Kitschy Kuchar Coup: Uptown Cheers for Bronx-Born Underground Legends


“What do you want from me, you hideous cetacean?” So spews a grubby philanderer to his portly, blubbering frau—she done up in housedress and bouffant, he sporting JD jacket, both gesticulating to pinpoint excess against an aural backdrop of rockabilly squealing saxophone and teen-tragic doo-wop. Shot on lurid 8mm color in the late ’50s, George Kuchar’s mini-mock-melodrama Sylvia’s Promise provides the long-suspected missing link between Written on the Wind and Pink Flamingos. Indeed, guest host John Waters will share the Lincoln Center stage with underground legends George and Mike Kuchar when this and three other of the duo’s recently preserved films, blown up to near respectable 16mm, unreel as part of this year’s Views From the Avant-Garde sidebar of the New York Film Festival.

Created largely when the Bronx brothers were still in their tawdry teens, these four tales of lust, revenge, and madcap shenanigans take their cues not only from big-screen weepies, but also Saturday-matinee sci-fi scenarios, tough-talking comic-book exclamations, and other bits of mental detritus likely found cluttering the minds of Kennedy-era adolescents. Though Waters would nick their seedy lumpen vibe, he never matched their extreme mise-en-schlock and knowingly overweening cinematography, seen in Mike Kuchar’s boy-meets-vampiric-mummy tale Born of the Wind or George’s sordid rent party The Thief and the Stripper. Perhaps unwittingly, the boys also provided nifty time capsules of outer-borough anthropology. In George’s A Town Called Tempest, the concrete jungle of their home neighborhood—complete with street scenes surreptitiously acted inside a real saints-day procession—serves as a hilariously unconvincing stand-in for cyclone-swept Kansas.

With a few exceptions, the remainder of Views’ programming partakes of the sidebar’s habitual predilection for its own familiar coterie of ’80s-generation artists and other microcinema marquee names, with new works from Abigail Child, Janie Geiser, Lewis Klahr, Matthias Müller, Nina Fonoroff, and others. Ernie Gehr’s latest include two confounding video missteps, but his film Precarious Garden provides a nifty stereoscopic view transforming a mundane backyard garden into a contemplative kaleidoscope of geometric trickery. Peter Kubelka’s Poetry and Truth allows for even more elaborate double vision: A collection of consecutive outtakes from Euro TV spot shoots, the film’s serial duplication of simple, inane gestures (a man fixing his hair in a store-display mirror; a woman getting a chocolate square plopped in her mouth) becomes both a classically self-reflexive media-demystifier and a found-footage version of Kubelka’s own propensity for hypnotic yet revelatory repetition.

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