To measure the impact of the Kuchar brothers’ one-of-a-kind underground film oeuvre, there are myriad metrics.
Go by film history, as twin brothers George and Mike were trailblazers of openly queer cinema. Go by volume, as their 16 mm films number in the dozens and their collected video shorts in the hundreds. Go by their influence, given their impact on John Waters and David Lynch.
If it’s the Kuchars’ ethos you seek, start in the shower. At the peak of Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966)—one of George’s beloved early efforts—an actress (Donna Kerness) is joined by her lover beneath the showerhead after quitting her job under a controlling filmmaker (George Kuchar).
Opera soars as the half-clothed couple sloppily necks and blissfully rubs each other, the water streaming down just so, as though the angels are hosting a wet T-shirt contest. Then, cut to the jilted film director showering alone, literally banging his head against the wall. All at once, it’s beautiful, depressing, horny and exhilarating.
“That’s kind of their magic,” says Susan Tomorrow, co-owner and programmer at the Clinton Street Theater and chief architect of next month’s Kuchar Brothers Festival. “It’s all affectation, but it’s like that top-layer affectation of old Hollywood melodramas. Underneath, it’s like when you realize that all of the Devo songs are really sinister and about being sexually frustrated.”
From Dec. 4 to 9 at the Clinton, which the brothers visited in 2008 (George has since died), audiences can observe all the buckets into which the Kuchars’ work simultaneously lands: proto-camp, high art, sci-fi/horror goofery, and unabashed smut. Put another way, audiences are just as likely to be jolted by the fake vomit in The Devil’s Cleavage (1973) as they are reawakened to the fragility of the human condition in Hold Me While I’m Naked.
The festival marks a week of rare opportunities to see Kuchar films in one place and largely in their original format. Tomorrow tracked down five 16 mm prints from various archives and collections.
For those unfamiliar with the brothers’ work, the festival helpfully begins with a primer on Dec. 4: the documentary It Came From Kuchar (2009), about the twins’ lives and work. Then, because the Kuchars specialized in shorts, three of the nights will showcase double features, starting with Hold Me While I’m Naked and Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965) on Dec. 5. Then, on Dec. 8, moviegoers can experience The Devil’s Cleavage, one of their rare feature-length efforts.
Portland film curator and 16 mm expert Greg Hamilton will be on hand to project the sometimes sensitive old reels. When the projector whirs to life from amid the theater’s floor seats, Tomorrow wants the Clinton as close as possible to the setting where viewers first discovered the Kuchars’ outsider art.
“This experience to me is like sitting in a basement in the Bronx in 1962 with a bunch of other weirdos, and someone’s lighting a cigarette over the bulb and trying to get the film cued up,” she says.
Tomorrow, a longtime film programmer who moved from Austin three years ago for Portland’s movie scene, comes by her Kuchar devotion through similar DIY channels. For her, it began in the Las Vegas video store Movie Brat nearly two decades ago with a bootleg copy of Sins of the Fleshapoids.
It took Tomorrow years to find and watch the Kuchars’ body of work, with dreams of a festival percolating. Even now, many of the films are not online in any form, but the 16 mm grit is part of the package, as are the Kuchars’ recurring casts of family and friends, their penchant for no-budget sets, hyperbolic pencil-drawn eyebrows, and dubbed dialogue that sounds almost like Charlie Brown’s indecipherable teacher.
The Kuchars’ impact is not in hiding or cleverly engineering around their perpetually nonexistent budgets; it’s in leaning in and feeling everything. Or, as Tomorrow calls it, “pure bonkers creativity.”
“People give themselves so many different blockades not just to making a movie but to making anything,” she says. “Like, ‘Oh, I don’t have the right equipment.’ [The Kuchars] are such a good reminder that all you need is a way to film, a living room, a handful of friends, and you’re good.”
SEE IT: The Kuchar Brothers Festival screens at the Clinton Street Theater, 2522 SE Clinton St., 971-808-3331, cstpdx.com. Multiple dates and showtimes, Dec. 4-9. Individual tickets $10, festival pass $35.