[23 May 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Memories aren’t meant to be truth. They’re not an internal documentary of our lives, unflinching in their authenticity and immovable to interpretation. No, our recollections are supposed to be filtered, formed over years of personal reflection and friendly storytelling. Names get changed. Events are altered. Perception becomes less about what happened and the more important “why?” Indeed, why we remember what we do is as significant as the events or individuals themselves. After all, we come into contact with millions of possible reminiscences every day and yet we cast aside some in favor of others. For the amazing auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky, it’s all an act, a performance piece that gets twisted and altered over time into something close to what really happened. The essence, not the evidence. It’s the Dance of Reality, and as seen through his eyes, it’s incredible.
Based on his autobiography of the same name, The Dance of Reality takes us back to the beginning of the artist’s unusual upbringing. Once again, this is not what actually happened, but a series of impressions amplified by emotions, psychological scars, and perhaps most importantly, viewpoint. This is Jodorowsky looking back, making assessments, and casting aside specifics. We meet the younger version of the director (Jeremías Herskovits) as he is being tormented by his oppressive father (Brontis Jodorowsky, the filmmaker’s son). Dad believes in the age old mantra that men don’t cry, but he takes this truism to extremes with his offspring. He forces young Alejandro to endure dental procedures without anesthetic and indulges in violent games of face slapping.
His mother (Pamela Flores), on the other hand, is seen as a goddess, full breasted and operatic in her speaking - literally. In one of the most clever conceits in the entire film, Jodorowsky uses music and arias as a way to show the contrast between the two parents. He is a hard lined macho chauvinist. She is a cleavage exposed diva, delivering all her dialogue in vocalizing worthy of La Scala or The Met. Over the course of the narrative, we watch as Father finds various personal philosophies to fill his otherwise empty life. The first is Materialism. Then he becomes a Communist, something that turn of the century Chile frowns upon. Then he becomes an activist, hoping to use his self-described bravery to kill the country’s horrific dictator. When that falls through, he becomes physically paralyzed, moving from the slums to the Church, all in an attempt to get back to his sense of self and, as a result, his wife and child.
Indeed, this is really not the story of Jodorowsky’s childhood. Instead, it’s an impression of the circumstances around his growing up. For most of the movie, the preteen version of the director is a dullard, a whiny little whelp who is desperate for his father’s love and incapable of giving him the despotic dedication Dad requires. We get glimpses at good deeds and typical pubescent rituals (there is a very clever sequence where a bunch of boys head off to masturbate behind some rocks, mocking the young Jodorowsky for his unusual genitalia while stroking gourds and other vegetables as stand-ins for their “manhood”), but none of the insights that would lead to his future as a poet, painter, writer, filmmaker, and philosopher. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine how anything creative came out of this sometimes sadistic situation.
Jodorowsky’s love of the mystical is present, however, with characters appearing as recognizable icons from the Tarot - an old sea hag is the Queen of Cups, a dwarf woman recreates the “hangman” image. There’s also a character named Theosophist who teaches young Alejandro that all religions derive from a single god. With Dad constantly chiding his son that there is no Supreme Being (“you just die, and then rot,” he repeats over and over), the boy becomes even more confused. After a tragedy, his waking nightmare of talking corpses and burnt flesh fuel a desire to do better. Yet we never really see this payoff. Instead, Papa heads out to kill the country’s leader but ends up discovering his own inner coward. In fact, The Dance of Reality might just be the byplay between what we think of ourselves and what we truly turn out to be. Or maybe what we thought of others and the truth of their character.
For those hoping for another El Topo, The Holy Mountain, or Santa Sangre, The Dance of Reality will be a bit of a disappointment. It’s still Jodorowsky, but it’s a more comfortable, less confrontation maverick on display here. With the recent celebration of his unmade version of Dune, the director has seen a kind of critical renaissance that he rarely achieved in the past, and as a result, he obviously believes he no longer has to aggressively prove himself. While he’s complained, frequently, in interviews that the modern moviemaking machine has no room for him, there is a lot of aesthetic appeal to this material. The boy’s journey may be minimal, but the father’s tale finds all the right beats. You just have to get past the gang of angry, deformed miners (played by actual amputees), the psycho-sexual circus clowns, and the constant portrayal of the poor as worthless, murderous scum.
Indeed, The Dance of Reality is like those portions of your past where you saw your father as a superhero (or a sadistic creep), you mother as a saint (or the accompanying whore), and your painful adjustments to growing up a series of humiliations, happenings, and unexpected happiness. A bit of research indicates that the portrayals here are far from the truth (there’s no mention of the filmmaker’s older sister, and considering their tense relationship, that makes sense), but that really doesn’t matter. Looking back on this life, the 85 year old is trying to determine the ideas and incidents that made him the man he is today. The Dance of Reality is both the partial recognition and full blown rejection of those doctrines, played out as both surrealist symbolism and familiar family melodrama. You may not learn much about Alejandro Jodorowsky’s actual childhood after watching this affecting film. You will see how the situation of his growing up influenced everything else in his life, however.