‘Jon Moritsugu burst on the cinematic scene with his notorious idol-smashing screed Der Elvis, made while he was a student at Brown University when he was all of 16 years old. Since then, he has moved onto satiric deconstructions of many popular genres and formats. With Terminal USA, he took on the family sit-com, with typically scabrous and pointedly garish results. Working with a larger budget than usual (Moritsugu is a whiz at no-budget filmmaking, making his features with a maximum of inventiveness and a minimum of funds), Terminal USA showed how Moritsugu can work the edge of acceptability within heavily imposed constraints, in this case, Corporation for Public Broadcasting funding through ITVS. (Actually, what edge? With Moritsugu, any imposed limit is only a means for his imagination to work overtime in order to go over the edge.)
‘In his subsequent features, such as Mod Fuck Explosion and Fame Whore, Moritsugu was back working the scrapped together, ragged edged, furiously impacted independent/underground beat, where his acutely disaffected sensibility flourishes in aggravated dissections on the whole myth of disenchanted youth (where posing is more important than an actual position) and the obsession with celebrity (as opposed to achievement). Scum Rock showed Moritsugu returning to the genre of the rock-and-roll movie, a genre he treated (roughly) in Der Elvis and My Degeneration, only to uncover further layers of rot, delusion and hysteria.
‘What’s unsettling about Moritsugu’s work is that his proto-punk satires, frequently sour and always focused in disaffection, about the inherent corruption of the show business worlds of rock-and-roll and celebrity, have become a harbinger of a world now inundated with the likes of reality television and instant fame. In the current universe of Paris Hilton, Jon and Kate Gosselin, and American Idol, Moritsugu’s righteous anger, which two decades ago seemed extreme, has come undone by the incessant degradation of sensibility which is part and parcel of contemporary American society. But perhaps he is a visionary, who foresaw the current American culture with a clarity (even though his aesthetic is one of wildly unstable grunge) that remains fiercely funny and oddly precise in its perceptiveness.’ — Daryl Chin
‘The wildly uncouth cinema of Jon Moritsugu has been over-stimulating audiences worldwide since emerging from the depths of the mid-1980s underground scene. Raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, by an arts teacher and an organic chemist, Moritsugu stud- ied filmmaking and semiotics as an undergraduate at Brown University. Equally inspired by experimental cinema of the 1960s, alternative music culture, and French theory, Moritsugu synthesized his influences into a punked-out aesthetic that is roughhewn yet crystal clear in its satire and shock value. Whether creating jam-packed shorts or balls to the wall features, all his films have a spazzed out look and logic that cannot help but to amaze.’ — ANTHOLOGY FILM ARCHIVES
Jon Moritsugu Site
Jon Moritsugu @ IMDb
jon.moritsugu @ instagram
Book: ‘SKULLFUCK: The Brutalist Cinema of Jon Moritsugu’
Jon Moritsugu v@ youtube
Jon Moritsugu Turns Rancid Meat Into Beggar’s Banquet
JM @ MUBI
JM @ Letterboxd
An interview with Jon Moritsugu
Films of Jon Moritsugu, Upending Stereotypes With a Wig and a Sneer
EXCLUSIVE JON MORITSUGU INTERVIEW!
A Conversation With Jon Moritsugu
Jon Moritsugu and Amy Davis on their return to Los Angeles
Podcast: KSFR Talks With Filmmaker Jon Moritsugu
Jon Mortsugu: “Out With The Punk, Long Live The New Wave”
JON MORITSUGU feature film retrospective trailer
SAN FRANCISCO SEALS “ipecac” music video (Matador Records)
LOW ON HIGH “melt” music video
It’s been almost 25 years since you made Mod Fuck Explosion. How do you feel about the film today?
I’ll be honest with you—it’s still my favorite. With this movie, everything came together perfectly, from the production team to the acting to the mise-en-scène. It just felt like one of those slivers of time when everything was in synchronicity.
Have you watched it recently?
I haven’t sat down and watched the entire thing, but I have watched chunks of it. I think it still holds up really well. It doesn’t seem dated in any way, so I still enjoy viewing it.
When the film plays at the Music Box this weekend, it’s going to screen from 16-millimeter, which is the format you shot it on. Do you miss shooting in that format? I know that you’ve made your last few films digitally.
Part of me misses the griminess and the graininess of each frame and the experience of cutting film. Then again, there’s that stress on the movie set [when you’re shooting on film]. If you’re shooting a couple takes and each take is a couple minutes long, you’re thinking, “Man, that was a couple hundred bucks I just spent!”
I’m excited to see Mod Fuck Explosion at the Music Box because I’m used to watching your work on a small screen. What’s the biggest screen you’ve ever seen your films projected on?
Probably at the Berlin Film Festival. They had this huge theater, [which sat] maybe 1,500 people. It was packed, standing-room only, and the cool thing about it was they had this huge mixing board. It almost looked like a rock-and-roll club’s mixing board, and they had some sound guys doing an actual live mix of the soundtrack while the movie was playing. I think that was the biggest situation in which I’ve presented my work.
That seems appropriate, as Mod Fuck Explosion was the biggest movie you’d made up to that point. It was your breakthrough.
It really was. It was the first movie I made where I was dealing with producers and investors—other people’s money—which was, for me, delightful and also the hugest challenge. I felt privileged, but at the same time I was freaked out, completely freaked out.
What would cite as the principal sources of inspiration on the movie?
The big inspiration was that I cast Amy Davis [in the lead role]. Basically I had been in love with her for years. I cast her in the movie, she flew out to San Francisco . . . She was trying to give a good performance; I was trying to win her heart at the exact same time. So all this gets smooshed together into this crazy, like, cacophony of emotions—being afraid to make the movie, being excited about it, falling in love . . . All this shit was wrapped up in the three-week production, and I think that informed the way the movie turned out.
Did you write Amy’s part specifically for her?
Yeah, I did. She had her screen debut in My Degeneration [Moritsugu’s debut feature], she wasn’t in Hippy Porn—and Hippy Porn was a really bad experience for me. So I was like, “I’ve got to get Amy back.” She was dating a millionaire in New York, and she was telling me about this guy, and I was, like, “I’ve got to lure her back, win her heart, I’ve got to create a character for her that she’s going to fall in love with.” And because I was falling in love with her, I also wanted to fall in love with her character, London. So Amy read the script, she came out to San Francisco, and within three days we were madly in love. She broke up with her millionaire boyfriend, moved in with me, and then we got married a few years later.
What were some of your cinematic influences?
Liquid Sky, West Side Story, Rebel Without a Cause, and then really extreme artsiness like Jean-Luc Godard and Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising. All of these movies were stuff I was loving at the time, and I wanted to grab all of these as inspiration, but maybe take off in a more entertaining direction—or maybe a trashier, scuzzier direction.
I recently watched Hippy Porn for the first time, and I found it reminded me not just of the French New Wave, but of the French films that came out around the events of May 1968 and which responded to the deconstruction of society by deconstructing film form.
Originally, Hippy Porn was going to be about this May ’68-like shutdown of society. I tweaked the script, but that was the original impetus behind the movie. My original version of the script dealt with students in the middle of this fictitious May ’68-like situation.
But then it ended up being a movie about students not doing much of anything.
Yeah, yeah, because of lack of budget, small cast . . . I was, like, shutdown of society will be a little bit hard to do. Plus, we shot the movie in about a week. So rather than everything happening, it became a movie about nothing happening.
It must have been exciting, then, to make a movie like Mod Fuck Explosion, where so much happens.
It really was. It was a jump from the black-and-white graininess of people sitting in rooms and talking to having a budget, a real crew, we were able to shoot in color with some action sequences and a huge cast. It was the breath of fresh air I needed.
This year is the 25th anniversary of the Chicago Underground Film Festival, and they’re co-sponsoring the screening of Mod Fuck Explosion as a kick-off to this year’s fest, which will look back at the festival’s history. I think it’s a fitting choice, because I associate your films with the sort of movies the festival has always championed, which tend to bring together elements of high and low art.
I love that dialectic between high art and low art. I’ve always had a problem with stuff that’s just resonating on one level, like extreme high-art movies or the totally transgressive underground crap. I always wanted to make movies that fluctuate between these extremes.
Who did you consider to be your audience for Mod Fuck Explosion?
I always wanted to find a really wide audience and not necessarily preach to the converted. Mod Fuck definitely found that wide audience. Everyone to mods to rocker, people in the scene, underground people [watched it], and it sort of crossed over to the really rarified, high-art people. Like, it played at the underground fests, but it also broke out and played some pretty high-end European festivals. It felt like a triumph, especially after Hippy Porn, which was a complete, dismal failure in the United States. It played at pizza parlors and stuff like that here. But it did catch on in Europe and was a weird smash hit in Paris; for a year it played nonstop. It was strange, finding an artsy, weird European audience, but no American audience for the movie. But Mod Fuck turned things around, where there was a European audience as well as an American audience.
J.R. Jones writes of Mod Fuck Explosion, “the film was ahead of the curve in smashing through decades of Asian stereotypes.” Was this one of your aims in making the movie or did it come about incidentally?
It was a really important part of the movie. I made Mod Fuck around the same time that I did Terminal USA, which was like my big-budget, dysfunctional Asian family [movie]; I did that for PBS. In Mod Fuck, it wasn’t the main theme—the Asian-American thing—but it was sort of a subtext, and I definitely wanted to make fun of representations of Asians on the screen. Like, I play Kazumi, the leader of a biker gang, and all of my dialogue was post-dubbed, out of sync, totally crazy, in reference to the badly dubbed kung-fu movies I grew up with. I wanted it to be really funny and sarcastic, but at the same time, something that we’d never seen before.
Did you find yourself being pigeonholed as an Asian-American filmmaker as a result of dealing with these themes?
Absolutely. When I started out in filmmaking in the late 80s, the two worlds that I was getting support from were the underground scene and the Asian-American scene, like Asian-American film festivals. There was one programmer in New York who really helped me by programming my crazy movies in an Asian-American film fest. And what I found was that my movies completely offended Asian-Americans. I wasn’t expecting that. Even when Terminal USA came out—which is about a dysfunctional Asian-American family and breaks down all these stereotypes, deals with racism and all these issues—I really thought the Asian-American community would consider me as the new, yellow Spike Lee and I’d become champion of the cause. But the opposite thing happened. A lot of Asian-American activists slammed me. They said, “You can’t do this; we’re a dignified people. You’re making us look foolish. Why don’t you make a documentary about your family and your ancestors working in the sugar cane fields?” Stuff like that. It was quite a shock that the Asian-American community was sort of ashamed by movies and just wanted to push me aside.
And yet Terminal USA is probably your most distinguished film. You made it with the support of PBS.
I really liked the way it turned out, but it was such a strange experience. It wasn’t until the middle of production when some of the executives finally read the script, and they were trying to stop the production.
For me, that early-90s PBS series of short features by independent filmmakers epitomizes a golden age of indie filmmaking in this country. It featured films by you, Hal Hartley—
Todd Haynes made a movie, Tamara Jenkins made a movie . . . It really was a magical moment for indie film, where people were snagging deals and getting big chunks of money to foist their visions onto the screen. Because no one had really done this before, the future was really wide-open. It’s sort of like what was happening in indie music, when Pavement got signed to Matador and scuzzy, underground bands were getting signed to bigger labels. The future was wide-open for all of us. We were getting hope and inspiration and the feeling that anything was possible. And it lasted for a couple years and it got all fucked up.
Tell me about the movie you’re working on now.
It’s called Numbskull Revolution. And funny, we were just talking about high art—it’s a movie that makes fun of the conceptual art scene. Amy plays a freaky artist, and she also plays the artist’s twin sister. It’s going to be a sort-of Freudian battle between the id and the superego. We shot it last summer and I’m editing it now. I totally changed my method of filmmaking; it’s a low-budget movie, but it was shot really high-end. We got a hold of some awesome equipment, and it looks completely Hollywood, mainstream, but it’s also a really freaky movie.
Bad-taste humor is a consistent factor in your films. Do you feel like there are things you could say when you made Mod Fuck Explosion that you can’t say now?
I think it’s just the opposite. I think there are things I’m saying now [in my movies] that I couldn’t say earlier because of the insecurities of being young and my ego and stuff like that. Right now, in my career or whatever you want to call it, I can look at myself and make fun of myself and put my foibles into my characters, whereas in the past I had a hard time doing that. I used to be, like, “Wow, I’m creating this fucked-up character who has nothing to do with me.” Now, I’m creating a fucked-up character that has everything to do with me.
12 of Jon Moritsugu’s 17 films
Mommy Mommy Where’s My Brain (1986)
‘I made it before Der Elvis. It’s a black and white 10 minute movie in 16 mm. I made a movie before that that I hate, but [Mommy Mommy Where’s My Brain is] the first movie that I made that I like, Mommy Mommy is so punk rock. This is before things got complicated, so I was like, ‘Bad Brains, Pay to Cum I like that song, I’m just going to use it. Oh ACDC I’m going to use it, oh Joan Jett, I’m going to use it. It was like fuck the world, I’m going to make my movie and I’m going to use the coolest music.” — Jon Moritsugu
Brain Dead (1987)
‘A Zombie Monkey rat that has had to be delerved from Africa to a Zoo for safety and the Zombie Monkey wants to bite and eat everything in its path.’ — MUBI
Der Elvis (1987)
‘A punked-out, radical deconstruction of the mythology of Elvis Presley colliding fact and fiction in a miasma of feedback, noise, and stoopid Presley impersonators. Der Elvis is literally and metaphorically a postmodern spew of theoretical aesthetics set to the pulsing soundtrack of utterly warped bricolage.’ — JM
Sleazy Rider (1988)
‘Sleazy Rider is the first post-college project from the underground force of nature known as Jon Moritsugu. It’s also the most electrifying 23-minutes that you’ll have all week. Feeling like a mixtape that was assembled by hyperactive methamphetamine fans after watching H.G. Lewis and Alison Downe’s She-Devils on Wheels, this movie is a touchpoint for everything that was special about underground culture in the late 1980s. It’s like sludge-punk band Flipper made an homage to Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising while also hitting Easy Rider in the face with a shovel and leaving it for dead. There are inserts of crude animation, comic book panels, press-on typography, footage from Easy Rider, blowjobs, dicks, and a cameo from Ellie Mae Hopper, “Dennis Hopper’s illegitimate daughter!” A narrator does a drop-dead perfect impersonation of John Waters. Everything is overdriven and in the red, including the songs by Steppenpuke. But this isn’t just an experiment in DIY style. Especially when you read between the lines.’ — Bleeding Skull
Hippy Porn (1991)
‘Moritsugu’s “lost” second feature and French cult hit from 1991, HIPPY PORN concerns three pretentious university students wallowing in their own fetid puddle of boredom, despair and nihilism. Ear-melting indie soundtrack co-mingles with stark 16mm in a celebration of new wave hellishness. 94 minutes of nerve-sucking ennui.’ — JM
Trailer (X version)
Trailer (g-string version)
Terminal USA (1993)
‘Executive produced by James Schamus (former CEO of Focus Features, producer of “Brokeback Mountain” and “Crouching Tiger”) and shot in eyeball-scorching Panavision, this is Moritsugu’s asian freak-out magnum opus that shocked America when it was broadcast on television in the mid-90’s! The director himself plays twins (a drug-dealing bad-ass and a closeted math nerd) in a radically dysfunctional family that completely obliterates the noble myth of the “model minority.”’ — JM
Mod Fuck Explosion (1994)
‘A lurid fever-dream riffing on arthouse pretense collided head-on with shock cinema, MOD FUCK EXPLOSION stars Amy Davis as London, a slinky blond girl in love/lust with delinquent boy par excellence M16 (played by female lead Desi del Valle), searching for her raison d’etre in a sprawling nightmare city. A coming-of-age story packaged in a sleazy exploitation wrapper, MOD FUCK EXPLOSION resonates with a strange yet wholly original existentialism.’ — JM
Fame Whore (1997)
‘They say fame comes at a price. For the psychos found in the last gem of Moritsugu’s 16mm empire, that price is sanity. Told in triptych, FAME WORE examines three unrelated eccentrics lost in total delusion within their profession, all taking place on a day where each get smacked hard with reality checks that force consideration for saner perspectives.
‘One story follows that of Jody George (Peter Friedrich)—a ruthless bro whose blessed tennis prowess has earned him the #1 rank in the field worldwide. But once rumors spreading through the newspapers put his straightness into question, his several investors begin to drop him one by one, throwing him on a infantile rampage in his SF hotel suite. Another tale peers into the office of a milquetoast animal lover (Victor of Aquitaine) whose dignity is continuously trampled on at his New Jersey dog adoption agency. All the intensely bottled up repression and isolation naturally lead him to manifest an imaginary friend (a sauced St. Bernard who offers half-hearted advice).
‘But frankly it’s Amy Davis who steals the show as the true Fame Whore, Sophie: a seriously talentless, bong ripping New Yorker, who lives in a business suit but can’t seem to file her own taxes. Tormenting her unnecessary personal assistant, J (Jason Rail), with endless self-obsessed and hyper-judgmental confab while her headshots go unautographed, Sophie’s fate unlikely holds fame and glory, but rather a doomed personal esteem, void of substance or meaning.’ — Spectacle Theater
‘A pretentious underground filmmaker (Kyp Malone of the band TV ON THE RADIO) struggles with his masterpiece while a scuzzy punkoid chick (Amy Davis) tries to keep her band from fading into obscurity. Shot in San Francisco with a $150 analog hi8 camcorder and edited on a VHS-cuts-only system, SCUMROCK drags video into the gutter while simultaneously giving the middle finger to the digital revolution.’ — JM
Pig Death Machine (2013)
‘PIG DEATH MACHINE is a sci-fi/psychological horror/screwball ride, shot in the stunning wilds of New Mexico and featuring the music of industrial legend Monte Cazazza, Deerhoof, Dirty Beaches, Polvo, Early Man and Low On High. After eating undercooked, parasite-laden, pink piggy, a brainless hottie (Amy Davis) is transformed into a dangerous genius, while across town, a punky-buxom-botanist-babe (Hannah Levbarg) eats the same meaty treat and ends up endowed with the supernatural ability to “hear” her specimens. Dreams become nightmares as they choke on the sweet nectar of envy and desire.’ — JM
Trailer (raw meat version)
‘The sun is bright, the dirt is sacred and the weed is dry 7,000 feet above sea level. Really dry. And every hit is harsh. Time stands still here. The land is challenging and mankind’s presence is sparse. There’s a lot of nothing and the vast stretch of space leaves you lonesome. Welcome to The Land of Enchantment: Santa Fe, New Mexico. Population: Who knows? Who cares? Google it. We’ll be out in Taos running with the coyotes and lookin’ for the jackalope. No gods, no newsfeed.’ — JM
Numbskull Revolution (2021)
‘After an amazing 16-day shoot (Santa Fe, NM and Marfa, TX), with a superstar cast and crew, the movie wrapped in the fall of 2017. Shot by Anne Misawa (in 4K RAW), production designed by Jennifer Gentile, and starring James Duval and Amy Davis, NUMBSKULL REVOLUTION is now in post-production with completion projected for fall 2021.’ — JM
p.s. Hey. ** Dominik, Hi, D!!! There’s this Emo social media site I look at sometimes mostly because I like the way the people there write/use language. I guess it used really popular, but now when you look at the commenting forum, there’s only 4 or 5 members still posting there, and all they talk about is what a depressing ghost town the site is. Yeah, I mean, a lot worse things could happen in the world than a massacre of the leading lights of the current pop music world. Ha, that’s pretty respectable relatively speaking. Thank you. Love discovering that God is a just kid who’s duct taped a contact mic to a piece of wood and is hitting it with a hammer, G. ** David, Happy to have filled in a blank. Magnotta, yeah. Interesting thing about him is, if you ever come across the few porns he made, he was the most uptight, weird, unsexy porn performer ever. Timothy McVeigh, interesting timing given Saturday’s anniversary. Now I want to go stuff my face with cake, and it’s all your fault. ** Sypha, He’s still around, but he’s a ‘hunk’ now. We used to have a couple of mice in our apartment but Yury inexplicably decided to start feeding them, and then there were a whole bunch of mice running everywhere leading to their mass extermination by a minion of our landlord. ** David Ehrenstein, Yes, I featured that poor unfortunate dismembered porn star in a post or two here back when. Billy something, as I recall. ** Bill, Based on one listen, I like the new Grubbs too, including the increased abstractness. ‘Familiar Face’ is a good title. Happy Monday. ** Florian-AF, Well, the good thing is, I don’t have to think up and make a new post every day, although rebuilding the dead ones is no cake walk. Gigs are mostly back here, but our Covid cases are dropping fast, and there’s the vax passport-to-enter rule, so they feel a little safe. A little. ** _Black_Acrylic, Not only is ‘King Cobra’ definitely not family fodder, it’s also pretty crappy. I still haven’t seen ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild.’ Thank you for reminding me. ** Misanthrope, You’re back! Give Kayla a very happy birthday from me. Sibling Rivalry publishes some pretty transgressive stuff sometimes. And there are plenty of general, non-oriented small presses that publish queer stuff, sometimes weird, without a second thought. I too have shit to do and plan on doing it. What a coincidence. Yes, my novel officially comes out and faces the music tomorrow, yikes. ** Steve Erickson, I … don’t think I’ve seen that Whitehead film, no. Huh. Interesting. I go in for my third root canal tomorrow, so … dental high five? In my opinion, no, ‘King Cobra’ is not any good. ** T, Hi. Mm, that crime didn’t pre-date. I wrote ‘The Sluts’ off and on for about ten years. But, yeah, parallels. Things are okay. My novel comes out tomorrow, so there’s a bit of stuff I’m doing around that and stress re: that. But good. I forget what a fortnight is. It means soon, I know that. Cool. Blowing it out in Manchester sounds like a bit of all right as some of your countrymen seem to say on occasion. My week might just be half-sweet/half-cringeworthy if I’m really lucky, thank you. Yours seems all set, so I’ll just pat it on the head. ** Okay. Do you guys know the films of Jon Moritsugu? He’s often lumped into either the New Queer Cinema ‘movement’ or the Cinema of Transgression ‘movement’ or both, which makes some sense although his stuff is pretty wildly unique. Anyway, if you don’t know his work and want to, you can do just that just so long as you set aside a stretch of time today to add him your brain. See you tomorrow.