Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Out of the mysterious depths of New York underground cinema comes Mike Kuchar's Sins of the Fleshapoids, a homemade 16mm Kodachrome epic from the wilds of Brooklyn. Like millions of 50s kids with access to home movie cameras, the Kuchar brothers entertained themselves by filming their own backyard spectaculars, a hobby that didn't go away as they left home and took jobs in the real world. Mike became a photo retoucher by day and a secret cinema legend by night, with the help of close friends and like-minded cinephiles bitten by the movie bug.
Earlier experimentalists (think Kenneth Anger, Curtis Harrington and Maya Deren) took as their inspiration the work of artists-turned-filmmakers, like Man Ray. The Kuchar brothers belong to a specific 1960s underground movement that, roughly speaking, includes Andy Warhol's Factory. Mike Kuchar's movies mix camp-oriented worship of Hollywood fare -- gaudy soap operas, skin-worshipping toga epics, clumsy science fiction -- with a heady dose of pan-sexual lust. Uniquely tacky and garish, Sins of the Fleshapoids is nevertheless legitimate art.
A million years in the future. Humans live in luxury, waited on hand and foot by robotic Fleshapoids. One wealthy voluptuary (Gina Zuckerman) doesn't realize that her personal robot Xar (Bob Cowan), like many other Fleshapoids, has developed feelings and emotions. Xar kills her and leaves. At a nearby palace, Prince Gianbeno (George Kuchar) mistreats his secretly advanced Fleshapoid Malenka (Maren Thomas). The Prince doesn't realize that his wife, Princess Vivianna (Donna Kerness) is seeing a handsome lover, Ernie (Julius Middleman) behind his back. Will Xar and Malenka make soulful contact? Will Princess Vivianna discover that Ernie only loves her for her jewels?
The average filmgoer conditioned to the processed and bonded products of the film industry will regard Sins of the Fleshapoids in the same way that George C. Scott looked at pornographic loops in the movie Hardcore: Who makes this stuff? Who watches it? Where is it shown? It's true: To the uninitiated Mike Kuchar's films resemble oversexed, overheated versions of our high school and college fun movies, films that garnered attention in the dorms, but we'd never dare screen now. Yet Fleshapoids has the undeniable attraction of refined Camp spoofery.
Mike Kuchar's disc commentary answers the three questions above. He made his non-commercial independent films to express himself. Fleshapoids was filmed with a 16mm Bolex on hand-painted sets. Having no synchronizer, Kuchar figured out where to place his superimposed "cartoon balloon" dialogue by manually reeling two film strips side-by-side and hoping they stayed more or less in synch. Mike Kuchar talks about special screenings for friends and other artists and the occasional museum or film club airing. He even writes about being invited to screen his films at a Manhattan ad agency, only to have the Madison Avenue 'creatives' raid his work for ideas, for free. Kuchar also alludes to some of his and his brother George's work being screened in gay theaters looking for 'camp' short subjects.
Sins of the Fleshapoids is camp cinema, not gay cinema. It has no sex scenes and no actual nudity beyond an occasional skimpy costume. The Kuchar brothers utilized a stock company of friends interested in moviemaking fun. Being a Kuchar "star" mainly meant being available and dependable: one 'actress' is described as an exhibitionist who would play whatever was needed, as long as the role included a few semi-erotic glamorous bits of business.
No verbal description of Fleshapoids can quite do it justice. Incapable of achieving professional effects, Kuchar happily settles for their dime store equivalents. His art direction is actually very arresting, with hand-painted mural backgrounds and thrift store settings: "Artificial fruit is better for Kodachrome because it's more colorful." "See that evening gown? It cost 35 cents!" Prince Gianbeno's palace is a piece of cartoon artwork and Xar's Fleshapoid robot costume is little more than an odd helmet with a chinstrap. Kuchar's non-actors mostly pose or go through dream-state motions while Bob Cowan's stentorian narration keeps the plot on track. Inventive visuals recycle ideas from old von Sternberg and De Mille movies. Many scenes are filmed through nets, lacy tablecloths and sheer drapes, giving Fleshapoids a crude yet interesting texture.
Kuchar comes right out and says that his basic story idea came from Creation of the Humanoids, a legit Hollywood production about robots identical to humans. In Kuchar's pastiche, the robot Xar rebels like a Roman slave in search of liberty. He and another robot have sex simply by exchanging electric bolts through their fingertips (hand-scratched on film, of course). Meanwhile, the palace is shaken by betrayals worthy of a Susan Hayward potboiler.
The surprising thing is that we react to the film's crude theatrics the same as we might for something like Demetrius and the Gladiators. Cued by the generic context of Roman baths and royal duplicity, we accept Kuchar's little drama on its own level of make-believe. Xar and his robotic paramour Malenka use the electric power of their love to reduce the sneering Prince Gianbeno to a pile of ashes, and live happily ever after. Face it, Blade Runner is just Fleshapoids made with a fancier set of Tinkertoys.
Other Cinema's DVD of Sins of the Fleshapoids looks darn good considering that Kuchar started with dense Kodachrome reversal film. Colors are harsh but acceptable and the print has little damage. The dialogue-challenged movie makes due with a clearly recorded narration and those humorous cartoon dialogue balloons. An 'assembled' music track consists of classical snippets and several cues from the original Bernard Herrmann soundtrack to The 7th Voyage of Sinbad! Holy infringement, Xar!
The disc also includes two quite different Mike Kuchar movies that bring the show's total running time to 97 minutes. The Secret of Wendel Samson is a moody slice of gay psychology about a bearded fellow (artist "Red" Grooms) unable to tell his girlfriend why she doesn't turn him on. It begins and ends with fantasy sequences -- Samson is caught in a giant spider's web, and then assassinated by a room-ful of spies and disapproving straights wielding toy guns. The Craven Sluck is an oddball farce that immediately connects with the work of Kuchar enthusiast John Waters. An exhibitionist housewife with frizzed-out hair and delusions of stardom considers the crazy path of adultery. A host of sexually confused characters appear: A housewife played by a hirsute man in drag, a beautiful model. Bad taste rears its snout with a scene of the woman's dog doing its business in public. At a loss to wind things up, Kuchar has his heroine vaporized by invading flying saucers.
Rambling Mike Kuchar commentaries on all three films will be essential listening for those brave enough to give this disc a spin. A text insert offers an illuminating Kuchar questionnaire-interview by Jack Stevenson, author of Desperate Visions: The Films of John Waters and the Kuchar Brothers. 'Eccentric' may be too mild a word to describe Mike Kuchar, an odd but refreshingly honest filmmaker. His commentary is mercifully free of obfuscating 'artspeak.' Viewers still enjoy his kooky films, and that's what counts.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sins of the Fleshapoids rates:
Movie: Good Excellent, in Underground Cinema terms
Supplements: Two more Mike Kuchar short films The Secret of Wendel Samson and The Craven Sluck; Commentaries on all three films by Kuchar; Insert interview conducted by Jack Stevenson.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 4, 2007
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson