Tomorrow, the Walter Reade Theater presents encore screenings of José Mojica Marins’s Zé do Caixao (“Coffin Joe”) films. Here’s David Phelps with a report on his favorite.
Made in 1966, Jose Mojica Marins’ wonderful, mostly unnecessary This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse aligns parallel to a whole basement bin of contemporary DIY psychedelia: garage-rock’s second-hand visionary, acid approach to genre as drifting through rehashed riffs (hell, sex, tarantulas) in monotonous meter, ramshackle technique, and shredding solo centerpieces; Brazilian Cinema Novo’s overthrow of classical hegemony and fantasy in favor of the trenches, transparent form, and “sad, ugly films—these screaming, desperate films where reason does not always prevail” (Glauber Rocha); Roger Corman’s sexploitation and horror films with their belief that the cheapest effects are the most effective (tits, ass, and waves of fog obscuring sets never built); Isou and Brakhage’s direct animation for credits; porn. Without any actual sex and very little blood, it comes from the experimental principle, now found almost only at the edges of google, that horror and pornography, with checklists of Pavlovian stimulants at their bones (people exposing themselves, blood and genitalia), are litmus tests for the imagination.
Scene by scene, Marins carves out a classical space of upholstered living rooms and offices padded out with young girls and government officials (The Man) lining the walls. In the center stands Zé do Caixão, now a Brazilian pop icon, played by Marins himself as the sort of mousy politician in the newspaper on whom little kids draw wispy moustaches, goatees, and tiny devil horns. Zé plays ringmaster to audiences on-screen and off by announcing schemes telegraphed as diabolical by maniacal laughing and the extras’ hamming of shock and confusion in the background. He propounds nonsensical doctrine about the immortality of blood and sex with the perfect woman as the devil’s lifeline. Finally, he performs the scene relatively as described.
What’s exciting about This Night, with its strange mix of stunted pace and propulsive momentum as each mismatched cut initiates a new plot altogether, is Marins basically playing auteur within his own film: as in a Jerry Lewis movie, scenes linger on endless overworked reactions of supporting characters (The Hunchback; The World’s Most Powerful Man) who look like Halloween costumes of toy figurines, but Zé more or less pulls scenes and shots out of his hat. Halfway through a shot, the free-range camera will turn out to embody a predator or victim. Background girls are corralled into a snake pit; Zé then fucks the future mother of his progeny on a ledge on top of them. The camera follows the tarantulas in groping the private parts of busted models. Zé effectively shows up around a small town (church, cafes) to tell the natives how in a gesture he’s rewriting both the film and their conservative, institutional lives. The only institution, he more or less says, is Madness.
Pretty clearly, the movie’s aiming for the shantytown “poetry” of The Leopard Man and Touch of Evil: medieval rubes, phantom shadows, and a plywood town built just over a fuming Hell. Even Welles’s syncopated sound and image. But Marins, whose previous (first) Zé film (also screening) is a stagy series of interrogation, gets inspiration only after his characters do. A self-proclaimed maestro, the strength of his argument is all in his bluster. The 60s heir to Universal’s 30s monster movies, with their deliberate, penny-ante mix of campy why-not ideas, shoestring starlets, and marshland mist machines, This Night is the sort of dumb, luminous home movie fantasy James Whale might have done if Hollywood had let him: for all its stabs at subversion, it’s a solid, textbook fantasia of softcore S&M and zombie anarchism.
“This is like when smart people deliberately try to make bad movies,” said a friend, but that idea of pastiche could be inverted: it’s not inconceivable that This Night is actually a good movie, one made by a dumb fanboy. Just one scene is all its own. Zé loses control of the black-and-white town and film, descends to a day-glo hell, and wonders aimlessly through falling blood-snow as he faces an eternity of devils poking people in the ass. Here, as elsewhere, the elements are rote and recorded matter-of-factly, but Marins literally reconfigures the detritus of his own film (skulls, breasts, flailing legs, dangling torsos, inverted crucifixes, devil’s beards, and mechanistic murders) into a jigsawed collage of heaving appendages plastered into papier-mâché cavern walls and stalagmites while red devils laugh. The color-coded space, a graveyard of ice and fire, recalls Ernst, maybe de Chirico. But the idea of Hell as the last refuge of art and porn is definitively Marins’ own.
Christoph Huber has the fullest intro to Marins’ work (and Zé trilogy, completed last year) here.