[12 November 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Many have never heard of him. Others only know selected works—the ‘80s effort Santa Sangre, the consistently mentioned “midnight movie” El Topo - but even for those who claim an intimate knowledge of cinema, director, poet, agitator, self-described “deity” Alejandro Jodorowsky remains an enigma. This could be due to the fact that the filmmaker has only helmed seven projects in the 50 years he’s been in the business (that’s right, seven in half a century behind the camera). Part of the problem is also that Jodorowsky remains a vehemently idiosyncratic artist. Like many Latino moviemakers, he lives his works and is only driven to create when the passion (and the fiscal possibility) strikes him. The final issue with his covert career is the lack of access to his major films - Fando y Lis, El Topo, and The Holy Mountain. Only the first title has ever appeared on DVD, the other two considered “lost” due to ongoing animosity between the director and infamous ‘70s business bully Allen Klein. Now, with all wounds apparently healed. The recently released Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky box set provides a chance to see the works that loom largest in the auteur’s considerable legend.
In the grand tradition of fellow experimentalists Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, Alejandro Jodorowsky is, at his heart, a surrealist. He works in the weird and fashions out of the freakish. Like all artists working within said medium, the Chilean-born Renaissance man loves to break convention as he embraces the recognizable. In fact, it’s safe to say that Jodorowsky is the most arcane avant-gardist ever to take up the genre’s mantle. Typically, a surrealist tackles the real world from a ridiculous yet recognizable avenue. But Jodorowsky isn’t content to simply shock and confuse. His is an aesthetic of contradiction, the juxtaposing of the sacred with the profane, the beautiful with the grotesque, the simple along with the complex. Out of said incongruities, he hopes to unlock the secrets of love, desire, death, evil, happiness, hate, terror, wisdom, God, man, the Devil, and the bifurcated nature of spirituality and physicality. Sometimes he succeeds in stunning fashion. But even his missteps are fabulous in their fascination.
After beginning life as a performance artist and theatrical “terrorist” (part of the Panic Movement—inspired by the god Pan—in early ‘60s France) Jodorowsky’s move to film was seen as a way of extending his influence beyond the simplicity of the stage. After fooling around with a work about a lady who sells substitute heads - La Cravate - he went off to tackle his first full-length project; a quasi-adaptation of a play written by Fernando Arrabal. While neither was completely successful, they proved that Jodorowsky had an eye for cinema and could really tell a story visually. Anyone who was lucky enough to see Cravate may recognize Thomas Mann’s 1940 absurdist effort The Transposed Heads. Using players from his Panic productions, and an obvious bow to Marcel Marceau and the mime movement that was popular during the time, the scant story was saved by the unique visual approach the director brought to the project. Resembling the German Expressionism of the early 20th Century with the precision of a painter like Chagall, the colorful, confusing tale remains something visually sumptuous, but rather empty and vague.
Fando y Lis, on the other hand, was prepped as Jodorowsky’s grand statement of social perception. In Arrabal’s play, the title couple is searching for a kind of literal nirvana, a place where he can live free and she can escape her life of handicapped helplessness. The magical city of Tar is basically a metaphor for acceptance and, all throughout the film, Jodorowsky drives that direct point home. This helps explain the movie’s vignette-oriented approach. Across an amazing monochrome wasteland, the pair are poked at, prodded, perverted, played with, and made to feel equally ashamed of their desire to live outside the surreal norm, while wholly trapped in a universe of unexplainable horrors and happenings. Sex plays a major role in the narrative, as many of the people our leads meet seem locked in a lustful lewdness that brings out their worst, most abhorrent behavior. Even Fando gives in, beating the helpless Lis mercilessly and abandoning her for sequences at a time. In the end, his act of brutality is meant as a kind of consciousness cleansing, a way of showing the supposed hero what a bad man he really is.
Of course, that’s just one interpretation, and Fando y Lis is a movie that can mean many things to whoever sees it. Because black-and-white deadens the dimensions in the imagery - color both corrupts and clarifies your standard visual responses - much of the movie feels flat. Not lifeless, mind you, just strangely similar, almost repetitive. Fando and Lis argue, one or the other looses their temper, a oddball collection of people enter into their psychological space (old ladies playing cards for lychee nuts and the sexual favors of a male prostitute, a holy man who worships a nauseatingly naked female), and then its time to ease on down the tarmac path toward happiness. When viewed with the films he would go on to make, Fando y Lis is best described as a mangled minor masterwork. It lacks the resonance that would come when Jodorowsky dropped the pretense and shot straight from his psyche. It also offers incomplete characters whose flaws are much more memorable than their finer moments. Visually, there is no denying the talent - Fando y Lis announces a major motion-picture player. But it would be his second film that solidified the director’s status as a surrealistic God.
Believe it when you hear it - El Topo is brazenly brilliant, a true motion-picture masterpiece of epic and undeniable proportions. All the legends you’ve heard, all the myths made up about the film’s founding the midnight movie craze are completely legitimate. Everything promised in Fando y Lis is present and perfectly built upon in what is, in essence, a spaghetti western sans the saddle sores. While he touched on it some in his first film, El Topo begins the clear contravention of organized religion and the meaningless morality given to the ethics of good and evil. Forged in two parts, the first centering on the viability of violence, the second scourging the reward of benefice, what we have here is a personal journey amplified into a statement of cosmic consensus. Jodorowsky himself plays the lead—a gunslinger whose life is empty inside—and he pours on the preposterous visuals and stunningly imaginative imagery with grace and gratuity.
When we first meet “The Mole” (the translation of El Topo), he is harboring a young naked boy - perhaps, as a protégé, perhaps for something more salacious. It is never explained, and Jodorowsky likes it that way. Soon, a choice must be made and, with it, comes the first-half condemnation of our lead. Working his standard scattered narrative approach perfectly, our hero must find the four greatest gunfighters in the desert and defeat each and every one. Many have likened this half of the film to the Old Testament, with El Topo taking on the four main prophets in the Biblical text. Others simply see it as a regular rite of passage, with each foe representing an element of the main character’s consciousness that he must confront and conquer. In each battle, El Topo twists the rules to his own ends. When he finally falls, it’s not by the hand of any of the masters. No, he is double crossed by the faith of his own heart, and the woman who pledged her undying love for saving her.
Now it’s true that Jodorowsky is tough on women. Some would even argue that he’s a clear-cut misogynist who views the female as festering and wicked, only capable of tricking men and then using their failing feminine wiles throughout the rest of their sad, sexually repressed life. But for every act of abuse, for every slap in the face, or tableau where overweight grandmothers draped in lingerie strut and fret like fools, we have characters who try to countermand that image. The dwarf girl, who helps El Topo after he is mortally wounded and left for dead, represents the one area that Jodorowsky tends not to mock - the maternal instinct of a caring woman. Throughout the second act of the film, when our hero goes from sinner to savior, desperate and willing to do anything to build a tunnel into town, the little lady by his side is grace and giving personified. Jodorowsky was obviously influenced by Fellini and his Satyricon-era style. Human oddities, disfigured and disturbing in their limbless, twisted deformities, are prevalent in the director’s work and, if you were to ask him why, he’d probably say, “They are interesting to look at, no?” In fact, a great deal of what he does as a filmmaker exists solely because it looks good locked in a timeless frame of celluloid.
Because of its clear narrative focus - unlike Fando and Lis, who never really get anywhere during their journey - El Topo is a series of cause-and-effect story sequences and visionary vibe. It’s not surprising to learn that Jodorowsky became an early ‘70s sensation, championed by none other than John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The ex-Beatle, a man of principle and awareness totally tapped into the fading remnants of the generation he helped form, felt a kinship with the director. Using images straight out of the counterculture’s cookbook (including the notorious self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thích Quang Duc), Jodorowsky was purposefully taking the piss out of the era’s symbols and icons. This went down well with a musician who spent the first half of his solo career primal screaming the Fab Four out of his system. Thanks to the influence of Allen Klein (in charge of the business operations of the Beatles’ Apple Corp), El Topo got attention—including some much-needed press and distribution in the United States. This led to the film’s frequent showings at midnight and, thus, the resulting legend. Even better, when Jodorowsky was looking for financing for his next project, Klein and the Lennons gladly stepped in.
What they got was almost more astounding than El Topo. The Holy Mountain - an unambiguous bashing of faith, church, God, enlightenment, and Eastern theology - became a serious scandal. While Jodorowsky was no stranger to bad audience reactions (the first screening of Fando y Lis turned into a riot, and the director had to be smuggled out of the theater to avoid the angry mob), nothing could have prepared him for the denouncement he received when the final cut premiered at Cannes. Condemned as blasphemous and sacrilegious, critics and crowds couldn’t get past the striking similarity between the lead thief and a certain Jesus of Nazareth. Even worse, Jodorowsky went on to strip his Messianic character – literally - having the actor playing the part more or less nude throughout the film’s opening act. By making our substitute savior a criminal, a con artist, and a partaker of perversion (he is helped along by an armless and legless dwarf who enjoys kissing his carrier on the mouth), the director was obviously arguing for the corruption buried inside Christianity. When our figure of faith finally meets the Alchemist (played by Jodorowsky himself), all he wants to know is the secret of turning shit into gold. How shocking!
But it’s not just religion that gets a reaming here. Our maverick moviemaker is out to undermine capitalism, the law, government cronyism/incompetence, pop culture, the police force, war, and the sovereignty of the state, all in one fell swoop. He does this by creating the council of immortals - eight enterprising people of power who represent the planets within the solar system. For a fee, including complete obedience and a rejection of material things, the Alchemist will provide a path to enlightenment and a chance to replace a similar group already residing on Lotus Island. There, they will supposedly live forever, free from all the issues they themselves create in the typical, tainted social structure. With this road-movie plotline in place, Jodorowsky is free to indulge his every visual whim, resulting in, hands down, one of the most sumptuous and sublime optical experiences ever captured on film. As if in reaction to everything El Topo stood for, the filmmaker purposefully avoids the elements that made said movie so shocking.
The Peckinpah-like bloodshed in Topo, grue flowing freely and effortlessly from various violated bodies, is now a striking psychedelic array of rainbow humors. The ample nudity is presented pristinely, lacking the down-and-dirty qualities that made his whacked-out western so erotically charged. The former subtle slaps at religion are now big, bold, brash bombshells, like the skinned goats substituting for Christs on a procession of crosses. Once we get to the moment of clarity, when temptation tries to thwart our pilgrims from their progress, Jodorowsky goes all out, mixing swinging ‘60s jet-set cool with a graveyard setting to up the sacrilege. Of course, it’s not surprising to learn that all the events of the last 90 minutes are meant as a kind of cinematic in-joke. The final bits of dialogue in the movie pull the rug out of the previous pomp and circumstance, operating like an affecting “F-You” from Jodorowsky to anyone who would take him seriously as a sage. While it lacked the personal touch of a strong lead character (unlike El Topo himself, the Alchemist and his charges are fairly interchangeable), The Holy Mountain proved that his previous efforts were no fluke. Jodorowsky was a filmmaker to be reckoned with. All he needed now was a mainstream success.
It was to come in the form of Dune. In 1975, the filmmaker gathered together an eclectic crew including H. R. Giger (for design), Pink Floyd (for musical score), and French comic book artist Jean Giraud. His goal - bring Frank Herbert’s incredibly popular sci-fi allegory to the big screen. Hoping to cast famous faces (Orson Welles as Baron Harkonnen, Mick Jagger as his son Feyd) and to once again revisit some familiar narrative themes (Dune definitely matches a certain Messianic story), Jodorowsky was eager and excited. Then that old familiar foe – money - reared its ugly halting head, and it wasn’t long before the entire production was shut down and sold off. Bitter over this turn of events and the way Klein was carrying out their business arrangements, Jodorowsky started shunning the spotlight. He made a couple more films in the next 30 years - a 1980 children’s film entitled Tusk, 1989’s well-received Santa Sangre, and 1990’s The Rainbow Thief. Several times he tried to jump start a sequel to El Topo, this time following the child of the main character (he wanted to call it Son of El Topo or Abelcain). Yet aside from an appearance in the 1994 documentary about his career, La Constellation Jodorowsky, he stuck to comics and graphic art.
Because of his lack of output, Jodorowsky has since been marginalized. He’s been considered a fluke, a one (or, in the case of Mountain, two) hit wonder, a difficult creator who can’t understand a need to compromise for his craft. Instead, he remains staunchly defiant, even allowing his movies to fall out of print until the issues with Klein could be resolved. What this has meant, sadly, is that audiences for over 30-plus years have been deprived of some of the most amazing motion pictures ever created. Visually stunning, deeply personal, and philosophical without being preachy or intellectually obtuse, both El Topo and The Holy Mountain are merely fables formulated out of fever dreams, one man’s attempts to depict a crisis of the soul via pictures and predicaments. Unlike the work of some surrealists, who seem to be tossing random images at the camera for the sake of their own oddness, Jodorowsky tries to tie everything together, giving his apparent arbitrariness a lasting heft that transcends the art form’s tricks. His films can be hard to look at, even more appalling in their approach, but there’s also a beauty and an elegance generated by his frequently fractured dynamic that’s impossible to avoid.
Surrealism, by its very nature, sets itself up for constant criticism. There are those people who simply do not respond well to such a mannered approach to ideas, as well as the seemingly impenetrable insularity of it all. For them, Alejandro Jodorowsky will be the poster boy for the problematic, a man obviously obsessed with death, sex, God, and man. If you take away the various visual elements, the sense of narrative experimentation and nonlinear logistics, all you’d have left is one man’s arrogant interpretation of the world around him. Thanks to surrealism and, at the same time, the counterculture movement he functioned within, this director managed a kind of miracle. He took nonsense and seriousness, reality and the ridiculous, and managed to find a way of having a crackpot combination of them all equal intelligence and insight. The proof of such an artistic triumph is located here, in this collection of brazen borderline masterpieces. If one walks away from his films, it should be an appreciation of one of medium’s forgotten renegades. He may not have been the first, but he is definitely one of the medium’s best - and most baffling.