Kuso (2017) Dir. Steven (aka “Flying Lotus”) Ellison
“I have said this before and will repeat it again as long as I am able to talk: if we do not develop adequate images we will die out like dinosaurs.” –Werner Herzog
If you were to reimagine a debut feature as a bodily function, then you’d likely end up with something like Kuso.
Now, I am a big fan of Herzog’s assertion that humanity needs what Herzog called “adequate images” to survive, lest we die out like the dinosaurs before us. We crave new images, new ways of seeing. And to add to his notion, I feel like these images are how we continue to evolve as a people, how cultures move forward. Incremental progress, to be sure, but perhaps every new image is only the fraction of the smallest measurement? A new image is, for the sake of this metaphor, less than an inch of progress but it is a full heartbeat for collective culture.
And so, Kuso amounts to several heartbeats and at least an inch and a quarter progression. You simply have not seen anything quite like Ellison’s ode to the human body and the material it produces. If you’re invested in the idea of seeing something “new” and you put your narrative expectations on hold, then you’ve got one foot forward. But before you can get that other foot going, you also have to be ready for the human body in all its explicit glory.
The premise, just to get it out of the way: an earthquake has decimated Los Angeles and the citizens now live in a kind of bombed-out wasteland filled with disease, desperation, mutations, and the occasional trans-dimensional beings. As one would expect, the population continues to fight and fuck and piss and shit their way through the day.
This film is positively wet with excreta, and it looks like it probably smells. All of this preamble to say, more or less, that Kuso isn’t for everyone. It’s like a Body Worlds exhibit for gross-out humor. You’re going to see poop; there’s just no ifs, ands, or buts about it (Pun not intended). To me, that’s a good thing. People are too goddamn hung up on their bodies.
I see an awful lot of folks complaining about various types of “shaming” over the internet, but how does a society expect to curb that kind of behavior when individuals can barely tolerate their own bodies? I mean, there’s a good fucking reason that the children’s book Everybody Poops has to exist, right? Because people are terrified (slight hyperbole) of what their bodies produce. Smarter people than I have linked this fear of the body asserting itself to ultimately being a fear of mortality. That is a sentiment to which I whole-heartedly agree.
It would make sense then that I have repeatedly seen Kuso described as a “body horror.” I suppose, based on one’s personal temperament that the descriptor works. However, I find that the moniker makes the case for why a movie like Kuso is warranted, even important.
I see Ellison’s exploration as one that is ultimately very body positive, but the style of execution is of the fun-house mirror. The audience is treated to a warped vision of themselves, society, their bodies, and the stuff we make with our bodies. Through grotesque obfuscation we gain recognition. At some point during its running time, or perhaps after it has finished, the audience will reflect on how “abnormal” some of these images seem and then relate said images to their own body.
What kind of stuff does my body do? What does it make?
And most importantly: All of this is completely normal. I am completely normal.
David Cronenberg has said that “the first fact of human existence is the human body.” What better way to celebrate existence than to wallow in its filth? In a perfect world, Kuso is to Ellison what Pink Flamingos is to Waters. Like the latter filmmaker, I see fearlessness in Ellison and I hope he is given the opportunity to further explore. After all, we need his images.
Impressive camera work, lighting, and set design abound. All the performances are game, and fans of the character Salad Fingers will be delighted to hear familiar voice work (David Firth contributed quite a bit to the overall production). Ellison’s film is interspersed with animation and a range of visual effects. A bit of the visual aesthetic found in the faux-reality of Adult Swim fair, like Tim and Eric Awesome Show, married to the strange Hell imagined by Hieronymus Bosch, and all set to the nightmarish drones that accompany David Lynch’s work.
This film is explicit in its depictions of, well, everything.
But . . . bodily functions unite us all.
Kuso is the gross shit that makes us human.
*Classic Shit! started in 2009 as a semi-regular article for the website We Are Movie Geeks. It has been on hiatus for a long time, and I’ve decided to finally resurrect the column, reprinting older pieces as well as adding new ones, all of which will focus on film.