Aug 7, 2012

The Secret of Wendel Samson (1966)

Among the most durable and entertaining films from the proliferation of American underground cinema in the 1960s is the prolific work of twin brothers, George and Mike Kuchar. Whether they worked separately or together, their valentines to kitsch (B-movies, pop culture) are often amazing home movie wonders. These deliberate odes to trash culture also succeed because of the seams that show: the post-sync sound, tacky props or effects, cartoonish acting, and incongruous locations further make one aware of the shortcomings of the very kind of camp that has inspired their work. Although perhaps George Kuchar's work is the better known, it is Mike whose films first appeared on DVD. What further separates Mike's movies from his brother's is that in addition to the campy feel, there is also a nightmarish tone to the work.

Both of these tones are found in The Secret of Wendel Samson, a 33-minute wonder that features avant-garde visual artist Red Grooms (best known for his pieces which comment on pop culture) as Wendel, who is first seen bound in a spider web made from rope.  He is “tangled up psychologically”, confused about his sexual identity- keeping his homosexual encounters secret from his girlfriend Margaret (played by Mimi Gross, daughter of artist Heim Gross).

Mike Kuchar typically began this film with only a germ of an idea (the spider web), after meeting Grooms at a party and deciding to make a movie with him.  Then he customarily built the movie as shooting went along.  What results is a fascinating psychological mood piece, which is for the most part, a straight melodrama, with only slight comic relief (as we chuckle at the Brechtian feel of it all, with rubbery post-sync sound which Kuchar dubbed months later), campy voiceovers (60s underground siren Donna Kerness is the voice of Margaret) and thunderous canned music overemphasizing the drama.  It is also a marvel of storytelling with its fragmented narrative, weaved much like a web itself, as the story is several splintered moments of time, being told at once, as though they were fleeting impulses from Wendel’s mind.

Wendel is walking with Margaret when he spies two mysterious guys looking at him from across the street.  After he has a fling with a man named Terry (an actor that Mike Kuchar befriended on the daily commute), and a bravura performance in front of the mirror rehearsing ways to break up with him, he leaves the man’s apartment (actually Heim Gross’ apartment, splendidly decorated with artifacts and paintings), while Margaret and the two mysterious guys secretly spy on him.

One fateful night, Wendel fibs about having to stay home to fix the kitchen shutters, and goes to have a homosexual tryst instead.  Margaret pays him a surprise visit, and (gasp) the shutters aren’t done!!   Wendel’s voiceover, “Something tells me she’s here for more than just a chitchat”, proves correct, as she spends an inordinate amount of time snooping around while he tries to paint.  (In this interesting moment, Kuchar had just asked Grooms to start painting anything- and he makes an off-the-cuff picture of a bird, which subconsciously is fitting, as it represents Wendel’s yearning to fly away, break free of this indecision.)

Alas at this point, Wendel can only woo Margaret in his dreams, as evidenced by the fantasy sequence, set in a restaurant, where the pair drinks wine, as he snuggles up to her.  (In an interesting real life doppelganger, Mimi actually had the hots for Red, but he wasn’t interested in her.)  Yet, it is also in dreams where Wendel finally has to confront the truth about his identity.

This is where the film pulls out all the stops (“…like a badly dubbed Hercules movie…”) for a completely outrageous sequence, (admittedly influenced by Orson Welles’ The Trial), as Wendel experiences a nightmare while Margaret’s demands for copulation ring on.  As Bob Cowan’s trippy electronic music enhances all the weirdness, the two mysterious men seen earlier (one played by brother George) put a Luger pistol to his head, and he is taken to a room filled with a bunch of creepy people.  Wendel is accosted by a middle-aged blond woman toting a Super Patrol laser gun, who strips down to a swimsuit, dances provocatively and demands “Make love to me”.  This woman is the starlet Floraine Connors, who would continue to act in Mike Kuchar’s movies for decades. (She is featured prominently in the director's hilarious The Craven Sluck, which is also featured on the same DVD as this film.  (By the director’s own confession, she is “still a glamour puss at 80”, even though she can only work for an hour or so before getting tired).

This fantasy woman shoots a laser beam at Wendel’s leg, and these sleazy voyeurs throw him onto the bed.  This moment makes an ironic comment on machism,  brilliantly underscored by the introduction of the “Superman” TV series on the soundtrack.  Our hero naturally fails at “manhood”, and is pinned against the wall while people shoot toy cowboy guns and plastic machine guns with sparklers.  In hilarious pixilation, bullet holes appear on the wall.  This sequence is made even weirder by Kuchar’s wobbly post-dubbing.  Then we end where the film begins, where the shots of Wendel tied up, walking the lonely streets, and a decisive moment on a field, all logically converge in its own neatly designed web.

(The Secret of Wendel Samson is featured on the Other Cinema DVD of Kuchar's Sins of the Fleshapoids. Although that underground favourite is the headliner, for my money, the true jewels of the disk are the bonus Mike Kuchar shorts: the film reviewed above, and The Craven Sluck)

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