In today's modern multimedia mindset, outsider art and artists get a pretty fair shake. Though they are never truly part of the mainstream, there are still enough outlets desperate for content that, at any given point, even the most underground of movements finds its facade plastered all over a magazine cover or cable news feature. In addition, the Internet acts like a merchandising missing link, giving individuals who used to toil away in abject obscurity an instant venue to shill their specialty. Filmmakers probably have the easiest time of it now. Thanks to emerging production and promotional technology, a couple thousand dollars can be turned into a career. No more paying dues, networking contacts and struggling to scrape together equipment - just head down to Best Buy with a credit card and start creating. In the decades since the ground swell in independent filmmaking, the ability to make and market movies has become as much a computer driven dynamic as a creative endeavor.
One has to wonder what original avant-garde anarchists like the Kuchar Brothers would have to say about the new DAT dominion. From the late 50s up and through today, these strange siblings, these surreal cinematic savants have been at the forefront of all that is post-modern, tacky and camp. Their classic, kitschy films have influenced directors as diverse as John Waters and David Lynch and spawned an entire DIY dynamic for experimental filmmaking. Out of dozens of dizzying examples of their visual verisimilitude the most famous is the often cited sci-fi epic Sins of the Fleshapoids. Discussed, dissected and debated, it is an example of one of those founding films that more people have heard about than actually seen. Now, thanks to DVD newcomer Other Cinema, we have a chance to witness this weird, wonderful classic in all its newly remastered and digitally derived glory. Only question is, does it live up to the out of proportion propaganda, or is it a hopelessly dated example of rose-colored revisionism. The answer is surprising indeed.
Focusing on works of director Mike Kuchar (both he and brother George were moviemakers, but his twin is only an actor here), we pick up the oeuvre nine official films in. Arguably containing Mike's most important and influential work, the three short features here (40, 35 and 25 mins respectively) are excellent examples of both brother's brazen cinematic eccentricity. Unlike anything that would come before, and far too familiar once their influence finally seeped in, this terrific triptych deserves to be rediscovered and savored by any true enthusiast of the experimental and the bizarre. We begin with the certified classic in the bunch:
Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965)
Plot: A million years in the future, a great war has decimated society. The survivors are a debaucherous lot, indulging in all manner of wicked vices. They leave the work to the Fleshapoids, an uncannily human set of robots. When one Fleshapoid longs to sin as well, he goes on a rampage to be reunited with his automaton lover.
Like an odd private joke playing out among the bored and decadent friends of some eccentrics, Sins of the Fleshapoids is an off-putting film at first. With all the hype surrounding the Kuchars and their campy, kitschy classics, you're not quite prepared for the minor statement in major machinations this movie provides. Looking at it initially, you have to wonder what all the hoopla is about. It is only after this slice of silly surrealism is sampled a second time that the answer to the mystery manifests itself.
Viewed through the veil of its time, Sins of the Fleshapoids is like unreal outsider gold. It's like a Tinsel Town potboiler passed through a pastiche of pop art polemics. It exists in its own sense of stilted logic, and provides the foundation for a thousand independent films to come. With its combination of stylized sets, rococo meets Rocket Jones idea of sci-fi, and perplexing, polarizing performances, it's like the cinematic equivalent of Pandora's box. Opening it is bound to unleash some serious demons. But there is also a proud personal statement inside, one almost anyone can relate to.
Mike Kuchar couches this film in close-ups, the better to hide his Bronx apartment backdrops. When something futuristic is required, he draws on plastic toys and the architecture of ancient Rome and Greece to realize his nu-world dreamscapes. Characters are decked out like participants in a tainted toga party, while others, like brother George, look like something out of 101 Gay Arabian Nights. Colors pulsate and throb from every shot and the decor is as decadent as the overall cognitive design. When characters speak, it's cartoon balloons that provide their written dialogue. The soundtrack exists without words, just a casual narrator filling us in on important plot points and some of the most ominous and operatic music ever employed for a score.
The end result is like walking into a community college production of the end of the world. There is a real meshing of the amateur and the auteur, a singular vision scuttled solely by a lack of real resources. The fact that the Kuchars make due with what they have, using talent and invention in the place of production value sets the stage for all who'll come after.
The end effect is an enigma. It's like viewing a parallel universe through a poorly tuned and tinted monitor. Sins of the Fleshapoids plays like a parody of an allegory laced in lunatic fringe freakiness. People feast on wax fruit, and robots are nothing more than actors in thrift store finds. Camera angles replace F/X and a decisively cosmopolitan aesthetic clouds the entire enterprise. While it may look like a cocktail party gone potty, or a homemade film made by grown-ups who should really know better, this benchmark in the world of outsider cinema stands apart because of its psychological, as well as filmic, properties.
The Kuchars were individuals with movies in their veins. Film flowed like blood through arteries caked with all kinds of celluloid, and the fervent, fevered consequence of said fixation is up on the screen for all to see. Part milestone, part millstone, it would be the crowning achievement for siblings still anxious to continue their art. Score: ****1/2
The Secret of Wendel Samson(1966)
Plot: A young artist feels trapped in his life. He is obviously homosexual, and yet feels confused and ashamed about his lifestyle. Unlucky in love, and unable to sufficiently express his emotions, he must resort to seedy one night stands and callous flings. Eventually, the strain is too much and he starts to have a breakdown.
Of the three films on this DVD, The Secret of Wendel Samson is the most serious. Certainly it has its bizarre elements, and director Mike never met a plot he couldn't pepper with nonsequitors, asides, and dream sequences. Still, at its heart, this is the story of a significantly confused man who is trying to adjust to his homosexuality in light of a mid-60s society that was still oppressing people of his proclivity. Avant-garde artist Red Grooms plays the title role, and he really enlivens the part with his performance.
Though Mike Kuchar provides the post-production voice, Red's sad sack slouch and alienated stare are what sell this story. In essence this is a road film, with both inner and outer pathways paved and explored. The Kuchars are concerned with identity and individuality here, but there is an additional social element that is sinister and kind of sick. Together they do a better job than any other self-indulgent bit of mental motion picture masturbation that you're likely to see polluting the festival circuit in this post-millennial malaise. For director Mike Kuchar, film is a visual medium, and pictures tell more about someone or something than a million mindless words.
Secret is incredibly inventive and very beautiful at times. Kuchar captures Grooms walking home, the evening sun dropping off to the side of an empty side street. As our hero wanders toward the camera, he is rendered in solemn silhouette, a single visual image that says more than any monologue or exchange of dialogue. There are montages and minor vignettes, symbolic situations (Wendel is initially viewed trapped in a giant spider's web) and obvious actions. In desperation to find himself, this unhappy man will jilt lovers, lament his life, and cruise for casual enjoyment just to f*ck and run. He will avoid both intimacy and the big questions.
Yet no matter what he does, he can't escape. Indeed, the finale, which takes place in an odd fantasy realm where society sirs and matrons demand he make love to an older socialite sums up the film's purpose perfectly. After trying, at gunpoint, to do the deed, Wendel revolts. The consequences should be deadly, but the ending is far more straightforward. Like the experimental film equivalent of the La Cage Aux Folles ballad "I Am What I Am", Wendel stands up or himself. He's still lonely and isolated, but maybe now he - and we - are a little more settled. Score: ****
The Craven Sluck (1967)
Plot: A bored housewife decides to kill herself. When the suicide attempt fails, she goes cruising for a new lover. She finds a young hipster in the park and they make plans for a rendezvous. But it appears elements both metaphysical and interplanetary are conspiring to keep her unhappy.
Of all the films in this set, The Craven Sluck seems like the practical primer for John Water's mischievous Mondo Trasho as well as his far more accomplished Multiple Maniacs. Like Mondo, Sluck is shot in black and white, features a blousy blond out cruising for men, and deals with wholly desperate and debauched characters. Maniacs uses Kuchar's unconventional narrative style, along with an equally surreal yet satisfying ending to create artistic anarchy. Certainly Waters extends his narrative in the latter by offering up the crazy Cavalcade of Perversion, and the knowing nods to other famous and infamous filmmakers are obvious, but before the Baltimore bad boy went Technicolor, this monochrome madness was one of his many bad taste blueprints.
The best part about Sluck is its star. Forty-plus year old Floraine Connors (a Kuchar company member) does her best bombshell gone to seed shimmy as the sexually frustrated spouse of a bumbling bloated husband. Her silent scenes (dialogue was later dubbed in to give some semblance of a storyline), including a couple of inspired "glamour fits" are absolutely hilarious and she really wants to come across as the middle-aged answer to Marilyn Monroe. Unfortunately, she's more like Mamie Van Doren circa an episode of Fantasy Island. Still, we want to follow this flubbery femme if only because her passions practically pulsate off the screen.
When she meets her attempted tryst (George Kuchar in a very bad Beatle wig), they share an amorous embrace. But director Mike just can't keep a straight face during the scene, and cuts to shots of a dog taking a dump as kind of a crude crap commentary on all the stupid soap operatics. With an ending that comes completely out of left field and yet feels like a perfectly proper finish to all the overheated horniness, The Craven Sluck is as gratuitous and goofy as the title implies. It's further proof that the Kuchars can create entertaining films, as well as deconstructing the basics of the artform in general. Score: ****
Perhaps the single most significant aspect of the Kuchar brothers' oeuvre is their homemade, happenstance quality. These are movies with scope as epic as your typical Hollywood melodrama (studio sleaze cheese king Douglas Sirk is always suggested as a Kuchar inspiration), yet they were usually filmed in the apartments of friends and family. Walls were painted to provide production value, and Mike's commercial art background was challenged to create futuristic landscapes and otherworldly visions. There is nothing subtle about the brothers' work. These films are filled with shots as statements, pointed sequences that say their piece and then pass the narrative baton. These movies are not meditations; they are frenzied fountains of inexperienced invigoration.
If you are coming to these films for excellent examples of acting, composition, framing or other motion picture foundations, you will walk away totally displeased. The Kuchars created movies to satisfy their own unique view of the visual medium, and the results are occasionally ridiculous, often resplendent. Fleshapoids functions like a revisionist reel on the basics of speculative fiction filmmaking, while Wendel Samson shows that sexual confusion and urban isolation can be one in the same thing. Certainly, the heroine of Craven Sluck has to be put out of her misery by a particularly peculiar version of a Deus Ex Machina, but it still sits well within the brothers' logic and logistics. Here's hoping the rest of their cracked canon makes it onto the digital domain soon. From this initial offering, the Kuchars could catch on with a new generation of jaded film fans, sick and tired of the mainstream manure mucking up the Cineplex. While their films lack professionalism, they are solid with the stuff dreams are made of - and in the world of movies, isn't that what's most important?
For films as rare and as no budget as these, Other Cinema deserves untold mountains of praise for how pristine these transfers are. Each short is offered in its original 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio and is almost like new in its vibrancy and visualization. There are some minor editing issues, and a couple of concerning scratches, but for the most part these movies look remarkable. The colors - always important to a Kuchar production - are perfect, and the monochrome makeup of Sluck is pure black and white wonderment. Add in excellent contrasts and a true attention to detail and you have some of the best images offered of homemade movies ever.
Since there was not a huge focus on the sound in his films, director Mike Kuchar cut a few corners in the recording and mastering. The shrill, sometimes dissonant results are present in this otherwise acceptable aural offering. Music is as carefully modulated as possible, and when dialogue or narration is present, we get some trivial distortion, but nothing serious or unsalvageable. Besides, the way a Kuchar film looks is far more important than its sonic strategies. One may have to wade through a few rough decibel dimensions while visiting this trilogy of treats, but it's well worth the effort.
Technically, The Secret of Wendel Samson and The Craven Sluck are "bonus films" as part of this DVD's added features. It seems a shame, however, to treat them as such. Removing them from the equation for a moment, the only other extra here is a director's commentary on all three films. Yep, Mike Kuchar (along with moderator Dan Carbone) sits down to discuss his manic moviemaking career and it's a thoroughly engaging experience. With a voice still flecked with a wide eyed innocence and a timber that takes some getting used to (Mike is a little too perky at times) Kuchar comments on almost every facet of how his films were, and continue to be made. He exposes secret shortcuts, comments on his brother's choice of wardrobe and picks out certain shots and setups for praise. Carbone keeps the conversation moving, and Kuchar often asks for help in keeping the conversation lively. Along with two trailers for additional Other Cinema product and an insert booklet complete with a Mike Kuchar interview, this is a wonderful bit of necessary context, something that longtime devotees and individuals new to the Kuchar Brothers clique will find indispensable.
Clearly the Kuchars are important - not just for their films, but for what the brothers, as filmmakers, represent. Most moviemakers are caught up in the commerce of the artform, wanting to make it big and reap the materialistic rewards that come with such success even before mastering motion pictures. Others view their tenure behind the lens as a warm-up for their own impending fame, the calm before the celebrity, so to speak. This was not the motivation behind George and Michael's mission, however. Both boys were in love with film - how it made them feel, how it envisioned the world, and how it reflected and refracted reality. They wanted to make movies because making movies was fun, and the end result was (hopefully) entertaining. There was no grab for cash, no purposeful position for big budget mainstream success. Like songwriters who compose only to satisfy their own muse, the Kuchars made motion pictures to populate their own personal Cineplex. The fact that others have seen and enshrined them is icing on an already sweetly self-celebratory cake. Independents worship these sly siblings because they managed what many outside the norm failed to find in the 60s and 70s. They did what they wanted and were embraced for it. Now, such commemoration seems simple. But back then, it was groundbreaking - just like the films in this amazing DVD presentation.
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