Friday, January 20, 2006

Coffin Joe

Some tour-de-force filmmaking, deeply attuned to, and stimulating for, the senses, comes from a shoestring budget and the imagination of filmmaker and actor José Mojica Marins, whose onscreen altar ego Zé do Caixão (Coffin Joe) terrorizes, torments, or haunts the "inferior" men and women with whom he shares the screen. Playing a crude Nietzschean Übermensch with some local color, Mojica's great feat here is that his altar ego seems to be both supernatural and (uh) human, all too human. But what makes the Coffin Joe films interesting is not primarily what they depict (which is interesting) but how they present it: Mojica's technique is a grab-bag of effects but all judiciously used, a good taste for severe and vulgar tricks, if you will.

À Meia-Noite Levarei Su Alma / At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (1963) ... Zé looks for a bride who will provide him with the perfect son. He won't stop at maiming or murdering anyone to achieve his goal. This is, to me, the simplest and most basic of the four here, but it's taut and provocative. Probably also the funniest one mentioned here--Zé wants to eat meat on Holy Friday, and when his shocked wife says he might run into the Devil, he replies, "If I see the Devil, I'll invite him to dinner."

Esta Noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadáver / This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse (1967) ... Coffin Joe continues his quest from At Midnight... and in true sequel fashion, it's "bigger and better," as well as more diffuse, looser. There's a fantastic vision of Hell--the more one would try to describe it on paper, the more ridiculous it would seem, and it is ridiculous, but it's such a fascinating, visionary collision of Id and Ego, as so much of Mojica seems to be ...

O Estranho Mundo de Zé do Caixão / The Strange World of Coffin Joe (1968) ... The first one that I saw, and I was taken quite by surprise. Three segments. A powerful episode in which some thugs try to violate a dollmaker's four beautiful daughters, a silent episode of love and obsession, and a final episode in which a professor tries to show the limits of love and reason to a horrified husband and wife. If you're not convinced of Mojica's artistry by the end of the first episode, with its distinctive and powerful design, then you probably will never be a convert.

O Exorcismo Negro / The Blood Exorcism of Coffin Joe (1974) ... This is probably my favorite of the four I've seen, though Filipe commented here not too long ago that its reputation in Brazil is not so favorable. 'Self-reflexive' is just the tip of the iceberg (take that Charlie Kaufman!), as Mojica plays himself, beginning the film with a press conference where he discusses his plans to make his next Coffin Joe movie. He'll work on it as he vacations at a friend's home in the country. So when he goes to his friend's country home, what happens but something quite unusual regarding 'fiction' and 'reality.' (Y'know, I've never seen Wes Craven's New Nightmare but I feel like I should now...)

This is, of course, not even attempting to get into the specifics of Mojica's barebones but sometimes brilliant mis-en-scène which would require repeat viewings and more careful attention on my part. This is just a new fan's reaction, and nothing more. But I'll add my voice to the chorus that praises this filmmaker!

I must see soon Finis Hominis / The End of Man (the NYPL's video is damaged!) and Awakening of the Beast. Brazilian friends and video cultists: I know Mojica did many more films than this, so what else is around and how can I see it? And is this box set worth getting? If you don't yet know Coffin Joe, happy viewing ...

9 comments:

aaron w graham said...

Zach,

Great post, your fond thoughts on the cult character are making me want to revisit the films I've seen and to seek out the others.
I haven't seen the latter two you mention, but if you want to see more self-reflexivity from Marins, due check out Awakening of the Beast, my personal favorite of the bunch I've been able to find.

Fiiipe said...

The meat on Holy Friday bit should probably be better seen in the context of Brazil being the largest catholic country in the world, from what I read the original audience at time take it as chilling proof that Coffin Joe really has some pact with the devil. I agree it's pretty funny too.

The hell scenes are great, aren't they? Mojica did these films with outdated film negatives, friends gave to him, so he almost always have a mix of color and B&W to work with and it always amazes me that he really kew when to shift to color.

The thing about Black Exorcism is that it's producer Anibal Massaiani was the biggest one here in São Paulo, so it had a decent budget, some better known actors, a more narrative script than usual and of course Mojica was hired to do an Exorcist rip-off. So it's rep suffers by perception of it being a more mainstream and conventional film (which I think doesn't make any sense). I agree that there's something in common about it and Wes Craven's New Nightmare, but there's the key differece in that Mojica is not onnly a filmmaker but also an actor who plays the carachter he creates, so his connection with Coffin Joe is stronger than craven's to Krueger.

The box set looks is the same one that come out here, it's a good buy. There's plenty of good extras in them and the transfers are solid. You should check The Awakening of the Beast and Finis Hominis, both real real good. Hallcinations of a Deranged Mind is a collection of scenes cut from previous Mojica films due to censorship, not a favorite of mine, but there's strong moments there for sure. This are also probably the easiest ones to find. I think his episode to Trilogy of Horror and omnimbus film he produced in 68 is available as an extra, but I'm not sure. It's a fine horror tale about a guy afraid of being buried alive. This pretty much cover all his horror work.

Mojica's first feauture A sina do Aventureiro (The Adventurer's Fate) is a very good scope western but it's hard to find even here. He has another western Dgajão Mata por Vingança that I haven't seen. I doesn't care to his sex comedies.

Matt said...

Well, you've certainly gotten me excited about tracking some of this stuff down...

Zach Campbell said...

Thanks for the tips, Filipe. Matt and Aaron, let us know what you think when you (re)view these films.

JG said...

Finis Hominis was actually on TV here a couple of weeks ago. It's a headspinner.

The Terrence Malick of film criticism said...

Zach, Filipe and Aaron:

Thank you for bringing to my attention a filmmaker (and a character) I barely knew about; a filmmaker that definitely seems to be right up my alley.

Would you say that there is any sort of link between the overall look and atmosphere of these films and that of, say, Orson Welles's Mr. Arkadin? I'm asking this after having seen several Coffin Joe stills...

Zach Campbell said...

Great of you to drop in, 'Terry.' I can't say much at length about similarities between Arkadin and Coffin Joe, except perhaps that they both get a good sense of foreboding and portent out of a variety of formal tools, sometimes thrown at a viewer faster or harder than they'll expect. I imagine you'll like Coffin Joe very much!

James Russell said...

The box set looks good, but apparently the extras are not subtitled.

Diogo said...

Hello, I'm a great fun of Mojica, i could seen some of his films, but unfortunetly i've never seen 'Black Exorcism' that i've becoming crazy looking for. Do you know how and where i can see or buy it? If you do, please send me an email to diogocavour@hotmail.com
Thank you!