By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It's a shame that of all the young Asian-American filmmakers showcased at this year's Festival, the one to nab the most hype is spotlight-chaser Jon Moritsugu. A shame, but not a surprise. Moritsugu is a hack--hack director, hack screenwriter, hack editor and producer. His films, driven by quasi shock-value and D.I.Y. aplomb, display the kind of underachieving smugness that a 20-year-old film student could get away with, but not a thirtyish filmmaker, even of B-movie, mondo exploitation flicks. "Lurid," "Punk," "Art-damage assemblage,"--these terms of endearment for Moritsugu have come from Filmmaker, Ray Gun, and New York's Underground Film Festival, which labeled him "a scourge to be reckoned with." But judging from his two films screening at the USAFF, he is more like a scourge to be overlooked.
Mod Fuck Explosion (1994) and Fame Whore (1997) are stumbling, no-budget no-brainers, shot on 16mm, apparently without a light meter or boom mike. While they both pack an even poorer man's camp-but-cool undertone of Gregg Araki or early John Waters films (and great titles), they hit the big screen with far less proof of resourcefulness or imagination.
Mod Fuck Explosion, shot in a couple of weeks around the Bay area using Moritsugu's friends as cast and crew (it shows), follows the misadventures of a teenage girl named London (played by April Davis, Moritsugu's wife) who longs to lose her virginity or buy a leather jacket--whichever comes first. In the meantime, a Japanese biker gang and a Mod scooter gang have planned a major rumble. Plot, schmot. Moritsugu believes he's clever enough to get away with a poorly constructed narrative by employing the intentionally bad dubbing of his Japanese characters' dialogue (tired humor ploy), the mondo text cards inserted along the way ("Teenage hate now!"), and gender-bent casting (a female plays London's bad-boy love interest).
But when cruddy lighting, faint sound, and monotonous acting prevail, no device feels very fresh or challenging--it just feels like a self-indulgent amateur has been let loose with an old camera. Davis as London has the star presence of tap water, and she sleepwalks her way through a series of needlessly long scenes. What could have been a very dark and piercing comedy about teen angst and dysfunctional family life--London's mom is an incestuous drunk, her brother a giggling and violent loony--turns out bland and boring, possibly the most damning adjectives to describe an underground film. Even the infamous "meat garden" scene, a dream sequence in which London picks her way through 800 pounds of very real, very rotting, raw meat, comes and goes with no added value or meaning. It looks cheap and thoughtlessly written because it is cheap and thoughtlessly written. And it only reminds viewers how much better Peter Greenaway handles the implications of decomposing flesh (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover).
Fame Whore, the filmic effort spewing through Moritsugu's current self-propelled hype machine, suffers the same tiresome pacing and dumbed-down writing as Mod, with a scant higher budget and better acting. This interwoven trilogy of tales follows the fate of three very different individuals--an obnoxious young tennis star, a meek animal-shelter manager, and a bored rich girl bent on recognition. Tennis boy Jody (Peter Friedrich), on the apex of his ranking fame, has been "outed" by a French tabloid. Dog lover George (Victor of Aquitaine, in a Crispin Glover knockoff portrayal), in his abject loneliness, has created a sort of imaginary friend-alter ego in the form of a giant, talking Saint Bernard. Spoiled socialite Sophie (Amy Davis) tries to convince everyone around her that she's a true Renaissance woman, equally adept at photography, fashion design, video-making, and acting. The connective tissue? Something about the cult of celebrity, but while the Jody and Sophie storylines apply (when they're not off on yawn-inspiring tangents), the dog-lover plot loses that thread over and over. Ah, well. Sporadic, glinting sparks of real humor and marginally decent performances by the three leads make this a frustrating 73 minutes; the viewer who sits through it will walk away with the suspicion that this story and these actors may have made for genuine entertainment in the hands of a better writer-director.
Why should we shuck our standards when considering Moritsugu? It's as though the Hollywood monster has grown so powerful and monopolizing that cinephiles will celebrate anything that deviates from it--quality be damned. Moritsugu's obvious influences--Todd Haynes, Alex Cox, Araki, and Waters--have met convention with a bullheaded determination to turn out the smartest, best-looking material they could muster, no matter how controversial or whacked-out their subject. Moritsugu ignores this crucial strategy, probably in the name of nose-thumbing rebelliousness, and cheats himself in the process. This isn't a matter of playing the Hollywood game; it's a matter of beating Hollywood at its own game to grab the kind of attention that non-mainstream movies often deserve. Moritsugu's contemporaries, in both age and resources, are represented at the festival as well, but their efforts--whether humorous, sad, perverse, or dramatic--come off with far more punch and bite. (See: Disoriented, Strawberry Fields, Shopping for Fangs.)
Moritsugu may believe he's cooler than all of them, with his whiffs of deep shock and lowbrow exploitation, but it's all half-baked and undelivered. Instead of a young hero of autonomous creative explosion, a Mod Fucker of the new New Wave, he's just another former film student whose wheel-squeaking has gotten him into a few festivals.
Fame Whore, Mod Fuck Explosion
Moritsugu at Midnight program
Friday, April 17, and Saturday, April 18, respectively.