Since Sundance began a week ago, four and a half feet of snow has muffled Park City. The world is white and the festivalgoers are weary. Every Californian has a cold. (Myself included.) I've been coming here for years, and the weather's never been this much of a slog.
So the climate is right to hide in the dark and dwell on the apocalypse. Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott's midnight thriller Bushwick opens with a long tracking shot that follows a born-and-raised Brooklyn girl ( Pitch Perfect's Brittany Snow) dragging her boyfriend home to meet her parents. The second he scrambles out of the subway, he's killed by a fireball. Her neighborhood's been taken hostage by black-clad soldiers who turn out to be a red-state militia pressuring the government for permission to secede. (When the movie got green-lit, who could have guessed it would be the West Coast threatening to Calexit?)
The southerners' plan is simple. To divide and conquer America, start with an "ethno-diverse" block already fighting over race and gentrification. Bushwick sounds like a soft target. Immediately (and irritatingly), Snow's neighbors threaten her with rape, that go-to attack when male directors want to raise the stakes. "I'm from here!" screams Snow. They don't care. From that gloomy start, the film gets drearier and drearier, despite Snow's chin-up pluck and heavyweight help from Guardians of the Galaxy's Dave Bautista, as an ex-Marine battling to reach his wife and kid. By the time a character gasps "I can't breathe" — a line that also clangs in Gerard McMurray's oppressive fraternity hazing drama Burning Sands — I was ready for some escapism from my escapism.
Time to role-play with Cate Blanchett. In Julian Rosefeldt's Manifesto, Blanchett shape-shifts through 13 characters, her oval face and wise eyes masked by beards and hats and wigs. "Capitalism is in decay," intones Blanchett in voice-over as we watch her trudge through industrial rubble in homeless man drag. Those words sounds like Marx or Lenin, but mostly, Rosefeldt lifts lines from 20th-century artists like Dada's Tristan Tzara and Werner Herzog, who penned screeds defining what art should — or shouldn't — do. When Blanchett's bum speaks, he quotes a World War II Dutch painter: “In this period of change, the role of the artist can only be that of the revolutionary." Hear, hear.
Manifesto forces you to match its mood, to cower before a black-netted, funereal Blanchett as she shouts a eulogy for the status quo: "No more bourgeois, no more aristocrats, no more armies, no more police, no more fatherlands, enough of all these imbecilities, no more anything, no more anything, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing," and giggle when her housewife forces her hungry family into a Pop Art dinner table prayer for "ham art, pork art, chicken art, tomato art, banana art, apple art, turkey art, cake art, cookie art." In my favorite segment, Blanchett, now dressed like a newscaster, declares, "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. All art is false," before cutting to a second reporter, also herself, hiding under an umbrella in the rain. "Back to you, Cate," she chirps. Oh, Cate, never leave.
I stumbled into rapper Flying Lotus's directorial debut, Kuso, with Tzara burning a hole in my brain: "What we need is works that are strong, straight, precise, and forever beyond understanding." Then Kuso doused my brain with gasoline. Kuso is set in a post-earthquake Los Angeles where the news anchors are even more cheerful than Blanchett. "I love this earthquake," one grins. "All my enemies are dead!"
Everyone in Kuso is covered in open sores. They drool and squirm and strangle each other for fun. Roast chickens swim in rivers. Children eat maggot soup. Girls are melted together at the knees. Kuso seems terrified of the female body. Flying Lotus choreographs an animated dance number of blood-and-milk-gushing dismembered breasts, and few women keep their legs shut, no matter how monstrous the men. There's no plot, only tortures — mostly on the audience, as the characters seem used to being covered in filth, including the guy who sings a ballad to George Clinton's naked ass in order to lure out a giant cockroach who will, um, cure his fear of tits. Is there an anus cam POV? Like, duh.
At my screening, a dozen people walked out. Some gave it 10 minutes, fleeing when a kid fed poo to a gooey forest wormtongue. I stuck with Kuso through the scene in which two tie-dyed stoner yetis smoke weed out of their roommate's aborted rape baby. I barely made it through a boring stretch where a wailing cavewoman screams for her baby. I even enjoyed the segments where cutout paper dolls were lit on fire, curling up to reveal new pictures like raw skin under a sunburn. Finally, when a man gets a blow job from his girlfriend's talking neck boil, I crumbled and hid under my hat.
When the credits rolled, a guy in my row yelled, "What the fuck?" Flying Lotus didn't show up for the Q&A, so that dude never got an answer. Maybe he would have asked him if Kuso is his strong, straight, and precise vision of hell on earth. Kuso is art, sure. But I'm happy to keep it beyond my understanding.