Cinefamily is running a month long Coffin Joe (Jose Mojica Marins) retrospective, and I've seen two: "At Midnight I Will Take Your Soul" and a documentary about Marins called "Damned: The Strange World of Jose Mojica Marins." Next Friday are the big ones, though: "Awakening the Beast" and "Finis Hominis." I will report back on both.
If you haven't seen anything by Marins (I hadn't come three weeks ago), here's a trailer for the whole Cinefamily series:
Followed by a trailer for "At Midnight."
The craziest, scariest thing about "At Midnight" is how much of a normal guy Coffin Joe actually is. Based on all of this footage, he seems like a fantastical, spiritually threatening kind of character. On the contrary, he's absolutely nihilistic, atheistic and very, very grounded in the flesh and blood -- and this is scary as hell. He walks into a bar, plays some cards, gets in a tiff with one of the guys, and ends it by breaking a bottle and gouging the guy's finger off. And when he does this, he seem to know that that finger is all you have. He has it in his eyes: you're only your body and he's depriving you of it.
Then a strange thing happens: spirits actually do come back and take Coffin Joe's soul. It is thoroughly horrifying and weirdly moralizing. Is Marins saying we do in fact have souls to take? Is he saying Coffin Joe is wrong? Is he saying that both are correct? He's surely not endorsing religion in any way, but maybe he's moving toward some kind of middle ground where the blood is the soul ... or something like that. Either way, it seems like an extremely negative ending that reinforces a dual nihilism: if you're a spiritual and superstitious layman, Coffin Joe will be there to make your life miserable and bury your corpse (he's an undertaker). If you're Coffin Joe, though, the spirits will get you in the end. Either way, you're dead.
Then I watched the documentary "Damned." Then my whole reading of the thing fell apart. And I'm having the hardest time picking up the pieces.
The documentary opens with an absolutely phenomenal scene when Coffin Joe was at the height of his fame. Dressed in full garb (cape and top hat), Marins "teaches" an "acting class" to an enormous auditorium of people. He tells them they are in a plane for the first time ... and it has lost power. It's plummeting toward the ground. Hundreds of people start shrieking and crying and shaking. Marins start screaming into the microphone: "You're going to hell!! Suffer! Suffer!" then, the capper, "You're in hell! You've died and you're in hell! Pain of the flesh!" Tears stream down cheeks, men clutch for safety, a woman collapses.
"Damned" chronicles Marins' career, and apparently "Awakening the Beast" got him banned by the Brazillian government for over two decades. Directly engaging the crime, perversion, and rampant drug use in the slums of Sao Paolo is enough to get very powerful people pissed off at you for a very long time. At this point he had a successful Hitchcock-format TV show, comic books, huge fame across multiple formats, and was never sober, so it's like if the Crypt Keeper got banned but was still engulfingly popular.
Here's the part I can't wrap my head around: In the 1980's, it was basically impossible to make it as a filmmaker in Brazil without making pornography. So, Marins starts making pornos. This I can handle, this I can follow the logic of. Coffin Joe the character has been interested in finding the perfect woman to mate with for decades, and Marins the filmmaker has been fetishizing them in all kinds of tarantula-snake-insect-centric ways, so this seems totally feasible.
Then in 1985 he makes a movie called "24 Hours of Explicit Sex," which is Brazillian cinema's first example of zoophilia. Actress Vania Bournier has sex with a german shepard.
Seriously? What the fuck. This completely baffles me. How am I supposed to watch this guy's movies and not think about that? Any thought that I had that maybe Marins was 'commenting' on Brazil's social system or that he was showing the objectification of women and their drug use and prostitution as some means to an end that somehow helps the culture come to a new understanding of itself is completely tossed out the fucking window right along with the bed pans the girls have been forced to piss in (see "Awakening). But, then, who am I to ask for this end? If this is simply a case of filmmaker-as-antagonist, Marins in surely succeeding. He's banned, hated, feared, admired and lauded all at the same time.
It seems that as the years progressed his movies moved further and further into outright shock cinema. In "Damned" Marins had a film crew shoot a surgery performed on his eyeball, which he then planned to use in one of his movies. Afterward he bawls out Bunuel for using a horse eye instead of a his own eye in the similar "Un Chien Andalou" moment. Shocking, awful, flesh crawlingly real, and a proverbial finger in the eye of art cinema. So, my lesson should have already been learned: any expectation I might have had is going to get shit on in the dirtiest, most violent and repulsive way.
This comes at kind of an opportune moment, since Leni Riefenstahl's nazism and Roman Polanski's pedophilia have been topics of conversation lately. I think people generally have a difficult time wrapping their brains around these kind of artists, since it is difficult to define someone by the fact that they film bestiality or kiss Hitler or sodomize little girls, and then also accompany that definition with the fact that they have made beautiful and challenging and life changing works of cinematic art. Which part is the definition and which the asterisk?
Really all I can think to come away with is an insufficient conflation of Marins and Coffin Joe. He's a filmmaker and a character that's not only engaging in taboos but reveling in them. I've never found it harder to separate the man behind the camera and the persona in front of it. If Coffin Joe is so hyperbolicly Nietzschean and flagrantly such a bastard, it makes some kind of sense that Marins actual films follow that same path. They are totally selfish, misogynistic, and completely outside the standard system by design. His latter work reminds me of those historietas perversas (which, if you have any interest in at all, you should check out this fantastic blog).
That being said, these flicks aren't just "fucked up for the sake of being fucked up." There's something more there that I'm still trying to find. And come this Friday, I can't help but be honored to see the only subtitled 35mm print of "Awakening the Beast" in the world, regardless of what I'm afraid to find.