Culture is a virus. - William S. Burrough

:: spoiler alert ::

At the heart of Flying Lotus's debut film Kuso is something that might get lost for first time viewers, stunned by its grotesque appearance. Indeed there are critics that may have missed the point entirely because of the shocking, hyper-sexual, hyper-violent, irreverent nature of the film. 

In Kuso , an earthquake in LA has presumably unleashed some force that has caused not just physical destruction but general psycho-spiritual mayhem. However, we tip toe around any stark conclusions in the film, and the characters themselves aren't quite sure if it was the earthquake that has transformed their world. Those that still live in LA wear shirts celebrating their survival, and all seem riddled with boils, rashes, and physical and mental disease. In Kuso, this disease loses its definition ; it is not a specific disease ... in a way, once everyone has 'it,' it ceases to be a disease.

Nobody seems disgusted, as the audience might be, by all the pus spewing bumpy sores that seem to afflict the population. Instead, in a number of disturbing vignettes, characters deal with their own personal phobias, family dysfunction, and relationship trauma. They wrestle with their culture and everything the world around them forcibly instills in them --- but as is not always the case with us, these characters all have physical evidence of this memetic trauma, a culture that has mutated them and filled them with that which they cannot unsee.

Where all these stories come together and reveal a stroke of pure genius, is in their relationship to the idea of culture. Culture is the disease that can't be unseen. It spreads, then makes itself invisible, woven into the fabric of the everyday. It can normalize anything, any horror, any injustice. Within it is the source of both our history and our disconnection --- our ability to change one another and the world around us, and to have our presence cascade through the ages. It's perhaps most helpful in viewing Kuso, after one has gotten past the shock of its aesthetics, to see the disease present in all the characters as culture itself. The earthquake becomes a kind of metaphor for something inexplicable, but natural, catastrophic, that has happened in the past and unleashed the apocalyptic force of culture itself.

Every story seems to approach culture in a different way, and provide some sort of template for navigating the unthinkable unspeakable horror of memetic transfer. In Smear, a boy is subjected to emotional and physical abuse at the hands of his mother. She forces him to eat rancid soup , which we later learns is the body of his dead father. A father which he regrows, fertilized by his own excrement, in the wilderness. This soup he is forced to consume, quite literally, is the body of the past ; it is the paternal authority of past culture --- the world we grow into but do not choose. We are not only confronted with this horror in Kuso, but also shown a way out, as our character finds peace and creativity outside of his culture, in the wilderness, where he alchemically transforms his own shit into revelations and creative expression ( in the form of a flip-book ).

"Culture is not your friend" - Terence McKenna

Kuso is smart enough to know that this is not the path for everyone though and thus provides a number of alternative routes for dealing with what one could call the problem of culture, and the problem of that which can't be unseen. Within another sketch, a man and woman face the horror of a talking boil that has grown on the woman's neck. This grotesque form, voiced to great effect by David Firth, also invokes the idea of culture --- this thing that becomes us, grows from us, has its own voice, and which no matter how we try, we can't get rid of. In the sketch, the characters solution seems to be an 'embrace' of the culture, an acceptance of it as part of the family, and a relaxing of the paranoid demonization of it. Of course, it's a little more than an 'embrace,' as he inseminates the boil, indicating that one appropriate response to culture is to say 'fuck it.'

Another character, the Zach Fox character, conquers his fear of breasts by being jettisoned into a hallucinatory spell initiated by the pseudo-shamanic George Clinton character. Clinton is a host for a lobster-like being that lives in his anus, 'Mr. Quiggle,' and they both act as a symbol for a being so in touch with their own power and command of culture, that they are more a vessel for higher dimensional influence, than they are a human being. Ultimately, this shamanic character, who is in touch with 'that doo-doo' seems to be the most evolved of the bunch. He has set up his clinic, whose practice seems musical, artistic, as well as medical ( his office is filled with drum machines and synths, and his procedure requires the invocation of music ), and he has devoted his life to healing others by acting as a vessel for the mystical. The character, much like George Clinton, is a source of true authority --- the shamanic vessel who has been around long enough, seen it all, and knows the most important thing is to move past fear, and find that 'shit,' 'that doo-doo,' or what is great in life. Of course to do this, the Zach Fox character has to face his fear in a kind of dark night of the soul, as we all do --- in his case, a nightmarish vision of demons fornicating etc.

In KUSO 'futility reigns.' This is a line we hear multiple times in the film, once from the Lexington Steel character, and a few times from the Buttres character. While we are not offered a solution to the horror of culture, KUSO does offer us a template for conquering our fears of it and getting on with our lives. In culture, that which sticks in our minds changes our minds. If we had no tools to transform this initial encoding, we would have no free will or autonomy. We would be pure products of our environment --- this is the true horror. Culture itself, as the great beat writer William s. Burroughs pointed out, is a virus, after all. We are infected with culture, and it is a curious disease, like the bite of a radioactive spider, that gives us both hyper-human ability, but which impairs us if we wish to be natural, a 'normal' part of the world unencumbered by a kind of madness --- something we never chose, something which could be damaging, random, alien, or used to make us serve some existing authority. Though if we can face this, and conquer our fears, we can utilize culture, have a relationship  with it, instead of simply being steamrolled by its questionable influence.

While KUSO remains extremely anomalous in film history, finding few analogues, it does have some connections to David Cronenberg's films, and more specifically Naked Lunch. It is interesting to note that while Cronenberg's Naked Lunch remains an incredible adaptation of Borroughs' work --- bits of his life merged with his hallucinatory fiction --- Kuso acts like a spiritual cousin to Naked Lunch by more directly invoking something of its essence, its texture, and its literary innovations.

Burroughs notoriously said filming Naked Lunch would likely be impossible, but I think after seeing Kuso he would have had hope. So many parallels can in fact be seen between Kuso and Naked Lunch that it may warrant another piece of writing. But beyond aesthetic motifs, sentient assholes, bizarre alien sexualization, use of drugs 'not yet synthesized,' delirious paranoia, nightmarish hallucination, absurdist comedic-sometimes-ethically dubious doctors and institutions, etc. we find the channel-surfing style of Kuso, the loose narrative threads, which remind us heavily of Burroughs' 'cut-up' method. Kuso even gives us the sense that we are experiencing cinematic routines, much like the literary routines* of Burroughs.


*In helping him construct Naked Lunch, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac began referring to Burroughs sketches as routines --- which could be more clearly defined as short pieces within which the mind of the reader would be pushed into vivid, vaudevillian, often grotesque and shocking situations filled with surreal sexuality and violence. Often these sketches also had subversive sub-textual information to convey about culture, authority, and addiction.

KUSO will undoubtable shock, and many will find it too noxious to approach. However, for those cinephiles that are willing to ingest some of the ordeal potion, like the Zach Fox character in Mr. Quiggle's office, profound ideas about the world are surely in store, a map of hallucinatory escape routes will unfold, and perhaps a bit of liberation from the most oppressive force on our planet, that force that contains all other oppressive forces, culture.