It was a fateful day in the Bronx in 1954 when George and Mike Kuchar’s parents bestowed the fraternal twins with an 8mm movie camera. No sooner did they receive it in their hot little hands that this wildly precocious pair began production on their first epic A Tub Named Desire. They followed their debut with The Naked and the Nude, and later on such outre delights as I Was A Teenage Rumpot, Pussy On A Hot Time Roof and Lust For Ecstasy.
As is obvious from the titles alone, George and Mike were besotted with Hollywood, but in their own very curious way. Their films are both parodies and homages; while they are hilarious funny, they are “kidding on the square.” By shooting their films in their own neighborhood and in their own home, George and Mike underscored the gaping divide between real life and Hollywood fantasy, in a way that consistently emphasized a longing to transcend the mundane, even while caught in the midst of it.
And what better way to transcend the mundane than to turn friends like Bob Cowan and Donna Kerness into movie stars? A decade before Andy Warhol invented the self-made “superstar,” Mike and George made Bob and Donna their contemporary answer to Liz Taylor and Richard Burton (or imagine a contemporary YouTube videomaker turning his or her friends into a homemade Brad and Angelina, and you get the idea) .
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And yet, the twins, who began their careers in tandem, eventually diverged. According to the IMDb, George has 216 titles to his credit while Mike a mere 18. That’s because George was the primary director on a considerable number of their collaborations. Mike struck out on his own in the mid-60’s, and happily three of his best works are available on Fandor. In some ways a loose trilogy, Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965), The Secret of Wendel Samson (1966), and The Craven Sluck (1967) show just what’s different about the twins.
At first glance Sins bears the hallmarks of brother George’s fixation with science fiction fantasy. But rather than patterning itself after Hollywood sci-fi, Mike’s film is clearly inspired by the low-budget classic Creation of the Humanoids (1962), about a society of the future in which robots long to be humans. Someone connected to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner obviously took a look at Humanoids. And Scott must have seen Mike’s film as well, for the fact that Bob Cowan (Fleshapoids‘ music supervisor as well as its star) frequently uses the Adagio from Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 (“The Romantic”) — which also memorably figures in Scott’s Alien.
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Mike dresses his cast in outfits that suggest a thrift store meltdown or rummage sale raid, fitting for a story which is set millions of years in the future after a nuclear apocalypse. The survivors live in indolent splendor, lounging around while languidly chewing on fruit and candy offered by their “Fleshapoid” robot servants, who give them baths as well. Bob Cowan’s robot discovers sexual bliss with another robot, electrifying each other with finger touches, leading him to strangle his human mistress almost as an afterthought.
The Craven Sluck details a domestic drama involving a neglected housewife driven to a failed suicide attempt, only to be met with scorn by her abusive spouse (Cowan). That’s a fairly simple formula for melodrama; what’s less easy to peg is a climactic sequence in which Cowan in drag plays another housewife running amok in the neighborhood. Brother George made his share of hysterically tongue-in-cheek tearjerkers, but never never went quite that far.
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The Secret of Wendel Samson is a complete departure from both Fleshapoids and Sluck. Centering on a lonely, tormented man (played by noted Pop Artist Red Grooms) trying to come to grips with being gay, it opens with a German Expressionist-styled nightmare in which our hero struggles to free himself from an enormous spider’s web. We meet Terry, a wealthy gay lover he longs to leave, and Margaret (Grooms’ wife Mimi Gross), a young woman who wants the more-than-reluctant Wendel to make love to her. This is presented in a virtually neo-realist mode uncharacteristic of the Kuchars, but some scenes break with naturalism altogether. Two sinister men (Cowan and George Kuchar) silently follow Wendel(Mike cites Orson Welles’ The Trial as an inspiration) and at one point forces him to attempt to make love to a woman in a room filled with laughing and taunting people. Clearly this was Mike’s take on gay life before the liberation of the Stonewall riots (which came three years after Wendel Samson).
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John Waters often speaks of the Kuchars as an inspiration for his infamous Baltimore epics. And avant garde mainstay Jonas Mekas was only too glad to point to them as an ideal example of how everyone can – and should – take a stab at being a filmmaker. Still, Mike Kuchar’s films don’t offer a formula that’s easy to follow. They are homemade but the recipe isn’t readily copied, and are best tasted straight from the original chef’s creations. Bon appetit.
David Ehrenstein is a writer whose books include Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928-2000 and The Scorsese Picture: The Art and Life of Martin Scorsese. He lives in Los Angeles.
WATCH THE FILMS OF MIKE KUCHAR ON FANDOR.