CLOWN PRINCES of the American avant-garde, George and Mike Kuchar invaded the nascent New York underground film scene in 1964 thanks to a screening at Ken and Flo Jacobs’s downtown loft. The Bronx-raised twins were only twenty-one, but they’d been making films for almost a decade: miniature melodramas shot in lurid color on spaghetti-thin 8 mm. In recent years, Anthology Film Archives has worked to restore the extant prints of their youthful efforts, blowing them up to 16 mm for preservation. The earliest surviving complete movie from their teen years contains all the voluptuous madness and low-rent ingenuity found in their later careers. Entitled The Naked and the Nude (1957), it’s a thirty-six-minute World War II epic with a cast of tens, chronicling an American invasion of “Chop Suey Island” in the “G-String Atoll,” a campaign that ends when Truman attacks Japan with a flying saucer.
Anthology has also preserved two items not found on standard Kuchar filmographies: Mountain Vacations (1962), aka Catskill Cool Cats, a woodland romp set to swooning string symphonettes, and an untitled reel of home movies (1959–61) that look like test runs for future gags. Here, the Kuchars and their Brylcreemed classmates—including a pre-Warhol “Jerry Malanga”—pretend to topple Cleopatra’s Needle, get chased by a giant bee (created by holding a tiny drawing in front of the camera), and even slip on banana peels. But these are mere rough drafts for the sweeping kitsch masterpieces to follow: the Russ Meyer–esque Pussy on a Hot Tin Roof (1961), which ends with footage of an actual house fire; the atomic-era horror Night of the Bomb (1962); The Thief & the Stripper (1959), a sordid tale of matrimonial murder; and Lovers of Eternity (1964), an art-world spoof starring Jack Smith as a boozing bohemian painter. John Waters’s acknowledged debt to the Kuchars is nowhere more apparent than in A Woman Distressed (1962), starring “Miss Pearl Clam” and “Brigitte Bazooka.” This magnificent medical tearjerker revels in the brothers’ love for tawdry, high-camp dialogue: As one of their grainy starlets declares, “Shame is not a stranger to this hospital of sin.”