Spotlight On Jon Moritsugu By Skizz Cyzyk. When film history books begin taking notice of underground cinema, post-1975, it is likely that a lot of attention will be given to New York’s so-called "Cinema Of Transgression," while more deserving filmmakers like San Francisco’s Jon Moritsugu are likely to go unnoticed...
When film history books begin taking notice of underground cinema, post-1975, it is likely that a lot of attention will be given to New York’s so-called "Cinema Of Transgression," while more deserving filmmakers like San Francisco’s Jon Moritsugu are likely to go unnoticed. Moritsugu is the quintessential "punk rock" filmmaker, taking many of the Cinema Of Transgression’s better qualities and improving on them.
Beginning in the mid-’80s, Moritsugu combined punk rock, experimental imagery and shocking subject matter with a D.I.Y. aesthetic, resulting in a string of rough-around-the-edges, in-your-face shorts that opened doors and paved the way for other underground filmmakers in the ’90s (and perhaps shut a few doors too). Since that time, he has completed at least six shorts and six features, of varying quality, all seemingly aimed at hip, rebellious youth, and therefore perfect as midnight movie fare. Two of his features in particular, Terminal USA (1994) and Mod Fuck Explosion (1995) rate exceptionally high in both their "punk-ness" and accessible-ness.
In Terminal USA, Moritsugu creates a soap opera about a dysfunctional Asian-American family on the verge of Armageddon. The grandfather is on his death bed, possibly because the mother is addicted to his medication. The daughter is a pregnant nymphomaniac cheerleader who is being targeted for social-destruction by her school friends while she has her sites set on an older man. One of the sons is a computer nerd who secretly has phone sex with skinheads, while the other son is an ultra-grungy drug dealer slowly bleeding to death after a deal gone bad. Stuck in the middle of it all is a father whose only concern is eternal salvation for his brood. Terminal USA is the sort of film John Waters might have made had he been born twenty years later. The entire film is shot on a soundstage and takes place mostly in the family’s home. The situations are outrageous and each character is highly exaggerated, adding to the film’s comic qualities.
In Mod Fuck Explosion, Moritsugu revisits the theme of dysfunctional families in the form of a single-parent mother who, when she’s not passed out on drugs, is coming onto her son. But mostly, the film weaves a sweet tale about the desires of two teenagers (he wants to lose his virginity, she wants a leather jacket) into a larger tale of rivalry between the Mods and an Asian scooter gang. Again, the absurdity makes for great comedy, as does the shock value (one scene takes place on a set constructed of 800 pounds of rotting meat). Throughout the film, Moritsugu makes great use of cutting edge D.I.Y. music, a trademark of his films that makes his soundtrack albums sound like mix tapes made by friends anxious to turn you onto some cool underground tunes.
Moritsugu’s early shorts are wonderful time capsules of punk rock moviemaking, containing fun aesthetics that have all but died since the coming of the digital video revolution. They are films that would not be the same if shot on video, and would not have the same impact if made today. His first feature, My Degeneration (1990) is his only film that is nearly unwatchable, yet still worth watching for the sake of curiosity. Shot on Super8, it is a mess of bad camerawork, bad lighting, bad editing, bad acting and a cool-but-incoherent storyline about a rock band and a disembodied pig head. Nevertheless, the film screened at Sundance and won the honor of having Roger Ebert walk out during the screening. It is worth checking out if, for anything else, to witness what true D.I.Y. spirit was capable of in the late ’80s. Many of Moritsugu’s other films are worth checking out too. His 1997 feature, Fame Whore, and his 2002 feature, Scumrock, are interesting examples of a filmmaker maturing but staying true to his roots. Neither film is as shocking or subversive as his earlier films, but the originality, absurdity, and entertainment values are just as high.
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