Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Coffin Joe, Part II!

As you may remember, I wrote last month on Ze do Caixao, a.k.a. Coffin Joe. Since then I have seen three more of his films: the bizarre and incomparable "Awakening the Beast," its humanitarian counter-point "Finis Hominis," and the third and (perhaps) final film in the so-called Coffin Joe trilogy, "Embodiment of Evil." Although I spent plenty of time squirming and staring into my bowl of popcorn, all three were an absolute pleasure to watch, and in them one can begin to gather the often contradictory, staunchly humanistic philosophy woven into the films of Jose Mojica Marins. We'll start at the most recent film, which I think is the simplest in a way, and work our way backwards to "Awakening" and "Finis."

"Embodiment" picks up 40 years after the last Coffin Joe film, "Tonight I Will Posses Your Corpse." Joe is being released from prison and he quickly resumes his search for the perfect woman to birth his child. The opening of the film is shockingly awesome, especially when you put it in the context of the other Coffin flicks. The first two films in the trilogy were basically shot in his apartment, black and white, pieced together from loose ends of film, banned by the Brazillian government for decades, very little camera movement, on tiny budgets. Then here comes "Embodiment," made on a 4 million dollar grant from the Brazillian government (weird, ironic), with a long and beautiful steady cam shot, not without its grit and ingenuity, of course, and a building suspense that lasts far into the film.

The long marginalized filmmaker has somehow become acceptable to the government, and he uses the power well -- the story is basically the same, but if anything it has become more bodily. Marins really goes for the gold in his search for the perfect woman this time: he'll hang you from meat hooks, cut your scalp off, and stuff rats up your vagina. I realize this last one is particularly awful and brutal, but it actually kind of struck me as the most passe of the gruesome bits. I remember the same thing happening in Ralph Ellison's American Psycho, so while seeing it did make me bury my head a little, between Ellison and "Anti-Christ" it wasn't too bad.

"Embodiment" retains its predecessors' low rent, historieta perversa quality, and he pushes on every taboo he can: Is it really necrophilia if the fucked comes back to life? A lot of the scenes are connected together by wipe pans that make a "woosh" noise, and there's also a lot gaping plot holes filled in with craggy mortar: why did they set Joe free if he apparently killed 30 men in jail? Money from the government doesn't mean that Marins has gotten glossier or better, per se, it just means he can ensure the execution and make the violence a bit more relevant. He seems like he's trying to one up the young guys, and I like that. The plot and the substance haven't changed a bit, though.

The necrophilia thing, along with the rats, brings us to the most interesting problem about Marins as a filmmaker, and back to "Awakening the Beast." The obvious argument is that these movies are misogynistic. The women are nothing but potential wombs to house Joe's seed, and there's plenty of denigration of women to revel in, especially in "Awakening." There's something more going on, though. I can't really bring myself to absolve Marins entirely of his misogyny (or whatever you call making a porno with a dog and a woman), but I do think it is more nuanced that just male subjective violence toward the female object.

The complications lie in the women and the plot. A funny note about the ladies Joe goes after: in "Embodiment" he really breaks off from the historietas perversas by pursuing women with a completely different figure than the cliche of the big breasted, big bootied Brazillian women anglos tend to think of. In the documentary "Damned" he also admits to compiling a so-called perfect woman from shots of three different women in "Awakening," knowing full well that the derelicts in the movie could never find her in real life. Here's a funny photo of the customs form that explains the plot as best as anyone can, I guess:

What's cool about all of Marins' movies is that they are very self-aware. The audience may conflate him with his title character, but he never mixes the two. Coffin Joe is, without fail, always judged and always punished. And, in "Awakening," Marins the filmmaker appears as himself, on trial, to a panel of psychologists accusing him of every perversion under the sun. The hallucinatory sequences in the film are triggered by -- get this -- people on LSD looking at a single image of Ze do Caixao then hallucinating whatever the image means to them. So the violence against women is actually just in the mind of the woman. The dominance of the man is just in the mind of the man.

Here's a good example of what goes on in "Awakening." The set up is, this kind of Os Mutantes rip off band has an orgy with this one drug addled girl, then a Jesus looking guy (maybe he's Jesus) comes in and it goes to far and he kills her. Some parts may be edited out for YouTube censors, but it's totally my favorite part of the movie when they start whistling.

If you aren't down with Coffin Joe, you'd argue that this is just a means to get away with all of the fucked up stuff, then at the end claim it is actually toward a higher purpose. Self-awareness as escape hatch from owning up to your own depictions. If you dig him, which I do, the only conclusion I can come to is that he's a pervert and he loves it. And this, in a funny way, saves him from misogyny. How can you hate women if you love, love, love women? He sneaks through this crack very slyly. Also, how can we expect him to be courting a 'higher' or more moral purpose? He wallows in the mire and makes it very clear that he believes humanity will never change or progress beyond the body and blood. It's unfair to assume that he's trying in some way to find a path to "goodness," so you can't knock him for not adhering to it.

Or at least that's the argument I would have used before I watched "Finis Hominis," which is a weirdly plotless movie (even for Marins) starring Marins as a Jesus-type figure who goes around and does good deeds and punishes the nasty perverts performing evil. There's a small twist ending that could subvert the good deeds, but Marins tends to invert the old Hollywood standard of the tacked on happy ending, so in a way I take it with a grain of salt. But this movie makes it even harder to find a coherent artistic purpose to Marins films, or even a consistent world view. It may be more of an outlier, but it still raises more questions than it answers since it would seem that Marins is fighting for a greater good.

If not during each film, afterward I usually find myself trying to justify Marins and his stories. This is not so much an attempt to make the movies morally palatable as it is an attempt to get inside his brain. I can barely follow all the nuances on his rock solid philosophical baseline, and the combination of visceral, horror movie gut reactions and intellectual grappling is a great one. I can't figure him out quite yet, but I enjoy the man enough to dedicate this year's Halloween to him. And we went to Cinefamily, the only place in America where there could be two Coffin Joe's at one party.

We battled.

1 comment:

Shawn said...

Terrific write-up.