“No one will ever save you,” begins the man (Regan Farquhar aka Busdriver) who hijacks a newscast at the beginning of Steve Ellison’s (aka Flying Lotus) cinematic debut Kuso. “Once you’re dead / you’re dead / There’s no coming back.”
Thus is a fitting prologue into the world of Kuso, the warped, hallucinogenic vision of its musical creator. No one can save you from this dystopian universe of an unnamed disease, a plague that leaves everyone on earth who has “survived” with hideous boils across their body.
And this is the least grotesque aspect of Ellison’s film. If you doubted the existence of Freud’s anal phase of pyschosexual development, then this is the proof that you were overlooking.
There is something poetic about Busdriver’s intro, a music video that could be taken separate from the film entirely. The rapper will return in a post-credit scene to deliver a spoken word piece, a genuinely profound commentary on the current state of America. But neither of these scenes feel in place as bookends to this nightmarish conglomeration of episodes.
There is something strangely romantic about the erotic asphyxiation scene that follows. Something perversely sweet about the relationship between Kenny (Oumi Zumi) and Missy (Iesha Coston). Even with the sentient boil. And the frosting-like seminal fluid.
The film progresses in this general fashion. It is a film that doesn’t quite make commentary on anything, but it feels free to bring up subject matter worth commenting on like the freedom of sexual expression, child neglect, and a woman’s right to choose.
These subject matters have no real weight, though, as the film slides by each story in order to frantically reach the next one, only to double back and return to a vignette that has already been forgotten. Even so, the film revels in its own filth with such brash confidence that looking for anything underneath is a fool’s errand.
The only thing the film seems to make genuine commentary on, whilst in-film characters watch a film depicting genital mutilation, is the degree to which we idolize art. “This film is garbage,” the pot-smoking, milky-eyed woman opines as a urethra is pierced profusely with a pin.
Self-reflexively, Ellison in this moment seems to be condemning his own film—which is not above such mutilating shock cinema—as a means of trying to level all art as subjective and incoherent drivel.
It would certainly take a crass midnight movie to take aim at its own form, but Kuso and Ellison are no martyrs for the cause of counter-culture anti-art. Namely because this moment is immediately undercut by more scatological humor and description of a date rape scenario.
Kuso is largely a film about bastardizing that which mainstream culture deifies: conventional beauty, sex appeal, pristine aesthetics. It is about presenting what is often sanitized by mainstream cinema.
Perhaps it is apocryphal that Hitchcock’s Psycho was the first film to depict a flushing toilet, pushing the boundaries of what is allowed on screen. While not doing it single-handedly, Kuso proves that this barrier to entry that is censorship not only no longer exists, but that it can be openly and crudely made a mockery of.
The majority of Kuso is comprised of failed attempts at surrealism and fart jokes. But the world that the characters live in is fascinating in that it is both inviting and reviling. Ellison crafts in fragments a transgressive existence that is worth seeing, if only to show oneself that the degeneration of humanity has not reached its peak. Yet.
The film is a series of discrete, hallucinatory moments, flashes of Hell in a plagued world that rarely resolve themselves and always brandish the same ADHD cringe comedy that is found in Ellison’s contemporaries/influences Tim & Eric. The closest point of comparison is perhaps Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain, although Kuso cannot hope to be as symbolically resonant.
Kuso is a carnivalesque celebration of raw sexuality and the body hideous. It is just hard to say whether this examination of the grotesquerie of the human form is affectionate or damning. Either way, it is distinctly difficult to look away.
It is also grotesque to the nth degree. It shoots for the moon in its pursuit of ultimate cringe, spewing feces and semen as if it flows from the faucets like water. At one point—contained within the least developed and ultimately entirely unsatisfying vignette—a cockroach speaks the words: “Do not fear the feces, for that is your baby.” A fitting and fittingly discomforting thesis statement for the film.
Scatological humor has a new face. And that face is riddled with pulsating boils.
As always, thanks for reading!
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)