Judge Ike Oden was a teenage rumpot.
"Long before YouTube there were the outrageous, no-budget underground filmmaking twins George and Mike Kuchar."
The genre of experimental film is a slippery, untrustworthy one for most filmgoers. Not only is it hard to properly define, but often brings to mind such cringe worthy phrases as "non-narrative," "visually poetic," "challenging to the viewer," and the beyond cliché, "Lynchian." However, there was a time when experimental film, or underground cinema, was a genre celebrated, imitated, and sought after by only the savviest of filmgoers. Starting around the 1950s and '60s, names like Stan Brakhage, Andy Warhol, and Hollis Frampton tried to cover new cinematic ground stressing technique and form, often with complete narrative abandon. These individuals strived to give audiences something beyond the experience of the "movies": a raw celluloid piece of themselves. This movement of experimental auteurs made challenging, intelligent pieces of abstract cinema, but few of them bothered purposefully making their films entertaining to watch. It was here that the films of George and Mike Kuchar deviated.
Facts of the Case
Beginning their careers as teenagers, the duo made tongue-in-cheek short films that strived for the levels of badness that Ed Wood and Uwe Boll couldn't achieve on their worst day. Together, the duo prolifically mixed and matched sci-fi, melodrama, horror, porn and documentary into indescribable short film monstrosities made with peanut-sized budgets. It Came From Kuchar seeks to tell the story behind this dynamically depraved duo, but does it do their lives and legacy justice?
With IMDb pages boasting such titles as Sins of the Fleshapoids, I Was A Teenage Rumpot, and Hold Me While I'm Naked, one can see the influence of early exploitation cinema on the films of George and Mike Kuchar without ever having to watch one of them. It Came From Kuchar director Jennifer M. Kroot revels in this fact, boasting an impressively animated opening title sequence giving us a look inside the world of the Kuchar twins. This intro is a stylish visual pastiche of looming cardboard Cthulhus, fluttering bats, and sexy mummy women all set to Johnny Mercer's "Hooray For Hollywood." It's also an apt metaphor for everything wrong with this documentary: shallow and far too slick for a film celebrating a filmography that cost mere nickels to shape.
Make no mistake, It Came From Kuchar is a breezy, technically polished, entertaining slice of quirky, character-driven documentary. This wouldn't be such a problem, if the Kuchar's story wasn't so heavy, dark, and depressing.
No greater example of this issue occurs than when the film tackles the childhood of the Kuchar brothers. Obviously the events of these character's formative years would surely shape their equally quirky artistic worldview. The sum of the memories recounted tell of an emotionally abusive, misogynistic, overbearing father whose behavior gave way to a broken home and twin latchkey kids This set off a chain of events that led to an overdependence on their mother up to her death (which George films). While this compelling content seems ripe for exploration—ala Terry Zwigoff's similarly dark (and far superior) Crumb—the film never allows time to breathe in the pathos of the Kuchar brothers worldview, be they positive or negative. What we get is a film that clumsily attempts to force their story into the same sort of frothy tone that characterizes the Kuchars' own style of filmmaking. Kuchar, its subjects, and its commentators, prefer to simply shrug and move on to the next segment, which usually highlights the sheer zaniness of the Kuchar acts of creation.
Taking the thrust of film's running time is a narrative train of behind-the-scenes footage chronicling George's latest shot-on-digital collaboration The Fury of Frau Frankenstein. Kroot's agenda clearly wishes to celebrate the sheer amount of spontaneity and play that goes into a Kuchar production. This is great, but there's only so much one can take of scantily clad hipsters running around flimsy cardboard sets, as George shoves a foam monster and camcorder in their face over and over again. The film chews on this gristle for long stretches of its 86 minute runtime while sporadically nibbling at the real meat of the Kuchar experience. An over reliance on initially interesting 'talking head' interviews from Kuchar-inspired filmmakers like John Waters (Cry Baby), Atom Egoyan (Chloe), and Guy Maddin (The Saddest Music In The World) sadly have a similar effect.
The content of It Came From Kuchar is too unique to operate within this sort of structure, which makes for a contemporary documentary lacking in the same sort of imagination and intestinal fortitude that made the Kuchars so original. Kroot's approach of a conventional documentary about wildly unconventional filmmakers never gels. It all feels less about the subjects work as filmmakers and more about their status as undiscovered pop culture oddities.
It Came From Kuchar has a clean, high-def look heightened by the grainy, blurry, and scratchy visuals of the Kuchar's many 8mm and VHS masterpieces. This juxtaposition only adds to the charm. The audio is a clean 2.0 stereo mix that does the trick, though some interviews come in a little louder than others. Extras-wise, the supplements are better than the bulk of the film itself. The most significant are 48 minutes of deleted and extended scenes, at least half of which the film may have benefited from keeping in, adding depth so often absent in the finished cut. They're non-anamorphic with rough audio, but deserve attention.
Also on deck is an audio commentary with Kroot, George, and Mike. Rather than comment on the making of the film, Kroot probes the Kuchar brothers further, exploring the duo's films, philosophies, and relationships beyond those featured in the film. It's a great Q&A that, much like the deleted scenes, adds extra layers to the finished cut.
Rounding out the disc is a featurette entitled "It Came From You!" showcasing a digital short film that won a contest to be featured on the DVD. "The Egg Replacer" is an amusing enough meditation on the relationship between food and sex inspired by the Kuchar school of filmmaking. We're also treated to some theatrical trailers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While Kuchar films might not be for everyone, George and Mike's screen personas carry the film as if it were there own. Of special significance is the dichotomy between the two; comparing and contrasting George's warm, extroverted personality on-set or with friends, with Mike's more socially withdrawn, isolated interviews in the solitude of his apartment. This means George, being the more outgoing of the two, gets the thrust of the film's attention, but it is Mike who grabs the film's most solemn, contemplative moments. Despite their clashing social tendencies, childhood stories between the two are crosscut so seamlessly its like watching some sort of kitsch-loving hive mind at work, and must be seen to be believed.
It Came From Kuchar also does well picking apart the highlights of the Kuchars' careers. Whether exploring the visual and aesthetic influences of Douglas Sirk, interviewing the Kuchar repertory of non-actors (from 72 -year-old-nudists to counter-culture cartoonists) or having distinguished Kuchar associates and film critics pick apart the importance of such gonzo films as Corruption of the Damned, these sections of the film are about as close the audience is going to get to seeing these films without a festival or indie film cooperative at their disposal. Needless to say, Kuchar will divide audiences as whether or not to the films featured are for them, but could possibly drum up a large new audience of art house rats to screenings and retrospectives (the brothers' works have yet to make it onto mainstream DVD). This alone scores the documentary major points for effort.
It Came From Kuchar never quite reaches its full potential. Workman-like and predictable in its contemporary structure, the film is carried by its eccentric subjects and their own body of work. That alone is a testament to their legacy.
Kroot and IndiePix are on probation for the goodness of their intentions. George and Mike Kuchar are awarded for their continued contribution to the world of experimental film and remain not guilty.
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