Jon Moritsugu: Back with a Vengeance


Jon Moritsugu in ‘Pig Death Machine’

It’s a select few who can pull it off punk attitude for multiple decades, but filmmmaker/musician Jon Moritsugu is certainly one. He is the eternal bad boy—whether playing with his garage rock band Low on High or directing his first feature in a decade, Pig Death Machine, both collaborations with longtime marital and creative partner Amy Davis. Chockful of attitude, Moritsugu’s projects are no poseur’s paradise but an expression of a compulsion to transgress.

Moritsugu, who’d been quiet on the film front since 2002’s Scumrock , is experiencing a bit of a renaissance as a filmmaker: simultaneous bicoastal retrospectives at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater and Brooklyn’s Spectacle Theater, plus their theatrical premieres of Pig. And in one of the more outlandish recent intersections between mainstream and underground culture, last year he received a Grammy nomination for directing one segment of a feature-length music video for stellar post-punk act TV on the Radio.

It’s been a long but unusually consistent road to that point for the Honolulu-born director, who made a handful of shorts (with colorful titles like Mommy Mommy Where’s My Brain and L’il Debbie Snackwhore of New York City) before his Brown University thesis project made a significant splash. A twenty-two-minute mashup dismantling of The King’s legacy that the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman later deemed among the top fifty films of the decade, 1988’s Der Elvis was shown around the world, including the Whitney Museum.


‘My Degeneration’

Of course, a feature was the next logical step. In the great tradition of such lurid chick-band exposes as Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Desperate Teenage Lovedolls, 1990’s My Degeneration chronicled the rise and fall of punk trio Bunny-Love. Signed and promoted by the “American Beef Institute,” their name changed to the more sexploitative Fetish, its young rocker protagonists ride an outwardly familiar road to fame, disillusionment and tragedy tweaked by Moritsugu’s DIY aesthetic and absurdist humor—the heroine’s boyfriend is a decapitated pig’s skull named Livingston.

Now based in San Francisco, he collaborated with Jacques Boyreau (later impresario of the city’s legendary retro-exploitation lounge The Werepad) on 1991’s Hippy Porn. Redolent of early Jim Jarmusch and Gregg Araki, it follows several terminally bored students at a pretentious art school (i.e., the San Francisco Art Institute). There are no hippies, or porn for that matter, but the nailing of pervasive jadedness amongst wannabe artists with very little life experience is well-nigh perfect.


‘Terminal USA’

Incredibly, this edgy oeuvre brought Moritsugu an offer from PBS, from whom he won a screenwriting award for Terminal USA. This vicious sitcom parody lays waste to the polite, studious image of Asian emigres, with the writer-director himself as drug-selling son of the most dysfunctional Asian-American family ever. Cheerleader sister Holly is “queen of the high school whores,” older brother Marvin (also Moritsugu) is a psycho computer nerd; mom and dad have their own, er, “quirks,” too. Delivering rather more than the Sesame Street network expected, it duly added to the firestorm conservative political forces were then stoking against the National Endowment for the Arts, which had provided a funding grant. The budget was resplendent by Moritsugu’s prior standards, replacing his preference for rough B&W 16mm stock for lurid color, which actress-turned-wife Amy Davis’ own preferences would soon turn into a permanent shift.

Davis plays the lead “London” (no relation to the character played by Jessica Biel in 2005’s London, one of the worst movies ever made) in Mod Fuck Explosion, a defiantly rough-hewn return to barely-aboveground roots despite some overlaps with Terminal. London is a cynical teenager living with her drugged-up, incestuous mother and a brother the latter abuses. Meanwhile, there’s a war between Asian and white “mod” bikers. Does this take place in this sixties, today, or in some dystopian future? Who cares—its horny, wayward, sometimes hilarious progress is like John Waters meets Jim Van Bebber.


‘Fame Whore’

1997’s Fame Whore is slick by comparison, once again reprising sitcom mockery and total absurdism in service of three parallel stories. One (Davis) is a desperately-seeking aspirant to the fashion world; another is the very Crispin Glover-esque owner of an “Urban Dog Placement Center” whose best friend is a man in a Saint Bernard suit; and the last is a fantastically vain, amoral pro tennis champ. 2002’s Scumrock found Moritsugu finally making the leap to digital shooting, as innumerable punk-rock filmmakers had since the late 1970s. But in other ways it’s a throwback, with Davis among other recurrent friends/collaborators (including underground cinema legend Craig Baldwin and James Duval, favored actor of occasionally confused-with-Moritsugu veteran indie-punk filmmaker Gregg Araki) playing players in the saga of an alt-rock band trying to build visibility and maintain cred in the no-win roller derby of the San Francisco/Bay Area club-gig circuit.

After Scumrock was seen by rather few, Moritsugu took a break from making “cinema,” focusing more on his musical and other creative outlets. But he’s back with a vengeance in Pig Death Machine, which has it all: Crazy-making poisoned meat, retro exploitation elements, color/B&W shooting, Amy Davis as star/co-writer/producer, photography by fellow indie-underground auteur Todd Verow, serial murders under the influence, gleefully unpolished performances, crude animation, porcine fascism, sass-talking plants, and a slamming soundtrack by numerous bands including Low on High. It’s a twentysomething’s movie—bratty, sarcastic, anarchically impudent toward pop culture‚ made by a fortysomething, though Verow’s photography of various Southwestern landscapes offers an atypical note of pure beauty.


‘Pig Death Machine’

A mainstream viewer’s response to Moritsugu’s penchant for onscreen outrageousness might be that he’s “tasteless.” However, his whole career has suggested he has very good taste indeed, at least in the realm of music. Among the acts he’s soundtracked over the years are Thurston Moore, Unrest, Superchunk, The Frogs, Barbara Manning, Monte Cazazza, I Am Spoonbender, Deerhoof, Angry Samoans, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, The Gossip and The Birthday Party—a post-punk cinematic mixtape for the ages.

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