Monday, October 29, 2007

Awakening of the Beast (1970): or, The Brazilian Insanity Machine

I'll never forget how I introduced the Duke of DVD to José Mojica Marins's work. The Duke had watched This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse at my urging, and had fallen instantly in love with the little bearded heathen Zé do Caixão, aka Coffin Joe. After that he'd hungrily devoured from my hand, like a damnable goat eating the dried corn of Evil, Zé's origin story and Marins's first feature film, At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul. He wanted more, and I held in my grimy, filthy hands the third in Fantomas DVD's Coffin Joe releases, the 1970 mind-bender O Ritual dos Sádicos, aka Awakening of the Beast.

"Duke," I said, "You ARE NOT READY for this movie."

Despite my warning, though, he took it, and a week later was returning the DVD to me. His face was pale, his lip quivering, and in his eyes even brighter than usual glimmering the horrifying, delirious lightning flashes of madness.

"Vicar, you were right," he whispered. "I was not ready! I am STILL not ready! THE WORLD IS NOT READY!"

Such is the genius of José Mojica Marins. In the ground-breaking At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul, Marins introduced moviegoers to his bizarre, twisted worldview, his inimitable art, and his soon-to-be iconic alter ego--he of the top hat and cloak, the medallion and talons, the goatee and unibrow that bends all to his indomitable will. In the masterpiece of a follow-up, This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse, he cemeted Zé's place as the ultimate blasphemous badass in South American cinema, and continued his assault on the expected and respected. In a just universe, the Hell sequence from this film alone would be enough to garner a lifetime achievement award from the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences, not to mention the undying admiration and worship not only of South America, but of the world.

But as Marins would be the first to tell you, we do not live in a just universe--if we did, Zé do Caixão would not be necessary. Still, these two films let those of discerning tastes know that Marins was a talented, primitive artiste, a storyteller of unparalleled vision and passion, and a cinematic force to be reckoned with.

The power of Zé compels you!

Little did the cineastes suspect that Marins' true aim was not, and had never been, to be a simple storyteller. It wasn't until Marins unleashed 1970's Awakening of the Beast that his true intentions started to become clear. You see, the stories were not the goal; they were a tool, a weapon in his arsenal as Marins stormed the beaches of the establishment in pursuit of his true objective.

Marins didn't want to tell a story. He wanted to get into your mind, and DESTROY IT. The movies were just his avenues in, the roads he built over which to trundle his seige engines. AotB was that seige engine, the fire-spitting battering ram that would bring the gates of your sanity crashing down in ruin, reducing the mores and hypocrisies of so called "society" to smoldering heaps of carbon, and allowing Zé and his minions free reign in your brain.

And God help us--he did it!

In AotB Marins eschews traditional narrative structure and goes straight for your cortex. Opening with a happily-scored, festive-looking thank-you note to his producers and friends who helped make the movie possible, Marins befuddles but relaxes you just long enough to set you up for the horror you know is coming, but are powerless to resist--the dreaded opening credits. For my money no filmmaker has ever used a credit sequence to higher effect than Marins, as in all of his films the credits set you up and disorient you to such a degree that what follows after goes straight into your subconscious. It's like the credits find the vein, and then he can inject his madness directly into your bloodstream. And he gets you EVERY TIME.

It's go time.

Then we have what has to be one of the greatest opening vignettes in world cinema. A group of very unsavory Brazilian businessmen are sitting around focusing their rapt attention on a pretty blonde girl, who is lolling in the spotlight, preparing her fix of las drogas. I would not be at all surprised to find that the actress actually did shoot up for this scene--the injection into her foot (blasphemous echoes of the crucifixion?) is certainly real enough. Then she puts on a record with a protest song that seems to protest both war AND peace, but is nonetheless hypnotic, to which she strips before the increasingly ecstatic audience of wolf-like men. It is repulsive, yes, but not unexpected, a very normal perversion...until the men offer her with a nicely-wrapped present they've brought along, and their real entertainment begins...

Decades before MTV, Marins was using flash-cuts and machine-gun edits to disorient his audience and move the visuals along at a break-neck pace. Always visually interesting even when logically incoherent, the scene grabs you and won't let you go until you've feasted your eyes on all the deviance it wants to show you. And this is just the beginning.

Framed by scenes with mysterious men smoking and debating in accusatory tones in a darkened room (something about a doctor who wants to prove the harm drugs are doing to Brazilian society, but it hardly matters--the atmosphere and strangeness, the tone of it is the important thing), more incongruous and unsettling vignettes follow. We see a young girl seduced by a bunch of hippies into taking drugs, then seduced by the music of Brazil's answer to Menudo (except 200 times more awesome) into all manner of unladylike activities--stripping, charging money for upskirt peeks and more, and finally the whistle/finger poke game, which brings home the utter depth of her fall. Then one of the hippies channels Moses, and parts the Red Sea with his staff. And not figuratively, mind you. He REALLY uses his staff, a big gnarled piece of wood, which leads to our poor misguided girl's untimely demise. Truly a shocking scene, from which you cannot look away.


And it just gets weirder. We have the caine-tooting, ugly old dude with 3 young girls who look up to him in doglike devotion before removing their bras and allowing him to kick them each in the arse as if attempting three field goals--much to his delight. We have the theme song, of which I need an mp3 STAT. We have a rich lady who does snuff and then watches the butler and her daughter git it awn (though apparently neither of THEM is under the influence), a scene which includes a very strange and disturbing pony appearance. There is a piglike/doglike, pasta-eating movie producer with the nervous young starlet, whose interior monologues we are privy to, as they negotiate the girl's ruin...though strangely not through the producer's own machinations, but through a proxy stud. We have the adultress who weeps during her seduction while looking at a photo of her beloved, leaving us to wonder why she's doing it in the first place...but in Zé's world, there is no explanation, only depravity and horror.

Just when we think this parade of degradation might go on forever, we're treated to a respite as José Mojica Marins, playing himself, defends his art in front of the Brazilian People's Court; though for many filmmakers this would seem self-serving, José uses the opportunity to decry the lack of filmstock and respect he gets in his native country. He's acquitted by the jury, and a doctor watching the show gets the idea to inject addicts with LSD and expose them toe Coffin Joe, just to see what happens. What happens, indeed...

The color sequence detailing the LSD freakout is one of the greatest depictions of the perils of drug use ever put to film. Zé in all his glory acts as the demonic angel to the tour group of freakeez. The field goal punter has more women putting themselves at his mercy, fulfilling his depraved fantasy. Strangely-masked revellers cavort in the hellish landscape. The horse-woman is trapped in a psychadelic nightmare, while the stripper from the opening is subjected to horror and pain in some truly disturbing scenes. We get some fantastic shots, such as Zé walking down a staircase made of human bodies, a disturbingly-masked crowd run rampant in a statuary, and an absolutely Boschian lineup of painted arses, one of which actually, impossibly, smokes a cigar!

Stairway to Heaven? No, Stairwell to Hell!

As the druggees come down we find that each tripper has seen only what was already in his or her mind, and that in fact there was no LSD--they were under the influence only of Zé, which is perhaps even more disturbing. The movie ends with José leaving the studio and watching another young thing led to temptation, in the enigmatic shadow of Pap's Dog. He laughs and calls for the cut--and the movie's fantastic themesong plays again:
"Peace! Peace! Peace!
Peace--Peace is a lie
I try to deny
That's why I get high..."
Thus putting the cap on a movie that is truly unlike any other I have ever seen, and also more awesome.

If the synopsis above is confusing, it can't be moreso than the film--and yet the images Marins conjures are so lovely, so weird, so depraved, they burn into your brain like a red-hot iron. Disturbing, hypnotic, seizure-inducing--the images have stuck in my mind and won't let me logical brain cannot put into words the pure emotional responses the movie inspired, from fear to rage to laughter to craziness. Just a tour de force, and an experience I shan't soon forget.

The nightmarish content is served so well by the editing and innovative shots, the atmosphere and attitude--it all adds up to something you can't define except to say "It is teh awesome!" All the thumbs I can find, mine and others----WAY WAY UP.

A word of warning, however: DO NOT START your exposure to Marins with this movie. Watch AMITYS and TNIPYC first, then see if you still want more. Whatever your decision, I can assure you:


She thought she was ready. She was WRONG!

1 comment:

Richard of DM said...

I finally got to watch Awakening of the Beast over the weekend. Holy shit, duder. I also wasn't ready for this one. The combination of wacked editing, screeching soundtrack, and explosive colors made me feel like my head was going to explode. Un-fucking-believable!

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