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It Came From Kuchar, Documenting Amateurs for Life

On the Sons of the Bronx, George and Mike

A few years and 2,500 miles apart, teenagers inspired by photos of Dad in uniform and From Here to Eternity undertake their separate 8mm war epics. Both are the works of prodigies weaned on double features, later loved or reviled for holding on to their childlike innocence. Little Stevie Spielberg shot 1961's Escape to Nowhere under the clear Arizona skies; 1957's The Naked and the Nude is the earliest surviving title by two lanky, pimple-popping, MAD magazine–reading wiseacres, 15-year-old twins George and Mike Kuchar, the Goncourts of Bronx County.

"Sweeping" rather than sweeping, Naked shows an ironic-passionate obsession with grown-up movies, anticipating the Kuchars' off-brand version of Hollywood melodrama. Mike would describe his Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965) thus: "My most dearest dedication to commercial American movies—or, to put it another way, it is a joke that cost me a thousand dollars." The brothers have been shooting for more than a half-century since Naked, working in every home format, but never in highfalutin' 35mm. They have thus remained unblemished amateurs. "They believe going after money is selling out in a way. No one can believe people used to think that way but, they did," John Waters says of the Kuchars in the new bio-documentary It Came From Kuchar. "They should be knighted."

Jennifer M. Kroot's film opens up the careers that followed Naked. It's an accessible, professional job, with onscreen testimonials from Waters—whose work owes the most to them, and who has been their most faithful proselytizer—Guy Maddin, and Buck Henry.

George and Mike with their paintings, circa 1965
IndiePix
George and Mike with their paintings, circa 1965

The Kuchars came to know the world in an anti-glamour Bronx, where, per their autobiography, "women would walk to the grocery store wearing hairnets, slippers, and housecoats." An odds-and-ends reel of their early home movies and camera tricks gives an ethnographic glimpse of the environment: rubber-girdled torsos and sausage-casing arms, sacklike floral-print dresses from Alexander's, babushkas trundling past scrapyards. In Kuchar, George defends the legacy of Robert Moses, discussing the Cross Bronx Expressway's construction: "There were vacant lots, and that was a wonderful place to play. . . . It was a dream come true for a kid." They claim that the first movie they ever saw was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and were thereafter perennials at the dank Tremont Theatre or the RKO Chester (George, of their film schools: "Most of them were turned into Safeways").

The boys later took the D train to Manhattan's School of Industrial Art, with neighborhood gal Cynthia Mailman (from Gun Hill Road, on the other side of the Reservoir Oval). They were all friends with Donna Kerness, a buxom dancer from East New York whose mother was a hairdresser and father, like the Kuchar patriarch, drove a truck. After graduation, the girls—both happy to talk to this reporter about their old friends—were roommates in Brooklyn Heights, where they met Bob Cowan, who introduced the Kuchars and their growing stockpile of films into the underground screening venues, and downtown celebrity. Cynthia wasn't ready for all the demands of Kuchar stardom ("The boys wanted me to take my brassiere off . . ."), while Donna became prima of their repertory company for her ability to mirror their hands-on direction: "There were times I felt I actually could make my face appear to look like [George's]."

Each brother went solo in '65, and an era officially ended with George heading West in 1970 to teach at the San Francisco Art Institute (Kuchar director Kroot is a former student); Mike stayed in the Bronx, though he and George are recently roommates anew in the Mission District; Cynthia is an artist in New York; Donna is alive and well in San Antonio and peddling in the "wonderful netherworld of Bussey's Flea Market." But the beginnings of the Kuchar clique's Bronx-era heyday can be seen in the full program of 8mm Kodachrome films showing during It Came From Kuchar's week-long run at Anthology, which is festooned with screenings of Kuchar works old, new, and blue. Mike's inimitable prose style, something like a 1950's B-studio publicist with mild brain damage, is fully developed in the intertitles. Cynthia Mailman gave me a useful pneumonic device for watching these films, which the brothers both appear in: "You know how we told them apart? 'G' for George, 'G' for Glasses." (Mike's later Grizzly Adams beard clears up any confusion.)

Also playing is 1975's Thundercrack!, a two-and-a-half-hour polymorphous-perverse porno-comic epic written by and co-starring George and directed by former student Curt McDowell. It recently popped up on FOX's America's Newsroom, condemned as a beneficiary of NEA funds ("It is so offensive we could barely find anything in the trailer that was suitable to put on TV"). Three-part epic Secrets of the Shadow World (1998–99), meanwhile, exhibits G.K.'s "mature" video-diary style—he never met a non sequitur transition effect he didn't like—as he searches Mt. Shasta for Bigfoots and hobnobs with UFO expert John A. Keel (it's George's Close Encounters).

And there is always something new from the Kuchars. The words of DJ John Peel on the Fall are applicable: "They are always different; they are always the same." George doesn't produce work so much as habitually sheds it, and not only films. The glimpses of George and Mike's artwork in Kuchar—George's contributions to Bay Area Underground comics like Arcade, Mike's rather more lascivious contributions to Gay HeartThrobs, the paintings of both—suggest a show readymade for some intrepid gallery.

Through It Came From Kuchar, George comes off as the outgoing one, a mushy-voiced monologist; Mike is more serious and obscure, though their twindom is obvious when Kroot cuts between them separately recounting the same anecdotes, almost verbatim. A picture of unhappy home life emerges in George's unbegrudging tour of the family photo album, from which all the pictures of an Aunt—one of Dad's apparently numerous extracurricular activities—have been scrupulously ripped out. There are some difficult images, shot by George, of their ninetysomething mother's 2007 wake. I was disappointed when the film pulled away from these glimpses of grim intimacy: "It could've been another Crumb!," I told the Kuchar diehard that I watched it with, who responded: "Do you really want to see that?" Which is a valid point—the pathos of the Kuchars is most eloquent when it seems like a joke.

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