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The Clinton Street Theater and the Kuchar Brothers: Programmer Susan Tomorrow discuss a match made in heaven…or somewhere

The films of underground pioneers George and Mike Kuchar will be shown as part of the Clinton Street Theater's Kuchar Festival December 4-9.

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Kuchar Festival poster art by Mara Des Lauriers

The Clinton Street Theater has always been Portland’s most welcoming venue for the offbeat, the misfits, the ones who don’t fit neatly into any cinematic boxes. That makes it the perfect place to host a weeklong tribute to the idiosyncratic, avant-garde, outsider stylings of the twin brothers George and Mike Kuchar. The Kuchar Brothers crafted a series of underground films in the San Francisco of the 1960s and ’70s that combined a camp sensibility and a queer aesthetic which informed directors such as Andy Warhol, John Waters, and Gregg Araki. With titles such as Sins of the Fleshapoids, The Craven Sluck, and Death Quest of the Ju-Ju Cults, the brothers’ oeuvre set the tone for decades of alternative and underground cinema.

I spoke with Clinton Street’s co-owner and programmer Susan Tomorrow about the effort required to mount this retrospective and the pleasures afforded by the Kuchars’ films.

Q: How did you first become aware of the Kuchars’ work?

A: The first time I found out about their work I was living briefly as a teenager in Las Vegas. There was a store there called Movie Brat. It was this tiny strip-mall store, owned by this dude named Nico Montgomery, who was the nephew of legendary jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery. Nico and I became friends and he gave me a copy of Sins of the Fleshapoids, based on what I liked. That was my first introduction to underground movies from that era. The combination of hyper-melodrama and earnest creativity showed me that movies had that capability, for a half-century at that point.

Q: You’ll be showing these films on film, right?

A: We have prints of almost everything, but there are a couple where we’ll be showing in digital because the prints are a little too degraded to be shipped around. The prints are from the Kuchar Brothers archive.

Q: Do you think the term “camp” applies to the Kuchars’ work?

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A: Absolutely. It’s proto-camp. There’s no irony in it. It’s very sincere but it became the most camp thing because they took the most heightened elements of melodrama and made it so that every reaction is like a telenovela.

Q: It sounds operatic, or perhaps soap-operatic.

A: They’re so inspirational because they didn’t have the backing or financial resources. They used their friends as their actors. That’s huge to me. That made way for Gregg Araki and John Waters, and all those people.

Q: What other influences do you see today that you can trace back to the Kuchars?

A: David Lynch, on the darker side. But they’ve influenced all sorts of directors who have that sense, in one way or another, that see their films more as poetic art pieces than as linear narratives.

Q: There’s a connection between this theater and the Kuchars. They were here in 2008 when the place was under previous ownership.

A: One of the things when I was introduced to the Clinton, even before we bought it, was this framed picture of a Kuchar Brothers screening on the wall that had been there forever. This is one of the reasons that the Clinton is so special to me, because I can’t think of another place to go watch 16mm, underground-happening style, that would be any more appropriate, with that added undercurrent of sleaze that the Kuchar Brothers would appreciate.

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Q: This feels on some level like a landmark in the era of the Clinton Street’s new ownership. Can you talk about what that process has been like over the last two years?

A: A few months after I moved here from Austin, I went to the Clinton and they were showing a double feature of Lawnmower Man and the Afrofuturist movie Last Angel of History. I thought, “That doesn’t make any damned sense! I want to be part of it!” So I started working nights there, helping out, even though I had a full-time job. When Lani Jo and Roger [Leigh, the Clinton’s owners at the time] decided they wanted to retire, it all came together like a freak community Zord

Q: Sorry, a freak community what?

A: A Zord, like from the Power Rangers?

Q: Ah, a bit after my time but I get it.

A: There are seven owners now in total, and when you don’t know some of them very well at all, that’s kind of the scary part. But I don’t want a house or a baby, I want a theater! So we went for it. Everybody has their own skill set, which is amazing. We’re up to five paid employees, with profit sharing.

Q: What are some other recent programming highlights you’re especially proud of?

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A: Well, October is always fun. I’m a huge horror movie fan so it’s always great to get people together to watch a movie properly. I was very impressed that when we showed Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm, it sold out. That might not seem like a big deal, but it tells me a lot about the wonderful people of Portland.

Q: And what’s on the horizon? Any further dreams that you want to realize?

A: There are some things I’m working on getting access to, like Maya Deren’s films, which are hard to get a hold of. I have some secret plans for next year that I’m not totally ready to announce. But doing this Kuchar Brothers thing is a huge deal for us. It’s such an expense getting the prints shipped up here, but seeing them on film at the Clinton is going to totally be worth it. (The Clinton Street Kuchar Festival runs from Dec. 4 through 9. A full schedule is available here.)

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Nine Muses Law and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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