If nothing else, KUSO can be seen as a unfiltered peek into Flying Lotus’s pure, diseased id. There is no good or bad here, no standard qualifier, no use for the usual critical metrics applied to reviewing movies. For better and worse, this is an undiluted shot of straight Lotus. It’s not a movie that’s watched, it’s not even a movie that is experienced; it’s a movie that is survived, the viewer stumbling away from the rubble, smeared with dirt and offal, their gaze blank, their ears ringing and in a daze.
The question is: should one even experience KUSO? Should an adventurous viewer take the bait and plunge themselves deep into the avant-rapper’s necrotic experimental vision? That’s a question that’s tough to parse. On the one hand, the answer is no. Lotus — birth name Steve Ellison, crediting himself simply as “Steve” here — has conjured a deeply odious and fantastically off-putting vision of a surreal, shit-stained apocalyptic hell, one that is as fascinating to see unfurl as it is a chore to sit through. On the other hand, this is such a singular and odd vision that it feels impossible to look away. If there was ever such a thing as car wreck cinema, this would be the pinnacle.
There’s no plot to speak of, just a series of semi-interlocked vignettes spun around Steve’s seeming fetish for the scatological. A massive earthquake has hit Los Angeles, and the lost souls living in its destruction have become infected with some sort of biblical plague that leaves them covered in boils. That seems to be the only throughline given to anchor us as we are led through a Robert-Altman-from-Hell version of the City of Angels. Artful, psychedelic collage work and channel-flip fuzz act as markers between vignettes, as if this is all taking plus on an especially bored Satan’s binge session. There are familiar faces present: Tim Heidecker, Anders Holm, George Clinton, David “Salad Fingers” Firth, Hannibal Buress. They, plus a succession of brave unknowns, contribute to parade of filth: Heidecker’s head pops up out of a used toilet; a couple sing to each other while performing erotic asphyxiation; a young man feeds his excrement to a giant, alien hole in the woods, which births a human face; a talking boil fellates a man; Clinton cures a man of his phobia with a lobster in in his anus that excretes slimy green fluid.
The problem with KUSO and its deranged vision is that it doesn’t add up to much. In fact, it adds up to nothing at all. There’s no point to Lotus’ stream of offal and bodily waste, a dour and shapeless celebration of semen, vomit, piss, pus and feces (and various squished bugs.) it is an affront to delicate sensibilities, no doubt about that, but it’s also an affront to non-delicate ones, too. It is applause-worthy that Flying Lotus has made a film so definably idiosyncratic and unusual in an era where even “countercultural” cinema has been bogged down in formulas and stigmas. This is easily a film in the grand tradition of everything from ERASERHEAD to FLAMING CREATURES to PINK FLAMINGOS. It’s challenging, defiant and not afraid of giving the finger to social norms. That’s great. It’s also thin, empty, meandering and less rebellious than it thinks it is. That’s not so great.
KUSO, as a film, as a work of underground art, is just too sophomoric to work as the extremist slap to the face it seems to want to be. It has the misfortune of coming out the same year as David Lynch’s masterful new season of TWIN PEAKS, particularly that epic, enigmatic eighth episode. That one hour of television was as challenging, abstract, weird and disturbing as anything in KUSO, but it was also gorgeous, thought-provoking, nightmarish and emotionally transcendent. KUSO, however, settles for lazy juvenilia. It’s not that hard to “challenge” people with an excess of gross-out humor. There will be plenty of people for whom watching Flying Lotus’ scatological smearing fetish will be disgusting, vile and sick. But even for those who aren’t put off by movies that are disgusting, vile and sick, the erstwhile conductor of this unholy symphony has done something far worse: He’s boring.
Maybe “Steve” is making a point about the beauty of human waste and how we shouldn’t be so afraid of it. Maybe. But it’s never clear by anything that goes on the listless craziness of the movie. Maybe I’m all wrong about this, and that he never wanted to make a point at all, that simply pushing the viewers’ faces into his extreme vision was really the end goal. There’s nothing wrong about that — to make something challenging for the sake of making something challenging. But, again, Flying Lotus has chosen to go about it in the easiest way possible. It’s not hard to gross people out. It’s much harder to get them to think, to question their views. So an endless parade of grossness just becomes enervating, numbing, dull. And, worse, misogynistic: There’s at least one extended date rape joke punctuated by endless abortion humor that’s about as challenging as a morning-show shock-jock routine. At times, the film seems to strain for the kind of hallucinatory hellishness that Adult Swim effortlessly achieves in its disturbing shorts. But more often than not, it comes off as a series of adolescent poo-poo pee-pee jokes dressed up in avant garde art-school hipsterism. There’s nothing wrong with making a movie that acts as a bracing slap to the face with a bucket of cold ice water. There is something wrong with making a movie that is nothing but empty, childish provocation.