In an impishly esoteric underground career spanning five decades, twin brothers George and Mike Kuchar have made films that stretch the term “independent” to an asphyxiatingly airy thinness, and have shown these to the world by any means available—private home viewings, art house exhibits, or student-run film school functions. Their oceanic aesthetic has included Super 8 family films, Warhol-inspired pop art films, full frontal gorilla suit-laden sexploitation films, goofily tortured artist diary films, and full-bore rubber mask and chroma-key blood sci-fi/horror films—just to name a few manifestations of their genre amorphousness. Jennifer M. Kroot’s fond portrait It Came from Kuchar is something of a greatest-hits compilation of these bizarre and yet somehow innocent cultural artifacts, plucking representative scenes from a back catalogue of hundreds of shorts and feature-length movies while tracing the Kuchar brothers’ personal histories through a second-generation immigrant childhood in the Bronx, to the celluloid dungeons of NYC’s burgeoning 1960s DIY film scene, to limited industry acceptance and teaching residencies at the San Francisco Art Institute.
The movie works most persuasively as a road-show collage of mad Kuchar poetry, and the various appreciations of the brothers’ lo-def arts and crafts methods have the ring of inclusive encouragement; hearing Bill Griffith praise George Kuchar’s very obviously scribbled-on makeup style is enough to compel anyone to see just how far his or her lack of production skills can take them. But as with all fringe-artist docs, one can feel the onus of mainstream relevance tempering the kaleidoscopic amateurism on display. Kroot ensures that we’re aware of the brothers’ hip influences (particularly Douglas Sirk, whose Imitation of Life is aped mercilessly and hilariously in a Kuchar flick), their ironic knowledge of craft (in one scene George rhapsodizes over the cookaloris as though it were a deep focus lens), and their street cred; Kuchar experiments were once mentioned in the same Jonas Mekas breath as the latest subversive reels by Jack Smith, though when Kroot’s interviewees attempt to position the brothers’ “comic” work as superior to Stan Brakhage’s dry formalism you may wince with embarrassment.
Kroot nearly loses us in her efforts to prove how widespread the Kuchars’ impact has been; the title of the film itself seems a last-minute attempt to expose their oeuvre as a veiny, subterranean etiology. And it’s not that they haven’t been, in their own way, influential (an early fecal-centric short deeply affected a young John Waters, and they even cast a 20-something Art Spiegelman in a co-starring role), but most mature reactions to their films have been stunned acknowledgements, and/or demurrals, of cinema’s outré limits rather than direct contentual inspiration. Wayne Wang discusses seeing Thundercrack, a borderline porn collaboration between George Kuchar and underground queer art hero Curt McDowell, and feeling finally assimilated as an American; one-time Kuchar financier Buck Henry mostly blinks at the brothers’ detailed UFO stories; and Atom Egoyan pours over a stream-of-consciousness letter he received from George as though it were outsider art.
There’s a soft condescension that can inflict the tone of conversations regarding—to put it delicately—eccentric artists, a condescension intensified, perhaps, when the artist in question also works outside of mainstream outlets. The most effective documentaries about these individuals—the splashiest example being Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb—balance unabashed candor with probing sensitivity as a way of “reading” the artist’s condition as one of many influences on their work. It Came from Kuchar fully admits to its subjects’ idiosyncrasies, both through interviews with the brothers and testimony from others: Mike, for example, is unable to maintain eye contact with anyone, and when discussing his convalescent mother flatly states that “Old people are weird.” But Kroot shies away from directly questioning the brothers’ off-kilter behavior, seemingly attesting their social awkwardness to an irrepressible zeal for film, and in doing so leaves the Kuchars’ very often sloppy work wide open for less-than-complimentary psychoanalysis.
Only B. Ruby Rich tackles this perplexing aspect of the Kuchars’ home video style, describing their films as a clear extension of puerile, guilelessly exploratory sexuality. And, to be sure, this naivety creates a profound tension in the brothers’ best films, where one isn’t entirely certain if the scenarios are honestly misunderstood depictions of reality or expressions of angular wit. In one short, a limping, lispy man manneredly picks up another in a darkened park with coded references to “coffee”; the scene jump cuts to the two nude, in bed, literally enacting the euphemisms and sipping coffee. Are the filmmakers consciously toying with underground language or blissfully unaware of social subtexts? Kroot doesn’t quite venture far enough to ask this question, instead championing the Kuchars as further proof of the sigh-inducing observation that cinematic genius can be found in anyone who loves film. The documentary’s final moments, which show 30 seconds of a recent college workshop project undertaken by George followed by several minutes of effervescent praise from students, nearly liken the Kuchars’ appeal to Ed Wood’s myth: The final product is less important than the enthusiasm with which it’s created.