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Original Intent

Mommy Mommy, Where's My Brain, dir. Jon Moritsugu

Still from Mommy Mommy, Where's My Brain, dir. Jon Moritsugu

By Mackenzie Lukenbill

Jon Moritsugu’s first short, 1986’s Mommy Mommy, Where’s My Brain, works fascinatingly well as a manifesto for the anarchic DIY filmmaker’s entire career. The first of a series of shorts he made while studying at Brown University, the film is an unceasing barrage of quick cuts, barely-glimpsed text, and hardcore dissonance. The film invites further analysis while simultaneously mocking the analyzer, rebelling against its academic roots while slyly gesturing at them. It’s all undeniably punk, and, in retrospect, unquestionably a Jon Moritsugu film.

One of the things that I was thinking about while watching Mommy Mommy in 480p or whatever, where everything’s kind of scuzzy, was that this digitally artificated way of viewing was sort of the perfect way to watch it, closer to the original intent of the film than watching some scrubbed up and beautified new restoration. I was wondering about your thoughts on restoring and preserving your films.

JM: When I made a lot of my movies I was really primitive; shooting on reversal stock, editing the original, using tape splices, crappy cameras… I love the idea of restoring movies but preserving the original intent. I think my movies are really similar to early punk music where you had people creating songs using primitive equipment, not quite knowing what they were doing but just going for it. Maybe they weren’t at a high caliber of expression, but they were just using the resources that they had. I love the idea of restoring a really raw work so that if nothing else, the restoration brings out the flaws in the piece: the feedback and the scratches and the grain, almost just for letting people know that this is still a valid form of expression; that you don’t have to go full high-end and pristine to say what you want to say. And especially in this age of digital streaming and everything looking sort of high-end and 4k or 8k or whatever, I think it is a refreshing antidote to the way the world is going.

It reminds me of that Hito Steyerl essay on the “poor” digital image and how it tends towards abstraction, and how low resolution is symbolic of accessibility and cult value. Obviously people are pretty fetishistic about film now, so it’s interesting to see a movie like this where restoring it back to its “filmic” wouldn’t actually accomplish anything. On Scumrock (2002), for example, you purposely degraded the image and edited on linear VHS. What was that originally shot on?

JM: Scumrock was actually on analog Hi-8, which was only available for a few years; it was supposed to revolutionize filmmaking and then… it really did not. When we made it we were living in San Francisco and had access to a lot of the detritus and the throw-away technology because it was in the middle of the first dot-com boom. So we decided that the strategy was to grab the trailing-edge technology rather than keep up with the cutting edge technology. My intent for a lot of these movies was to be raw and grainy and gritty, so that your first hurdle as an audience member is to get past the fact of how it looks. So it’s funny thinking of restoration as a way of getting back to the filmmaker’s original intent, because that was the original intent.

I thought Mommy Mommy, Where’s My Brain would be a fun, sort of challenging movie to write about, or even have a conversation about, as a critic, since its whole thing is evading its own intellectualization; like it literally opens with someone being roped to a cinder block that says “critical theory.”

JM: I made this as a junior in college. I was at Brown University studying critical theory in the semiotics department. In order to get my hands on the equipment and make this movie I had to first take a whole shitload of critical theory classes — the way the department operated, you had to study semiotics and criticism before they even let you have the camera. So it was sort of a love/hate thing. I was falling head over heels for this weird, fancy intellectualism and at the same time was also hating it because I just wanted to grab a camera and make a movie. So it’s sort of like a dialectic where I was enamored with semiotics as well as hating it.

It's definitely identifiable as a sendup of a sort of theory-heavy essay film that I think is back in fashion, like a Marker or Godard movie where there’s all of this intertextual information… but then in this case when you unpack it, it’s just noise, or nihilism.

JM: I was surrounded by people who were making movies that actually felt like reading a dense essay and I was turned off by this. I was like, if you’re using the medium of film why are you making movies that are so boring, that aren’t exploiting the actual power of the medium? I wanted to make a movie that was purely entertaining within the context of this area that was wholly unentertaining to me. To this day it’s still one of my favorite movies that I’ve ever made, just because of the rawness; the fact that I was trying to say a lot and I didn’t have the grammar down, I didn’t have the sentence structures, but it still sort of works. And even if you’re not ino critical theory there’s enough visual stimulation to keep it entertaining.

I love the dichotomy in the dedication at the end of the film, “for Derrida and AC/DC.”

JM: I studied a shitload of Derrida, and he even came to the college to lecture and I remember being really excited, wow, a big postmodern French theorist is coming to our campus, this is so cool. He showed up, the lecture hall was packed. He insisted on giving his entire spiel in French without a translator. I probably watched him for five minutes and then gave him the finger and left. It was stuff like this that I thought was extremely funny and elitist about what we were studying and at the same time I was disgusted with this guy, walking into the auditorium, waving off the translator and saying “fuck you if you don’t speak fluent French, including all of these French words that I’ve invented.” So it was definitely a love/hate thing and I thought, what would be the funniest thing, if I thanked him in the movie, would be to collide him, dialectic-style, with a popular hard rock band.

Oh, speaking of the French though -- in Jun Okada’s Making Asian American Film and Video there’s this kind of offhand line about how your film Hippy Porn (1991) played for over a year straight in a French theater.

JM: It got picked up with a few other independent movies, like Gas Food Lodging and an Alex Cox movie. This French company picked up five American movies to do a series of screenings in Paris for a couple of weeks and the time was just perfect for these movies. The event sort of blew up and they ended running Hippy Porn for over a year non-stop. It was the weirdest, most amazing thing because the movie was such a dismal failure in America. Our premiere in the Bay Area in a pizza parlor, and then suddenly it just took off in France and became a weird sort of cult hit in France. It definitely opened my eyes to different audiences being more open-minded to weird shit.

What kind of things were you watching outside of class, or were you drawn to, at the time you were making Mommy Mommy?

JM: I had a really cool film professor, Leslie Thornton, and she was just popping these filmmakers into my brain that I had never heard of. John Waters was definitely one of my biggest influences at the time. I was sort of getting into more experimental stuff like Kenneth Anger, and then at the same time we were watching a lot of Godard and classic American experimental filmmakers, and some of this stuff was slow, flat, and hard to watch. So at the same time that I was digesting this stuff that was uninteresting, my mind was being blown open by people who were going way out there, like John Waters. So I was just like, I want to combine all of these things to create my own brand of moviemaking.

In the end credits, it says that it was shot in Louisiana, and thanks a local morgue…

JM: It was all shot in Providence, Rhode Island, around Brown. I pulled a fake-out.

What was the significance of “Slaughter, Louisiana?”

JM: I was falling for this whole Americana thing — the idea of a scuzzy, scummy, weird culture in the American South. I had taken a few road trips to the South and wanted to capture a raw, hillbilly, primitive, wild vibe.

Mackenzie Lukenbill is an audiovisual archivist and editor. They have contributed writing to BOMB Magazine and Film Comment.

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