in my entire life — and this was someone at work 35 years ago. In the great scheme of (non-cineaste) things, we are talking about the fringe of the fringe here — back from the days before DVD democratized everything, and there was a certain quaint excitement and daring in watching underground movies (even by the most rigid underground standards) in some storefront or other makeshift venue.

On the other hand, if you want to see who was capable of influencing John Waters in his formative years (and this is nothing to be high-hatted about), you need go no further than the Bronx-bred twins whose combined oeuvre includes Hold Me While I’m Naked, I Was a Teenage Rumpot and The Devil’s Cleavage. Utilizing friends in the cast, their movies really were homemade — with homemade special effects as well. They were also more tongue-in-cheek and knowing than the work of Ed Wood (though with Wood, it’s always hard to tell for sure).

The Kuchars may or may not be fraternal twins, and the speculation here isn’t conclusive. George is more outgoing and plans his movies less in advance; Mike has a tough time looking someone in the eye and reminds me a little of Paul Schrader when he talks. Both graduated from New York’s High School of Industrial Arts at the very beginning of the 1960s and steadfastly refused to sell out (as in, say, advertising). George has been teaching forever at San Francisco’s Art Institute, where he keeps churning out works that are fanciful or sexual or disturbing or some combination of all.   

Like Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Luis Bunuel and Leo McCarey, to name just four from a huge array, the Kuchars have never gotten away from their Catholic roots and sometimes seem to be working this out on screen. They speak well of heir mother, who ended up being a featured player in their films, but dad never fit too securely into their world. Or vice versa: A truck driver and war vet who later did like to borrow their 8mm projector to watch porno films, he would come home to see the boys watching Liberace or (gossip columnist) Sheila Graham on TV. The boys parlayed these experiences into a prolific output, and it would be interesting to know if they have preserved or catalogued everything they’ve made. There’s certainly a large sampling excerpted in this documentary by Jennifer M. Kroot — as well as accolades from Buck Henry, critic B. Ruby Rich and filmmakers as diverse as Wayne Wang, Atom Egoyan and Waters himself.

The last clearly loves the Kuchars, but you can see from his comments here that Waters has a much wider worldview in addition to some sort of crucial mechanism that allows him to remain detached — a little — from his own specialized universe. This is what probably enabled Waters to break out into wider acceptance – along with the reality that he was lucky to find himself an actor land alter ego like Divine, who had a lot more to offer on screen than the performers the Kuchars used.

Kroot’s documentary is a good introduction that doesn’t probe too deeply (the way Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb masterpiece does) into a sub-culture. The give-take 40 minutes of deleted scenes (mostly short, so there are several) are equal to the actual film. We see George making it to Telluride (earning a tribute, in fact), where he hob-knobs with Henry (a lot), Leonard Maltin, Todd Haynes and even Ken Burns, whose worldview is a little different than the brothers.

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