New Di$count $inema Series Revs Up at Blue Starlite
Jon Moritsugu heads to Terminal USA
"I'd like to think punk and hardcore music saved my life," said lo-fi auteur Jon Moritsugu. "But I was making movies. So I thought I would take this punk rock mentality ... and bring it to moviemaking. I almost treated my movies as if they were a band – make a movie, take it on tour, do everything yourself, make mistakes but just get the movie out there with as little money as possible." His third film, 1993's PBS-produced (and -rejected) Terminal USA, screens Wed., July 28, at the Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In Mueller, part of local garage duo Teenage Cavegirl's guitarist Andy Ray Lemon's monthly Di$count $inema cult film series.
Honolulu native Moritsugu studied semiotics and "other elitist bullshit" at "artsy fartsy" Brown University. "But through the semiotics department, I could make movies," he qualified. 1989 debut feature My Degeneration, starring future wife Amy Davis, rhapsodized meat-industry-employed all-girl rock & roll band Bunny Love. 1994's Mod Fuck Explosion featured Davis as London, a lonely teen searching out a leather jacket during a turf war between mods and an Asian motorcycle gang. All were imbued with and inspired by the sensibilities of punk and John Waters, with more humor than the Cinema of Transgression that Moritsugu was frequently grouped with.
Written in a single 50-hour jag to win a reported $360,000 budget from PBS, Terminal USA chronicles a supremely dysfunctional Asian American family: an apocalyptically religious father, a mother using her dying father's morphine, a cheerleader daughter pregnant with her school's star athlete's baby, about to be sold into sexual slavery by the family's sleazy lawyer. Key is Moritsugu's semiautobiographical dual portrayal of Marvin, the overachieving student secretly addicted to gay skinhead porn, and Katsumi, a drug-dealing punk rocker/artist/slacker. Shot in 16mm Panavision on a single set decorated by pre-fame graffiti artist Barry "Twist" McGee, Moritsugu now kicks himself for painting over the Mission School pioneer's designs. "We got him for just a few dollars," he smiled. "If we'd saved the artwork, we'd be millionaires." This is one of many "mistakes" he chronicles in his upcoming "how not to be a film director" memoir publishing early next year, including telling off Focus Features CEO James Schamus when he wished to groom him into "the next great Asian American film director." (Schamus licked his wounds by mentoring Ang Lee, instead.)
PBS was shocked by a rough cut of Terminal USA. They apparently hadn't read Moritsugu's script they'd green-lighted. It became central to the conservative ruckus over NEA funding, leading to canceled Los Angeles and San Francisco airings. It still screened in 200 PBS markets, including over NYC's powerful WNET. The rights eventually reverted to him, "so now I can self-distribute and sell DVDs of it, and set up screenings in theatres and drive-ins," he said.
For the past year, he and Davis – star of all his films and partner in his Apathy Productions – have cared for her Alzheimer's-stricken mother. It's paused post-production work on their next feature, Numbskull Revolution, a vicious art world parody starring Donnie Darko's James Duval filmed partly in Marfa two years ago. "This is the longest it's taken me to make a movie," said Moritsugu, frustrated. "But out of all my movies, this will be the most fucked-up and funny of them all."
Di$count $inema presents Terminal USA, Wed. July 28, 8:55pm, Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In Mueller, 2015 E.M. Franklin, bluestarlitedrivein.com.