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: Goodbye, Uncle Tom (1971)

Arguably more noble in its intentions than Jacopetti and Prosperi’s previous exercise in questionable ethics, Africa Addio, but so unbelievably, bafflingly misguided that, at the time of its release, both sane people and David Duke hated it. Somehow, Goodbye, Uncle Tom can’t even commit to being a vile, racist piece of trash, instead existing as a strangely broken example of Satan wanting to be God and failing.

The film opens with a helicopter descending upon a plantation filled with slaves, and we are quickly introduced to the premise: two documentarians travel back in time to document the horrors of slavery. This requires the character of the filmmakers to sit back and watch said horrors without doing anything, which is already a questionable idea. From this auspicious start, we become witness to an enormous production that subjects hundreds of actors of colour to the degradation and torture that was put upon the slaves of the time. Goodbye, Uncle Tom sits in the horror, relishes it, uses it as the very foundation of its being. If one believes that Jacopetti and Prosperi’s intentions were pure, one could argue that these sections are intended to break the viewer, make them understand the despicable terrors of slavery. Whatever they meant to say, it’s all for nought because not a single character of colour is given any characterisation beyond an inarticulate, de-individuated mass. Every white character, regardless of how negatively they are portrayed, are shown as articulate persons with actual personality. On top of everything, every goddamn thing, the brief stabs at narrative exploitation the filmmakers inject into the picture primarily involve sexual assault, such as the scene wherein one of the documentarians takes advantage of a virginal 13 year old slave who offers herself to him – FUCK.

JESUS.

And yet.

And yet,

There is undeniable artistic craft pumping through the veins of this racist trash. As I wrote in my review of Africa Addio, Jacopetti and Prosperi have an innate understanding of how to match image and sound to make a sort of magic, utilising Riz Ortolani’s gorgeous (if at most times disturbingly upbeat) score to mold this destitution into something resembling art. If these men were saints instead of monsters, they could have made a film to change the world.

But they’re monsters.

What this mess adds up to is a film that condemns the brutalisation and exploitation of a people while doing the very same thing. It is impossibly fascinating as a historical object, endlessly rewarding a thing to explore; but it’s also sickening, disturbing, and morally reprehensible.

I don’t know.

Review: Punishment Park (1971)

“Right now I think the honourable thing is to be a criminal.”

Palpable anger courses through Punishment Park, a condemnation of an American system that continuously oppresses the weak, the noble, and the minority, Peter Watkins’ mockumentary is unfortunately hampered by repetition, a lack of development, and nonstop rhetorical dialogue.

Most of this is taken up by tribunal-interrogation scenes, intercut occasionally with brutal but redundant scenes of the titular park, so this ends up consisting mostly of dialectics, speeches made and speeches taken, Watkins’ ideas thoroughly explored but dramatically drained. He’s got a great premise here, something that could work wonders in a short story, or maybe even as part of an anthology like Black Mirror, but not enough to fill an entire feature, at least in the way Watkins has approached it.

It’s a shame, too, because the politics here are still potent and relevant. And I always love when I can feel the filmmaker’s anger through the screen.

But I was done by about 45 minutes in.