To prepare for the Mike Kuchar Showcase on Artscape's opening night, I bought Jennifer M. Kroot's "It Came from Kuchar," an elating and revealing docu-biography of underground filmmaker Mike Kuchar and his fellow auteur, brother George. (It's now out on DVD: go to kucharfilm.com.)
I was never a fan of New York's proudly amateurish, campy and poetic "underground cinema" scene, not even when I was working for a small film magazine in the basement of the Bleecker Street Cinema. But Kroot's film opened my mind to their odd charms. She celebrates the underground films of the 1960s and 1970s (and beyond) as smart social occasions: cinematic happenings at a time when hipness was a mark of iconoclastic humor, not a marketing tool.
She sees the Kuchars, in particular — the Manhattan-born, Bronx-bred sons of a Ukrainian-immigrant mother and Hungarian-American father — as straight-arrow working-class eccentrics who brought new blood and other bodily substances into a scene that might have hardened or grown stale or merely "chic."
Mixing genres like domestic melodrama and science fiction with a gleeful DIY expressionism and a heavy dose of camp humor, they ignited the imaginations of devotees like John Waters and (Kroot argues) David Lynch. With late-night screenings in funky venues, they and their peers helped establish "midnight movies," leading straight to " The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Their shock value has lasting impact. When you see the Cameron Diaz stiff-hair gag in "There's Something About Mary," you're seeing the influence of the Kuchars.
I called Kroot at her home in San Francisco to get a fix on what Artscape audiences might expect from Kuchar. Her knowledge of the Kuchars goes deep. She studied filmmaking with George at the San Francisco Art Institute. She went from thinking underground movies were boring to considering them groundbreaking, exhilarating and simultaneously funny and expressive.
Kroot applauds the Artscape event because she thinks the Kuchars' movies were "made to be seen in a group setting." She wishes she could have been there 40 years ago when the Kuchars would show up for their screenings in suits and ties while the rest of the crowd wore black turtlenecks. "They're very sincere," Kroot explains. "They don't like seeing films that other people think are camp, and they would never present themselves as 'hip.' " But the hipsters of the 1960s welcomed them. The heirs of those hipsters still do, even if they've gone from proudly seedy joints to festivals and museums.
A festival screening may not have the same drug-spiked party atmosphere and bohemian frenzy of the original late-night screenings. But it should echo the celebratory part of the Kuchar experience. That happy-ritual atmosphere, Kroot says, helped inspire them to create "this crazy little parallel-Hollywood experience, with their own stars and followers. Mike is especially shy, and I think moviemaking for them was partly a way to be social and make friends comfortably." They did make friends and influence people, including Waters, Atom Egoyan and Wayne Wang.
"Mike is much shyer than George," says Kroot. "He usually describes his films as a hobby, I'm not exactly sure why; George would say they're his vocation. Mike's movies have changed over the years. Now he mostly does experimental video portraits of glamorous men. They'll contain lots of poetry. I think of them as nouveau beatnik. He also does quirky, campy soap operas that he calls teleplays."
But to Kroot, all his movies have a palpable aesthetic charge. "Both George and Mike are also amazing fine artists," Kroot says enthusiastically. "Mike has a whole cult following from the art work he did for the underground comic "Gay Heart Throbs." It's not as mainstream as the work George did in the early days of underground comics, with R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman. But when I did an event with Mike in San Francisco, lines of fans were coming up to Mike. They were carrying copies of "Gay Heart Throbs" for him to sign."
If you go
Mike Kuchar presents a career-spanning selection of works at the Charles Theatre, 1711 N. Charles St., July 16 at 7 p.m. The event is free and will be followed by a question-and-answer session. Go to thecharles.com or call 410-727-3456.