The raw sewage of the subconscious has exploded across the surface. Earthquakes have rocked LA, leaving it a post-apocalyptic, disease-ridden hellhole full of tortured, twisted souls. Their plight informs a series of loosely connected vignettes whose tones shift on multiple viewings from sad to funny, disgusting to beautiful, rich to hollow — much like well-written songs heard in different moods on different days.

KUSO has arrived.

Tim Heidecker floats to the surface in Kuso

Welcome to the Shit House

I finished the film for the second time. After Busdriver roundhouse-kicked me in the face with his closing spoken word piece, I stepped away from the screen to change my two-month-old’s diaper. I wiped every speck of her sour yellow excrement with intense gratitude. After changing her I sat on the toilet, listening closely to the beautiful porcelain resonance of my own feces as it plopped cleanly into the water. I wiped up and drove off to attend my dental appointment. The hygienist scoured my gums with sharp metal tools until I could taste the warm iron of blood on my tongue. I sat in each of these moments, not with revulsion and horror, but with patience, appreciation, and love. This, for me, was the most surprising effect of the first film of Steve, a.k.a. Flying Lotus (born Steven Ellison).

As a musician, Flying Lotus has carved out a unique space for himself at the crossroads of jazz (he is the grand-nephew of jazz royalty Alice and John Coltrane) and electronica, and aside from a handful of incredible albums and multitudinous collaborations has produced work with such heavy hitters as Kendrick Lamar, Erykah Badu, Thom Yorke, and (coming soon), George Clinton. For KUSO, his first ever cinematic effort, his deft sound design and soundscaping serve his vision greatly.

And here, as in his music, rather than go it alone he chooses to rely heavily on collaborations. An impressive cadre of musicians and artists (David Firth, Aphex Twin, Tim Heidecker, and Thundercat, to name a few) rallies to his cause. Clearly, these are partnerships of mutual admiration; each contributor is fully devoted to and immersed in his project. Even if there were nothing to praise about KUSO’s content, there is certainly something to be said for Steve’s ability to unify so many and such diverse artists behind such a provocative vision.

A Scary Visionary

Kuso director Steve aka Flying Lotus

And a mind-warping vision it is. In his music, Flying Lotus is a maximalist, the jazz electronica equivalent of someone like Thomas Pynchon or Alan Moore; so many ideas and elements fly at you simultaneously that it can overwhelm you at first listen. But repeat listens reveal the depth, the groove, the rhythm, the emotion, and the ideas — the order — underpinning the chaos.

It only makes sense to expect this creative mode to translate visually. Throw in such aesthetic influences as the surrealists David Lynch (the master of the uncanny), Alejandro Jodorowsky (the mime of the sacred), and David Cronenberg (the puppeteer of the corporeal) and you have a recipe for — well, for shit, if we are to accept the film’s title (kuso is Japanese for “shit”).

But is KUSO being “shit” a bad thing? One way to see it, and the predominant way media outlets have tended to describe it, is to solely point out that the film dares to portray almost every gross and taboo topic imaginable. The Verge’s scathing review reported a “large” walkout at the film’s premiere at Sundance, which the film’s director later tweeted only turned out to be around twenty out of four hundred-ish attendees.

Still, KUSO clearly set out to test the limits of its audience, leaving many wondering whether its true goal was simply shock value and whether its poetical and philosophical musings were just haphazard pretensions to justify all the fetishistic filth.

The Buttress knows the truth about art

To make matters more difficult, the filmmaker himself helps us little in deciphering KUSO’s purpose. The film’s dialogue plays with our heads about its own status: in one scene, a furry interdimensional being (comedian Hannibal Buress) protests when his female prisoner (rapper The Buttress) threatens to change the channel from his violent television program, explaining that “This is art.” She replies, “This is garbage. Art is garbage.” Is her comment cleverly flippant, or a vapid attempt at meta-depth? Is there a difference? It seems we must decide for ourselves. Director Steve, in a fantastic interview on BUILD Series, says about his aim, “I always wanted to show people how ugly they can be.” But this doesn’t really explain what the deeper value of such a motive might be, aside from challenging the status quo in Hollywood. Again: shock value, or something more?

Once You’re Dead…

We certainly can’t say that shock value isn’t at least a part of the plan. Indeed, KUSO kicks off with Busdriver’s confrontational lyrics: “Your god is from the underground, so when you pray you cannot fuck around. No one will ever save you. Once you’re dead, then you’re dead, there is no coming back.” But under their confrontational surface, these lyrics call to mind our habitual obsession with the material world and confront us with the stone truth of our own mortality. The film’s post-apocalyptic setting and its focus on disease, desolation, and corporeal degradation summon us to face our vulnerabilities rather than exult in our beauty.

In this way, KUSO recalls the sentiments of a danse macabre — a “death dance” — a ritual which arose in the fourteenth century following the outbreak of the great plague called the “Black Death.” Renowned Italian scholar Umberto Eco, in his own treatise on ugliness (straightforwardly titled On Ugliness), points out that the purpose of this dance “was not so much to increase the fear of waiting for the end as the need to exorcise that fear and get accustomed to the idea that it was coming…it celebrates the transience of life and the levelling of all differences…” (67).

dansre macabre depiction

Momma!

Just so, KUSO seeks to confront us with the mortal ugliness which we routinely shun out of fear, but which is common to us all from birth. In fact, the issue of our being “ugly” from birth manifests itself in the film’s many parent-child relationships, specifically those between children and their mothers.

These play out across the film like variations on a theme: a lonely, gravelly-voiced man recounts over the radio how his father murdered his milk-leaking mother, and how he admired him for it; an underground concrete-eating Japanese woman offers up her baby as a sacrifice; after choking him to orgasm, a woman sings her lover to sleep with a motherly lullaby, and later “gives birth” to a talking neck boil with an incestual craving…

Flying Lotus talks to dispatch...

…a kid leaves his home for school as three buff, greasy-haired men enter his home, carrying his neglectful mother inside and leaving the rest to our imaginations; a man with a paralyzing fear of breasts has an extended dream of squirting milk, crying fetuses, and other birth-related imagery; a dead mother asks her daughter for money through a television screen, laughing maniacally; that daughter later uses her aborted fetus as a weed pipe; in a brief musical interlude, a rapper rhymes:

“We got that mother’s connection, the kinda shit that’ll make you bust milk holding erection”

(The symbolic confluence of the pure, white, life-giving power of breast milk and male ejaculate even influences the spurted white design of the film’s title on its poster).

Apparently, KUSO paints mothers as a threat (fathers are absent here). But it also hails them as our portal into this material world, the ones without whom we cannot enter it, and without whom survival is difficult if not impossible. The reality of our birth is ugly, and at our core we all continue to bear the same ugly needs: to stuff our face holes, to excrete from our assholes, to drain our nose holes, to urinate and procreate with our sex holes.

Throughout our lives, these needs put us in a position of great vulnerability. This fundamental ugliness — of depending for our lives on what threatens to kill us — is part of what binds us all as a race. For this reason, our ugliness is a key to our common humanity, something to celebrate. KUSO is one of the rare movies that dare to do so.

And that’s why, to apply a line of dialogue spoken by the legendary George Clinton to my own evaluation of this film: “Dat’s da shit. Dat’s dat doo doo.”

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One Comment

  1. Trever Michael Daniels

    November 16, 2017 at 6:04 pm

    Good read! Keep it coming!

    Reply

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