City visions: Two Bay Area-made features, a documentary on the Kuchars, left, and Peter Bratt's fictional La Mission right, open this weekend.

'It Came from Kuchar,' 'La Mission' in Theatres

sf360 April 16, 2010

Bay Area-made and Mission-inspired, Peter Bratt’s La Mission (which opened the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival) plays at the Sundance Kabuki and across the Bay Area beginning today. Jennifer Kroot’s It Came from Kuchar, which played the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival last year when the Kuchar brothers won the Frameline Award, opens at the Roxie today. Both films feature in-person appearances by the directors at various points during the weekend. (See below.) What follows are pieces of SF360.org coverage of both of these films in the past few years.

Kroot Orbits Planet Kuchar, Nov. 25, 2008

*It Came from Kuchar* plays at the Roxie nightly at 7 and 9 p.m., with additional Sat.-Sun. matinees at 3 and 5 p.m. George Kuchar and director Jennifer Kroot appear in person after the 7 p.m. show Saturday, April 17.

"There are no second acts in American life," some nobody by the name of F. Scott Fitzgerald said. Hogwash. George and Mike Kuchar have had productive, ongoing careers long after their initial burst of notoriety as forerunners of the New York underground film scene in the late ’50s and ’60s. If there is any justice in this world, next year’s release of Jennifer Kroot’s documentary It Came from Kuchar will launch the twin brothers on an equally improbable third act.

Kroot, who made an over-the-top debut with the eye-popping 2003 camp feature Sirens of the 23rd Century, met George when she was thinking about going back to film school some 15 years ago and audited his legendary production class at the San Francisco Art Institute. (Legendary in that he’s been teaching it for decades, with each class casting, designing, shooting and finishing a movie that reflects the instructor’s undying affection for Hollywood melodrama, naked emotion and lascivious lust of all stripes.)

"I was really mesmerized by his style," Kroot recalls. "When is the authority figure going to come out? The students were always whispering, ‘Do you know who George is? John Waters was inspired by him.’ There was this aura of wonder around him. Crumb had come out not too [long] before, and within the first week of meeting him I thought, ‘Someone should document this.’"

This requires no elucidation for anyone in the Bay Area film community who knows (and adores) George, and has come to know Mike on his annual visits from New York before he joined George in the Mission last year after their mother died. If you don’t know them, well, It Came from Kuchar will provide a most colorful introduction. But what kind of treatment is appropriate for guys whose oeuvre includes I Was a Teenage Rumpot, The Craven Sluck and The Devil’s Cleavage? Or to be a tad more specific, who challenge perceptions of beauty in life and in movies.

"Linda Martinez is really a sex symbol in George’s class films (and sometimes in Mike’s films), and she’s 71 years old," Kroot notes. "They partly do this to be button pushers and make people uncomfortable, but I think that they also recognize nonconventional beauty. When you watch the earliest Kuchar films, they often starred very large women with tons of makeup and extreme eyebrows. These were the films that influenced John Waters and it seems likely to me that Divine was influenced by these characters."

Kroot, who was born in Berkeley, grew up in Marin County and has lived in San Francisco for nearly 20 years, cites the obsessed-artist portraits Crumb and Lost in La Mancha as inspirations, but she’s aiming for a less harrowing tone for It Came from Kuchar. "It’s really a sweet film, and a funny film, but there are elements of deviance throughout. The deviance is in their work, and it came from somewhere."

Ultimately, she thinks she’s found a delicate middle ground between entertaining outrageousness and respectful tribute.

"I certainly didn’t want to mock the Kuchars or try to do something that I knew they could do much better," Kroot says. "That said, I certainly wasn’t trying to do a Ken Burns documentary. It’s a fine line of letting the Kuchars’ work speak for itself. It certainly isn’t a straight style and it’s not like a parody supercampy style; it’s something in between that supports their work and their personalities without competing with them."

Kroot has spent three years in production, filming one of George’s classes and traipsing around the continent collecting interviews with fans of the brothers in New York (Andrew Lampert at Anthology Film Archives), Toronto (Atom Egoyan), Los Angeles (Buck Henry) and Baltimore (you know who). Although these are all film people, Kroot did not overlook George and Mike’s extensive and accomplished work as fine artists. This is the challenge of making a film about people whose lives have more than one act.

"The Kuchars have been doing things long enough that they’re accepted as artists," Kroot explains. "But they had intense fleeting fame in their youth, slightly flukily. Not in the sense that they didn’t work hard as filmmakers. They were filmmakers since they were 12, but they kind of happened upon a movement, the underground film movement that was happening, and got on the cover of major magazines along with Andy Warhol and Kenneth Anger, so they had a taste of fame. Of course, that scene disappeared, as scenes do, and they just kept doing the work ever since. Now I would say not everybody knows about that period, and the Kuchars are known for something else."

Kroot expects to finish It Came From Kuchar in late January. Our prognostication skills have never been very good, but we have a hunch that 2009 will be the Year of the Kuchar. For more news about the doc, visit www.kucharfilm.com. (Michael Fox)

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhoods, April 23, 2009

Peter and Benjamin Bratt appear in person with the film on opening weekend in San Francisco: Fri/16 at the Sundance Kabuki after the 7:30 p.m. show and at the Metreon after the 10:30 p.m. show; Sat/17 Peter and local cast/crew appear at the Sundance Kabuki after the 4:35 p.m. and 10:05 p.m. shows, and at the Metreon after the 1:15 and 7:15 p.m. shows. They’ll also have appearances in San Jose, and the following week, in Santa Cruz and Sacramento.

San Francisco is a city of neighborhoods–and an argument can be made that there is no more lively and fascinating neighborhood in the city than the Mission. It’s a place where stories intersect: Historic murals depicting Latin American indigenous struggles butt up against well-worn Irish bars, which have themselves been transformed into trendy nightspots for a whole new demographic. Street vendors, workers for hire and school kids waiting for Muni buses share small strips of sidewalk just inches away from the slope of sunbathers at Dolores Park who offer an entry to another world altogether in the Castro.

Diverse populations, dense city: conflict naturally will occur. What’s challenging for city planners can be wonderful for film writers–especially when conflict leads as thoughtfully and passionately to resolution as it does in Peter Bratt’s opening night feature for the San Francisco International Film Festival, La Mission. Focusing on conflict within a family and a neighborhood, La Mission explores what happens when a single father named Che learns a secret about his son that tests his love for his family and his community’s love for him.

“Che is at the threshold of great change,” writer-director Peter Bratt has written. “As a filmmaker living in an increasingly violent and dangerous world, I was drawn to the idea of transformation and the pain that often goes with it."

When I spoke to Bratt recently on a misty morning in Noe Valley, transformation was on his mind–not just the changes characters go through, but the radical changes in the city of San Francisco itself. Peter, who wrote and directed La Mission and Benjamin, who co-produced and stars in the film, both grew up here. One was born at UCSF hospital in the Inner Sunset, the other at Kaiser on Geary and Divisadero. They lived up in Glen Park, spent time in the Mission, Bernal and Potrero neighborhoods, attended schools ranging from James Lick and McAteer (Peter) to Lowell (Benjamin) and have, by now, experienced their home town from a variety of perspectives.

They were children of the movement, first and foremost the American Indian Movement, Peter said–a fact that recalls a very different time in S.F. Their mother was an organizer, and their home a nerve center of sorts during the occupation of Alcatraz from 1969-1971. "Our house was the unofficial mainland crash pad," Peter remembered. "Wake up in the morning, and there were 40 or 50 Indians on the floor, in the yard. Likewise, when we would travel, Mom would pack all of us into the station wagon. We’d go to a reservation, fishing rights protest, or march–land in Modesto, or Washington, and throw our mats on the ground of some family’s home."

"It’s a different city today," he noted. "The very thing that made San Francisco interesting–its diverse ethnic makeup–is one of the main things we’re losing because of the high cost of living. It’s sad to see. But we’re always evolving and changing. Who knows where we’re going to end up–maybe we’re headed somewhere better."

Peter Bratt’s awareness of place saturates every frame of La Mission. It’s in the Aztec dancing, the gorgeously rebuilt-and-painted low-riders, the vivid murals, the sounds of a Latin/soul/hip-hop continuum that stretches from the late ’60s to present day.

"We grew up around real Mission boys," explained Peter. "I love the way they talk. I love the way they interact with each other. I grew up looking up to the real Che, and older boys and men like him. They could dance. They had the low riders. They had the ladies. They were good athletes. They could fight. They had all those alpha male qualities that as a young man you look up to."

His challenge was to make those characters as real on the page as they were in his mind. " I remember having really tense and intellectual conversations with homies–but not in an intellectual language. I think a lot of times when you see urban films, you miss the humor and the nuances of the way people communicate. We really wanted to show what we knew."

Some of the Mission men and boys in the film are people they knew–literally. Many friends made cameos appearances. The project had been in the works with the Bratt brothers for more than a decade, from the time that Peter and Benjamin did research at a Low Rider expo at the Cow Palace in the mid ’90s. (Benjamin purchased a 1964 Impala on the spot.)

While Benjamin Bratt had been busy acting in films since then, Peter Bratt worked as a carpenter to make ends meet while making his debut feature Follow Me Home (1996). The film played Sundance and enjoyed a theatrical run. Peter was accepted into the NYU film school and sold his toolbox en route to beginning a new life, but soon returned to his Bay Area home and took up the trade again.

He told me he’s not planning on selling his tools this time. "A month after Sundance," he said, "I built a laundry room [points to the distance] right over here in Noe Valley."

He learned a lot from his debut outing, but it was a simpler story to commit to celluloid (one that appears prophetic now–it involved taking people of color on a journey to the White House). Follow Me Home was shot with a small group in the desert, but La Mission was filmed in a major urban area, with hundreds of extras.

Bratt got excellent help from master cinematographer Hiro Narita. And his professional actors (Jesse Borrego, Benjamin Bratt, Erika Alexander and others) mentored the non-professionals plucked from the neighborhood.

The community itself lent the project a hand. In one case, a friend, Paul Orr, found some local teens had vandalized his garage. Instead of just confronting them and leaving it at that, he invited them to take part in the Bratts’ project.

For locations, the producers tapped friends to engage the neighborhood in dialogue while the script was being shot. "There’s a real practical reason when you’re a low-budget film, for reaching out to the community," said Peter. "You need to get help from your friends and relatives, because basically, we didn’t have the money to hire the goods and services we needed to execute."

Longtime friend Warren Spicer’s unique Mission house was one location, said Bratt. "The ‘hero apartment’ is on York Street," he noted. "The opening shot is a perspective from Bernal Hill, and later on in the film, when Che is sulking, he goes up to Bernal Hill in his low rider and has this contemplative moment." It’s a place Bratt said he had rock fights and built forts on as a kid.. "Then on Potrero Hill, we used to run around up there," he said, "drink rum and Coke," he joked. "There are places locals will definitely recognize."

"But also," he added, "growing up in and around the Mission, to actually incorporate people from there just made it fun. You know what I mean? There was an excitement about the film from within the community and from us as well in front of the camera. ‘I need you to be yourself.’"

Che, the film’s protagonist, is a Muni driver and a survivor both of prison and alcohol addiction. As it turns out, the character was loosely based on a real person the Bratts have known since childhood. The real Che is an ex Muni driver with demons, tattoos, car expertise and children he raised by himself. He was consulted in the draft-process on the film–and was initially uncomfortable with the story. But, as Peter Bratt relayed during a Sundance panel, when they shared the final script with him, “He wept. He’s grown in the process.”

Apparently, audiences are reacting the same way. In its Park City Library screening, the first “question” after the lights went up was, in fact, a statement: “This is not a movie, this is a masterpiece.”

Benjamin Bratt’s voice broke as he reacted to the overwhelming warmth in the room, saying, “Being here today has reminded me that our stories are worth being told.” (Susan Gerhard)

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