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The Kuchar brothers' legendary camp

By Simone Stein

These days, Mike Kuchar's movies rarely cost more than $100 to make. Along with his twin brother, George, he's something of a legend in certain circles, often mentioned in the same breath with John Waters, Jack Smith and Paul Morrissey. The San Francisco-based Kuchars, however, largely remain happily obscure. Few realize the momentous influence their lurid high-camp aesthetic has had on making irony and trash culture our lingua franca.

The Kuchars' movies take all the sordid subtexts of Hollywood films and bring them right to the surface, reveling in grotesquerie, sci-fi lunacy and beefy homoeroticism. At the same time, there's often a real depth beneath the sleaze. The harrowing, sourly funny Cupid's Infirmary, for instance, is a drama of emotional warfare among two couples. The women are played by ferocious drag queens, and one character is a sex-starved Ex-Lax-gobbling anorexic. Beneath all the insanity, Mike says, laughing, the story is actually largely autobiographical in a way that would be devastating for him to address straight on, and that truth is evident in the movie, making audiences squirm even as they laugh.

Though each has a separate body of work, the twins share all their equipment and collaborated on their early films. Their apparently symbiotic relationship has added much to their mystique. "When we first started, we would work on a picture together, taking turns shooting sequences," says Mike Kuchar, the older of the 56-year-old brothers by a few minutes. He and George were given their first camera when they were 12, and they found that cheap 8-millimeter film (and, later, video) was all they needed to express themselves. Forty-some years later, their work has been shown at the New York MOMA and other highbrow venues, but their methods--and their ambitions--are essentially the same.

"When I made pictures it was always a hobby. It was like playtime for me," says Mike. "I started when I was a kid, and it just came naturally. I never thought of a career or wondered what these movies would do for me. What they did for me was they gave me pleasure in making them--it was an adventure."

This, of course, is a fairly standard line, but the Kuchars' utterly unmercenary careers bear it out. Mike's indifference to commercial success may be a product of his past in New York's '60s underground--decades ago, it seems it was still possible to be impervious to the prospect of fame. Indeed, Mike has noticed the change among younger would-be avant-garde filmmakers. "I find sometimes in film schools there's an attitude of 'I'm going to make a picture and I'm going to get famous.' I don't think you should think that way. You never know what will happen, but the thing is if you get some pleasure or if it's an adventure for you, you should do it. Maybe something will happen, or maybe you'll make something great or the world will need it, you don't know. Make it because you want to make it, because it's fun for you and an exploration. Then if nothing happens with it, if you don't get picked up by Hollywood, it doesn't matter because you enjoyed making it."

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The Kuchar brothers' retrospective is part of the National Queer Arts Festival.

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Ironically, the Kuchars' early work was often compared to that of their colleague Andy Warhol, the person who probably single-handedly made an under-the-radar career like theirs impossible to imagine today. Early on, their work was shown in the same places as Warhol's, and they'd frequent each other's films. Like Warhol, the Kuchars created their own stars, satirizing Hollywood's mythic glamour by turning their freaky friends into icons. "I make my stars. Hollywood has its stars, and I have my stars," says Mike. "They're out on the street, they're in apartment buildings. Why don't we see if we can make stars out of them?"

His actors are blatantly unprofessional; in fact, Mike says he's often pleased by bad acting. "I'm conscious of this kind of glamour that's presented in movies, that it's artificial. What's real is the fact that it is artificial, it's a production," he says. "Sometimes, if a person can't act well it makes the picture even better, it adds more drama, because here is a human being trying to be somebody else and trying to do their best but they're faltering. Looking at them makes you uncomfortable, but also makes you realize that this is a very heroic person. You know there's a human being behind the facade, and there's another drama going on amidst the written drama in the script. There's also a personal drama of people getting in front of a camera and trying to do their best, trying to give a good performance that will get them somewhere, maybe to a better production with a better paycheck."

The Kuchars' mocking attitude toward celebrity is much less ambivalent and obsessive than Warhol's ever was. Unlike the Kuchars, Warhol always resented Hollywood for not taking enough notice of him. "If Hollywood asked me to make a picture, I'd make it, but I'm not frustrated that they didn't ask me." says Mike. I create my own special effects. I've never been frustrated, and neither has my brother--because we make pictures."


A retrospective of the Kuchar brothers' work will be shown June 15 at 7:30 as part of the Queer Arts Festival. Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St.; $8; 415.552.7709.

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From the June 7, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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