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Naked truth

George Kuchar exposed at the HFA
By BRETT MICHEL  |  August 17, 2010

BURLESK KING Mel Cionglo’s soapy Filipino drama of unabashed beefcake nicely complements the cheesecake of The Devil’s Cleavage.

The George Kuchar renaissance that began with the release of Jennifer M. Kroot's affectionate documentary detailing "the 8mm Mozarts," George and his twin brother Mike, builds to a climax this weekend when the Harvard Film Archive welcomes George, who'll present sterling new 16mm restorations of five rarely screened shorts (two of them done by the HFA) plus one of his few feature-length films. THE DEVIL'S CLEAVAGE (1973; August 15 at 7 pm) is a 108-minute black-and-white send-up of post-war melodrama involving a busty, unhappily married nurse who dreams of a better life, and it suggests that though the 67-year-old, Bronx-born Kuchar brothers claim the first film their movie-loving mother, Stella, ever took them to was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, it was actually Douglas Sirk's '50s-era melodramas that made an indelible mark on George.

But the twins' oldest surviving short, 1957's "THE NAKED AND THE NUDE" (screens August 13 at 7 pm), a 36-minute-long mini-epic of Jap-fighting GIs set against the steamy jungle-ish backdrop of the Bronx's Botanical Gardens, shows that George also owes a debt to the action movies starring John Payne — though you wouldn't have seen that actor fending off a giant metallic robot in a film like To the Shores of Tripoli. Displaying the boys' creative use of non-existent budgets, "Japan's secret weapon," which stands at the ready atop Chop Suey Mountain, six miles from the G-String Atoll, is represented by hand-drawn illustrations, with movement suggested by about three frames of animation per second. At most. Otherwise, the color photography is populated with the Kuchars' boyhood chums. And when they're not slinking through the grass brandishing toy rifles, they're shimmying against dolled-up young gals to the sultry theme song sung by crooning co-star Lloyd Thorner.

The use of such "Naked"-style illustrations continues throughout the films in the series, notably in the title sequences of George's 15-minute color short "HOLD ME WHILE I'M NAKED" (1966; August 13 at 7 pm) and The Devil's Cleavage, whose animated, five-pointed stars mirror those that open "The Naked and the Nude." And the spotlights that border the titles opening the brothers' "PUSSY ON A HOT TIN ROOF" (1961; August 13 at 7 pm) illuminate the four minutes of sexual desire between three sisters "on the outskirts of town" and three horny suitors who enter to the Miracles' "Shop Around." Smokey Robinson's voice makes way for smoky visuals, as the couples do the twist, unaware of a title card announcing: "due to an excessive amount of smoking in bed, a cigarette drops unnoticed . . . " The bleached-out colors of the 8mm footage are replaced by newsreel footage of an industrial fire, passions set ablaze.

"Hold Me While I'm Naked," one of George's best-known works, finds the director himself wrestling with his inability to finish the film. This color-saturated, alternately somber and cheerful short ends with a playful masturbation metaphor, the numerous shower shots punctuated with George's mother serving him a suggestive plate of beets and meat.

After the brothers branched off into solo careers, George accepted a teaching position, in 1971, at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he made "I, AN ACTRESS" in 1977 and "MOTEL CAPRI" in 1986 (both August 13 at 7 pm). Whereas Mike moved in the abstract direction of Stan Brakhage, George continued to mine the melodramatic tropes that have defined his career, as the histrionic actress and murderous Mother Superior in these two shorts attests.

George hand-picked the Saturday double feature of Armando Bo's 1969 FUEGO and Mel Cionglo's 1999 BURLESK KING (both August 14 at 7 pm), and though I haven't seen the former, the latter's a find. This soapy Filipino drama of unabashed beefcake nicely complements the cheesecake of The Devil's Cleavage.

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