A Delirious Surrealist: Alejandro Jodorowsky

The acquired taste of Alejandro Jodorowsky

22 mins read

Theatrical cruelty, fairytale morality, dime-store surrealism; Freudian sexuality, alchemical symbology, Black Magick; four-colour Grindhouse violence and more aphorisms per minute than any given episode of Kung Fu, back when people still thought David Carradine looked Chinese. In the limited yet delirious filmography of Midnight Madness auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky (his 1971 international debut, existentialist Acid Western El Topo, is often considered one of the first modern “cult movies”), visual poetry of startling originality comes routinely yoked neck-to-neck with spectacular egomania, uninterpretable in-jokes — all the bizarre flotsam and jetsam of a mind crammed far too full of Jungian multicultural crossreferencing to ever reach the lowest common denominator of the modern audience.

Or, to put it another way: At 75, Jodorowsky has proudly fashioned his entire career out of being an acquired taste—sometimes good, sometimes bad, never indifferent. Always “different”, though often in ways which can seem less creatively inspired than perversely reactive.

Born in 1929 in Iquique, Chile, Jodorowsky travelled to Paris in 1953 to study mime with Marcel Marceau. During the 1960s, he experimented with mimes and cartooning (his “Fabulas Panicas Weekly” comic strip enjoyed a long run in Mexico), producing avant-garde performance art such as Sacramental Melodrama (1964), a four-hour play which combined strident religious themes with gruesome violence. He and French surrealists Fernando Arrabal and Roland Topor then formed the “Theater of Panic” (1962), which staged “happenings” designed to cause general mayhem.

The further Jodorowsky gets away from his peak time-period—the 1970s, when auteurism truly was king—the more tempting it becomes to doubt whether he and his legacy can remain “relevant” to today’s fickle, distributor-dependent theatregoers. Fortunately for him, however, we live in the age of the DVD as well as of the multiplex. And as long as a market exists which can hook those seeking the odd and obscure directly to those hell-bent on staying both, Jodorowsky will always have his fans.

This thesis was recently proven by his first Canadian appearance in more than 25 years, as an honoured guest of Rue Morgue magazine’s inaugural Festival of Fear horror culture exposition. Screening fresh new prints of The Holy Mountain (1973) and Santa Sangre (1989) at the Bloor Cinema and taking questions afterward, Jodorowsky seemed to revel in the opportunity to introduce a whole new generation of potential obsessives to his personal “Jodoverse”—still the only alternate dimension around where one can watch a homeless Jesus clone refine his own shit into gold while imprisoned in a gigantic alembic, or see an armless circus aerialist turned religious maniac force her Invisible Man-worshipping son to shed “holy blood!” in the service of a very private heresy.

But while it’s always nice to be honoured, does Jodorowsky really consider his creations “horror” films?

“No,” he cheerfully replies in inventively broken English, holding court from a suite at the Pantages Hotel. “I don’t believe they are horror, but sometimes you have to let people with money think you do what they want you to. For Santa Sangre, (Italian goremeister‚) Dario Argento’s brother produce. And he say to me: In this film, you must kill women. I ask him: Why just women? Why not men, animals, fat people, thin people, priests? But the condition for funding is to kill women, because he know his brother’s films make money when they do that. So…I shit him, a little; he pay me to make a horror movie, which I don’t think I do, because Santa Sangre is about much more than murder, is about religion, about madness, about love. But in the end, he was happy.”

Given that the exhuberantly Grand Guignol Santa Sangre probably ranks as Jodorowsky’s most “mainstream” film to date—Roger Ebert himself gave it the thumbs-up, calling it unlike anything else he’d ever seen—it’s probably not going too far to say Jodorowsky’s output can be neatly divided between projects that are difficult to find (sophomore effort Fando y Lis (1968), El Topo, The Holy Mountain, Santa Sangre) and those which are outright “impossible” to find (his famous “lost” first film The Severed Heads (1957), Tusk (1980) or The Rainbow Thief (1990), starring Omar Sharif and Peter O’Toole).

“Often people ask me why they can’t find The Severed Heads,” explains Jodorowsky. “I tell them I mislay it myself—but after searching for three years, I finally find again. Back when I make it, I was 23 years old and I want only to be a mime— just to write routines like “The Mask-maker” for Marceau. Actually, when I first see the film, I was embarrassed! Now I think I offer as a bonus or extra feature on the DVD of El Topo, something like that; not on its own, though. It’s still not that good.”

In the case of El Topo and The Holy Mountain, the distribution problems stemmed from a quarrel with former Beatles manager Allen Klein, who has owned the rights to both pictures since the early 1970s and—until very recently—was determined to bury them by refusing to issue proper home video or DVD versions. (Having since reconsidered his position, Klein and Jodorowsky are preparing limited theatrical re-releases for this November, followed by official DVDs.)

“How do you see The Holy Mountain?” Jodorowsky asks a clutch of attendant journalists and documentary filmmakers at the Pantages press conference; when most admit it was on an ultragrainy Luminous Film and Video Wurks dub, with Japanese subtitles, from which all shots of pubic hair had been hand-blurred into incongruous haloes, he laughs: “Yes, this is the only way ’till now, when I make peace with Klein. But I like the way it looks, very mythological. Maybe we keep it.”

A prolific player in the world of adult graphic novels, Jodorowsky has been able to use his longstanding relationship with French artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud—the star graduate of Metal Hurlant/Heavy Metal magazine, best known these days for designing the “look” of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element—to bring his most expensive scenarios to the page, if not the screen. Humanoid’s Publishing have finally begun issuing English translations of his work, including seminal headtrip “Le Incal Noir”, which may have helped him forge a current creative deal with DC Comics.

But he also remains equally notorious for all the films he “hasn’t” made, like Los Hijos del Topo (the long-bruited sequel to El Topo, possibly soon to be produced with input from/financial backing by goth-metal rockstar Marilyn Manson), or the first version of Dino de Laurentiis’s doomed 1984 Dune adaptation (eventually kicked over to Ridley Scott, then to David Lynch).

In his article “The Dune You’ll Never See,”Robert Scott Martin charts the project’s steady downward spiral with teasing detail: Pink Floyd, at the height of their career, agreed to provide music; Moebius contributed thousands of character sketches and designs; Christopher Foss created the spaceships. The ultra-decadent Harkonnens, meanwhile, quickly became the provenance of Alien creator H.R. Giger—and Alien writer Dan O’Bannon, fresh off the surprising success of John Carpenter’s Dark Star, was hired to provide special effects.

Surrealist icon Salvador Dali was courted to play galactic Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, and agreed to spend one hour on the film set for $100,000—a demand which, since the film’s entire budget was reportedly $20 million, immediately threw de Laurentiis’ accountants into a tizzy. But no matter: Jodorowsky decided to work around the problem by rewriting the script, assigning most of Shaddam’s scenes to “a polyethylene puppet” made in Dali’s image.

Sadly, nobody knows where this puppet ended up once the project—inevitably—collapsed under its own odd weight. By 1977, however, Jodorowsky was on to different things, leaving his fans to wonder fruitlessly exactly how he might have realized the very un-Frank Herbert ending of his original treatment, in which guerilla Messiah Paul Atreides’ blood transforms the desert planet Arrakis into the Philosopher’s Stone (which then whizzes off ’round the galaxy, randomly turning other planets into gold).

It’s interesting, within context, to note the parallels between Jodorowsky and Lynch, who would emerge from Dune’s Ishtar-sized wreckage to eventually win both a Cannes Palme d’Or (for Wild At Heart) and mainstream acceptance as America’s unofficial voice of the weird (for his TV series Twin Peaks). Both refuse to be confined by linear storytelling models; both are devoted to the painstaking visualization of their personal mythologies, often at the expense of simple coherence; both prefer to work in consistent milieux, with a familiar stable of actors (though, granted, Lynch doesn’t usually cast himself and his own children in leading roles).

One big difference between the two is that, perhaps as a result of his early mime training, Jodorowsky treats dialogue as almost optional—a spice, rather than a staple. While characters like Frank Booth or Dale Cooper are defined as much by the way they talk (and what they do—or don’t— talk about) as by their actions, in films like El Topo, upwards of fifteen minutes at a time can pass without any conversation at all.

Consider the hypnagogic opening sequence of The Holy Mountain, which moves fluidly from the White Master (an alchemist/charlatan figure played by Jodorowsky himself) initiating two acolytes to a gaunt, bearded young man (Jodorowsky’s eldest son, Brontis) lying dead drunk in the street. A human torso alerts a crowd of naked children, who pluck flowers from our hero’s stigmata before pelting him awake with rocks. A shared joint later, he and the torso are best friends; they romp down the main street of an unnamed Mexican city where the local police constantly execute random protesters, past a parade of soldiers who carry flayed and crucified animals like banners, as rich, decadent tourists watch and applaud.

Then, the pièce de resistance: Torso-man and Guy Who Looks Like Christ take jobs as street performers in the Great Toad and Chameleon Circus. This involves helping the Circus’ clowns reproduce the conquest of Mexico using a papier maché model of Tenochtitlan, lizards dressed as Aztecs, and 600 bullfrogs dressed as Spanish soldiers and priests. Soon the ziggurats are streaming with blood, and the whole sequence— perhaps “five minutes” out of the film’s entire three-hour running time—culminates in a series of massive explosions.

“This was a sacred mission,” Jodorowsky explains, solemnly. “You see, frogs have urine like acid. They’re also very intelligent; they’d puff up, expand themselves when you try to dress them, and escape. And also I used chameleons, which was very difficult, because they don’t move. So sometimes we wait a whole day to film one movement! Impossible.” A pause. “This is why you see so much toads and so little chameleons in this sequence.”

What remains weirdly resonant about this particular scene, over twenty years later, is that it still works just as well as legitimate sociopolitical commentary as it does as outright nutbucketry. And The Holy Mountain is full of stuff like this, especially once we move on to the White Master’s plan to capture immortality on behalf of a cabal of evil Mexican tycoons who range from the mohawk-wearing Chief of Police (proud owner of a homoerotic sanctuary constructed from “1,000 testicles!”) to an artist who invents electronic orgasm machines, an architect who designs literal “coffin hotels”, and a toymaker whose wares are designed to train children to enjoy killing the state’s enemies once they grow up.

Sure, everyone’s wearing risibly high platform shoes, and the dubbing’s fairly choice. (The White Master to Christ-Guy: “Do joo want gold?” Christ- Guy: “Yeah!”) But the conspiracy theorist’s connectthe- dots paranoia bubbling just below the surface is pure post-9/11—as is the film’s startlingly po-mo ending, which seems to reference today’s media self-awareness decades before anyone had coined the phrase “reality TV”. It’s ironic that El Topo, a film far more self-consciously archetypal in its imagery, hasn’t worn even vaguely as well—but then again, if Jodorowsky really wanted it to keep, maybe he shouldn’t have inserted a visual reference to the immense girth, symbolic weight, and religious significance of his own penis.

So Hollywood he’s not, and has never been. To be fair, however, Jodorowsky has always had as many problems with Hollywood as Hollywood’s had with him—he describes the typical Hulk/Shrek/X-Men high concept blockbuster as “good only for people from ten to thirteen years old — for people above this age, they are poison.” Which is not to say he thinks they have “no” value. “I want to be clear: Hollywood movies are very fantastic, very necessary, in their own way. Me, I like Hong Kong films; I like them, and then I forget. But a good artistic film you see only once, and remember all your life. It can change you. It shows you you must be free.”

Jodorowsky greets the suggested potential of the DVD market with enthusiasm. “You have to sell films in advance to the theatres, and this deforms them—you pre-sell only films that have to be a certain length, aimed at a certain market. And who owns these theatres? Always a businessman with a lover, maybe a woman, maybe a man, a stupid person who reads my script and says: I don’t like this, I don’t understand that… In the future, I can say: Today at 10:00 I show my movie at the Eaton’s Centre, one time only—by direct broadcast—and people will come. You can now make a picture like you make a book. But the industry is now the owner of art, and young people need to break that. Also old people like me, because they have nothing to lose; when you’re my age, every day is a good day. Because you’re alive.”

Would Jodorowsky ever consider “playing the game” the way Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro do, alternating personal projects with studio-commissioned work? His answer is unequivocal: “No. I’d give them my script, and then somebody else will do it—like del Toro, certainly. I think he is the single best industrial director right now; his talent is formidable, but I feel sorry for him. I can’t do what he does. So that’s what I would ask for: Get del Toro, make the best industrial movie you can. And then I take the money, and I do what “I” want with it.”

Which brings us, neatly, to the subject of his next project—maybe Los Hijos…, maybe Nick Nolte vehicle King Shot, which Jodorowsky describes as a “metaphysical spaghetti gangster film.” “Myself, I want always to make artistic pictures, but when I go to Hollywood for money, all they ask is: Where are your stars? So I need to find stars, but I only want ones I love. With King Shot, I was contacted by Nolte, an actor I worship —he’s honest, he’s crazy, with a name Hollywood knows. And if I make this movie, Manson will act in it also. The role of a Pope of 300 years is what I have for him.”

Hey, and why not? Ultimately, to criticize Jodorowsky’s output simply on the basis of its cheerful provocation, deliberate insularity, overt mystical yearnings or strangely entertaining dream-logic is to miss what makes it so dementedly entertaining…and if the worst a filmmaker can be accused of is always trying a bit too hard to give his or her audience what they least expect, that still makes their films far more potentially rewarding than the mind-numbing pap we’ve been trained to accept as “normal”.

In conclusion: Those of us who like this sort of thing will definitely find it the sort of thing we like; as for the rest, well—nobody’s putting a gun to your heads, guys. You’re just as free to pick your own particular cinematic poison as you ever were. Thank God.

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