IS THERE A DOC IN THE HOUSE: Reviews of It Came From Kuchar and Casino Jack and the United States of Money

It Came From Kuchar is a documentary about twin underground filmmaker brothers, George and Mike Kuchar, who began their careers in the 1950’s and are still making films today. Never heard of them? Well neither have I, which probably says more about me than it does about them. But after seeing the film, I’m not sure how to feel about the Kuchars or their prodigious output. Their movies seem to have grown out of the same aesthetic that brought the world the films of Stan Brakhage and Andy Warhol and their subject matter seems to have been reactions to the soap operic melodramas and horror/sci fi films of the 1950’s. I say “seems” because, as I said, I have never seen a Kuchar film. But from what I can glean from the clips shown in this movie, they have taken a camp approach similar to such stage writers as Charles Ludlam and Charles Busch and combined them with the outrageous vulgar approach of John Waters’ earlier endeavors (and Waters is one of the many talking heads who comments on the importance of these cinematic siblings). So far, so good, these sound like just the sorts of movies I live for. And many of the reviews claim that seeing this movie would make one want to see films by the Kuchars. But I’m afraid it didn’t for me. I wanted it to, but the clips left me a bit cold and all they did was make me curious enough to add them to the bottom of my Netflix queue (which now concludes with Sins of the Fleshapoids). Their films look cheap, amateurish and the sort of things my friends made when they were in high school. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it can be a very, very good thing. But in the end, my reaction to their cinematic endeavors was more a jury is out sort of thing. The filmmaker here, Jennifer M. Kroot, seemed to be having as much fun in making this film as the Kuchars did in making theirs. George, especially, came across as one of those oversized personalities that would either attract people (like the Pied Piper) or send them screaming from the room (and he has become a popular teacher). At the same time, I felt like Kroot was somewhat holding back. It seems obvious from statements here and there that both brothers are gay, yet, from my memory (which isn’t always the most reliable), the documentary never comes out and says that they are. And toward the end, the filmmakers block parts of the screen that show an actress’s vagina. Why isn’t clear; it’s not as if Kroot’s target audience are going to be offended. But it just seems strange in a movie about filmmakers who never seemed to worry about what people thought about them or their films. Kroot also fails in my opinion in one of her main thesis: that these two filmmakers were important and influential in the film world. When it comes to talking heads, she has nobody who is at the forefront of what is happening in movies today. There are no Martin Scorseses, Steven Spielbergs, Quentin Tarantinos, and none of the filmmakers who are more cutting edge like Gus Van Sant, David Lynch, Hal Hartley or Todd Haynes. Instead, they have people like Wayne Wang, Atom Egoyan, Buck Henry, etc. Talented filmmakers all, but hardly the A-list.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money is the story of Jack Abramoff, a man who turned the job of lobbyist into a fine art of the evil kind. The documentary, by Alex Gibney, is quite fascinating in the way that Shakespeare’s Richard III is fascinating: you may hate the central character, but you do find yourself sitting in guilty awe, amazed at just how brilliant the man was at lying, cheating, scamming, conning (quick, does someone have a thesaurus) and how audacious he was at getting what he wanted. Gibney is skilled at telling his story. It’s very complicated at times and Gibney keeps it all straight and understandable. At the same time he uses those contemporary stylistic flourishes of recreating fictional scenes that I find annoying myself and he also has an odd habit of suddenly focusing the camera on various body parts of the talking heads, to no real effect. The story itself has the usual moral: Abramoff started out as a true believer in the libertarian doctrine of a hands off government, but at some point, as he gained more power, he became more corrupted and replaced his original beliefs with playing the game for the game’s sake, with winning and gaining more power becoming the ultimate goal, not creating a government that would work better than the government already in existence (you know, power corrupts, absolutely power, etc.). At the same time, as intriguing as the movie is, it also fell a bit short for me. Once it was over, I felt that in many ways I had watched Citizen Kane, a movie about a man who also fell from grace. The theme of Citizen Kane is that ultimately one can never understand what makes a human being tick. I also never felt I understood what made Abramoff tick. It was one thing to preach libertarianism, it’s another thing to become a lying, cheating, greedy bastard. The one area Gibney doesn’t grapple with is the one area I really wanted explored. While growing up (apparently while watching Fiddler on the Roof, according to Gibney), Abramoff had a crisis of faith and converted to a more orthodox Judaism. This somehow led to his libertarianism. So far, so good. If the connection between Orthodox Judaism and libertarianism is a bit vague and Gibney doesn’t really make much of a logical connection, at the same time, the two beliefs are not mutually exclusive. But what Gibney doesn’t explore or ask is how Abramoff reconciled his Orthodox beliefs with his lying, cheating and lust for money. Abramoff is the sort of person that God sent the prophets in the Old Testament to chastise, to preach against. It’s the reason why Jonah ended up in the whale, because he was too scared to preach from street corners about people like Abramoff. It’s the same for Ralph Reed, a born again Christian who joined Abramoff in his schemes to rake in money; Reed is the sort of Pharisee Jesus preached against and threw out of the temple for money changing. It’s as if Gibney not only thinks the two ways of thinking are not mutually exclusive, it’s as if he believes that one logically leads to another. But they don’t. So like the reporter in Citizen Kane searching for the meaning of the word “Rosebud”, I also kept waiting for Gibney to discover Abramoff’s MacGuffin, the thing that drove him from Orthodoxy to greedy asshole. But it never appeared.


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