"Coffin Joe" - The films of José Mojica Marins

Coffin Joe


Part I:

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.

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.

Part II:

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. 

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.