"There are no second acts in American life," some nobody by the name of F. Scott Fitzgerald said. Hogwash. George and Mike Kuchar have had productive, ongoing careers long after their initial burst of notoriety as forerunners of the New York underground film scene in the late ’50s and ’60s. If there is any justice in this world, next year’s release of Jennifer Kroot’s documentary It Came from Kuchar will launch the twin brothers on an equally improbable third act.
Kroot, who made an over-the-top debut with the eye-popping 2003 camp feature Sirens of the 23rd Century, met George when she was thinking about going back to film school some 15 years ago and audited his legendary production class at the San Francisco Art Institute. (Legendary in that he’s been teaching it for decades, with each class casting, designing, shooting and finishing a movie that reflects the instructor’s undying affection for Hollywood melodrama, naked emotion, and lascivious lust of all stripes.)
"I was really mesmerized by his style," Kroot recalls. "When is the authority figure going to come out? The students were always whispering, ‘Do you know who George is? John Waters was inspired by him.’ There was this aura of wonder around him. Crumb had come out not too [long] before, and within the first week of meeting him I thought, ‘Someone should document this.’"
This requires no elucidation for anyone in the Bay Area film community who knows (and adores) George, and has come to know Mike on his annual visits from New York before he joined George in the Mission last year after their mother died. If you don’t know them, well, It Came from Kuchar will provide a most colorful introduction. But what kind of treatment is appropriate for guys whose oeuvre includes I Was a Teenage Rumpot, The Craven Sluck and The Devil’s Cleavage? Or to be a tad more specific, who challenge perceptions of beauty in life and in movies.
"Linda Martinez is really a sex symbol in George’s class films (and sometimes in Mike’s films), and she’s 71 years old," Kroot notes. "They partly do this to be button pushers and make people uncomfortable, but I think that they also recognize nonconventional beauty. When you watch the earliest Kuchar films, they often starred very large women with tons of makeup and extreme eyebrows. These were the films that influenced John Waters and it seems likely to me that Divine was influenced by these characters."
Kroot, who was born in Berkeley, grew up in Marin County and has lived in San Francisco for nearly 20 years, cites the obsessed-artist portraits Crumb and Lost in La Mancha as inspirations, but she’s aiming for a less harrowing tone for It Came from Kuchar. "It’s really a sweet film, and a funny film, but there are elements of deviance throughout. The deviance is in their work, and it came from somewhere."
Ultimately, she thinks she’s found a delicate middle ground between entertaining outrageousness and respectful tribute.
"I certainly didn’t want to mock the Kuchars or try to do something that I knew they could do much better," Kroot says. "That said, I certainly wasn’t trying to do a Ken Burns documentary. It’s a fine line of letting the Kuchars’ work speak for itself. It certainly isn’t a straight style and it’s not like a parody supercampy style; it’s something in between that supports their work and their personalities without competing with them."
Kroot has spent three years in production, filming one of George’s classes and traipsing around the continent collecting interviews with fans of the brothers in New York (Andrew Lampert at Anthology Film Archives), Toronto (Atom Egoyan), Los Angeles (Buck Henry) and Baltimore (you know who). Although these are all film people, Kroot did not overlook George and Mike’s extensive and accomplished work as fine artists. This is the challenge of making a film about people whose lives have more than one act.
"The Kuchars have been doing things long enough that they’re accepted as artists," Kroot explains. "But they had intense fleeting fame in their youth, slightly flukily. Not in the sense that they didn’t work hard as filmmakers. They were filmmakers since they were 12, but they kind of happened upon a movement, the underground film movement that was happening, and got on the cover of major magazines along with Andy Warhol and Kenneth Anger, so they had a taste of fame. Of course, that scene disappeared, as scenes do, and they just kept doing the work ever since. Now I would say not everybody knows about that period, and the Kuchars are known for something else."
Kroot expects to finish It Came From Kuchar in late January. Our prognostication skills have never been very good, but we have a hunch that 2009 will be the Year of the Kuchar. For more news about the doc, visit www.kucharfilm.com.
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