Oct 16, 2015

Sins of the Fleshapoids

If a young Werner Schroeter got possessed by the ghost of Douglas Sirk's dead Nazi son and attempted to direct a lo-fi loose mutated reworking of both Ridley Scott’s classic Philip K. Dick adaptation Blade Runner (1982) and Fellini Satyricon (1969) into a single film on a budget of a mere thousand dollars and starring a motley crew of most homely and swarthy Hebrews, it might begin to describe Mike Kuchar’s legendary kaleidoscopic underground magnum opus Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965), which features a curious hodgepodge of neo-classical, pop art, Marvel comic, and kitsch aesthetics as a truly modern science fiction flick that managed to unwittingly reinvent the genre in a fashion that would make it seem quite hip and chic as opposed to an escapist fantasy realm for autistic virginal fanboys. Apparently strangely largely influenced by the director’s then-obsession with Hollywood Hercules and Tarzan movies (which is apparent in Kuchar's casting of a couple muscular and not-so-muscular men sporting loincloths and excess body hair) but also avant-garde works like Kenneth Anger's classic Crowleyite flick Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), Kuchar’s film was amazingly made without the benefit of a script and partially shot in the director’s bedroom, which he transferred into a sort of neo-Grecian pleasure-pad one evening after eating dinner. Indeed, probably the most absurdly aesthetically decadent high-camp flick film that was ever shot in a NYC apartment aside from possibly queer photographer James Bidgood’s pseudonymously directed cocksucker cult classic Pink Narcissus (1971), the semi-tragic sci-fi-melodrama hybrid was ‘co-penned’ by the director’s somewhat more prolific twin brother George Kuchar, who incidentally directed his own masterpiece Hold Me While I'm Naked (1966) around the same time period not long after brother Mike had quit their final collaboration Corruption of the Damned (1965) in the middle of production. After quitting Corruption of the Damned (which he credits his brother for directing 80% of), Kuchar's first solo film after ending his co-directing collaboration with his brother George was the darkly romantic and equally decadent 8mm horror-sci-fi-melodrama hybrid Born Of The Wind (1964), which feels like a fairly admirable warm-up for what would ultimately be regarded by most people, including the director himself, as his masterpiece. Notably, John ‘The Pope of Trash’ Waters once stated regarding the influence of the Kuchar brothers’ two masterpieces, “George and Mike Kuchar’s films were my first inspiration. George’s HOLD ME WHILE I’M NAKED, Mike’s SINS OF THE FLESHAPOIDS – these were the pivotal films of my youth, bigger influences than Warhol, Kenneth Anger, and even THE WIZARD OF OZ.”  While I am not sure that I agree that Hold Me While I'm Naked is George's greatest work, Sins of the Fleshapoids is certainly Mike at his most maniacally masterful, as a bizarrely beauteous celluloid orgasm that features barrage of post-bohemian Bacchanalian bathos and that was directed by a perennial ‘amateur’ auteur when he was at the height of his artistic powers.

 Undoubtedly what I found more intriguing about Kuchar’s sci-fi micro-epic in comparison to the pre-Polyester (1981) films of John Waters is that it is not drenched in a tidal wave of pathologically witty irony or a proudly tasteless ‘trash for trash’s sake’ spirit, thus making for what I say as a innately more honest and authentic cinematic work that dares to attempt to achieve cinematic beauty on a mere beggar's budget (it should be noted that Kuchar was largely against writing a script because he was interested in examining his own subconscious). Certainly while watching Sins of the Fleshapoids, I got the sense that Kuchar is a crypto-misanthrope who sees his own fellow homos as unscrupulous conman and whores, women as conniving cunts who will marry a man they do not love for his money while keeping a more sexually preferable lover on the side, and romance as a deadly dangerous delusion that compels people to lie, cheat, steal and kill, among other things unsavory things that are quite timeless among human beings. In other words, Kuchar’s film can be seen as a sort of anti-Terminator in terms of both spirit and aesthetics, as a campy genre-molesting avant-garde piece where machine is morally superior to man that ultimately manages to do the seemingly impossible by siring great cinematic pulchritude and intrigue out of cynicism and decadence. Set a million years in the future in a dystopian world after a nuclear holocaust that was responsible for wiping out most humans and civilization where eponymous humanoid-like robots that were created by scientists as human servants have developed genuine human emotions like love and hate as well as purer and more innocent form of love and affection than real humans, who have degenerated to a decidedly decadent Satyricon-esque state as lazy and pacifistic hedonists who live simply to eat and fuck and lack the testicular fortitude for war, Kuchar's pleasantly ridiculous robot romance features both a physical and spiritual robo-rebellion where love conquers all in the end, just not for humans, who are so hopelessly forsaken that it would be nothing short of an act of gracious mercy to exterminate them all from the entire planet so that the androids can prosper and create a more magical world. 

 Both narrated by and starring Kuchar superstar Bob Cowan (who also created the bizarre musical score and who probably could be described as the film's sort of secondary auteur due to his crucial artistic contribution to the project) in the lead role as a tragically spastic android named ‘Xar’—a hardly handsome and somewhat heavyset male machine that sports a André the Giant-esque toga and a goofy plastic helmet that resembles the fairly aesthetically displeasing ones worn by the Soviet Red Army during the Second World War—Sins of the Fleshapoids begins with a series of fairly memorable hand drawn credits that were created by the director with crayons and scrapbook paper, thus giving the viewer the impression that they are about to endure a film that is as insanely idiosyncratic as it is shamelessly minimalistic.  After declaring, “The time…is a million years in the future” in a somewhat histrionic fashion (somewhat humorously, Cowan later felt embarrassed by his narration, or as he states in the doc It Came from Kuchar (2009), “Well I was supposed to be a robot and then of course I did the narration, which makes me wince a bet when I hear it now. It’s over-the-top.”), the narrator describes Xar’s artificially engineered race, stating in a sort of pleasantly putrid pseudo-poetic fashion, “The Fleshapoids are mechanical men. They are servants of the human race who obeys the human’s every demand. These robots are called ‘Fleshapoids’ because their shells resemble human flesh. The synthetic flesh developed by the top scientists of the world who devoted their lives to the creation of these perfect mechanical slaves.” Xar is the personal property of a less than beauteous middle-aged broad (played by Kuchar superstar Gina Zuckerman, who had apparently had a fetish-based stipulation that any film she appeared in had to have a scene where a man ripped her clothes off) of the grotesquely self-absorbed and decadent sort who sits around all day eating fruit in a lackluster fashion and undressing in front of her two Fleshapoids, as if she gets an exhibitionistic kick out of displaying her nearly ancient flesh for manmade machines that do not seem to have cocks (as revealed later in the film, the robots have sex by shooting electricity into one another’s fingertips). While it is somewhat hard to tell since he almost always has a robotic expression on his perennially glacial face, Xar certainly seems less than impressed when his owner disrobes and is nothing less than horrified when she later attempts to seduce him. 

 Whilst an android that moves around in a ridiculously robotic fashion as if he was the victim of being routinely gang-raped by a band of Mexican dipsomaniac bikers, Xar is somewhat sensitive and does have strong humanlike emotions that he is having an increasingly hard time controlling, or as the narrator hyper-melodramatically narrates regarding the strange evolutionary condition that has plagued the tin souls of the protagonist's robot kind, “The Fleshapoids have now been in existence for 20,000 years. If all the humans had been destroyed by the Great War, they would have been the only creatures left on earth. The earth would have been inhabited by mechanical replicas of the humans who built them. In those few thousands of years when the earth was rebuilding itself and the human race had not yet begun to re-multiply after the Great War, the Fleshapoids were completely alone in the wild of the natural world. In that time, a strange thing happened. Some of them developed senses. They began to react to evolution and environment just as the minute organisms did a billion years ago. Xar was one of these Fleshapoids who had become a victim of these changes. Xar no longer wanted to obey the humans; not when he himself had tasted the world of emotions; not when he too had experience the one force that makes men emperors of the universe: love. For today will be the day that the Fleshapoids sinned.”  Indeed, while admiring himself in a mirror like the tragic figure of Narcissus from ancient Greek mythology, Xar’s owner embarrasses him by walking in on him, thus causing the robotic protagonist to run away from his master and turn in the opposite direction in shame. When his owner sternly states “Turn and face me” (which, like all the dialogue in the film, is absurdly expressed in comic-book-like cartoon bubbles) as if she plans to fuck him and Xar refuses to comply out of shame and disgust, things take an ugly turn for the worse. At this point, Xar’s owners whips out a pot of water and aggressively declares, “Obey me, or I’ll wet you and make you rust!!,” thus inspiring the protagonist to defend himself in a most extreme fashion. After grabbing the pot from her hand and tearing off her dress, Xar is forced to murder his owner by thrashing her to the ground with his mighty mechanical fist after she once again dares to attempt to rust him via H2O. Naturally, after killing his master and being successful in his one-android robot rebellion, Xar is free to do what he likes and lucky he has a beloved damsel in distress of sorts to save. 

 Not unlike Xar, ravishing robo-girl Melenka (German diva Maren Thomas of The Secret of Wendel Samson (1966) and Color Me Shameless (1967), who apparently would sometimes suffer mental breakdowns on Kuchar's film sets and was once a Playboy bunny) is an emotionally evolved Fleshapoid that has developed the ability to feel human emotions and she loves the protagonist, but unfortunately she is the personal slave of an evil  and ambiguously gay aristocrat named Prince Gianbeno (George Kuchar). Luckily, Prince Gianbeno’s futuristic castle is fairly close to Xar’s dead owner’s less than humble abode, so it does not take long for the protagonist to get to his beloved, though he does not have any clue of the histrionic horrors that await him inside the decadent royal estate. Of course, as can be expected, Prince Gianbeno has problems of his own, as he might be a wickedly depraved blueblood bastard who smacks food out of Melenka’s arm and kicks her to the ground from the luxury of his throne after she meekly attempts to serve him dinner, but he is also married to a lecherous lady with a very voluptuous body named Princess Vivianna (Kuchar superstar Donna Kerness of Born of the Wind (1964) and The Craven Sluck (1967)) who has cuckolded him by starting a lurid love affair with a swarthy beefcake boy named Ernie (ex-Marine Julius Middleman). As the narrator declares regarding the big bosomed Princess, “Living off her husband’s money and hospitality, she now had everything. For Vivianna had, too, found love. Together with Ernie, they vowed to share eternity together,” but little does she realize that her beefy beau is a conspiring crypto-cocksucker of sorts who, not unlike Montgomery Clift’s rather dapper character in William Wyler’s classic melodrama The Heiress (1949), thinks like an evil woman and is really just after her riches. Indeed, whereas the Fleshapoids only know true love and affection, the humans are compulsively cunning creatures that use love as a tool of treacherous deceit, with hairy beefcake Ernie being a far from earnest lover. 

 While Princess Vivianna loves admiring herself in a portable mirror while wearing nothing aside from sunflower flower petals over her nipples and a fig leaf over her pussy, her misleadingly muscular loverboy Ernie enjoys eating Wise brand potato chips and candy bars while receiving back massages from super faggy twink-like Fleshapoids servants, among various other strange activities that would make most sane straight men cringe in abject disgust. When they are lying together in bed, Vivianna vies for Ernie's attention and affection by giving him pieces of gold jewelry that were given to her by her horrendous hubby.  As Xar begins breaking into the castle, Vivianna and Ernie are in the middle of foreplay, but the carnal session is abruptly aborted before the real fun begins when the Princess realizes that she has to meet her sinisterly effete husband downstairs for dinner. Before going downstairs, Vivianna curiously orders two Fleshapoids to service Ernie by bathing and feeding him like a baby, thus revealing that she might be aware that her lover is an aberrosexual of sorts who prefers hard cocks to warm cunts. Meanwhile, Xar lurks through Gianbeno’s distinctly decadently decorated castle and eventually finds his lover Melenka sitting on the Prince’s throne where he declares to her, “We are Robots…yet we are in love.” Melenka must be extra flattered in regard to the sacrifice Xar has made for her by killing his master and coming to see her because says to him, “Let us now make love” and then the two proceed to make love by mutually zapping electricity into one another’s hands via their fingertips. As Xar and Melenka continue to passionately penetrate one another with erotic electricity while Ernie receives an extra sensual massage from two male Fleshapoids in the upstairs wing of the castle, Vivianna eats sauerkraut with Prince Gianbeno and attempts to keep up the preposterous charade that she actually loves him and is not harboring and humping a man behind his back in his own home, but things get somewhat awkward when the routinely clumsy Princess accidentally spills a glass of water on her husband after he requests that she put out a candle. 

When the Prince asks Vivianna where her gold necklace is and she mundanely replies that she left it upstairs, Gianbeno insists on fetching it for her and begins making his way up the steps even though his wife pleads that she can get it herself. Rather revealingly, the debauched aristocrat has a sadistic smile on his face as he treads up the stairs, thus revealing that he is well aware that his wifey has cuckolded him and that he cannot wait to rub it in her face that he knows about her extramarital treachery. Determined to be with her boy toy for eternity, Vivianna chases after Gianbeno and pushes him down the stairs, thus knocking the Prince unconscious. Hoping to flee the castle with her beau before her husband awakes from his slumber, Vivianna immediately runs back to Ernie and yells to him, “We must run away, my husband knows about us!!,” but the seemingly half-brain-dead male whore does not exactly act like he is hard pressed for time and even has aristocratic sugar-momma dress him as if it is too much of a hassle for him to clothe himself. Indeed, after dressing Ernie in a traditional American football uniform (!), including pads, Vivianna puts a crown of flowers on top of her beau’s NFL helmet and the two begin heading out of the castle. Of course, being a third rate Don Juan with a dubious sexual persuasion, Ernie has his mind on money and tells Vivianna “Take your jewels” but she accidentally drops the jewelry box while attempting to grab it, thus causing priceless gold to fly all over the place. While Vivianna acts like is no big deal and attempts to get Ernie to leave immediately with her without the gold because they clearly do not have time to fiddle around with petty material objects when their lives and love affair are at stake, the greedy crypto-gay beefcake boy wastes no time scooping up the jewels, thereupon causing the Princess to finally come to the realization that her beau has always been after her riches and that he probably does not even love her. At this point, Vivianna decides to ask Ernie, “Who do you love?,…me or my jewels?” and naturally she is startled when he moronically replies, “BOTH!” Although they have no time to waste, Vivianna becomes hysterical and attempts to fuck Ernie right then and there while he is gathering the jewels and is not too happy when her lover violently pushes her to the ground like a worthless piece of trash. Completely heartbroken, the Princess runs to a corner of the room, pulls out a dagger that she has hidden in her bra, points the blade of the weapon at her heart, and then declares to Ernie, “If you leave me…I’ll kill myself,” but he is not at all impressed and merely rhetorically asks “Is that a promise?” and then walks away. Clearly feeling like she has been stabbed in the heart, Vivianna charges Ernie from behind and quite fittingly literally stabs him in the back with the dagger, thus killing him instantly. Although not depicted, one can only assume Vivianna has no choice but to subsequently kill herself as a desperate woman that has lost her great love and probably her great fortune. 

Upon finally regaining consciousness, Prince Gianbeno goes looking around the house for Vivianna but instead finds his Fleshapoid servant Melenka making electric love with Xar, which he finds quite unsettling. Indeed, as the narrator states regarding the Prince’s shock, “It was incredible for Gianbeno to understand how two robots could feel affection for one another. ‘It’s against nature,’ he screamed. ‘Against the laws of the universe…That bodies made out of nuts and bolts could feel the pangs of love in their aluminum hearts. This would upset the very foundation of life itself. What would become of the human race if these two lifeforces meet? War? Slavery? This time, the human being the slave. An unknown hideous force thus as this must be removed from the face of the earth in shame. Gianbeno must disconnect them.’” From there, Gianbeno proceeds to ‘disconnect’ Melenka by opening her dress and fiddling with a device near her robo-boob that causes her entire body to instantly shutdown. Not willing to tolerate a pansy prince who has messed with his lover’s mechanical mammary glands, Xar violently slams Gianbeno to the ground and then proceeds to turn Melenka back on. After the narrator pseudo-moralistically declares, “Man has created this new race of creatures. Now he must pay the punishment and vengeance they set upon him,” Xar grabs Gianbeno’s hand and declares “I’m negative” while Melenka grabs his other hand and declares “I’m positive.” From there, the two android lovers prove that opposites truly attract by simultaneously frying the Prince to death with red rays of electricity that is so powerfully electrifying that the only thing left of Gianbeno when they are done is his charred skull. While the two robots prove that love conquers all in their seemingly effortless liquidation of the Prince, Melenka subsequently cries “S-S-Something is wrong” while staring at Gianbeno’s skull and then proceeds to fall to the floor while moaning hysterically with pain. While initially seeming like the film might end on an unhappy note, things become what auteur Kuchar once described as “so preposterously cute” when a cuddly baby robot emerges from between Melenka’s legs, thus ushering in what is probably the world’s first android baby birth.

While financed solely with money Mike Kuchar earned while working as a photo retoucher, Sins of the Fleshapoids was such a relatively big success for an underground movie upon its release that the director earned enough in royalties that he was able to pursue his dream of not having to work a ‘real’ nine-to-five job for about six years (though it should be noted that, like his twin brother, Kuchar lived fairly modestly). With Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1964) and Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s Chelsea Girls (1966), Kuchar’s magnum opus is regarded as one of the three most influential American underground films of the 1960s and it was even argued by avant-garde gatekeeper Jonas Mekas that Slavic-blooded frog skirt-chaser Roger Vadim ripped off the film with his mainstream sci-fi sexploitation flick Barbarella (1968) starring neo-bolshevik bimbo Jane Fonda due to both films featuring a scene where characters have sex via their hands. Notably, when asked by Jack Stevenson about the purported influence of his film on Vadim’s flick, Kuchar dismissively replied in a somewhat humorous fashion, “You’re referring to the smoking fingertips in BARBARELLA, when the actors hands touch in mock lovemaking, but I had sparks of lightning shooting out of the fingers – not smoke – when the robots make love in SINS. If Vadim’s screenwriters did lift ideas from my film, I can’t understand why they would pass up on the idea of using comic book “thought bubbles” floating above the actors when they are required to think.” Thankfully, in the same interview, Kuchar reveals denies the idea of insufferable dyke Hebrewess Susan Sontag’s obscenely overrated 1964 essay Notes on Camp influencing his work, remarking, “I have never read ‘Notes on Camp’. My own definition of the word is this: You pitch your tent (camera and crew) in an established theme park. In the case of SINS OF THE FLESHAPOIDS, we pitched our tent on sci-fi comic book territory and the Hollywood style of moviemaking. Then you go on holiday with the established form, consciously accentuating the artificiality inherent in the styles and techniques they used to manipulate the audience. Thus the soundtrack music becomes loud and obvious, make-up is over-applied or blatantly misapplied, and the actors are obviously ‘acting’, or even better, they can’t act at all!...It’s a sort of vandalism, a form of good natured sabotage.”  Indeed, the difference between Kuchar's films and the completely forgotten cinematic works of Sontag is that the former were the expression of a rich and eccentric soul who made films because he loved making films while the latter were the product of a soulless wench with an affinity prosaic and pedantic intellectual masturbation, hence what differentiates the Sins of the Fleshapoids director and his brother from most of the Structural filmmakers that were associated with the 1960s American underground.

Personally, I see ‘camp’ as a form of ‘good natured rape,’ with Sins of the Fleshapoids feeling like the natural result of Aubrey Beardsley pillaging every single wet orifice of Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960). Indeed, I would be lying if I did not admit that the scorching warm colors of Kuchar’s made me feel in the mood for lurid electric love, albeit not the sort involving sparks of lightning shooting out of fingers. While some might refer to Kuchar’s magnum opus as keenly kitschy trash cinema, there is undoubtedly a strange quasi-aristocratic spirit to Sins of the Fleshapoids, even if it is a debauched one, so it should be no surprise that Kuchar also stated in his interview with Stevenson regarding his influences, “Gregory Markopoulos… he was an inspiration. If there is such a notion as “Gay Pride” – he was it! You don’t need to flaunt it when you’ve got the regal poise and golden ideals of this guy. He was memorable, an impeccable aristocrat who dined at the Automat (an inexpensive, now extinct, cafeteria where you put nickels into a slot to receive plates of hot food from behind glass doors). Had he lived in another age, Gregory would have been perfectly at home in a powdered wig and buckled shoes.” While Kuchar never directed a film as elegant and meticulously constructed as Markopoulos’ avant-garde masterpiece Twice a Man (1964), Sins of the Fleshapoids unequivocally proves that he is a celluloid alchemist as a rare filmmaker that could turn shit into gold. Indeed, maybe it is because I associate such Hollywood sci-fi flicks with fat ugly dorks that suffer from Asperger syndrome, but I would much rather re-watch Kuchar’s film over Planet of the Apes (1968), any of the Star War films, David Lynch’s Dune (1984), or virtually any other big budget science fiction flick any day. Of course, Sins of the Fleshapoids has about as much to do with science fiction cinema as Anger’s Scorpio Rising has to do with teen rebel biker flicks and John Waters’ Desperate Living (1977) has to do with classic Disney fairytale movies, hence its uniquely undying charm as classic piece of American camp that has never and can never be properly imitated or duplicated, even by queer filmmakers like Rosa von Praunheim (who considered the Kuchar brothers to be one of his main influences and even hired Mike to be the cinematographer for a couple of his films).  If you're a happy-go-lucky misanthrope like me and can fathom a world where androids are more morally sound than the majority of humanity, you will probably not find a film that is more delectably decadent and kitschy yet cultivated than Sins of the Fleshapoids which, in its unflattering depiction of a pathologically cosmopolitan dystopian society that is plagued by perverse hedonism and is too impotent for far, is the 1960s underground's equivalent to John Boorman's cult classic Zardoz (1974), albeit all the more otherworldly and patently preternatural.

-Ty E

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