Bright Lights Film Journal

George Kuchar’s Secrets of the Shadow World

What do Sasquatch droppings and flying saucers have in common? George Kuchar, of course.

Underground film impresario Jack Stevenson tells the story of how George Kuchar dealt with a problem that’s plagued many a director. On the set of his 1961 Night of the Bomb, the film’s Puerto Rican female star refused to do the nude scene the script called for. Fearless George substituted his own buttocks for hers – born in 1942, he was at least about the right age.

This “can-do-in-the-face-of-chaos” attitude informs all of the work of the granddaddy of cinematic kitsch ’n camp. With his twin brother Mike, George has been making innovative, if engagingly threadbare, epics since 1954, when The Wet Destruction of the Atlantic Empire saw the light of day. The Kuchars were devotees of commercial Hollywood cinema, and tried to replicate what they saw – or filter it through their own sensibilities – using their 8mm camera and whatever locations, friends, and families were available. Other works in the comic chaos mode soon followed Wet Destruction, torrid two-dollar melodramas based on Kuchar favorites like Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind. (Some of their titles are as notorious as the films themselves: Pussy on a Hot Tin Roof, Sins of the Fleshapoids, Hold Me While I’m Naked.) Many featured shoestring special effects that included floods, earthquakes, and tornados, rendered with stock footage, backyard assemblages, and matte paintings by the talented duo.

Eventually the brothers began to develop individual styles, with Mike going for more painterly effects and George ever enamored of the steamy camp melodrama. George’s latest work, funded during a fit of good sense by the Rockefeller Foundation, carries his obsession with earthly, fleshly things into the literal stratosphere. Secrets of the Shadow World is a digital video epic ostensibly tracking George’s attempts to make a “big UFO movie,” but it’s really an excuse to display the filmmaker’s scintillating sensibility and zany gallery of friends.

This is a long work by Kuchar standards, clocking in at 140 minutes, and George utilizes every inch of this broad canvas. Divided into three parts, Secrets opens with familiar cheesy string music from the ‘50s, backgrounded to moody shots of New York City. There George, who appears throughout as himself, interviews a series of crackpots and misfits. One of them is filmmaker Larry Leibowitz, whom George implies is a cannibal. Larry denies this strenuously, but his protests are comically undercut by drops of blood that appear (unseen by Larry) on the camera lens. George is obviously a simpatico friend, but can’t resist subtly skewering his pals. When Linda Martinez bends over her oven to check on a cake she’s baking, George lingers on her ample exposed ass. When Florine Conners, an alumna of several of the Kuchars’ earlier films, vividly describes an operation she had, George offers irrefutable advice: “You need a hot lobster!” He’s as charmingly “deviate” here as any of the people he talks to. In one scene, he appears as a quasi-drag queen alien prancing across the beach in striped stockings and an ill-fitting frock. This scene, like much of the film, is shot in San Francisco, the director’s home.

This “big UFO movie” about the making of a “big UFO movie” is full of diversions, because the filmmaker obviously can’t resist spontaneity and play. Still, he does go back often enough to the UFO theme, talking to “UFOlogists” like John A. Keel, author of the first book on the subject. Keel’s manner, like George’s, is playful and elusive – does he truly believe, as he says, that “we have an airplane that’s completely invisible”? Another leitmotif throughout the film is the Sasquatch’s bathroom habits. George recalls one of his students going to the frozen north to find one of these creatures, and stumbling in horror on one of the creature’s droppings. “He believed it was a Sasquatch turd and was very much afraid,” George says, answering every viewer’s unspoken question: “It was “fresh.”

Besides the endless camp drollery, Secrets is loaded with visual trickery made possible by the digital video. He fleshes out the imaginative lives of his cast, inserting a cutout of nearly naked musclemen in Linda Martinez’s doorway. When one of his subjects describes an alien encounter, he can show it on an overlay of a cheesy monster claw from some 1950shorror movie crawling across the screen. Even the Rockefeller Foundation isn’t safe from the Kuchar sleight-of-hand; the patron’s credit is twisted and twirled and drenched in a rainbow of colors.

Best of all is a look at the ultimate shadow-world secret: the sex life of the Roswell alien. In a bizarre tableau that surely reaches the giddy heights of camp, he shows the alien as a player, stretched out on top of Linda Martinez, who thrills to the touch of its plastic paw and moody, ovoid bedroom eyes.