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Rotterdam 2012: Coffin Joe

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Rotterdam 2012: Coffin Joe

“The natural is as false as the false. Only the arch false is really real. I’m talking about José Mojica Marins, filmmaker of excess and crime,” wrote an 18-year-old critic named Rogério Sganzerla. His imagination had been seized by the first Brazilian horror movie, At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, in 1964. Its director, a son of Spanish immigrants who’d spent much of his childhood in the backs of movie theaters, made the film based on a nightmare. Out of stray scraps of film reels dug out of the trash, Mojica filmed himself in a top hat and cape, pointing long fingernails at the screen and howling as a monstrous magician named Coffin Joe.

The film performed well at the box office, inspiring a sequel three years later, This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse. Its storyline was similar to At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul’s: Coffin Joe descends on a small town, murdering the menfolk and seeking the woman who will give him an immortal child. He curses human morality, over and over. But can Coffin Joe beat the forces of God?

The first time I saw a Coffin Joe film, I knew it wasn’t my thing. It took me a while, though, to recognize how important he was as a symbol. Mojica was the first Paulista since the studio days to triumph in low-budget filmmaking, and he set a standard for others by filming hallucinatory work on location, in dripping black and white. In a horror film, anything was possible, even including the triumph of good. Coffin Joe attacked the corrupt human monsters of church and state, and then was crushed himself. Because film could make horror a concrete presence, it could also make horror something that could be fought.

The vision resonated with Sganzerla, Ozualdo Candeias, and other future Boca filmmakers, all of whom followed Mojica’s low-grade example. Mojica helped provide the material means for Boca filmmaking along with inspiration. He founded an acting school, among the first in Brazil, and let Candeias use it to make his 1967 film The Margin. Mojica godfathered Cinema Marginal.

Mojica can be seen on the street, hands in pockets, with black hair and an immensely long beard in Candeias’s 1970 short A Street Called Triumph. A key reason Boca films had so much in common was that the filmmakers all knew each other, and together formed what critic Inácio Araújo, a Rotterdam guest, described as an unofficial co-op. Whatever money one film made went into the next, and after watching enough Boca films you recognize the same names circling through the credits.

Boca filmmakers Carlos Reichenbach and Jairo Ferreira appear on screen in Mojica’s 1970 film The Awakening of the Beast (originally titled Sadists’ Ritual, and the lone Mojica film in the Rotterdam program). They play experts debating Mojica (as himself) on late-night TV, claiming drugs cause violence and sexual deviance. Mojica disagrees. “The idea was to try to end drugs,” the filmmaker said about the government’s plan, years later. “So I had to show drugs messing with the heads of people and making them do things that they wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.”
Fueled by drug-taking hippies moving on screen and off, The Awakening of the Beast is the most fragmented of these first three Coffin Joe films. It’s also the most self-reflexive. A black-and-white Mojica goes to a movie theater and sees Coffin Joe on screen in a color underworld. The film-inside-the-film becomes the film. We’re trapped in hell, and move between the madman, nails extended, and a screaming naked lady growing bloodier with each view.

Hell on Earth? Not quite. Hell serves simultaneously as utopia, as Coffin Joe’s dominance could only belong to the movies. In real life, the censors banned The Awakening of the Beast, and kept it censored for 14 years. Mojica was incensed, but undaunted. He returned to the Boca, where changing production circumstances forced him into making pornography. As time went by, though, Coffin Joe returned—in more films, plus comic books, radio programs, TV shows.

Yet, although he was an especially prominent member, Mojica still only formed a small part of the Boca’s larger community, in which even Anselmo Duarte, whose film The Given Word had won the 1962 Palme D’Or, sometimes took part. You can see both, plus several other members, all in still photographs throughout Candeias’s short, as a voiceover introduces each close-up and light guitar music plays.

A Street Called Triumph, of which the Rotterdam series showed two versions, was one of the Boca’s first efforts to record itself. Candeias set the group in motion again a few years later with Party at the Boca, a short film commemorating New Year’s Eve, 1976, a celebration held on the street outside the Boca do Lixo Cinema. The sense of community comes through stronger than in Candeias’s earlier work. Different filmmakers dance capoeira in the middle of a large circle, and the camera dances along with them.

Candeias’s lingering over groups doesn’t seem to have much in common with Mojica’s nightmare fantasies of isolation, a vision of literally being dragged to hell alone. In closer kinship, perhaps, were the feverish Super-8 assemblages of Boca chronicler Jairo Ferreira, whose 1976 film The Vampire of the Cinematheque and 1980 film The Insig Nificant both screened at Rotterdam. The soundtracks of both films scramble, muddy, and distort themselves while demented faded imagery, like a man chasing a woman with a gigantic foam penis, races across the screen. The lost generation longed for in poetry has been replaced with “a generation of pickpockets.” In both films, surrounding screen and monitor images of Vertov, Samuel Fuller, Citizen Kane, and The Enigma of Kasper Hauser (“a passion film”), we see and hear Reichenbach, Sganzerla, and the gang. Coffin Joe appears late in The Vampire of the Cinematheque, rising from the screen, and the voiceover wonders whether Mojica’s the most important Brazilian of the 21st century.

The Boca film industry essentially ended a decade later, once pornography stopped turning profit. Chronicles of the era continued in book form, whether photographs (Candeias’s A Street Called Triumph) or theoretical-historical texts (Ferreira’s Cinema of Invention). Candeias, Ferreira, and Sganzerla have all died; Reichenbach has continued making films, and hosts a regular cult-movie series at one of São Paulo’s best art theaters. A wonderful aspect of this retrospective, perhaps even better than watching lost or censored films revived, was seeing the other directors in person, each of whom has successfully survived.

Forty years after they first made their films, Triumph Street dwellers reunited in a Rotterdam hallway. There was João Silvério Trevisan (Orgy or: The Man Who Gave Birth), his younger partner by his side, talking volubly and agreeably about almost any topic imaginable, but still carrying Cinema Novo’s sting; there was João Callegaro (The Pornographer), long since settled in advertising, twisting the ring on his finger and gently rebuking any attempt to be serious; there was Cláudio Cunha (Snuff, Victims of Pleasure, Oh! Rebuceteio), now a successful theater actor, calm and quiet unless directly addressed.

And lagging behind them was an old man, hunched over, always accompanied by his manager son. Eye problems made him wear glasses; leg problems slowed his walk. He’d left his hat and cape at the hotel that day. If you asked him nicely, though, he’d thrust his arms out and scream, as he’s done in public now for close to half a century. He even has his own late-night talk show, where he scares the guests each week. Each Friday at midnight, they enter The Strange World of Coffin Joe.

The Rotterdam International Film Festival ran from January 25—February 5.