Over-the-top and back again

Directors: The Kuchar Brothers started with a tiny budget, an off-kilter vision and made the rest up as they went along. Film festival salutes their body of work.

The Maryland Film Festival

April 28, 2000|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

What the movie-making Kuchar Brothers have lacked in budget they have made up for in imagination.

At the end of a Cold War film, they piled chairs atop the actors to represent the aftermath of a bomb blast. For a ship scene, somebody off-screen tossed water onto the actors to simulate waves splashing onto a nonexistent ship's nonexistent deck. When they needed sunlight to shoot by, they'd go on the rooftops of the Bronx neighborhood where they grew up.

The 57-year-old twins, George and Mike Kuchar, made dozens of needless-to-say noncommercial, mostly short movies in the 1950s and 1960s. Their underground style was so over-the-top they gained above-ground reputations.

The titles of their films were as campy as their freewheeling productions: "The Naked and the Nude," "A Town Called Tempest," "Lust for Ecstasy," "Death Quest of the Ju-Ju Cults," "Color Me Shameless," "Pagan Rhapsody" and "Cattle Mutilations."

And now, working separately, the brothers make videos that are just as weird.

You aren't likely to see their films at your local megaplex, but the Maryland Film Festival is presenting a selection of their works, with the brothers themselves playing host, in two programs: some videos this afternoon at 4: 30 and some early films tomorrow at 5 p.m. at the Charles Theater.

The programs include several of their most influential films: Mike's futuristic fantasy, "Sins of the Fleshapoids" (1965); George's film about the making of a low-budget film, "Hold Me While I'm Naked" (1966); and George's UFO-themed "Ascension of the Demonoids" (1985). During the shooting of "Demonoids," George tired of making UFO movies and ended the film with totally unrelated touristy footage shot in Hawaii (the money for the Hawaii trip was provided by an unprecedented-for-a-Kuchar-film grant of $20,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts).

Asked about UFOs, in which he still believes, George says from his San Francisco home: "There are true stories about people meeting beings from outer space, and that's been one of my themes. What happens to the bodies of people and their moral fiber? Because whatever you meet in life changes you somehow and triggers reactions."

For all the strangeness of his movies, George has had a measure of career stability, teaching video production courses for the past 29 years at the San Francisco Art Institute. "It's a non-tenured position," he says, "but if you don't get in any fistfights with the faculty they extend the contract."

George also gives guest lectures at other schools, including an appearance at the Maryland Institute, College of Art in 1997.

During such gigs, he's invariably asked how the Kuchar Brothers became, well, the Kuchar Brothers. There are several intertwined explanations. Having a Catholic boyhood factors in. As does reading the trashy novels their truck driver father brought home. As does reading lots of comic books.

A major factor was what amounted to a childhood spent in movie theaters, including repeated viewings of the Douglas Sirk melodrama "Written on the Wind."

From moviegoers they became moviemakers when they were given an 8mm camera for their 12th birthday and later graduated to making 16mm films. Fakey sets, loud colors, inept acting and absurd stories have always been the Kuchar norm.

And they took whatever jobs they had to in order to finance their movies; for a time George even worked as a messenger for a greeting card company.

In the early 1960s they became auteurs of the amateurish and the fake. In a 1967 interview, Mike said: "I have two kinds of actors I work with. Half of them overact, the other half can't act at all." And George once wrote: "Why anyone would spend time in a dark theater searching for reality up on that screen is beyond me; we should go there to forget about reality."

That's why they've always been enamored of the Hollywood dream factory. Asked about this cinematic love affair, Mike now says from his New York home: "Our style in a way draws on the Hollywood legacy of shots and design and lighting. Everything is artificial, but underlying it is a certain real truth."

That attitude made them famous in underground film circles during the 1960s and inspired slightly younger filmmakers including John Waters, who says of his two friends: "They made these lurid melodramas, used thrift shop costumes and had this great sensibility I had never seen before. They were like bargain-basement Douglas Sirk. There's great elegance in their shabby vision. They can really make a dollar holler."

Mike and George Kuchar are still stretching a dollar as far as it'll go.

"I like making something out of nothing, making it look as if it has production value when it doesn't," Mike says. "You can spend $2,000 on a light bulb or $2.50, but the one thing they have in common is that they both give off light."

Alarmed by rising film costs, both brothers now work only in video.

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