It Came from Kuchar
Two brothers who gave birth to indie film
You’re forgiven if you’ve never heard of George and Mike Kuchar. Twin brothers out of the Bronx, they together and separately were responsible for some of the earliest films in the 1960s underground movie explosion: el cheapo marvels of filth and hilarity with titles like “Hold Me While I’m Naked’’ and “Diary of a Teenage Rumpot.’’ They’ve gone off the radar in recent decades — George to teaching and video diaries, Mike to spiritual wanderings and mystical filmmaking — but they’re still vital and still working in their late 60s, and without them independent film (real independent film, not that “Little Miss Sunshine’’ stuff) might not exist.
In fact, the achievement of “It Came From Kuchar,’’ a fondly messy documentary about the brothers from director Jennifer M. Kroot, is to show how the Kuchar influence has extended to indie-everything. One glance at a clip from George’s 1975 crackpot melodrama “The Devil’s Cleavage’’ will tell you where filmmaker Guy Maddin (“My Winnipeg’’) got his esthetic, and just in case, here’s Maddin himself happily ’fessing up. John Waters freely admits he copped the infamous doggy-poo money shot in “Pink Flamingos’’ from “Eclipse of the Sun Virgin’’ (1967).
The Kuchar tentacles extend to Warhol (the Kuchars went to high school with Factory regular Gerard Malanga), to alt-comics (cartoonist Bill Griffith acknowledges George’s wryly spacey observations as a critical influence on Zippy the Pinhead), and to David Lynch, Robert Crumb, queer cinema — the list goes on forever. Dig down anywhere in the culture of outrage and you’ll hit the Kuchars. And today’s do-it-yourself YouTube filmmaking revolution? The brothers were there a half-century ago.
In addition to a wealth of clips and talking heads, the movie gives us plenty of time with the Kuchars today. Mike seems permanently affected by that hashish cake he accidentally ingested during a foray to Nepal in the 1960s; he’s a shy but engaging recluse whose films have a gentle new age surrealism far from the outré camp melodrama of his earlier work.
George is much more active, cranking out a movie every year with his class at the San Francisco Art Institute (we see the shoot for the latest, called “The Fury of Frau Frankenstein,’’ featuring a giant purple attack spider) and hitting the Telluride Film Festival with his old friend, “Graduate’’ screenwriter Buck Henry, for a Kuchar retrospective. He cuts a bizarrely charismatic figure, combining the nasal New York whine of Woody Allen, the physical stoop and cutting wit of Crumb, and an off-center sweetness all his own. Like Crumb, too, George wields a profoundly bent sensibility with equally profound sanity.
“It Came From Kuchar’’ tours the brothers’ filmography with disorganized enthusiasm, and it unforgivably short-shrifts George’s video diaries of the last three decades, an obsessive, funny, often incredibly moving body of work that’s still in the making. It does pause to remember Curt McDowell, George’s partner in life and film, who didn’t survive the AIDS crisis but lived long enough to make “Thundercrack!’’ perhaps the most merrily offensive underground movie of all. (“It was as if the theater was bleeding people,’’ recalls a witness at the premiere.)
And the movie makes the case that the best American filmmakers may be the uncelebrated ones who helplessly turn life into art simply as a means to get out of bed every day. Toward the end of “It Came From Kuchar,’’ George utters what could be his lifelong mantra: “I’m miserable. I gotta work on another movie.’’