Sins Of The Fleshapoids‘ most telling scene doesn’t feature any of the sci-fi epic or gladiator movie camp most associated with this 1965 underground cinema classic. It comes towards the end, when the goofy, sincere plot–a robot a million years in the future discovers love and revolts–locks into place, director Mike Kuchar’s flea market aesthetic gets left behind and the human (okay, android) drama takes center stage.
Sassy despot Prince Gianbeno, played by Mike’s twin brother and fellow filmmaker George, hunts down Princess Viviana (whose garish style looks back to Max Ophuls’ Lola Montes and predates Divine in John Waters’ Pink Flamingos). A chase scene plays out on what are clearly the steps of an apartment. The Princess pushes the Prince down the steps and reunites with her lover Ernie on a floor unadorned by Kuchar’s adorable no-budget attempts at a Hollywood movie set.
Ernie betrays the Princess in an intense scene shot in what looks like the master bedroom of a middle class apartment (wood floors, French doors, nice curtains). Kuchar shoots their confrontation through those doors with a single light illuminating the scene. The Princess is framed in the corner and she looks directly into the camera, wounded by her lover’s cruelty.
A jump cut signals Ernie’s entrance into the frame. It’s quite moving and has more to do with say, the grimy melodrama of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (whose own goofy sci-fi epic World On A Wire is now finally seeing the light of day) than anything considered “psychotronic.”
To call this scene “amateur” is to miss the point. To wonder why a film set a million years in the future has suddenly landed in an apartment in the Bronx well, just don’t worry about that. Because what Sins Of The Fleshapoids gains by not looking like everything else out there and not really trying, far outweighs the supposed distractions that come out of such a strange aesthetic.
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Kuchar’s most charming decision is drawing comic book style speech bubbles onto the film, illustrating the characters’ dialogue. It’s a clever update on the silent movie aesthetic (and an innovative way to deal with a lack of synced sound), but it also provides the film with a naïve comic book context. The goofball serious plot, the sci-fi elements grafted together in way that places imagination above comprehensibility recalls the ambitious superhero work of Jack Kirby.
And though Kirby is now renowned for the way he established the building blocks of modern superhero mythos, his style—bizarre characters, lumpy physicality, painfully sincere plots—is as head scratching and intense as anything in Kuchar’s underground space opera.
The film’s soundtrack is culled from other movies (Bob Cowan, who also narrates and plays main fleshapoid Xar, is credited with “music assemblage”) and it’s wall-to-wall maudlin, then excited strings. Often though, the low fidelity of the recordings, on top of coming from an 8mm print, sounds like ambient noise. The score, filtered through whatever recording equipment available to Kuchar, provide a droning, eerie quality not unlike David Lynch and Alan Splet’s famous soundscape to Eraserhead. This is particularly well-used in the aforementioned scene between the Princess and Ernie. Ernie’s betrayal signals a jarring change to the soundtrack and a shrieking buzz scores the subsequent murder of Ernie. It’s haunting.
Sins Of The Fleshapoids hinges on turning limitations like poor sound into bold stylizations. A fruit basket is full of dollar store chintzy plastic apples and oranges better illustrating the tasteless decadence of man in the future.
The carpet and hardwood floors appear in a scene that’s supposed to be set in a temple, giving it a lived-in charm. The touching naivete of fleshapoids Xar and Melenka, two robot slaves in love—their romance cleverly set-up to contrast with the Princess and Ernie’s doomed affair—manifests itself through the actors’ awkward facial tics.
It’s important to realize that these are ultimately choices that send the unironic viewer further into Kuchar’s world. Sins Of The Fleshapoids doesn’t simply make innovative use of its low budget but rather, find ways to make the film even more poignant through that cheapness. Call it “transcendent camp.”
Brandon Soderberg is a critic and writer based in Baltimore, MD. He writes a weekly hip-hop column for Spin.com and has contributed to The Village Voice, Pitchfork, Baltimore City Paper, and the Independent Weekly.
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