In anticipation of TO BE TAKEI, a new film by Jennifer M. Kroot, the superb American documentary filmmaker who studied under the late, great and legendary avant-garde filmmaker George Kuchar at the San Francisco Art institute, I am presenting this all-new rewrite of my first review of her brilliant first feature IT CAME FROM KUCHAR which I filed five years ago. A lovely portrait of the man we all know and love as navigator Sulu in the original Star Trek TV series and the six classic feature film spin-offs, TO BE TAKEI just enjoyed two sellout screenings at the famed FantAsia International Film Festival in Montreal and will be opening theatrically in Canada at TIFF Bell Lightbox on August 22, 2014 followed by a DVD release from Anchor Bay Entertainment via Starz Digital. In the meantime, read about Kroot's magnificent tribute to a pair of filmmakers whose influence changed the shape of independent cinema and, given that it's the kind of film portrait that any artist would die to get should give you some idea of what you, the movie-goer have to expect with TO BE TAKEI. (I suspect Mr. Takei feels as blessed to have Kroot as his film biographer as the Kuchar Brothers.)
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KUCHAR KUCHAR KUCHAR KUCHAR
dir. Jennifer M. Kroot
Starring: George Kuchar, Mike Kuchar, John Waters, Bill Griffith, Buck Henry, B. Ruby Rich, Wayne Wang, Guy Maddin, Christopher Coppola and Atom Egoyan.
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Whenever I asked young filmmakers whose work they adored or what they thought was especially cool, I'd get the same pathetic responses: Christopher ("One Idea") Nolan, Wes ("Geek Chic") Anderson, Quentin ("I finally made a genuinely Great movie") Tarantino and, God Help Us, George ("I used to make cool movies before Star Wars") Lucas. (All parenthetical slags mine.) On rare occasions, I'd breathe a sigh of relief whenever someone mentioned David Lynch.
However, when I'd mention the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky, John Waters, The Brothers Quay, Jan Svankmajer, Ulrich Seidl or Doris Wishman, their faces became as blank as a sheet of Kinkos/FedEx paper waiting to be fed into a copier. Granted, I'd almost forgive the upcoming generation of cinema-belching Philistines when they'd scratch their ignoramus noggins at legendary names like Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, Jonas Mekas, Bruce Conner or Hollis Frampton, but most disturbing to me was seeing their faces dissipate into some sort of optical effect of nothingness that reminded me of Claude Rains transforming into The Invisible Man when I mentioned the coolest of them all, the Kuchar Brothers (George and Mike).
This was and still is truly depressing. The Kuchar Brothers are as important to cinema as any genius iconoclasts like Dovzhenko, Eisenstein, Welles, Corman, Altman, Kubrick, Fellini, Pasolini, Bunuel, Bergman and among many others, yes, even Quentin Tarantino (post Pulp Fiction, of course).
And guess what? The Kuchars aren't only important, they're cool.
At the risk of sounding like my father, my generation fed gluttonously at the buffet of cool movies because we wanted to make movies that were as cool, if not cooler than those that came before us. Most importantly, we learned things that could become springboards for our own ambitions - not just from the very recent past, but from over the entire breadth of cinema. And I reiterate, the coolest of the cool were George and Mike Kuchar.
And, Thank Christ Almighty (or whatever deity strikes your fancy), because someone has finally enshrined these cool cats in a feature length tribute worthy of their status, genius and historical importance in the development of cinema.
It Came From Kuchar is a finely honed and entertaining documentary that also carries with it a considerable degree of import to burgeoning (and even seasoned) filmmakers as well as cineastes. Some documentaries are important for content, some for form, and yet others for both. The fact that this documentary focuses so winningly (in form and content) upon the brothers' work, their influences (and influence over other filmmakers), plus their remarkable personal lives, is more than enough to make this a must-see motion picture.
Such is the filmmaking dexterity of the doc's director Jennifer M. Kroot. Granted, she is one of the converted, having been George Kuchar's student at the San Francisco Art institute where he became her mentor. As such, this paid off in spades. Kroot learned from the Master well and in turn painted both a loving portrait and a movie with a strong narrative support beam that draws audiences magnetically to its subjects.
At first, the movie simply, seamlessly and amusingly places the Kuchars within the context of 20th century cinema. Through a series of introductory interviews with the likes of Buck Henry, Atom Egoyan, John Waters and Guy Maddin - interviews that are copiously infused with accolades of the most laudatory kind from said filmmakers - we see how some of the world's most important directors love, respect and have been deeply affected as artists by the Kuchars.
In addition to this, the picture also delivers a nice taste of what influenced the Kuchars themselves. Mike Kuchar talks about how they adored going to the movies in the 50s and he describes movie theatres as "temples" which, of course, they were. This was long before the age of the multiplex - where one could be sitting in a packed-to-the-rafters picture palace (which always boasted hundreds, and sometimes thousands of seats). The movies the Kuchars adored were garishly colour-dappled melodramas by the likes of Douglas Sirk and overblown Hollywood star-turns by Liz Taylor in Butterfield 8.
Kroot also wisely focuses on introducing us to the underground cinema scene of the early 60s where in contrast to the picture palaces, young hipsters patronized tiny hole-in-the-wall joints like "The Bridge" in New York City to groove on ultra low budget experimental works. Many of the projects were super-cerebral and contrasted the narrative qualities and huge entertainment value inherent in the works of the Kuchar Brothers.
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I especially love the simple, direct way Kroot juxtaposes the films of the Kuchar Brothers with the blockbuster soap operatic features they loved. Seeing samples from The Craven Sluck or The Devil's Cleavage up against the lofty Kuchar influences like Imitation of Life is what demonstrates how much they loved movies. This for me, is one of the things I personally always loved about the Kuchars - their devotion to motion pictures amounted to deity worship.
They were also always funny, but their own perverse renderings of the likes of Liz Taylor did not fall into oft-despicable spoofs or even parody - the pictures they made had a satiric edge wherein they overplayed the conventions of melodramatic mainstream cinema, yet did so not to mock the movies, but to expose innumerable truths found in everyday human behaviour and relationships by using the movies they loved as starting blocks to render their own unique cinematic style.
What is so astounding about the work of the Kuchar Brothers is that for all the lurid details, the shock value, the intensely overblown melodrama, the cult-ish qualities, these movies are so uncommonly personal that they are often extremely moving. One alternates between laughing and crying, inspired by force one seldom sees in avant-garde cinema (and, frankly, cinema period). The Kuchars managed a magical blend of the grotesque with heartbreakingly emotional truths again and again and yet, again.
These guys are true Masters.
These guys are the real thing!
And they're so cool they're beyond cool.
And certainly, one of the many things I love about Kroot's documentary is seeing and hearing how the Kuchar Brothers' love of melodrama contributed to their exclusive voice, which in turn inspired a whole new generation of filmmakers. When I hear Guy Maddin waxing eloquent about George's use of makeup - especially on women - wherein their eyebrows are ludicrously inflated to look like "chocolate bars", I can only smile and recall Guy's own unflagging boldness in applying raccoon-eye makeup to all his female characters. Guy also cites the "aggressively stylized voices" of the actors, which Guy also brings to his work - or rather, he insists upon stylized vocal delivery, but in his own predilection for all that is repressed and muted. John Waters, of course, took the Kuchars' notion of aggressive vocal stylization completely to heart. That said, the Kuchars' ripe dialogue played a huge part in this and both Maddin and Waters picked up that particular torch and ran with it.
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In the film, we learn that the Kuchar Brothers were born in New York City at Bellevue Hospital, which as George notes, is renowned as the hospital where 50s/60s heart-throb Tab Hunter was also born, and most notably as a hospital devoted to treating the insane. A few years later, the Kuchar family moved to the Bronx - a neighbourhood of blasted-out empty buildings and endless vacant lots. This is where George and Mike (twins, though neither knows if they are identical or fraternal) really discovered themselves. They loved the Bronx and using their bountiful imaginations, they turned this seemingly grotesque world of the abandoned into a veritable paradise - Disneyland for the sons of working class Eastern Europeans.
Their Dad was a handsome, rough and tough truck driver of Hungarian descent and Mom was a gentle, supportive book binder of Ukrainian descent. Dad had an eye for the ladies, or as George says in the doc, he was "very carnal". This resulted in continual friction, but the boys dismiss it as typical family squabbling. I was especially fond of George's recollections of how his own Dad eventually came around to partially accepting their love of filmmaking when the boys started putting lots of nudity in the work. Dad, as it turns out, was an avid collector of "Red Reels" (8mm porno films for home consumption) and he fervently encouraged the boys. Gotta love it when fathers and sons find common ground. That said, George drew a line at refusing his Dad's request for some private porn requests.
Very few stones are left unturned in Kroot's documentary. We get generous footage and background on George's work as a film professor and mentor at the San Francisco Art Institute, a tremendously moving section on George's creative and romantic relationship with the late filmmaker Curt McDowell (Thundercrack), some wonderful early recollections on George and Mike's career as graphic artists on Madison Avenue (yikes!) as well as George's friendship with Art Spiegelman and Bill Griffiths that led to his work as a cartoonist in "Arcade" and Bill Griffiths's astounding revelation that Zippy the Pinhead was partially inspired by George. Mike's illustrations of gay porno comic books, George's incredible Weather Diaries, the brothers' devotion to caring for their aging (now deceased) Mother and even the differences in approach to storytelling when the brothers work apart are additional nuggets spread about Kroot's Table de cinéma.
While the wealth of information in this movie is staggering, it NEVER feels like everything but the kitchen sink. Each piece of information, each recollection, each clip, each interview, each piece of the puzzle that is the Kuchar Brothers is meticulously placed and honed to move the story forward in an entertaining and informative fashion.
Most importantly, we are blessed with George Kuchar's secret to providing the exquisite turds on display in so many of his movies. For this, my life is now complete.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: **** Four Stars
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