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Film Notes: do-it-yourself camp

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"I had fun in this class! I learned a lot," wrote Jon Moritsugu in his course evaluation for intro to film theory and aesthetics at Brown University. His instructor, though, had another opinion: "Jon's performance this semester was profoundly dismal. . . . Jon has ably demonstrated that he has not learned any of the course material. Trying to work with this student was a thoroughly unenjoyable experience for me."

That was in 1984. He finished school in 1987, and, now based in San Francisco, he's made nine films since then, all straddling the line between satire and camp. His first--the full-length feature My Degeneration, financed with $5,000 from a settlement he received after his arm was mangled in a conveyor belt at work--follows the exploits of a fictional rock band that makes it big and also plays music for the beef industry. "It was a film I had to make," he says.

Terminal USA, finished in 1993, was financed by the Independent Television Service for its PBS series "American Families" (the episode never aired in Chicago). Terminal USA features Moritsugu playing two brothers: Marvin, a computer geek with a penchant for male erotica, and Kazumi, a junkie whose girlfriend is an alien named Eightball--played by Moritsugu's wife, Amy Davis. The 54-minute farce features a permutation of the stereotypical Asian-American family: Mom steals Grandpa's drugs and sits around the house smiling and wearing lingerie, sister Holly is a cheerleader-nymphomaniac, and Dad lurks in the shadows while Grandpa cries out for his pain pills.

Mod Fuck Explosion is a campy, angst-ridden teen flick in which Davis plays a bored teenager named London, who pines for an androgynous misfit named M16. While they play out their drama (she waxes poetic while he throws up), Moritsugu leads an Asian biker gang and gets into a rumble with a group of mods who needle the bikers with ethnic slurs. The film's most memorable scene is a meat-locker dream sequence in which London's delicate, Mary Jane-clad foot steps into a pile of soft, forgiving flesh (Moritsugu used 800 pounds of dead animals for the scene). The sound track contains original music by the Unrest and the now-defunct Japanese group Karyo Tengoku. Like Terminal USA, Mod Fuck Explosion is full of deadpan acting, superstylized sets, and a preponderance of long shots.

It's that, plus Moritsugu's low budgets and use of nonactors, that have brought comparisons to John Waters, though Moritsugu doesn't see it. "I don't think there are many similarities," he says. "Maybe on the surface there are some similar elements. I don't like his movies, although I respect the way he started making them with his very do-it-yourself, fuck-the-rules point of view. But he's a studio director. I have no desire to become part of the studio system. It's like signing up to become part of a concentration camp."

Terminal USA and Mod Fuck Explosion will be shown Saturday at 8 at the Film Center, School of the Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson. Moritsugu will talk after the screenings. Each film is $6. Call 443-3737 for more.

--Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Slomanson.

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