Serenade for Haiti (2017)

A lot of the best documentaries we have on difficult subjects “luck” into capturing an important moment by happening to film something seemingly innocuous just when tragedy or an unexpected shift occurs. I’m not sure Serenade for Haiti qualifies as that exact type of happenstance, since the Haitian capital it was documenting, Port-au-Prince, is constantly undergoing some kind of fundamental change, whether political or Natural. The film does find a very specific lens to view the city’s biggest upheaval of the past decade through, however, by watching it unfold through the profile of Saint Trinité Music School, a very insular community in the larger picture of Haitian culture. By following staff & students of the music school in the years preceding & following the city-destroying earthquakes of 2010, the film finds a hyper specific frame for capturing the way Haiti has dealt with the once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe.

Founded in the 1950s, Saint Trinité Music School was founded as a charitable Catholic institution specifically meant to improve the lives of Port-au-Prince children who live below the poverty line. Early conversations with the students before the earthquake reveal lines like, “We want to show that people from our class can achieve wonderful things” and “Music is our refuge,” establishing just how important the school is to the community. Its results are easily detectable too, as Serenade for Haiti contrasts the angelic sounds of its longterm students with the unsure needling of its younger hopefuls. The school takes on an entirely different meaning after the 2010 disaster, with music becoming an act of therapy for students struggling with post-disaster PTSD. Their refusal to directly discuss the horrors of the earthquake that destroyed their school, city, country, and families is very much reminiscent of the way New Orleans (a city with strong Haitian roots) gradually recovered after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, especially once the healing sounds of music & Carnival culture creep back in through the rubble & the silence. The physical school of Saint Trinité is destroyed halfway into this film, but the school itself somehow continues to thrive.

The visual craft of Serenade for Haiti makes little effort to match the angelic sounds of its music, outside a few glimpses of Carnival celebrations or vibrantly-painted historic murals. The most the film has to offer as cinema is an intimate look at a tragedy most people are used to examining from a much greater remove. There might possibly be a more informative documentary to be made about the grand scale aftermath of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, but by profiling members of a single music school within Port-au-Prince before & after the event, the film offers an intimacy & a specificity a more wide-reaching documentary could not accomplish. The filmmakers behind Serenade for Haiti would have had no way of knowing the significance of what they are documenting when the film first began production, but they stumbled into a personal, up-close look at a historic tragedy in the process. More importantly, though, they also happened to capture the cultural perseverance that emerged in its aftermath, documenting through music a culture that’s unfortunately grown accustomed to massive violent upheavals as a routine of daily life.

-Brandon Ledet

Kuso (2017)

How do you feel about the idea of watching Parliament Funkadelic mastermind George Clinton play a doctor who cures a patient of their fear of breasts by allowing a giant cockroach to crawl out of his ass & puke a milky bile all over their face? Your answer to that question should more or less establish your interest level in the gross-out horror comedy Kuso, in which that visual detail is just one minor curio in the larger freak show gestalt. The film swirling around that moment is packed with kinky sex involving hideous boils, plucked chickens that swim like fish, faces smeared in semen & shit, and psychedelic mixed media collage art depicting entire galaxies of tits & leaking anuses. It’s almost as if the script were written by SNL’s Stefon on an especially gnarly robo-trip. With his debut feature as a director, Steve Ellison (who produces music under the monikers Flying Lotus & Captain Murphy) has made a Pink Flamingos for the Adult Swim era, a shock value comedy that aims to disgust a generation of degenerates who’ve already Seen It All, as they’ve grown up with the internet. Most audiences will likely find that exercise pointless & spiritually hollow, but I admired Kuso both as a feature length prank with Looney Tunes sound effects and as a practical effects visual achievement horror show. As George Clinton’s puking mutant ass-roach indicates, this film is decidedly Not For Everyone, but I was personally amused.

The secret to what makes the frantic energy of Adult Swim staples like Tim & Eric and The Eric Andre Show even endurable is that episodes typically last only ten minutes at a time instead of comedy television’s half hour standard. Stretching out that same mania to a 90min feature has been a struggle for past attempts like Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie and Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters, which are brilliantly entertaining in spurts, but tend to push attention spans to the limit at full length. Kuso is smart to break down its psychedelic freak show into a series of interconnected vignettes to preempt this audience fatigue, adopting the Everything Is Connected horror anthology formula of Southbound or Trick ‘r Treat. Set in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles after a cataclysmic earthquake, the film details the sordid lives of the mutated survivors, who all sport hideous boils as trophies for their perseverance. This narrative is laid out by an opening freak-jazz spoken word performance from backpack rapper Busdriver, threatening to deliver a La La Land of the Damned style musical. The stories within that structure are populated by familiar comedic faces of the Adult Swim era: Anders Holm as a shit-sniffing school teacher, Tim Heidecker as a toilet-dwelling date rapist, Hannibal Burress as a transdimensional pothead monster. Like with Pink Flamingos, their individual stories are go-nowhere pranks that don’t amount to much more than the shock of seeing a nude Heidecker hump a lump of flesh that resembles the gaming consoles from eXistenZ or two young lovers share a semen-slathered kiss. However, the audacity & the consistency of tone within its overall sense of post-apocalyptic world-building amounts to something remarkable, if not just remarkably grotesque.

One major aspect of Kuso that’s likely to get overlooked in discussions of its more scatological interests is how refreshing it is that the film is conspicuously black. The grandnephew of John Coltrane and himself a producer of hip-hop beats, Ellison sets the rhythm of this psychedelic freak fest both to the frantic energy of improvisational jazz and to the laid-back stoner vibes of modern laptop rap. Although viewers may be horrified by the image of what crawls out of his ass, George Clinton is perfectly at home within this universe, bridging the gap between those two aesthetics & serving as the patron saint of Kuso‘s particular brand of psychedelic blackness. That perspective is always underrepresented on the horror landscape, but it’s even more rare with this subgenre of extreme, gross-out horror. Ellison maintains a great sense of humor throughout the work as well. In one scene Burress’s transdimensional pot beast responds to the criticism, “This is garbage,” with a flippant “Eat ass, this is art.” He has a point, too. The intricate collage animation & grotesque puppetry that support Kuso‘s freak show delicacies with a solid visual foundation suggest a kind of grand ambition that far outweighs any problems with pacing or flat comedic bits. Kuso feels like a 2010s echo of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song in that way; it’s maybe not entirely successful, but it’s incredibly ambitious in the way it reaches to forge new art forms out of unapologetically black modes of expression.

If you’re only going to watch one transcendent gross-out horror this year, I still say make it the far more successful We Are the Flesh. Kuso‘s worth giving shot as an uglier, goofier follow-up, however, especially if the first sentence of this review hasn’t already sent you running. Luckily, for your disgust & convenience, both titles are currently streaming on Shudder.

-Brandon Ledet