Three cheers for the American Genre Film Archive, who are doing the heroic work of preserving & distributing vintage outsider art in an age when practically every movie over a decade old is being snuffed out of existence, no matter how mainstream. AGFA platforms works as essential as the coming-of-age riot grrrl sex comedy Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore and as disposable as the home-movie porn parody Bat Pussy, always with respect. My latest discovery in their catalog was, as always, a real doozy. Terminal USA is less of a feature film than it is a Cali punk’s cracked plastic ash tray that was kicked under a mildewed couch, then given a quick spit shine after decades of nihilistic neglect. It’s shot in a sound-stage suburban home seemingly constructed out of cardboard. Every pronunciation of letters “s” & “t” tops out its rickety mics. The cast aren’t acting so much as they’re talk-shouting while modeling history’s cheapest wigs. Its cheapness is its greatest asset, a juvenile middle finger shoved in the face of the American public, who were outraged that tax money paid for its production and broadcast on PBS. Personally, I can’t think of anything worthier of public funding than weirdo D.I.Y. art projects like this. It would almost make me patriotic, if the film weren’t specifically about the moral, cultural rot in this nation’s arrhythmic heart. We likely won’t ever see public funding for abrasive outsider cinema like Tongues Untied, Dottie Gets Spanked, or Terminal USA ever again, thanks to Reagan-era efforts to gut the National Endowment for the Arts. At least niche distributors like AGFA are around to preserve the truly American art we got when the getting was good, though. That history is always under threat of being erased from the record.
It’s worth talking broadly about mainstream America here, because Terminal USA makes such a mockery of the nation’s cultural decline, as indicated by the title. While most satirical takes on the wounds festering just below suburbia’s manicured surface tend to come from white filmmakers (think John Waters, David Lynch, Tim Burton, etc.), Jon Moritsugu offers their lesser seen, lesser discussed Asian-American counterbalance, a grainy broadcast from the immigrant communities of the West Coast. Moritsugu “stars” in dual roles as a snotty Cali mall punk who spits in the face of his parents’ desire to assimilate and as their better-behaved son, who fits more cleanly in the Asian-American stereotype of a model student with no social life. It quickly turns out, of course, that the bookworm brother is the more depraved of the two, jacking off to Nazi muscle mags in his bedroom when he’s pretending to be studying math. Their sister is a bratty cheerleader who’s desperate to sleep with the family lawyer. Their mother is addicted to their bedridden grandfather’s prescription morphine; and the most depraved of all is their stand-up citizen father figure who’s oblivious to all his family’s barely concealed sins, frequently slipping into deranged monologues about Faith, purity, and The American Dream. Despite all its gunshots, space aliens, and leaked porno tapes, there isn’t much of a plot to Terminal USA. It’s a moldy family portrait, where every bizarre resident of a bland suburban home de-evolve into their worst possible selves over the course of one wretched night. Oh yeah, and a young Gregg Turkington shows up as a local skinhead.
This is the kind of microbudget, limited-location production where the background graffiti artists get their own production design credit (attributed to Twist & Reminisce, in case you’re wondering). Moritsugu & crew spruce up their sparse, flimsy sets with neon lights and the kinds of plastic gems you’d expect to see glued to a middle-schooler’s make-up kit. It’s all so beautifully ugly. The performances are just as preposterous & cheap; my biggest laugh (of many) was when Moritsugu’s dirtbag mall punk is shot in the kneecap and complains “This sucks!”. His fingerprints & personality are highly visible all over every inch of the production, making him a true trash auteur. And he’s accomplished a lot since he first started making 16mm punk films in the late 80s, cranking out attention-grabbing titles like Mod Fuck Explosion, Hippy Porn, and My Degeneration to consistently muted acclaim. Terminal USA is a great introduction to his catalog, both as a snapshot of how he feels his work & persona fit in American pop culture and as proof that he’s a genuine provocateur, pissing off a lot of uptight conservatives with a seething hatred for The Arts. I have no clue how easily accessible the rest of his titles are, but I doubt many have been as lovingly restored & presented as this AGFA scan of that trashteur calling card – a pristine image of a hideous nation.