George and Mike Kuchar's films were my first inspiration. George's Hold Me While I'm Naked, Mike's Sins of the Fleshapoids- these were the pivotal films of my youth, bigger influences than Warhol, Kenneth Anger, even The Wizard of Oz. As a Baltimore teenager in the mid-sixties, I initially read about these filmmaking brothers from The Bronxin Jonas Mekas' Village Voice column "Movie Journal." Here were directors I could idolize- complete crackpots without an ounce of pretension, outsiders to even "underground" sensibilities who made exactly the films they wanted to make without any money, starring their friends. Devouring my favorite magazine of the time, Film Culture, I learned more about their entirely original work; the lurid plot lines, their home grown movie goddesses, the ludicrous thrift store costuming- it was enough to make me run away to New York to actually see one of their opuses.
Boy, was I not disappointed. There it was on the silver screen- the Kuchar's famous low-rent Douglas Sirk lighting, the melodramatic soundtracks stolen from bad Hollywood films, male and female nudity- even a close-up of a turd! A vision so peculiar, so hilarious, good-natured and proudly pitiful that I realized (with a little help from LSD) that I too could make the films of my dreams. The Kuchar brothers gave me the self-confidence to believe in my own tawdry vision. I went back to Baltimore, renamed a neighborhood friend "Divine" and made my first real trash epic, The Roman Candles.
Reading Reflections From a Cinematic Cesspool made me really nostalgic for the vanished world of "underground movies." Reel-to-reel tape recorders, the Filmmakers Co-operative, 8mm (not Super-8), $25 Craig splicers, Kodak Presstape, 16mm color reversal film with the mag stripe- it all came rushing back. What other book name-drops Bob Cowan, Ron Rice, Joy Bang, or the great Donna Kerness?
In his private life, George Kuchar has made low self-esteem into a kind of badge of honor. He worries that the editing process gives him body odor. He writes of his bad skin condition and his chronic constipation which seems to be a cinematic metaphor. He even describes himself today as "still single" but "accompanied by a damaging intestinal wind." But as a director and teacher George seems more self-assured. He breaks all the rules of cinematic correctness by telling the actors exactly how to play the parts and even acts it out for them. He advises other directors to never audition talent- "if you like the way they look- use them." And if a performer has trouble expressing emotion George Kuchar has a radical directorial solution- "change the contour of their eyebrows for each scene." If I had ever had a teacher like this in film school maybe I wouldn't have been thrown out so quickly.
Mike Kuchar may have been my mentor in more ways than I realized- he too used big stars (as in three-hundred pounds) and was also profoundly influenced by the fashion sense of Bozo the Clown (who I always claimed inspired Divine's initial "look"). Mike seemed to be the ultimate audio-visual guy from high school- the strange kid with the projector who turned out to be much hipper and talented than we ever suspected. Here's a director who admits creating his own "sex objects" ("bun shots" being his specialty) and then falling in love with his cinematic creations off the screen in his own personal life. What other director touchingly remembers without irony how thankful he was for an anonymous forty-dollar-a-month grant he received early in his career? Mike may have had to hire himself out as a grumpy projectionist or opinionated cameraman for somebody else's movies to make ends meet but who would dare argue with a director who doesn't want his own films financed "with someone else's money"?
The real hey-day of "underground movies" didn't last long in the 60's but the Kuchar brothers have managed to survive with their sense of humor and original style still intact. They didn't want to cross over. They still make funny, sexy, insanely optimistic films and videos every day of their lives and nobody tells them what to do or how to make it more "commercial." The Kuchars may be the only real underground filmmakers left working in America today.
Come on, McArthur Grant Committee. What are you waiting for? Every year I expect to see the Kuchar's names on the list of your so-called "Genius Awards" but so far no luck. If they don't deserve it, who does? - John Waters (1997)