Diamonds in the Rough (DitR, /dɪ’tər/) takes some of the most derided, divisive, controversial, financially catastrophic, and meme-worthy movies and tries to find the silver lining. Bad movies don’t always start as bad ideas, and flops aren’t always flop-worthy. DitR seeks to find the good within the bad, because the world could use some positivity. And when all else fails, making fun of bad movies is oh-so satisfying.
In this installment, we look at the film debut of Steven Ellison (aka Flying Lotus), Kuso (2017). [Caution: Spoilers Ahead]
- Rotten Tomatoes: 36% (22 reviews)
- Metacritic: 51 (11 reviews)
- IMDb: 5.0/10 (1,283 ratings)
- Letterboxd: 2.8/5 (2,126 ratings)
“That it took a small army of animators and other craftspersons to realize Ellison’s vision only underlines the stupefying nature of its gist, which is pretty much exactly like 90 minutes of a toddler sticking its stained finger in your face while giggling, ‘Looka my poopie!’ (minus the cute factor).”
“[I]t’s clear that this eager-to-disgust-us film also hopes to squeeze out laughs along the way … Helpfully, the movie ends with a half-song whose lyrics might well speak for those who’ve made it to the credits without the assistance of mood-altering substances: ‘Skin me alive, I survived, and I can barely believe it’.”
“Kuso, a trippy collection of surreal comedy sketches, feels like a variety show from another planet. It’s a noisy, lumpy collection of gross stuff … [it] may often feel unproductively loud, and monotonous, but it is a head-scratcher worth contending with.”
“It might sound like what’s become known as ‘body horror’, but what’s unsettling here isn’t limited to the sores and the fleshy gore. So thoroughly conceived that it demands appreciation if not quite love, Kuso offers gross-out Afrofuture horror … for the dank-memes generation.”
“[Kuso] 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.
Ring the bell, because the fool has arrived.
The buzz surrounding Steven Ellison’s Kuso coming out of its Sundance premiere is adequately summed up by the above critics. The musician’s first foray into feature filmmaking comes in the form of gross-out horror comedy, and its penchant for revulsion was an immediate turn-off to some critics. Screening walkouts made for indicting headlines. In that regard, perhaps it was serendipitous that Kuso found its initial release exclusively on Shudder, a streaming platform which caters to the horror fans that would be able to stomach, and perhaps appreciate, this pus-bleeding piece of body horror.
As the blurb from my review of the film hints at, I was mixed on Kuso. And as presumptuous as it is to throw my own words into the mix with the other critics, I think it provides good context for the present critical re-evaluation. Gross-out body horror is not a novel concept to me, so what I disliked about the film had little to do with its hyper-grotesque content. It was mainly the film’s structure, which rendered many of its substance-lite sketches feeling all the more hollow, that bothered me.
On a rewatch, this remained true. Bouncing around the four main narratives and breaking them up with interstitial micro-sketches spreads the plot thin to the point of pointlessness. But you can see the thoughts in Ellison’s head when you look at each plot-line individually. More than anything else, the problem is with the execution. Pacing is compromised by what feels like a desire to recreate the zany anti-comedy antics of Adult Swim’s usual suspects (Tim Heidecker even cameos in the film as a head in a toilet). The film feels stretched to its absolute limit, so much so that when the credits roll (four individual credits sequences for each narrative) it is hard to surmise how much meaningful plot there actually was in this 95-minute film.
But Diamonds in the Rough is founded on the ideal of positivity. As such, what is Flying Lotus trying to do with Kuso, and what substance can be mined from this?
Frankly, the substance that is here is blanketed in juvenile humor and bodily excess to the point of near inaccessibility. My initial reaction to this tension was to attempt an analysis of Kuso on the basis of the Freudian stages of development. The film seems ceaselessly fixated on aspects of psychosexual development. The alternating obsession and fear with breasts and mammary glands, fixation on the anus and feces, narratives hinging on the abandonment or neglect of children (one of which explicitly dealing with the absence of a father in a somewhat Oedipal way), anxieties related to sexual expression. There is certainly enough there to warrant a Freudian reading.
And yet, there is not enough narrative substance within each segment to provide evidence that this Freudian reading is intentional on the part of Ellison. The “Mr. Quiggle” segment of the film provides a recurring image of a phallus being stabbed through the urethra, what could be read as an image of castration anxiety. But this image is mostly a non-sequitur, only being used for a self-referential commentary of how what is garbage can be construed as art (and vice versa). The two segments involving children, “Sock” and “Smear,” show similar anxieties involving the fragility of children. “Smear” specifically shows iconography of a child’s sexual development. But neither of these segments care to invoke Freudian ideas beyond mere iconography.
This is a common fault of Kuso. “Show, don’t tell” may be common advice to young screenwriters, but that does not mean show with no intention of ever telling. Non-sequitur pervades Kuso in a way that is detrimental. Again, this pulls on common tropes of contemporary comedy in the vein of Family Guy and Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!. But where those shows employ non-sequitur for the sake of discrete comic moments that flesh out short runtime television segments, Kuso uses non-sequitur as a substitute for narrative development. The Tim & Eric brand of anti-comedy actively combats narrative development in an intentional way, so that the very act of non-sequitur is the comic moment. There is something behind the non-sequitur in Kuso, a meaning without an object. A signified without a signifier. This makes for incomplete plot points which make the film feel combative in a similar way to Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, but it is a contentiousness built on flimsy concepts.
It would be stretch, then, to call Kuso a knowing comedic look at Freudian psychosexual development. Freud comes into the picture insofar as every shot of this contains some form of bodily fluid, but Ellison does not appear to be saying anything in particular about the psychoanalytic framework.
No, what of interest there is in Kuso comes in more bite-size forms. Certain narrative strains have intriguing elements which, if placed in a different film, could perhaps provide something substantive. In this film, these elements devolve to fit the juvenile schema. The aforementioned self-reflexive garbage-as-art commentary is perhaps the most visible example of this. It is one in a long line of gross-out gags, but it is notably commented upon by a character within the film (“I fucking hate this movie”). It is the sort of winking gesture that could be used as a tonal form of ironic distancing, something that could be used to orient the audience. Instead, it is a single moment in a consistently disorienting film.
Other needles of quality can be found in this haystack of pustules and excreting fluids. The first narrative scene, depicting a sex scene involving erotic asphyxiation, displays an active negotiation of sexual expression and sex practices within a relationship. Like the rest of the film, it is gross—the stained pillow, in particular, was hard for me to get over—but it is gross amidst a relatively delicate representation of love. This incongruity is in and of itself interesting, but this early scene also addresses character in a more nuanced way than anything that will come after it. However, Ellison insists on undercutting this sincerity (another instance of misplaced irony) by adding a needless level of taboo in revealing that the two lovers are siblings—this is such a throwaway act of controversy that it was only on this second watch that I realized its existence.
In general, there is a level of abstraction to Kuso that is somewhat admirable. “Sock,” a segment depicting a mother desperately trying to rescue her baby and ultimately ending up in Hell, is abstract to the point of utter confusion. But this confusion lends itself to the mother’s plight, making her histrionic desperation read reasonable. The issue with this segment is that the lack of filmmaking technique adds to this confusion, as well. There is a visual incomprehensibility to certain shots that is hard to reconcile.
Also, that the segment resolves itself by inexplicably becoming a sitcom is another act of undercutting and poor non-sequitur. Parodying the sitcom format through horror comedy is not a novel concept, but it is one that can be effective given that the wholesome and repetitive sitcom format is ripe for perversion through incongruous abjection. “Sock” could have used this parody framework, but it doesn’t. It simply adds a single scene of recognizable sitcom iconography (e.g. a laugh track), then drops the premise entirely.
Ultimately, Ellison’s biggest achievement with Kuso is to depict a world of normative disgust. World-building of this post-earthquake Los Angeles is not necessarily Ellison’s top priority, which is a choice I like quite a bit. There are minor references to the natural disaster and subsequent disease spread (I particularly enjoy the repeated images of the phrase “We Survived!”), but this story world is presented with a matter-of-factness that shows that these characters have already acclimated to their new normal. It is a Screenwriting 101 technique: start your story as late as possible.
By creating a grotesque world which reads normal to the characters living in it, Ellison achieves what he set out to do. In an interview with BUILD, Ellison said, “I always wanted to show people how ugly they can be.” And in The Guardian: “We’re all trying so hard to be beautiful, but the people in Kuso are trying so hard to be disgusting.” The world of Kuso normalizes abjection in a way that is certainly intriguing. The film could have used this as a starting place in an exploration of how the human condition changes or remains constant when the hegemony of beauty standards are altered.
Again, this is a thread hinted at but never explored, an idea forgotten in the flurry of gross-out imagery. But it seems like the idea was in Ellison’s head during production. At the very least, it was in rapper Busdriver’s (Regan Farquhar) perception of this distorted world, as his final spoken word piece repeats the phrase “to be compared is to be impaired.” If everyone in our world is trying to be beautiful, then we are all trying to be the same, comparable. If everyone in the world of Kuso is trying to be disgusting, then they are exercising the same futile gesture of sameness. Perhaps this was Ellison’s thesis statement for Kuso. With the final product we got, it is hard to know for certain.
In the same Guardian interview, Ellison also references his own confusion over Kuso, saying, “I look back on some of Kuso and think, hmm, what the fuck was I thinking?” In reference to a scene in which a teenage boy watching a deformed creature in a creek suddenly achieves an erection, Ellison simply says, “Why?” No matter the creative intent, even Ellison is unsure what Kuso amounts to. Is Kuso a misunderstood masterpiece? In all likelihood, no. With intentionality being lost in the mire of ugly imagery, meaning is substituted for an attempt at gut-turning reactions. For this reason, the film could be called “combative” or “controversial,” but a combative tone on its own is not indicative of mastery. You know what they say: it’s easy to offend.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)