First published by Little White Lies, Issue 65, May/June 2016 (dedicated to Nicolas Winding Refn and The Neon Demon)
In seven [now eight] avant-garde directorial features spread across five decades, Chilean-born Alejandro Jodorowsky has, in his own inimitable way, allegorised the ordeals of life, the paths of reality and the masks of identity. His cinema is overdetermined, unruly, maximalist – a heady kaleidoscope of metaphysical questing, exaggerated archetypes and psychedelic imagery. He is the kind of filmmaker who naturally attracts not-always-helpful labels like ‘visionary’, ‘genius’, ‘provocative’ and – of course – ‘pretentious’. Feeling lost? Here’s a handy guide…
In 1947, aged just 19, college dropout Jodorowsky established his own performance company Teatro Mimico in Santiago, before moving in the early Fifties to Paris where he studied mime under Étienne Decroux. In Louis Mouchet’s 1994 documentary The Constellation Jodorowsky, Marcel Marceau describes being both shocked and moved by the ‘excess of violence’ in the mime routines (like ‘The Cage’ and ‘The Mask Maker’) that Jodorowsky had created for him around this time.
Jodorowsky’s very first film, the short La Cravate (1957), was a wordless mime for camera – and scenes of mime performance, or mute characters, have subsequently appeared not just in his first features Fando y Lis (1968) and El Topo (1970), but also in later films like Santa Sangre (1989) and The Rainbow Thief (1990).
Buñuel, panic and riot
In Paris in 1962, inspired by Luis Buñuel and Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty from the Thirties, Fernando Arrabal, Roland Topor and Jodorowsky (all three future filmmakers) co-founded The Panic Movement, a collective devoted to absurdist performance art and the “explosion of reason”. Jodorowsky’s feature debut Fando y Lis (1968), concerned with a couple who get lost in their search for a post-apocalyptic paradise, was in fact based on Jodorowsky’s imperfect memory of an Arrabal play written for the movement.
The film’s tabu-busting content – paedophilia, sacrilege, matricide, cannibalism, etc. – led to a riotous reception at its Acapulco première, forcing Jodorowsky to flee the screening hidden in the bottom of a car. Here too Jodorowsky was continuing a tradition in avant-garde filmmaking inherited from Buñuel – after all, Buñuel’s early collaborations with Salvador Dalí, Un Chien Andalou (1928) and L’Âge d’Or (1930), both sparked public rioting.
As a tribute to his favourite filmmaker Federico Fellini, Jodorowsky gave Lis the short-cropped hair-do and doe-eyed demeanour of the Italian maestro’s wife and muse, Giulietta Masina. Fellini returned the compliment with allusions to Fando y Lis in his Satyricon (1969) and City of Women (1980). More generally, the carnivalesque spirit of Fellini infuses Jodorowsky’s films, which are populated with a demi-monde of big mamas and mamas’ boys, of dwarves and giants, of cripples and mendicants, of dealers and thieves, of cross-dressers and whores, of gunmen and gurus. Santa Sangre and The Rainbow Thief even feature that most Fellini-esque of settings, the circus.
The Underground and the Midnight Movie
Jodorowsky advertised his status as underground filmmaker by casting himself as the titular lead in El Topo, or ‘the Mole’, a creature that spends most of its time beneath the earth’s surface – and in the film’s second half, Jodorowsky’s gun-slinging antihero finds himself living with cave dwellers beneath a mountain, where he has a spiritual awakening. Similarly Meleagre (Peter O’Toole), the eccentric protagonist of Jodorowsky’s now disowned The Rainbow Thief, retreats from the material wealth of an inheritance to a subterranean life in the city’s sewers.
Screening exclusively in the late-late slot at New York’s Elgin Theatre with little fanfare, El Topo would, through word of mouth alone, attract a devoted, repeat audience of disaffected, countercultural potheads – and so the ‘Midnight Movie’ was born. El Topo‘s niche success, and the vocal support of John Lennon and Yoko One, would gain Jodorowsky a million dollar budget for his next cosmic experiment in cinema, The Holy Mountain (1973), which would prove his masterwork and, along with David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), the weirdest and wildest film on the by then flourishing Midnight circuit.
Jodorowsky’s El Topo may be full of oater tropes, but it guns down all normative notions of the western – and of Western civilisation. Similarly, when producer Claudio (brother of Dario) Argento hired Jodorowsky to “make a picture where a man kills a lot of women”, Jodorowsky took the skeletal frame of a conventional slasher, and fleshed it out with all his usual political, theosophical and psychological preoccupations. The resulting film, Santa Sangre, is as much mystic ‘trip’ as bloody giallo, with a mother-loving serial killer who is also Jesus on a journey of self-discovery.
Tarot and Tusk(s)
Jodorowsky has long been a student and practitioner of tarot, and the cards find their way into the weft of his films’ narratives, whether scattered around the Thief/Fool (Horacio Salinas) when we first meet him in The Holy Mountain, or used as calling cards by Meleagre in The Rainbow Thief. Of course the associated symbolism of this mystic deck pervades all his films.
Jodorowsky also likes elephants. His Tusk (1980) follows the parallel rites de passage in India of a colonial Englishman’s daughter and a young male pachyderm, both on the hunt for freedom – and something even more essential (and horrifying) about the complex relationship between human and beast is captured in Santa Sangre‘s extraordinary elephant funeral sequence, where a grieving entourage of circus members and brass band ceremoniously escort the the dead creature’s giant coffin to a clifftop – only to dump it over the edge for the poor and the desperate below to hack at its flesh for food.
Jodorowsky regularly writes and lectures on psychogenealogy, a therapeutic system which holds that the traumas informing our personality are products of our family tree, often going back many generations. The influence of these ideas can also be felt in his films, where he often casts himself alongside his sons, even reversing their rôles.
In El Topo, the titular character played by Jodorowsky abandons his son (played by Jodorowsky’s actual son Brontis) as a boy, and years later must confront him as an adult. In Santa Sangre two more of Jodorowsky’s sons, Axel and Adan, play the spiritually confused Fenix (at different ages) as he struggles to liberate himself from the hold that his late father and mother have on his psyche (Fando y Lis shares this theme of familial entrapment stretching beyond the grave). In The Dance Of Reality, Brontis plays Jodorowsky’s father Jaime, while Jodorowsky’s mother Sara believes that her ‘Alejandrito’ is the reincarnation of her own father – and Jodorowsky cameos as his older self. All this is psychogenealogical theory presented in vivid dramatic form, with Jodorowsky himself figuring all at once as filmmaker, family man and patient on the couch.
The Cinema of Pure Ideas
This is actually a euphemism for Jodorowsky’s unmade films. As documented in Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013), in the mid-70s Jodorowsky undertook extensive pre-production on an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s SF novel, only for its sprawling overambition (an unlikely 14-hour duration was planned) to send investors packing. Jodorowsky’s designs still influenced everything from Star Wars to Alien to The Terminator – and much of his conceptual work with Moebius would eventually find its way into their collaborative comicbook series Incal and Metabarons.
In the Nineties and Noughties, Jodorowsky tried – and failed – to secure funding for two projects, El Topo sequel Abel Cain and gambling/gangster flick King Shot. In 2013, however, he managed, with help from private sponsors and crowdfunding, to make his abstract childhood autobiopic The Dance of Reality – and currently, his follow-up Endless Poetry is in post-production [it has since been completed].
Nicolas Winding Refn
Refn’s last two features, Drive (2011) and Only God Forgives (2013), were dedicated to Jodorowsky. So should you be. There is nothing else ‘out there’ quite like the delirious phantasmagoria that he has crafted in cinema.
© Anton Bitel