Along with his twin brother Mike, George Kuchar (above, right) did not set out to become one half of the most influential underground filmmaking team in American cinema history. The 69 year-old Bronx-born director, an iconic figure to the likes of John Waters and Guy Maddin, remembers that the ambitions of his younger self were far more mainstream.
“Oh, he would go to bed and dream about running a movie studio,” reminisces Kuchar, from his home in San Francisco. “Having dinner with the big stars like Rock Hudson. But then he also had the other side of his personality, which made him feel like he was falling apart, as well as all the crazy sexual stuff, and his movies became a way of expressing all that stuff.”
Such random moments of personal insight emerge resonantly from It Came From Kuchar, a frank, funny documentary screening as part of the Australian Centre for The Moving Image's (ACMI) 'Freaky Friday' program throughout April and May. The documentary's director, Jennifer M. Kroot, who first encountered George whilst attending his production class at the San Francisco Institute of Art, became enamoured with the heartfelt eccentricities of the men. The first film of George's that she watched was “a strange, surreal, melodramatic, black-&-white version of The Love Boat called The Desperate and The Deep.”
“As filmmakers, they are pretty different. George makes a lot of fun of himself in his work, grappling with the horrors of living; he makes a lot of campy jokes. George is a lot more accessible,“ she says, though qualifies that by saying “in the context of not being mainstream, he is a lot more mainstream.” Mike's films, however, can be particularly challenging to view. “His films are campy up to a point and then they are just strange,” says Kroot. Of her first experience watching Mike's work, she recalls “I couldn't believe the things that happened in it. It was almost funny but not quite.” Though they often directed in unison, it is Mike's dark vision that resulted in many of the films regarded as Kuchar classics – among them, Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965), Hold Me While I'm Naked (1966) and The Craven Sluck (1967).
“Mike is slower,” George deadpans. “He's not really a hermit, but he seems to get along better in a closed room than I do. I tend to go out a little more and get into more trouble. My brother can delve into a world of poetry and fantasy.” George's films, it must be said, have tended to reflect a fascination with the anatomical (with liberal doses of make-up, storms, transvestisism and UFO imagery mixed in). “With me, it is more of a case of heading into the gutter,” he freely admits. “Sex is an uncontrollable force. It can go off in strange directions and you are not quite sure what sets it off in those directions. It is a very useful energy.”
Such a self-deprecating comment suggests he does not take his own talent or his work all that seriously, despite having over 500 films to his credit. He hopes, however, that others might. During the interview, a melancholy side to the avant-garde pioneer emerged; his thoughts on the legacy he will leave behind, as both a moviemaker and as a man, infused the discussion. “Hopefully, when you drop dead, (your films) live on. Especially if you are childless, they become your children and they get a life of their own. Maybe then you are remembered.” When reminded of his famous quote from Hold Me While I'm Naked - “There's a lot of things in life worth living for. Isn't there?” – he puts the optimism of the period into a current perspective. “Unfortunately, a lot of the things worth living for, when you get older, start falling apart. Therefore, you wonder if you want to keep living anymore. You realise that, as you get older, things change.”
Jennifer Kroot understands her friend and mentor's softer side. “He sees himself as ageing, kind of depraved,” she laughs. “I think he worries, like we all do, 'will he be forgotten when he's gone?'. He is playful and funny, but [artists] often have a dark side or are struggling with dark issues. They are often either laughing or crying.” His work, she is certain, will serve his legend well. “George has, like, 500 kids! He has more kids than anyone. I doubt they'll be forgotten; they have brought so much joy to people. I can't imagine they wouldn't continue on, possible gaining in popularity.”
And then there's the George Kuchar travel diaries – video snapshots of his homeland that number in the hundreds and that reflect a nation that has both feted and rejected bold visionaries like the Kuchar brothers. When asked to reflect upon the America that has been captured by his lens, George's voice almost booms. “It is a huge country, full of varied weather, and the people are very genuine and warm. And that, at least in the past, revered the founding fathers. And that it was a dream that people from other lands felt and which (inspired) ambition.”
“People are surprised by his patriotism,” says Kroot. “He wants everything to be kind of a 1950's America. That image of a happy family home, with the mother and the father and the safety and stability.” George is open about the impact Douglas Sirk's landmark 1959 melodrama Imitation of Life had on his career. Kroot understands that George, despite is ebullient personality, is very much the sensitive artist. “For George and Mike that was a time when they were growing up and you tend to grasp for that, to develop a longing for a more stable time.”
He would love to visit Australia (“My brother has, he toured with his films, but I never have.”) and he finds joy in life's simpler pleasures, like food and friends – as we end our conversation, he says “Well, if you ever come to San Francisco I can take you out to eat, we can get some Chinese.” Most of all, he is concerned that he came across as morose. “I hope that was not too glum,” he says. For those that have and will continue to experience the spectacularly sordid, ravishing and unashamedly tawdry world of George and Mike Kuchar and their underground classics, 'glum' is not a word that will ever spring to mind.