“Not everyone digs underground movies,” proclaims a CBS reporter, suspiciously posed on the staircase of an independent theater toward the beginning of It Came From Kuchar, “but what is underground movies?” His question forms the introduction of a standard “public curiosity” piece, but is legitimate nonetheless: what is an underground film? Can it be defined?
This is the question George and Mike Kuchar have been answering in their own unique way, over and over again for upwards of 45 years. The twin brothers broke into the ultra-serious New American Cinema with an infamous 1961 screening of Pussy on a Hot Tin Roof, held at the New York Eight Millimeter Club. The scandal of not being invited back led to a chance invitation to the informal screening sessions Ken Jacobs was holding in his Ferry Street loft on weekends. It was here, mingling with the likes of Jacobs, Jack Smith, Jonas Mekas, and others, that the underground reputation of the Kuchar Brothers was cemented.
That reputation, practiced with great intensity throughout their career (which is still active), has stranded two separate, but closely related worlds: experimental and camp cinema. What It Came From Kuchar does brilliantly is give equal respect to both scabrous elements always circling their best work. Digging deep into their career, the audience is made aware of both their unique filmic melange and why this resonates with such diverse groups of people. The films (especially the early work) provide a certain elan as a filter to bring in all their ideas, making everything work in ways they shouldn’t, and normally wouldn’t.
But to call this a film about the Kuchar Brothers is slightly misrepresenting its focus, as the main star here is really George Kuchar. The brothers, who initially directed together and later decided to direct their own films (often with the other lending a helping hand in some way), have been on similar but ultimately different career paths early on. While still retaining some of the old themes and style of their joint films, Mike Kuchar has gone on to make more semi-serious work, often with overt themes dealing with his homosexuality. George, on the other hand, has dedicated himself to the academic life, as an active professor at the School of the Art Institute, San Francisco.
Of course, the academic world of George Kuchar is far removed from the traditions of the practice, which provides some of the funniest and most endearing moments in the film. The classes that George teaches provides him the opportunity to teach students what they can do when they have an unbearable love for cinema — and how much fun it can be in the process. There are no lectures here: the small studio classroom transforms itself into a miniature freak-show circus with multiple camera operators using consumer-product recorders, impromptu lighting designs, costume changes, narrative bends, and lines of dialogue. It’s fully off-the-cuff cinema, held together by its own brand of crazy-glue. Anything goes.
For someone who has seen his share of crappy, by-the-book films, this embrace of the personal in filmmaking is something to champion. It Came From Kuchar does just that, reminding each audience member that they can do this too. All that is needed is a camera.