Review: Awakening of the Beast (1970)

I realised pretty early on that this wasn’t a Coffin Joe film of the nature I presumed, and that watching it prior to my viewings of the others was probably a bad idea. But I only had the DVD for another day, so I did some quick research and powered through. This may have been a mistake.

What I assumed would be a B-grade horror film actually turned out to be a masturbatory meta-commentary on the nature of transgression and also the power of Jose Mojica Marins’ artistry? Awakening of the Beast is one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some strange shit.

The first 2/3 of the film present themselves as a bizarre TV program about an experiment involving four individuals who are injected with LSD and then enact a series of sexual perversions, with the film occasionally cutting to a board of people (including the scientist in charge of the experiments) commenting on the validity of the findings. Marins in there as well, and everyone, including himself, are confused as to why he’s present.

This section is mildly compelling and hypnotic, a gently surreal dive into sexual mores and desire, Bunuelian but more intent on shocking the audience. There’s no narrative as such, but there is a collective force blooming, even if its point seems nebulous. Gradually, however, we cut more and more to the panel, where Marins begins defending himself, and his Coffin Joe character, as an artistic statement, using mockumentary footage of an obscenity trial to justify his art. A strange thorough-line regarding Marins (and by extension, Coffin Joe’s) place in the public consciousness becomes visible.

That thread culminates in the final sections of the film, a breath-taking, full colour nightmare sequence that occurs when the test subjects are shown a Coffin Joe film. There’s no continuity or arcs here, just 30 minutes of hellish, hallucinogenic imagery. It’s wild and disturbing stuff, and, without spoiling anything, reveals the film as essentially a big jerking off by Marins, who claims to be exploring the necessity of transgression in a politically closed minded country, but is really just saying that he’s pretty fucking cool.

Having seen the first true Coffin Joe film by the time of this writing, I can agree that Marins is a talented, probably pretty cool motherfucker, but Awakening of the Beast is still ridiculously self-indulgent.

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Review: Kinski Paganini (1989)

Klaus Kinski was a crazy person. Sure, his Wikipedia page opens by stating that he was German actor known for his work with acclaimed director Werner Herzog, but, mostly, he was a maniac. Find any video of him on Youtube, and you will find this old bastard screaming his head off, at anyone, for anything. He believed in his prowess as an actor so greatly it entailed a degree of danger; any challenge to his skill or himself was met with anything from a fistfight to a gunshot. He was a bad man.

He was also a genius.

Kinski’s directorial debut (and last film before his death) is an indulgent, disgusting, and maddening autobiography under the guise of a biography. It is also, despite its many frustrations, masterful – cinema at its most unhinged and visual. Against the odds, it becomes a poignant statement on the life of its main actor, who may have been an evil lunatic, but who was also one of the greats.

Kinski Paganini is a mess. Kinski initially offered Herzog his script, but Herzog declined, calling it “un-filmable.” So Kinski decided to direct it himself. When his producers saw the final cut, they panicked and cut it to shreds. Kinski’s director’s cut was eventually released to the public on this DVD, but it looks terrible. The theatrical version – though an impossible and failed attempt to bring sanity to Kinski’s madness – looks gorgeous. Kinski’s version, however, was never restored, making much of the naturally lit film near-unwatchable. Despite its hellish transfer, tracking down this versione originale is worth it, if only to understand the full majesty of Kinski’s ambition.

And Kinski is nothing if not ambitious here. Ostensibly a biography of famed violinist Niccolo Paganini – a notoriously lecherous violinist who was so musically talented that he was accused of possession – Kinski Paganini instead acts as a prismatic dive into the writer/director/star’s broken mind. The film consists primarily of montages, intercutting Paganini playing his instrument with him having occasionally un-simulated sex with scores of women. In voiceover, “Paganini” acknowledges his ugliness before confessing that his virtuosic playing still sends women into orgiastic desire for him. Eventually, our “hero” begins to die, and his son becomes his only companion; but those things don’t occur until very late in the film, essentially acting as a sad epilogue. Most of the film plays out thusly: Paganini plays, women masturbate; Paganini plays, women fuck Paganini; Paganini walks ominously through a town square, his son cries; Paganini plays, women beg for his member; Paganini grows sick, he plays to grow well again; and so on.

There is only the hint of a story here, barely any arcs. Kinski is attempting to mirror the swirling memories of a dying man, and that non-narrative approach produces a fractured, impressionistic work that never lets up. Despite its pretentions, it finds a way to sneak staggering emotion into its heart. The climactic sequence, in particular, found me tearing up despite my rational annoyance at it. Kinski forced me to feel sadness for him (and his character), almost against my wishes.

Which leads me to a perhaps unsettling thought, which I will preface by saying that I do not condone any of Kinski’s behaviour, on or off film sets. Now, having said that …

Maybe Kinski was onto something.

Klaus Kinski clearly believed himself to be an artistic messiah. He believed himself worthy of all the pain he took and inflicted. In his mind, he was a great, and his belief in himself lead to persecution and glory in equal measure. It’s easy to see how Kinski saw himself in Paganini, and it’s surprising how much power he finds in the comparison.

That previous paragraph was hard to write. It makes me a little sick to give into the ego of a man who thinks it necessary to show himself engage in un-simulated sex in a film about his greatness – and that’s to say nothing of his personal life, and the alleged sexual abuse he engaged in with his children.

Again, I do not think that Klaus Kinski was a good man. I do not want to celebrate this film.

And yet, my rational protestations of praising Kinski’s cinematic id were unable to fight the waves of poignancy that arose from watching it. I wanted to dislike this, I wanted to hate it – but instead I found it strangely beautiful.

It’s tough be apolitical when consuming art. When everything is rife with systemic abuse, it’s hard to see Casey Affleck’s Oscar win as indicative of anything but a sexist system. It’s hard to believe that Woody Allen can say what he said at Cannes a couple years ago about his wife and still get actors to work with him. It’s hard to accept that Roman Polanski is still making films despite the fact that he is literally a runaway statutory rapist.

It’s a struggle, which itself seems strange. Morally, shouldn’t these men be put away, left to die away from the arts? Why, beyond the aforementioned systemic rot, is the separation between art and artist even a conversation?

I ask these questions, and I don’t have anything better to say than this: art is powerful. Art can transcend its origins and work magic on an audience, for better or worse. Sometimes horror creates beauty, and sometimes that beauty can be stronger than the horror ever was. In a perfect world, of course, we wouldn’t allow any of the awful stuff to happen in the first place. But it’s not a perfect world, it’s a broken one, and, if we fail to stop the horror, it makes sense to embrace any wonder that comes out of it.

Kinski Paganini is an ethically dubious proposition to endorse, but it understands the relationship between art and life in a way that I think is important to spread. I think promoting that message is a damn fine way to find something good in Kinski’s legacy, rather than just wallowing in the misery of the rest of him.

Remember hell, but look to heaven.

Review: Police Beat (2005)

“Your tree is dead, and if it’s not chopped down, it will continue to disturb and harm the living.”

Robinson Devor continues to convince me that the commercial failure of his sublime The Woman Chaser essentially robbed cinema of one of its great impressionists, pushing Devor deep into the underground where few can find him. His three features – this, the aforementioned Willeford adaptation, and his gorgeous zoophilia documentary Zoo – show an incredible ability to find the resolutely human in the absurd, something that brings depth to even his most esoteric outings.

Police Beat tells the story of Z, a West-African immigrant and rookie bicycle cop in Seattle, struggles to focus on the increasingly bizarre crimes he encounters due to his worry of his girlfriend’s infidelity.

This foundation allows Devor to craft an expressionistic tone poem that encapsulates the confusion of life. Police Beat is intimate and alien, it’s political and personal, violent and gentle. Z’s mind is fractured, and his world reflects that. His story, which takes place over seven days, spans across life and time, a fractured series of episodes of varying horror and hilarity, all belonging to a sense of otherness. The film pointedly takes place in the midst of the Bush presidency, and Z’s discomfort with his place in that United States – grateful for the chance to prosper but angry at policies that allow for such potential – manifests itself in his tenuous romantic relationship – loving but distant. Z is a moralistic, black and white force in a confusing world, and that friction seemingly affects his immediate reality. Men drown in piles of lilypads. A BDSM sexual encounter ends with a woman running naked through the park. A man walks into a house with the owner’s permission, walks upstairs and masturbates to birds, then leaves. There is no reason to this life, no consistency. But still, Z simply moves forward, unable or unwilling to confront his present for fear of his uncertain future. How do you comprehend the external when your internal is so confused?

All of this turmoil is captured in a gorgeous, stripped-back cerulean palette, reminiscent of Zulawski’s On the Silver Globe, though guided by Devor’s gentle, roaming camera. He shows us a raging monsoon but shoots it like a gentle rain.

A beautiful, profound, endlessly rewarding work.

“We’re going to learn the lindy dance.”

Review: Zoo (2007)

“I am talking to you, kind of in the same way you are staring at me. Mammal to mammal.”

I never thought I’d say this regarding a film about a man being fucked to death by a horse, but Robinson Devor’s Zoo is beautiful.

Devor, known primarily for his under-seen black comic masterpiece The Woman Chaser, shoots his documentary almost entirely as recreations, taking the technique popularised by Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue and pushing it to its limit. He shoots as if falling through a dream, the camera never stops floating, following, drifting. No one talks onscreen. Instead, voice-over fills the air, interacting with the gorgeous score to create a loose, hazy soundscape, never quite letting us settle into a sense of reality. And Devor structures the film to follow this trend, revolving around the main event again and again, getting closer each time from the past and the future, but never quite giving into the moment. We, the audience, are adrift, attempting to place the speaker of the scene, attempting to find a foothold in time, attempting to find comprehension in the actions of these men, these men who engage in carnal acts with animals.

That’s a lot to ask from an audience, especially regarding a subject as salacious as this. To a certain extent, it could be called pretentious, putting that much distance between the subject and form. If you don’t want to bridge that gap, I understand, I salute you, go on your merry way.

But if you give yourself to Zoo, if you try to cross that gap, try to find reality in the unreality, you may find yourself in the same boat with Devor. As much as he’s abstracted the narrative, Devor is trying to humanise these men. But it’s hard to humanise actions that so many cannot begin to comprehend. And so he keeps us at a permanent distance. We try and we try, but there will always be something ineffable – morals, psychology, shame, whatever – keeping us from connecting to this subject matter. But as long as we’re trying, perhaps we can catch a little of their minds. That moment when they’re staring into an animals eyes, searching for a common ground, searching for consent – and they rationalise their own desperation as recognition in the animal’s eyes. You have seen me, and you are with me, and I am trying, and you can understand.

In the end, all we’re left with the words of the woman who saved the horse from future engagements. “I think I’m close to understanding. But I don’t ever think I will really get there.” There’s pain in her voice, maybe even sympathy for these deviants. She’s trying to find herself in them.

But she can’t.

And, for the most part, neither can we.

Review: Gerry (2002)

“Why don’t you make me a dirt mattress?”

A deadpan descent into emotional abstraction, Gus Van Sant’s Gerry is about two dudes getting lost in a world in which they were probably already floating.

Though heavily inspired by the films of Bela Tarr, the closest cinematic cousin to this I can think of is Monte Hellman’s 1966 Western The Shooting, another film set in an en un-ending desert with dialogue that goes in absurdist circles. But where The Shooting is interested in the relationship between journeys and destinations, Gerry seems more concerned about what happens when you have neither. Though ostensibly beginning with a goal, Matt Damon and Casey Affleck’s titular protagonists are always doomed to wander a wasteland of psychological abstraction. Driving their beat up city slicker Mercedes out into the wild, they talk of finding “the thing” at the end of “the wilderness trail”. Five minutes in, and already someone has said “fuck the thing” and they’ve lost whatever vague guiding principles they had to start. Gerry ultimately becomes (if it can truly be said to be about anything) about the acceptance of fate, of time and circumstance long since towering above you. You have always been Gerry, ever since you Gerry’d the Gerry, Gerry.

Despite how heavy all of that sounds, and is, Gerry is fucking hilarious, a true successor to Becket’s knack for pulling a joke out of nothing but circles.

Review: We Are the Flesh (2016)

“Something like love doesn’t exist. Only demonstrations of love.”

In a vaguely post-apocalyptic Mexico, two siblings stumble upon an older, grimy gentleman (a fantastic Noe Hernandez) who offers them food and shelter on the condition that they give in to his sensual proclivities.

As with Swiss Army Man, We Are the Flesh is an exploration of bodily desire and instinct when removed from the confines of polite society. Unlike Swiss Army Man, which seems primarily concerned with the link between self-denial and unhappiness, We Are the Flesh seems concerned with the contradictions inherent to applying a system of morality upon the feral, animalistic soul of humanity.

As such, We Are the Flesh intends to shock. It features incest, possibly un-simulated sex, necrophilia, cannibalism, the exchange of fluids – all enacted with a sensual glee, intended to disorient the viewer by presenting these supposed horrors as desirable outcomes. Hernandez’s un-named man is unbelievably charismatic, a grimy God whose sheer will drives the dream-like narrative, almost every choice and action making sense as part of his seductive will. He gives a great monologue early on about loneliness and the way that he allowed himself to succumb to it. I’m paraphrasing here, but it comes down to this: “When you can longer avoid the grotesque thoughts in your head, you must embrace them. And after a while, they no longer seem so grotesque.” If, deep down in the parts we don’t like to acknowledge exist, if deep down there the mind desperately needs to enact something, how can we call it wrong just because society says so?

Writer/director Emiliano Rocha Minter makes his thesis palatable by injecting his film with gorgeous cinematography and a healthy dose of dark humour. The whole film is bathed in a haze of never ending caverns and deep blacks, luring you deep into the frame and into the world of it. The intimacy provided by the camera makes the occasional outright hilarity that much more surprising and welcome, such as the music cues, which usually occur at moments of extreme deprivation, and are so perfectly unexpected and real that I choked on my red wine a few times.

We Are the Flesh is not as disgusting as the buzz might lead one to believe. It is, however, an inaccessible and at times frustratingly abstract descent into debauchery – but it’s well worth the investment.

Review: Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012)

“There is no end.”

A feral, feverish nightmare of a film that is well worth your time.

The first hour is basically just abstraction, speeding through the suggestion of plot rather that a real thing. Then, it becomes a nonstop brutal whirlwind of action, so vicious and surreal that it’s both darkly comic and terrifying.  It’s essentially a horror film, bringing up questions of free will and identity – are you the product of your choices?  What if your choices were illusions, a series of pieces set from the start? If you are without choice, if you have no input on where you end up, are you really anything other than a vessel for others?

When Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning finally reaches its conclusion in a fight with a phantom-like, face-painted Jean Claude Van Damme, it feels less like a release and more like a quiet failure, the only victory in the fact that no one has to kill anyone for at least a little while.

This film will haunt me.