So the other night I made a bunch of people watch a movie about anuses with me. That movie was Steven Ellison’s KUSO.
It had been on my radar for a little while as it had stirred somewhat of a controversy at Sundance (I always perk up at the thought of snotty white people walking out of a theater) and I knew it would work amazingly as one of my ice-breaker movies. This is something I’ve discovered recently; I find a movie so weird / fun / crazy that it demands attention from everybody in the room and ensnares them in its ridiculousness. What follows is like a shared catharsis; people are hollering and crying and laughing, with “oh no!”s and “what the fuck?”s all about. We’ve all been through so much together by the end of the movie, we’re basically best friends. This especially came in handy while I was homeless in Orlando, and I would tote around Obayashi’s House in my backpack and present it as a gift to anyone who let me sleep on their couch. Just about any midnight movie can have this effect – it’s why they’ve retained their social status. And watching everyone writhe in disgust / amusement together during an especially risque scene, I confirmed a feeling I’ve had for a while now.
Midnight movies are the pulpy, beating heart of cinema.
I alluded to this in my last piece when I talked about Stop Making Sense and the connection I felt to everyone in the room and on the screen. Something about the drive through a quiet street; the brisk walk to the into the neon-lit lobby (otherworld) and out of the empty dark; the heightened imagination and the wearied senses; yawning and sucking on something poison just to pry your bagged eyes awake…it all harmonizes for an overwhelming visceral experience. It’s kinetic – whether you’ve been waiting in line for hours with your best friends in black robes and space helmets, or you’re just a caffeine-riddled insomniac that needs a break from reality.
Now, mass-appeal fantasy films make for great midnight premieres, but I’d be mistaken to categorize them with what we know as the “midnight movie”. We’re referring to cult films, like Eraserhead or The Warriors. These are eccentric productions that probably didn’t sit well with critics at first but found enough of an underground fan base to survive until re-evaluation, which can either redeem the film for the populace or keep it down in the underground. This was common with most horror movies until a few years ago – just about anything horrific was viewed as overtly obscene and psychotic. It took years for us to agree that The Shining and The Thing were masterpieces. Our typical midnight movie is usually either a rowdy communal exchange or some type of challenging abstract art film. KUSO manages to be both.
Yes, I know the phrase “art film” is vague and frivolous, and trying to define “art” is a fast way for anyone to disappear up their own ass. So, in order to save ourselves from endless abstraction, an art film to me is any film that requires deductive reasoning to really interpret it. You know – abstract thinking, symbolism, all that stuff. But what the best art films do – what any good art does – is allow you to understand it on a deeper emotional level regardless of what critical thinking skills you’ve retained from high school English class. Like Werner Herzog said, “film is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates.”
This is why I was able to watch Under the Skin when I was fifteen years old and still love every second of it, even though I had no clue what the thematic narrative was at the time. The imagery is so vivid, so hypnotic, so horrific… I could feel the emotion of every scene so intensely, I was moved to tears. I was small in its colossal cascades, lonely with the quiet, disfigured man, terrified by the harvest, and enraged by the logger in the woods. Movies like this understand the value in emotion. Movies like this have their own breath, their own heartbeat.
KUSO has its own heartbeat.
And if a film can have its own heart, then we can see it as another person, right? This might sound crazy, or stupid, but I think the general populace has a tendency to treat movies like people. Movies have sound identities and personalities, ideas and philosophies. It makes sense, and it’s why we can relate to them like we do. So KUSO might be an ugly thing to look at, but I would argue that it’s a deeply affectionate, personable human being. Beneath all the ooze and slime and human orifices, KUSO has a lot to say about oppression. Steve definitely cared more about the midnight essence of his film, but he also weaved a provoking commentary within it. And it’s in the first few minutes that he states his thesis:
KUSO will be known by many as the shittiest film on the planet, and in one way it is. Kuso is the Japanese word for shit, and it manifests as the subject of the film. It might be the most disgusting thing you’ll ever see, but it’s also extremely original, captivating, and strangely charming. I feel there are many of those who call themselves lovers of cinema but only wish to see the same film over and over again without aberrations. It is like only ever falling in love with people who remind you of the first person you fell in love with. So if you want something fun, new, and borderline emotionally traumatic to do this weekend – I suggest you gather your friends, grab a drink or something to smoke, and watch KUSO. It’s nice to see a movie with a heartbeat every now and then.