Once upon a time, “Underground Films” were really that-underground. Small communities of filmmakers, critics, and fans would gather to watch films made on shoe string budgets by amateur filmmakers, trying things that Hollywood either never tried at all or hadn’t tried since the earliest days of film making. Many of those filmmakers were either already artists (Andy Warhol’s group) or would soon make a name for themselves in one way or another (John Waters, to name one). My old man told of being dragged to New York by a friend to see “some kind of underground movies, art movies” where nothing happened; I like to imagine this was a Warhol “Happening” but its impossible to tell at this point. I do know one thing: he didn’t see one of George and Mike Kuchar’s films. You can accuse the Kuchars’ films of a lot of things; “nothing happened” is not one of them.
It Came From Kuchar (briefly) covers the life and career of the Kuchars, twin brothers who grew up in the Bronx with a strict immigrant Catholic mother and a self-styled he-man father who ran around on their mother and used his aspiring filmmaker sons’ 8mm projector to watch his collection of porno films. The brothers loved the movies, going once a week or more to the theaters and graduating to making their own films on 8mm. Their films were a strange combination of all the watched and witnessed, Douglas Sirk melodrama elements co-existing with crime, horror and sci-fi, and the brothers became known as the “Mozarts of 8mm” on the Underground scene. Eventually the pair split, with George moving to California to teach and continue to work on films, while Mike went on a journey to Nepal and eventually returned to New York, where he was far less prolific than George, who seemed to make films compulsively.
Director Jennifer M. Kroot shows us clips from the Kuchars’ films, as well as interviews with the brothers as well as their friends, collaborators, students, and other figures on the underground film scene, including John Waters and Buck Henry, and even directors inspired by the Kuchars, such as Guy Maddin. The film is a fascinating, moving portrait of the brothers and their work. The Kuchars are somewhere between true outsider artists/figures like Ed Wood whose ambition outstripped their talent and resources and the other Underground filmmakers who sought to explore the boundaries of taste, the medium, and their own issues. In the Kuchars’ case those issues include their parents and the mixed messages they gave the brothers about sexuality, and the simple fact that they were exploring their sexual identity in the Bronx in the 1950s and 1960s, hardly a time or place that was kind to gay men. At this point the only Kuchar related film I’ve seen is Thundercrack!, the porn horror comedy that spoofs the Old Dark House genre, which George Kuchar wrote, did special effects and make up for and appeared in (as a zookeeper who eventually gives in to his forbidden love for a gorilla). It Came From Kuchar left me wanting to see more of the brothers’ work. I highly recommend It Came From Kuchar for anyone interested in the cult and unusual films and the history of those films; it’s currently available streaming on Netflix.