See You in Denver is filled with clips from a particular sort of home movie—the amateur theatrical. When Frantiek Hvanhara's movie theater was nationalized and his collection of American Westerns confiscated in 1948, his sons made their own (shades of Be Kind, Rewind), projecting them in a basement screening room for an audience of friends and neighbors. Mutatis mutandis, such homemade-movie movies were also being made in the Free World. Around the same time and at approximately the same age, the Kuchar twins, George and Mike, began producing their 8mm extravaganzas in the Bronx.
The Kuchars would enjoy separate careers as independent filmmakers, but their juvenilia—preserved by and showing this week at Anthology—remains remarkably fresh. The brothers' earliest extent work, The Naked and the Nude (1957), a World War II epic made in Van Cortlandt Park when they were 15, uses deeply appreciated Hollywood clichés to (barely) structure hilarious eruptions of the adolescent id. The patriotic title song proclaims "a realm of ecstasy, of love and liberty" but the Japanese enemy, largely played by schoolmates of color, has all the girls and most of the fun, at least until their cook poisons them.
Throughout high school and after, the Kuchars made outlandish, violent melodramas explicated in flowery inter-titles ("Meanwhile, the bacchanal continues unawares") and accompanied by tape-recorded musical tracks (movie themes mixed with sound effects, Yma Sumac, and Frankie Lyman). Performances were kabuki, mise-en-scène pragmatic. The murderous artist in The Thief and the Stripper (1959) paints his wife by the light of a menorah. In 1961, the Kuchars provoked a scandal at the New York Eight Millimeter Motion Picture Club with Pussy on a Hot Tin Roof. As a nun's confession is read in a ridiculously affected voice, the camera feasts on the spectacle of three teenage girls as they lounge around smoking cigs and changing outfits. The trio is joined by their dates for a ferocious twist party that ends with all six piled on the bed— but this is a morality play. A cigarette ignites a conflagration that, accompanied by liturgical music, consumes everything save the fact that the girls were enjoying themselves far too much.
Eighty-sixed from polite amateur filmmaking, the Kuchars were discovered by the New York underground—and vice versa. One of the gargoyles in another orgy film, Night of the Bomb (1962), ostentatiously clutches a copy of Film Culture. The brother's 8mm swan song Lovers of Eternity (1964) is a low-rent La Bohème set among the East Village's humongous cockroaches and arty poseurs—including Jack Smith as a beer-swilling painter. Suddenly, there are aesthetic values. Opening with a piano rhapsody swiped from a Douglas Sirk flick, the movie's been put together with the narrative logic of a Griffith (or Sennett) two-reeler. Having turned 22, the Kuchars were ready to make real movies.
No more manic grotesqueries like A Town Called Tempest (1963), set in a "hospital of sin," punctuated by weather montages more hysterical than Teuvo Tulio's, and climaxing with the birth of a plastic baby doll; never again the priceless documentary of East 156th Street's trash-strewn lots and cruddy storefronts found in the indescribable I Was a Teenage Rumpot (1960). Proletarian fatties don funny hats and clown with a regressive energy that even the movie's resident five-year-old can't equal. Asserting every American's right to be a public spectacle, this is a family album Siegfried Kracauer could never have imagined.
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