Filmmaker Retrospective: The Surreal Cinema Of Alejandro Jodorowsky
“I don’t direct films with my eyes. I direct films with my testicles”
Born in 1929, Chilean-French director Alejandro Jodorowsky is a truly unique individual in the cinematic landscape. Each and every one of the handful of films he has made, from his surrealist 1967 debut “Fando & Lis”, right through to last year’s “The Dance Of Reality”, his first film in twenty-three years, are unique diamonds, each possessing the power to shock, confront and shake viewers completely out of their comfort zones.
Jodorowsky was, along with future director Francisco Arrabal, one of the leaders of the ‘Panic Movement’ of theatre in the Sixties, an anarchistic style of performance theatre that really bent the envelope in regards to how its viewers saw theatre and, by extension, the world around them.
While wildly different in style and approach, a common thematic concern that runs through Jodorowsky’s work is the concept of a quest, whether it be physical and/or spiritual, to explore and find semblance and meaning in one’s life.
Whether it be the search for spiritual enlightenment in “El Topo” (1970) or “The Holy Mountain” (1973), or dealing with a life post-trauma in the remarkable “Santa Sangre” (1989), Jodorowsky has a completely unique and utterly individual command of cinema.
At times, this can result in highly esoteric and confusing work. He is not someone to hold back, which can limit his appeal somewhat to a larger audience. He is truly a director you, as a viewer, have to work with. The man once said of his famous work “El Topo”, that if you are limited, the film is limited. If you’re open to where it takes you, the possibilities are limitless.
He also has an unerring ability to create imagery that burns itself into your brain and simply refuses to leave. Whether it be that beautiful foreground/background shot in “El Topo”, where a boy on horseback leaves his toy and a photo of his mother buried in the sand, the moment in “The Holy Mountain” where human excrement is turned into gold, or the elephant funeral in “Santa Sangre”, there is an incredibly cinematic alchemy in play that it pure Jodorowsky.
Many have tried to copy his style and attitude, but no one comes close to the sheer power he has to create something that is different and absolutely unforgettable.
Also, in many of his films, Jodorowsky is highly, at times violently, critical of organised religion and the regimentation of state and supposed ‘rules’ of society. His is a cinematic world that questions everything.
The director has been accused of many things over the past decades, such as being provocative merely for the sake of getting a reaction, misogynist and, above all else, too smart for normal cinema goers. In a way, this is what makes him unique. His body of work has a remarkable ability to polarise and separate. To some, he is a genius. To others, he’s an idiot!
One thing is for sure. If you have become bored of the way that most cinema is designed with one eye on box office takings and has become ‘product’ over time, Jodorowsky and his remarkable body of work is the polar opposite of that. If you want to see films that make you think, make you feel and, in turn, challenge your own personal philosophy towards the world around you, this is your man.
Due to his passion and truly individual philosophy and view of the world, Jodorowsky is one director who, throughout his career, has encountered many issues in relation to getting finance for his work. One of the biggest examples of this, detailed later in this article, is his failed attempt in 1974 to make a film version of the classic Frank Herbert novel “Dune”.
Basically, one has the feeling that producers, particularly in Hollywood, were scared of Jodorowsky and the simple fact that he viewed film as ‘art’ rather than mere product. The fact that Jodorowsky has never played by anyone else terms or rules has, at various points in his career, has been somewhat of a downfall, making him his own worst enemy.
Having only made seven films in his entire career, we are going to have a look at what makes Jodorowsky stand apart from his contemporaries and see why he has been a massive influence on directors such as David Lynch, Guy Maddin, Richard Stanely and Nicholas Winding Refn.
1. Fando & Lis (1967)
Shot over two years in Mexico, Jodorowsky’s adopted homeland, “Fando & Lis” is a highly fractured, episodic and utterly free form surreal look at two individuals searching for the mythical city of Tar, where apparently all their dreams will come true.
Full of provocative imagery and sound, “Fando & Lis” caused full scale riots at festivals due to how in your face and challenging the material was. The film was later banned in the country that made it, Mexico.
Seen many years later, this was Jodorowsky finding his feet in the cinematic world. At times amateurish, this film did sow the seeds for many thematic tropes and themes that Jodorowsky would explore in his later works.
2. El Topo (1970)
Jodorowsky’s second film, this was the one that would put him on the cinematic map. A brazen, incredibly confident take on the Western, this looked and moved like nothing else out there at the time.
A gunslinger, played by Jodorowsky himself, seeks to find higher meaning in his life. The film is littered with various religious analogies and symbolism. The structure of “El Topo”, split into four parts, directly references The Bible with their four titles: Genesis, Prophets, Psalms, Apocalypse. Make no mistake, this is no garden variety western starring John Wayne!
Filled with violent imagery, deformed people, dwarfs, Down Syndrome sufferers and other manifestations of what it is to be ‘different’, “El Topo” is confronting and absolutely, defiantly unique.
In what would prove to be a pioneering spin on how movies were marketed and shown to the public, the enterprising Elgin Theatre in New York, run by Ben Barrenholtz, decided to show “El Topo” in the twilight hours of the day, rather than your standard five or so sessions a day. This style and approach basically created what is now known as the ‘midnight movie’.
In doing this, the Elgin managed to capture those in the world who were defiantly left of centre of unique in their own way to come and see this odd, confronting unique snowflake of a film. It did massive business, running for five years at the Elgin, solely playing midnight sessions.
It also garnered fans such as John Lennon, who convinced his manager, Allen Klein, to buy the rights to “El Topo” and Jodorowsky’s next film, “The Holy Mountain”. In turn, this would be something of a poisoned double edged sword for Jodorowsky.
After an acrimonious falling out with Klein, a man well known for his combative and antagonistic approach and style towards business matters, the rights for “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain” were withdrawn by Klein. In short, this meant that these two films were not seen for years, existing on bad quality VHS bootlegs.
In 2006, completely out of the blue, Klein and Jodorowsky made their peace with each other. The result was a lavish DVD box set of “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain” being released, given all the bells and whistles these two films deserved.
3. The Holy Mountain (1973)
After the unexpected underground success of “El Topo”, Jodorowsky was given a budget of one million dollars by Allen Klein’s company, AKCKO, and carte blanche to do whatever he wanted. The result, made for a mere $500,000, was “The Holy Mountain”.
Basically, everything that was outlandish and weird about “El Topo” was turned up to ten! “The Holy Mountain” was this completely bizarre fable about representatives from each of the planets gather together by The Alchemist, played by Alejandro Jodorowsky.
The main thrust of the film, similar to the director’s debut feature “Fando & Lis”, was about a search for the mystical Holy Mountain of the film’s title. Along the way, the viewer is treated to some of the most utterly surreal, violent and confronting imagery that they will see in their lifetime.
“The Holy Mountain” is also notable for the director’s utterly relentless attack on just about everything the world has to offer. There is pretty much something in this film to offend everyone, whether it be the gun made into the shape of the Jewish Star Of David, the various attacks on organised religion and the shysters and charlatans out there who claim to know what the meaning of life is, or the final shot of the film, where the camera pulls back to reveal a film crew and The Alchemist tells the audience to go find their own meaning of life.
A truly idiosyncratic work that defiantly moves to the beat of its own drum, “The Holy Mountain” certainly redefines the expression ‘an acquired taste’. However, for those who love their cinema to shake and challenge them, this is definitely for you.
4. Tusk (1979)
A film since disowned by its director, “Tusk” is incredibly hard to find, only existing in clips on Youtube and never been given a formal release in any format, whether it be cinema, VHS, DVD or Blu-Ray.
This was Jodorowsky trying to make a film that was more accessible to general audiences, following on from the failed attempt to make “Dune”. It’s story concerns the fate of a young girl and an elephant, born on the same day in Colonial-era India, while the country was still ruled by the United Kingdom.
Those that have seen it say that it doesn’t possess the magic quality that made films such as “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain” such challenging and rewarding experiences.
For such a director, it is a shame that both “Tusk” and his 1990 film “The Rainbow Thief”, starring Peter O’ Toole and Omar Shariff, are not more readily available to the cinema loving public that adore Jodorowsky’s works, no matter how flawed they might be.
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