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The Return of Kuchar

Legendary underground filmmaker brings some new works to town

Floraine Connors, as seen in Mike Kuchar's 1967 short film "The Craven Sluck."

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 7/14/2010

The Maryland Film Festival presents Mike Kuchar

Artscape July 16 at the Charles Theatre at 7 p.m.

The MFF runs shorts programs Saturday and Sunday at the Charles from noon-6 p.m.

"What is creativity?" asks visionary filmmaker Mike Kuchar, speaking by telephone from the San Francisco home that he shares with his twin brother, George. "Creativity is creating something from nothing, or from a small amount of material, but from that you build it up and put your visions up on the screen."

For five and a half decades, the Kuchar brothers, as they are commonly called, have made hundreds of low-budget, often improvisational movies that have influenced several generations of filmmakers. Working in a mishmash of genres and styles, their works helped define what Susan Sontag famously called camp, art that celebrates what society thinks is low-brow and awful. In the 1950s and '60s, the Kuchars lived and worked in the Bronx, showing films such as "Sins of the Fleshapoids" and "Hold Me While I'm Naked" alongside more the serious work of filmmakers such as Andy Warhol and Stan Brakhage at underground cinema venues in Manhattan. One of Mike Kuchar's films, 1967's "The Craven Sluck," inspired a young John Waters, whose Pink Flamingos borrows liberally from Kuchar's mise-en-scène.

But while many of the filmmakers influenced by the Kuchars--the 2009 documentary It Came From Kuchar features Waters, Guy Maddin, Atom Egoyan, Wayne Wang, and others praising their work--went on to make feature films, the Kuchar brothers have continued to work in their own idiosyncratic style. In recent years, the Kuchars have seen a renewed interest in their films, from restorations of their earliest 8mm movies to DVD releases of films that had fallen out of circulation with the demise of college film societies. Mike Kuchar, who presents old and new work at the Charles Theater this Friday during Artscape, says that whenever he meets filmmakers at a film premiere or retrospective of his work, he feels a certain camaraderie.

"When I meet actors or directors, you know, it's like we're in a fraternity," he says, speaking with a thick Bronx accent. "We're all working in different capacities making our pictures, but we all have that in common. We create images on the screen, whether it's multimillion dollar productions or $60 productions."

While some sixtysomething filmmakers become curators of their past work, Mike Kuchar, like his brother, has continued to make films at a breakneck pace. The five-film program for Friday night includes two of Kuchar's classics--"The Craven Sluck" and the 1995 "teleplay" "Stranger in Apartment 9F"--and three films made in the past two years. While Mike's best-known film, 1965's "Sins of the Fleshapoids," was shot on 16mm, he stopped using film almost 30 years ago.

"If you want to make a movie, the only way it's going to be made is that you just get up and go do it," he says. "Film outpriced itself. I now work in video, which is fine. You're able to do it, if you've got the urge and inspiration to do it. The effect is the same. It moves and makes noise on the screen, and that's what moving pictures are."

In the '60s, Kuchar's use of amateur film stock and in-camera editing techniques to recreate Hollywood effects made him stand out from avant-garde filmmakers who eschewed them entirely. While he claims that the formal innovations in his films--like the cartoon-like speech balloons in "Sins of the Fleshapoids"--were often the consequence of not having the budget to pay laboratory fees, today he is able to use video editing software to play with the images he creates.

"Sometimes when I do pictures in a certain mood, I actually take the image and I progress with painting electronically, adding things to the image or affecting certain areas or certain colors," he says. "The idea is to get the inspiration, get the project finished, put it up on the screen, and continue on with domestic living."

Kuchar says that "Echo's Garden," his most recent film, is "very tranquil and relaxing," based on a feeling he had while making it, while the other two--"Medusa's Gaze," also made this year, and "Animal," made last year--are based on poems. Kuchar says that he is often approached by people interested in appearing in his films. For example, "Animal" was made after a young writer and performance artist saw a few of his films at an impromptu screening in San Francisco.

"This fellow happened to see my work, and he heard about me," he says. "Then he wrote me a letter a week later and said he'd love to collaborate. I took him up on that. I took his poem and gave it an interpretation, and he acted in it."

In addition to being a prolific filmmaker, Kuchar says he also revisits his films from time to time. "When I see a picture I haven't seen in a long, long time, that's good because then I look at it with a complete distance to see whether it was fulfilled," he says. "For the most part, I can't improve on them. You just follow your instincts and whatever you feel is the truth behind what you're doing, and you do your best."

Even his earliest films, which were among the first underground films ever made, have held up in recent screenings. "They restored the old pictures my brother and I did when we were teenagers," he says, recalling a 2004 screening. "I was terrified to go. I didn't know what the hell it was going to be like.

"When I went to the premiere of them, it was at Lincoln Center, at the New York Film Festival, and I was pleasantly surprised. They had a vibrant energy. I could never make them again. I was a kid then. Afterward, people would come up and give me their telephone number and want to be in a new picture."

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