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By David Finkelstein | October 24, 2010

In anticipation of the upcoming screening of new videos by legendary filmmaker Mike Kuchar at the Berks Filmmakers in Reading, PA on October 26th, Film Threat takes a look at his recent work…

Mike Kuchar made his first films as a teenager, in collaboration with his twin brother George, in the mid 1950s. He achieved legendary underground status for the fabulously original and trashy send-ups of Hollywood B movies which he made in the mid 1960s, such as “Sins of the Fleshapoids.” John Waters and many other filmmakers cite Mike Kuchar as a seminal influence.

Not many filmmakers who began over fifty years ago are still making new work now, and very few indeed could be said to be making their most radical, visionary, and most successful work, but Kuchar is doing just that. In his late 60s, he is producing a string of experimental video works at a dizzying rate that are not only unlike his previous work, they are unlike anyone’s previous work. These videos, typically featuring the performance of a collaborating actor, writer, or dancer, are brimming with visual inventiveness, musical sophistication, humor, and they show the stamp of the Kuchar’s mastery of the art of film in every frame.

Given the indelible connection in the public mind between Kuchar’s name and camp, one of the most striking aspects of his new work is that it is utterly devoid of camp. Filled with humor, more often poking fun at Victorian-style kitsch than at Hollywood, these videos nevertheless are not intended as send-ups. Rather, Kuchar is crossing the last taboo of the avant-garde: he is seriously making poetic works of lyrical beauty. His extensive use of beautiful young men as actors, most often shown in the nude, strikes many audiences as campy, and they snicker at the thought of a dirty old man making a movie. But in the context of the videos, it is absolutely clear that it is the lyrical beauty and expressive poetry of young male bodies that attracts him, not the desire to make smutty jokes.

Many of these videos are directly inspired by poems or texts written by the featured performer. (Full disclosure: I appear in one of his most recent pieces.) Quite a few of them feature a poet and performer named Marc Arthur, whose tight, muscular poetry crackles with original images. Arthur is also a highly expressive physical interpreter of his own poetry, and Kuchar captures his performances with his dynamic and kinetic camerawork and editing. These poems are then interpreted by Kuchar through layers and layers of superimposed imagery, some of which relates directly to words in the text, but most of which is a rhythmic and emotional response to the underlying energy of the text. Kuchar spins the text into fantastic compositions of fabric, paint, and washes of color, all layered over Arthur’s performance. The soundtrack, as well, is a sophisticated response to the text, in which passages of evocative music and ambient sounds react to changes in the moods and rhythms of the words. “Animal,” “Swan Song,” “Ephemeral Seizure,” and “Medusa’s Gaze” are just a few of his notable collaborations with Arthur.

“Zoology,” on the other hand is wordless, and uses a stunning performance by Harry Luton to convey the anguish of a young boy who receives mixed emotional messages from his parents, and the story is conveyed entirely through movement, music, and sophisticated editing.

“The Vernal Zone” is a gorgeous pastoral film which features a strikingly beautiful older woman named Linda Martinez. (Martinez is also featured in several films by brother George Kuchar.) At times, Martinez appears like an Eve or a Goddess figure, at other times she is an ordinary woman. The subject matter, which I’ve never seen depicted in a film before, is an older woman’s response to Spring. The world in Spring is renewing itself, the buds on the trees are green and just-born, but she herself is not new and young. Yet the springtime brings her the same sense of pleasure, hope, and renewal that springtime has brought to her every year since she was a child. But it also brings something more: it re-awakens in her that part of herself which is always new and young, something inside which is eternally youthful. Like many of Kuchar’s recent videos, “The Vernal Zone” manages to be both mythical and human at the same time.

Kuchar is in a prolific period, and there are many more of these videos, many of them excellent.

These video can be difficult to see. They are distributed by Video Data Bank, but at institutional prices which are meant for libraries, not individuals. They can be seen on special occasions at festivals and venues that feature experimental work, such as Anthology Film Archives in New York or Artists’ Television Access in San Francisco. Their extensive nudity means you won’t be seeing them on Youtube anytime soon. Viewers anxious to get a glimpse of these amazing films should start pestering their local micro-cinemas now, asking them to put Mike Kuchar’s newest work in their upcoming programming.

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