Terminal Degeneration: The Films of Jon Moritsugu isn't quite a household name, admittedly I'd never heard of him before watching this collection of his work from the past 30-some years, but the back cover calls him an "underground icon." Terminal Degeneration presents seven films on three Blu-Ray discs, most running just about an hour long. Many have quite ridiculous titles that don't really represent what they're about, and all are very low-budget with rebellious and unconventional narratives and aesthetics. The films aren't for everyone and each film varies in overall A/V quality - ultimately For Fans Only
Presented in chronological order, the first disc features My Degeneration from 1989. It's been said that Roger Ebert walked out of a screening of this, and it's a good introduction to Moritsugu's style and sense of humor. It's about a three-girl punk rock band called Bunny Love that rises to fame and is recruited by the beef industry to be their spokespeople, changing their name to Fetish and promoting the eating of steak. One of the girls has a relationship with a severed pig head named Livingston who lives in her refrigerator, in voiceovers she tells the audience how "special" he is. A severed cow head also appears early on in the film who in a voiceover tells us that he's going to be the one who catapults this band to fame. Moritsugu mentions in the commentary track for this film that it started out as a short film but was convinced to make it closer to feature-length, padding out the running time with extended scenes of the band playing (audio obviously not recorded live) and excerpts from old beef industry promotional films shot off a TV screen. This obviously isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea (seeing that this was previously released on DVD, I was amused to find a review where the writer simply refused to watch all of it), as I have an appreciation for "weird" things I found this a bit amusing but mostly just silly.
Hippy Porn from 1991 is the longest film here, running about 95 minutes. If the title sounds appealing to you, you may be a bit disappointed as it's about 90s slackers and not hippies, and there's no sex or even nudity. This is about a group of three college students (two guys and a girl) who move into a low-rent living space in San Francisco and spend their time wandering the city and hanging out at night spots. Being familiar with San Francisco I usually appreciate seeing it in films and recognizing locations. By the end of this film I really didn't understand its purpose though- there's many long dialogue scenes that don't go anywhere. Moritsugu interjects moments with flashes of text onscreen. Being a cat lover I didn't appreciate the appearance of a dead cat near the beginning (likely just found on location and was decided to include in the film with a character accidentally having run over him), but this film almost redeemed itself with the presence of the fold-out poster from Negativland's "A Big 10-8 Place" album on the wall in one scene. I can't completely dismiss any film that mentions Negativland. Still with this being the longest film in the set it may try one's patience if nothing else.
Disc 2 has what might be Moritsugu's most widely-seen film, Terminal USA made in 1993 which was funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and shown on some PBS TV stations, although some including KQED in San Francisco opted not to show it. This one is obviously satirical, taking place in an Asian family's household and appearing almost like a sitcom with dark edges. Moritsugu himself plays two roles here, one a young drug-addicted degenerate and the other a prim and proper straight-A student but with a bit of a secret that devastates his parents.
1994's Mod Fuck Explosion was also partially funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting but obviously didn't get onto TV with that title. This one was also shot around San Francisco and stars Moritsugu's wife and collaborator Amy Davis. She's caught up in a 'war' between two classes of youths, the "mods" and a leather-clad biker gang, not fitting in with either side and pursuing a romance with a young man who closely resembles Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid. This one's slightly entertaining but again I really didn't get the entire point of.
Three films round out the set's third disc- Fame Whore from 1997 jumps between three different and unrelated storylines for no apparant reason, and only two of these fit the title. The first is an arrogant star tennis player who checks into a San Francisco hotel with his publicist and is soon torn apart when printed rumors that he is gay start appearing. Next is a mild-mannered administrator of a dog shelter who talks to a maybe-imaginary dog friend named Mr. Peepers, played by an actor in a dog costume whose actions are punctuated by stock cartoon sound effects. Finally we have Amy Davis as Sophie, who most fits the movie's title, a self-proclaimed media mogul who endlessly tries to break into acting, singing and organizing a fashion show. She has a poor assistant who has to serve as a "yes-man" when she obviously has no talent for anything she's pursuing- a funny element is when she shoots a video fashion show and complains about how ugly all the models are, who never actually appear onscreen. This one's pretty amusing and strange but again I failed to see what the point of it was, with one of the storylines not even aligning with the title.
2002's Scumrock, shot on standard-def video rather than film, is the most perplexing one here as I could not for the life of me figure out what to say about it. It's about a group of people who decide to make a movie with a side-plot about a rock band, but most of the running time is spent with the characters having rather mundane conversations and it isn't even clear by the end if the movie in question ever gets made. This one feels especially amateurish being shot on video and apparently processed to look intentionally bad (more on this below.)
Finally, we have Pig Death Machine made in 2013, after Moritsugu and Davis moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico. This one is shot on widescreen digital video and also seems to have some post-processing to look less than good. Like the first movie in this set, it focuses rather strangely on meat. Amy Davis plays a woman who eats some contaminated pork in a restaurant which has strange effects on her. An odd visual device illustrates the effect as her IQ points increase after eating- at first she isn't too bright but as the food takes effect, text flashes above her showing her IQ increasing as well as showing that of the others in the scene. The most memorable part of this one is another character who also partakes of the tainted meat is suddenly able to hear the voices of plants in her presence- first a head of lettuce screams as she chops it, causing her to run outside and hear blades of grass say "ouch" when walking on them and finally entering a greenhouse and having all the plants yell at her to give them water. This one also feels a bit amaturish on account of being shot on digital video rather than film or its digital replacement.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Terminal Degeneration: The Films of Jon Moritsugu comes to Blu-ray from AGFA and OCN Distribution. If you order from Vinegar Syndrome, the limited edition slipcover is still available. A three-disc set, each disc is Region Free and housed in a clear standard case.
The picture quality varies across the seven titles included here. The first five were shot on 16mm film and transferred in hi-def from the original camera negatives, the transfers themselves look very good considering the material. There are a few noticable compression artifacts however, with some blocks visible in the black side bars. The elements appear very clean and sharp despite their low-budget origins however.
Scumrock was shot on standard-def video and taken from a BetaSP tape master, this was intended to look bad but that may make it all the harder for some to watch. The quality is that of an EP-speed VHS recording, with its trademark fuzziness, dot crawl and noisy colors. While encoded in 60fps, the presentation is in 30fps which may or may not have been intentional; I've never liked low frame rate video so this was a bit of a chore to get through. Pig Death Machine is the only one here shot in 16x9 widescreen, the resolution however appears only slightly higher than standard DVD quality and the frame rate is also 30fps.
Audio doesn't seem to have been a high priority for most of these films. All are encoded in 2-channel DTS-HD Master Audio but all except two are in mono. The sound quality of the first two films is especially bad, sounding like 16mm optical audio. Only Terminal USA and Pig Death Machine were done in stereo. I do have to say I enjoyed the electronic noise in the last title although that will no doubt annoy many viewers.
Jon Moritsugu and Amy Davis provide commentary tracks for 4 films here. I had really hoped that by listening to them I might get a clearer picture of their intentions and maybe appreciate the films more, but most of the time is spent talking about the making of the films and not explaining much that's happening onscreen. By the end of the Fame Whore commentary, Amy Davis proclaims that she isn't ever going to do any more such tracks. Mod Fuck Explosion has a second commentary from AGFA's Elizabeth Purchell who does a decent job explaining the qualities she admires in Moritsugu's work.
Terminal USA includes two alternate versions- a "censored" version which was what was shown on TV, with profanity bleeped out and any sexual or violent imagry digitally obscured. There's also a "rough cut" with a few extra minutes that were likely cut for pacing. Finally, there are two very short films included which are rather unremarkable; Little Debbie Snackwhore of New York City is about two minutes of someone chewing up and spitting out Little Debbie snackcakes and I don't care to ever watch it again.
Disc 1: MY DEGENERATION (1989) and HIPPY PORN (1991)
Disc 2: TERMINAL USA (1993) and MOD FUCK EXPLOSION (1994)
Disc 3: FAME WHORE (1997), SCUMROCK (2002) and PIG DEATH MACHINE (2013)
I like to think I'm well aware of the unusual filmmakers out there, but I'd never heard of Jon Moritsugu before the appearance of this collection and have rather mixed feelings after viewing it. He does have fans and they will likely be pleased by this release, newcomers may also appreciate it but others may be bored, confused or disgusted. With respect to the material, the slight compression artifacts are a disappointment but they're far from the worst I've seen on a Blu-Ray disc and warrant just a slight demerit. For those unfamiliar with Mortisugu's material, I'd suggest watching at least one of these films online before making a purchase. For Fans Only