Monday, February 25, 2008

Zé do Caixao: The Nightmare That Must Survive

Without question, José Mojica Marins is one of the true mavericks of the fantastic cinema, a truly unique filmmaker and one of the genre's most assertive personalities. Working in tandem with his cinematographer Giorgio Attili and editor Luíz Elias, Mojica's early films were not only violent but violently original. Attili's camera, with its cubist framing, would zoom in and out as Elias' cutting made the images snap and crackle; the combination had the feel of bottled electricity, of a cubist painting not only brought to life but prodded to the brink of death. These films also sound like no other films in the world; they scream and vent and weep like the darkest corners in the madhouse of our dreams. If Jean Cocteau was the filmmaker most successful at making audiences dream with their eyes wide open, José Mojica Marins is the cinema's greatest conductor of waking nightmares.

I live and work in North America, where Mojica's films are not widely known, but they are venerated here by a growing cult of enthusiasts who were not able to gain access to his movies until more than four decades after the earliest were made. To tell the truth, we know little about Brazilian cinema in North America, and not much of Brazilian history; therefore, even the most famous Brazilian films have little or no sociologic context for us. It is their alien quality, their exotic strangeness, their sunniness and their sexiness, wherein lies their main appeal. Mojica's work, of course, is neither sunny nor particularly erotic, which makes him a distant cousin to Italy's Mario Bava -- who, like Mojica, told stories of horror retrieved from the darkest shadows of his sunny country.

Years before any of us in North America was able to see Mojica's films, we read about them. For us, the initial germ of the Mojica plague was spread by Phil Hardy's THE ENCLYCLOPEDIA OF HORROR FILMS, first published in 1986. Some of the most famous images from Mojica's films had appeared in earlier books and magazines, but it was not until the arrival of Hardy's book that they were accompanied by any substantial or enticing information. Though Hardy and his fellow contributors at times were harsh in their judgments of the films, their descriptions were outrageous and thus appetizing. Of ESTA NOITE ENCARNEREI NO TEU CADAVER ("This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse," 1965), for example, it was written that "the shoestring production exudes a genuine sense of madness both in its imaginings and in the treatment of its participants, with the eccentric, seemingly out-of-control staging veering from the pathological to the surreal." To read such an account in the increasingly safe and sterile environment of American horror cinema in the 1980s was to arouse a ferocious desire to find and see the work of this crazed genius. And finding these movies would not be easy.

I obtained my own first copies of Mojica's films on bootleg videocassette, which is how all first generation American fans saw them: in poor quality and in Portuguese, a language we did not read or speak, which made them all the more dreamlike and exciting --like the discovery of something long forbidden.

I have a strange confession to make. As a child, I once had a nightmare which I have never forgotten, in which I found myself standing alone in a darkened graveyard. As I saw the headstones around me and realized where I was, luminous eyes opened to peer at me from the darkness and I felt the ground open beneath me, an opening grave perhaps. I plummeted down through the earth, albeit slowly, the way Alice fell into Wonderland, past strange sights and sounds, until I came to rest in a scary room where I was approached by a cackling witch. As you must surely anticipate, when I first saw A MEIA-NOITE LEVAREI SUA ALMA ("At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul," 1964) on VHS, I had the uncanny experience of seeing something on video, a film from a distantland, that was basically exactly what I had once dreamed around the same time the film was being made or first shown. True, there was no descent underground, but the film's titles scroll up from the bottom of the screen, giving one the temporary sensation of falling. My entire experience of seeing that movie for the first time was tinged with déja vu. I told myself that this bizarre coincidence might be the ultimate proof of Mojica's success in capturing the soul-searing essence of a nightmare onscreen. But asI think back on it now, the apparition of Zé do Caixao appears before me, brandishing his cape and taunting me with questions:

What are dreams?
Why do they speak to us?
Do they describe to us our future, those events which arestill to come?
Or is there a common Unconscious, a pool in which we all swim as we sleep, composed of the images (even the moving images) that dictate how we will live and die?
Is it possible that dreams are like birds, migrating from one body to another?
How is it possible for a boy in Ohio to dream what a moviegoer in Brazil has seen in a darkened theater?
Might these images be the final recollections expelled by the mind at the moment of death, as someone is murdered on his way home from a cinema, images not ready to die, images desperate to survive by swimming into the soul of another?
Men may perish, but dreams never die!
For what is Man, if not the discarded skin of a dream?

As you can see, Zé do Caixao's migration to America was a resounding success, perhaps even before we received his films. He is Zé the Inevitable.

The publication of Phil Hardy's book also made possible the belated discovery for several other, similarly transgressive horror directors: Jesús Franco, Nobuo Nakagawa, Walerian Borowczyk, Jean Rollin, and Yasuzo Takamura, to name only a few. Neither Mojica or any of these filmmakers were well-known in America prior to the arrival of this important book, because they made films for adults. In the North America of the 1960s, horror was regarded as a genre suitable only for the entertainment of children. To have exposed a child to the work of José Mojica Marins in the 1960s might well have been a criminal offense.

Through the intervention of André Barcinski, Mojica's special work made the leap from the video underground into the hands of Something Weird Video, an offbeat Seattle-based company which had resurrected the works of Herschell Gordon Lewis, Doris Wishman, David F. Friedman, and many other exploitation outlaws on videotape. The company's owner was Mike Vraney, possibly the only real showman the world of home video has ever had, who understood that Mojica's films needed something to help them vault over the cultural obstacles that too often stand between general American viewers and international cinema. It was Vraney's idea, I believe, to reinvent Zé do Caixao as "Coffin Joe" -- a name that, to American ears, was not only approachable but integrated everything he had to offer into our own cultural tradition of horror. For this demon to have a nickname placed him in the company of other beloved cult figures dating from this same era: "Uncle Forry" (Forrest J Ackerman, the editor of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND), Ed "Big Daddy" Roth (the man behind Rat Fink, futuristic cars and monster T-shirts), and "Brother Theodore" Gottlieb (our most macabre and demented "stand-up tragedian").

Certainly there are many aspects of Mojica's work that are alien to American sensibilities -- its sense of Carnivál, its sadistic glee, its obsession with procreation -- but it also overlaps with some American traditions, notably those of the Western. Like most Westerns, the story of A MEIA-NOITE LEVAREI SUA ALMA is set in a small, dusty village with a graveyard, and one of the first scenes depicts Zé do Caixao visiting a tavern, offending others by his mere presence like a notorious outlaw, and beating another man into submission with chains -- a nightmarish twist on the traditional confrontation in an Old West saloon. Mojica's work also foreshadows the most baroque and psychedelic extremes of the Italian Westerns of the late 1960s.

As fascinating as the technique of Mojica's films may be, they are most remarkable in terms of the character of Zé do Caixao. Introduced as the anti-hero of A MEIA-NOITE LEVAREI SUA ALMA (indeed, the role was written by Mojica with the expectation that it would be played by someone else), Zé has become the filmmaker's alter ego, his doppelgänger, his very shadow, whose sheer force of presence sometimes seems to threaten Mojica's place on the worldstage. It is impossible for me to know how much of the Zé do Caixao persona was consciously rooted in American culture, because I am unaware of how available this culture was to Mojica or any other Brazilian of his time. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the antecedents of Zé do Caixao first appeared in North American culture in the horror radio broadcasts of the 1930s and '40s. It was here that macabre characters first stepped outside their narrative involvements to entice listeners into stories of dreadful, horrific character. Perhaps the earliest of these was THE WITCH'S TALE (1931-38, hosted by "Old Nancy, Witch of Salem"), followed by THE HERMIT'S CAVE (mid-1930s) and, most famously, Orson Welles as the all-knowing announcer and protagonist of the long-running series THE SHADOW (1937-54).

Whether or not Mojica actually heard these broadcasts is irrelevant; it was Welles who established the archetype of a black cloaked character inhabiting the twilight between Life and Death, chortling at his audience's ignorance of the vagaries of the Afterlife and his own tenebrous privilege,while baiting us with existential questions. So popular was Welles' presentation of these stories, his approach long outlasted him in the radio medium; he left the role of the Shadow in 1938, but subsequent actors in the role followed in his footsteps, as did other radio horror hosts still to come: "Raymond" of THE INNER SANCTUM MYSTERIES (1941-52), and also the title characters of THE MYSTERIOUS TRAVELER (Maurice Tarplin, 1943-52) and THE STRANGE DR. WEIRD (1944-45).

These creepy, ironic characters, presiding over the theater of our imaginations, subsequently inspired the storytellers of the famous EC Comics of the 1950s: the Crypt Keeper of TALES FROM THE CRYPT, The Vault Keeper of VAULT OF HORROR, and the Old Witch of HAUNT OF FEAR─and subsequently the first generation horror hosts of television, "Vampira" (Maila Nurmi), "Roland" and "Zacherley" (John Zacherle), and the droll Alfred Hitchcock of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. As I say, how available these influences were to someone like Mojica, I do not know; if he had no direct access, perhaps these ideas and archetypes migrated to him through the depths of his dreams, as once happened to me. These apparitions migrate from one mind to another because they must survive.

The character of Zé do Caixao seems to me very much the personification of a nightmare that must survive. In his first two adventures, he is literally hellbent on siring a son. A new chapter in the Zé do Caixao saga, ENCARNACAO DE DEMONIO ("Incarnation of the Demon"), has been promised by Mojica for more than 40 years; it has become the son that José Mojica Marins must sire. The films made during this period have served to fortify the potency of Zé do Caixao as icon and myth. In each new film, Zé do Caixao has become less fictional, more real; he is determined not only to have a son, but to break free of the boundaries of cinema, to pass from fantasy into reality like the character of Sadako in Hideo Nakata's RINGU (1998). In the third film of the trilogy, the anthologic O ESTRANHO MUNDO DE ZE DO CAIXAO ("The Strange World of Coffin Joe," 1968), Zé steps outside the story to become the storyteller. In O EXORCISMO NEGRO ("Black Exorcism," 1974), he stands in opposition to José Mojica Marins himself -- a polarized personality, each half determined to preserve its dominance.

In the documentary DEMONIOS E MARAVILHAS ("Demons and Wonders," 1987) -- one of the few films I have seen that truly warrants the description "astonishing" --Mojica folds himself back into the Tarot deck of his own art, unable to move forward with his trilogy and deciding instead to simultaneously celebrate and mourn his struggle. The film uses Mojica's disadvantages to its advantage, forging a dark romance from his oppression by criminals and fools, his depression, his worsening health, his stroke, even taking us into the moment of his own "near death" -- all the while reminding us of his celebrity, his popularity, his many friends and supporters, his parties, his continuing presence in newspapers and magazines... in short, his refusal to be denied.

Watching DEMONIOS E MARAVILHAS, it is impossible (for me, anyway) to determine how much of its story is true, and how much of it is, frankly, bullshit -- an incredible pageant of Mojica's narcissism and bravado. Either way, Mojica wins: if the film is truthful, it stands as a stunningly candid and vulnerable expression of the filmmaker's ego; if it's all as phony as its near-death scene, it nevertheless deserves acclaim as a masterwork of meta-fiction, worthy of comparison to the Cthulhu mythos of H. P. Lovecraft and Orson Welles' own F FOR FAKE (1974). It is here that Zé do Caixao achieves his third dimension.

It is now twenty years since DEMONIOS E MARAVILHAS. In a fascinating turn of events, Zé do Caixao's quest to sire a son and José Mojica Marins' quest to complete Zé's Unholy Trinity now appear to be on the point of convergence. It is reported that ENCARNACAO DO DEMONIO is being made at last, and that Mojica has discovered his own twin in a young American admirer, Raymond Castile, who has been cast in the role of the young Zé do Caixao -- the first time anyone but Mojica himself has played the part, and perhaps the first time ever that the part has been "played."

The ramifications of Mojica's discovery of Castile are significant. More than a century ago, Count Dracula left his homeland in Transylvania to conquer England. Where he failed --staked and withered to bones in his coffin -- Zé do Caixao has apparently triumphed. In the person of a young admirer from his conquered America, Zé do Caixao has achieved not only survival but his own rejuvenation.

This essay was written for JOSE MOJICA MARINS: 50 ANOS DE CARRIERA, edited by Eugenio Puppo, published by Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil in association with the Ministério da Cultura, February 2008, for which appearance it was translated into Portuguese by Ricardo Lisias. (c) 2008 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

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