If you have the afternoon of August the 5th free, go spend it with underground filmmaker, Mike Kuchar. To the sound of Mike’s unmistakable New York drawl, and a dramatic B-Movie Soundtrack, you will be invited to spend time in and around his San Francisco apartment, which is decorated like the inside of his brain. He lives amongst a collage of trinkets and trophies, mythical monsters, homoerotic cartoons and garish religious iconography. This aesthetic is a Mike Kuchar staple, seen throughout his vast body of work: intertextual referencing, a celebration of all things camp and an emphasis on the handmade. No Kuchar fan will want to miss this insightful look into his inner sanctuary, where escapist fantasy is far preferable to the reality outside.
Director Oscar Oldershaw met Mike Kuchar in 2010 while taking George Kuchar’s Filmmaking course at the San Francisco Arts Institute. George is Mike’s late twin brother and a fellow maker of low-budget, ‘sincere parodies’ of 50s Hollywood. The twins began their love of filmmaking on their twelfth birthday when their mother gave them an 8mm camera, a present which Mike remembers felt like ‘getting a doorway into Mount Olympus’.
Working together and on their own projects, they joined Andy Warhol, Jack Smith and Kenneth Anger to become prominent figures in the New York underground art scene of the 60s and 70s. George worked at the San Francisco Arts Institute for over 40 years, collaborating with students on extravagant low-fi genre pieces such as Destination Damnation (1972) and Symphony for a Sinner (1979). Oldershaw played a juggler in Zombies of Zanzibar (2010), but has admitted his main role was standing behind the camera ‘reminding George to press record’; such was the raucous and collaborative nature of those student productions. When George died in 2011, Mike was the natural choice to take over, and he has been there ever since.
Throughout An Afternoon with Mike Kuchar, Oldershaw exemplifies how Kuchar’s films aren’t only a celebration of cinema, but a celebration of people. For Mike, movie making has always been a collective activity: ‘we didn’t throw parties so we would dance, drink and eat potato chips. We had fun making movies’. Mike was always most taken with the stars (or ‘Gods and Goddesses’) in the Bronx movie theatres (or ‘temples’) he frequented as a child. He relished in the challenge of ‘finding [his]own stars’, casting his friends and friend’s mothers, giving them a chance to shine: ‘It’s a thrill for them to dress up, to act, to mimic’. This meant his glamorous blonde heroine was often a dowdy, middle aged woman with absurdly drawn on eyebrows. In this way, he often transcends conventional perceptions of beauty and instead aims to rejoice in a ‘certain quality in people’. One such friend to achieve holy status is Phillie, who he explains has a ‘very dynamic, loud quality about her – she is exhilarating’, a statement which Oldershaw humorously intercuts with images of Phillie rolling around half naked, her large breasts breaking free from her little black dress, while she screams an incomprehensible monologue involving the words ‘Take meee!’
Oldershaw also takes time to explore how Kuchar expresses emotion in ways others may discard as over-the-top or disingenuous. Mike reveals that he loves 50s low budget B-Movies such as The Man from Planet X (1951) precisely because of ‘their beauty, their vulnerability and their earnestness’. To Mike these aren’t tacky, silly films with rubbish sets and terrible acting, these are heartfelt and authentic displays of humanity. In this way, Kuchar’s perception of campy films, and use of camp, perfectly exemplifies Susan Sontag’s definition in ‘Notes on Camp’ (1963). Sontag explains that camp is only successful when it has ‘a proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate and [most importantly]the naïve’. Kuchar’s brand of camp is nothing but naïve, nothing but pure. He doesn’t simply parody cinema from days gone by, he attempts to capture its essence, placing emphasis on portraying the emotion he experienced when he first saw it. Despite the artifice, Mike’s films are totally genuine; camp is just his mode of expression.
Oldershaw has fun with this notion, often intercutting Mike’s statements with clips that reveal the naive intentions behind his outrageous, campy imagery. He pairs Kuchar explaining that he ‘doesn’t show sex, [he]infers it’ alongside a clip of a brunette sandwiched between Tom and Dick, inviting a guy called Harry to ‘join in!’ A fan of 50s melodrama director Douglas Sirk, famous for using mise-en-scene to express his characters inner turmoil, Kuchar has a habit of emulating him to the extreme – in one scene he superimposes a ‘dunce hat’ on a schoolboy to show that ‘he’s scared of being seen as a dunce’. Kuchar’s work can so easily be interpreted as ridiculous and unsubtle, but Oldershaw beautifully reveals his honest, surprisingly serious intentions.
Oldershaw’s editing is perfectly on point and he employs an impressive selection of clips, revealing the breadth of Kuchar’s directorial ambition: a man’s face morphs into a homemade monster, a mass of blue paint and string, in Born of the Wind (1964). A lady robot gives birth in Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965), a little mechanical toy robot robo-walking out from between her open legs. Because Kuchar feels so comfortable around Oldershaw, his monologue is relaxed and continually enlightening. Fantasy is his comfort zone – when he references the outside world he seems genuinely concerned about his cats; ‘I call it murder alley out there, I don’t want my cats to see what human beings can do to each other. It isn’t nice’. It becomes devastatingly clear why he’s the director of ridiculous, fantastical parodies, and not hard hitting documentaries.
An Afternoon with Mike Kuchar is a feast for the eyes, blending the erotic, hilarious, grotesque and utterly absurd with an intimate, truly revealing portrait of a unique and prolific director. It will be an afternoon well spent.
An Afternoon with Mike Kuchar is on at the ICA on the 5th of August with an introduction from director, Oscar Oldershaw. Full details on the ICA site.