How to Watch and Think about Alejandro Jodorowsky

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How to Watch and Think about Alejandro Jodorowsky
Alejandro Jodorowsky in publicity photo from The Dance of Reality.

Is it time, or will there ever be a time, to reevaluate Alejandro Jodorowsky? The appearance of his new film, The Dance of Reality, along with the doc Jodorowsky’s Dune, is spurring a rash of Jodo appreciations and reconsiderations (including, in all places, the Miami Beach Cinematheque, where I’m hosting a Jodo talk in June), and since at 84 the notorious charlatan has probably ejaculated his final mytho-anima warhead at us, the least we can do is attempt to account for his presence, and his perennial appeal. A unique cultural figure for almost a half-century, always dancing on the psychotropic fringes of cinema culture, Jodorowsky has never garnered a serious reputation as a filmmaker, but he’s never compromised his unmistakable arsenal of manias, either, and he’s never completely disappeared from view (despite distribution extinctions and industry skullduggery that would’ve buried someone less obsessive).

His remarkable career as a counter-culture provocateur and midnight-movie legend need not be revisited now, and neither, I think, do we need to shred his seven movies all over again for their very politically incorrect outrages, from strangely guileless exploitation of the handicapped to pure mucho-macho misogyny to the blithe butchering of hundreds of Mexican animals. (The rabbits alone...) Jodorowsky stands no chance of ever satisfying contemporary cultural norms in any broad sense, which is probably why those who love him love him dearly. He is a professional apostate, and has been from his first Panic Movement days. That has always been part of the problem – once you outgrow the need to shock your own mother, and break social taboos simply for the adolescent thrill of doing so, you naturally look upon those emotional strategies as being unsophisticated and juvenile. Which is a way of saying that I remember conceiving and outlining film and theater projects as a young teenage basketcase that were quite Jodorowsky-esque in nature. I recall them now as fondly as I recall the epic acne that mutilated my face.

Nothing can spell death for an artist quicker than having his work remind critics of ideas they themselves entertained as snot-nosed pre-adults. But perhaps this is also Jodorowsky’s grace note: He’s been the one cinematic voice who’s dared to retain what William Blake called "the auguries of innocence" – albeit spiked with freakshow giggles and buckets of cows' blood. Is there no room in film culture for one unapologetic, megalo-mythic Ever-Teen? Formally, Jodorowsky’s films have always been stodgily assembled and sleepily paced, like pagan temple tableaux of limbless dwarfs, circus big tops, and baby hippos. But could their lack of narrative fluidity not also be a patience-demanding syntactical choice meant to ritualistically frame the movies’ totemic materials? Is Jodorowsky unable to make a dramatic narrative, or has he chosen instead to make films, like Kenneth Anger, that stand as mythopoetic objects in and of themselves?

Looking El Topo (1970), The Holy Mountain (1973), and Santa Sange (1989) this way doesn’t make them easier to watch, but it does reveal in their litanies of lumbering, Gomorrahic imagery an authorial strategy. You can see what he’s trying to do, even if it rankles you. But if that’s too rich for your blood, there’s still plenty of Jodorowsky set-pieces to reckon with, of a kind that moviemakers just don’t seem to have the walnuts to attempt anymore: just reconsider the section of The Holy Mountain depicting Conquest of Mexico as a public carnival show using live frogs and lizards (in costume), miniature pyramids, and very real explosives. That film proceeds through a lacerating takedown of Euro-Christian colonialism, ending up in a forest of ten thousand life-size plaster Jesuses and on the street, where the dynamic of occupying army vs. native peoples is played out as grotesque pantomine, under a platoon of crucified animal carcasses.

From there The Holy Mountain simply goes groggily, wearily bonkers, leaving the political symbology behind, but Jodorowsky has always been, amid his self-aggrandizing messiah scenarios and gratuitous everything, good for the occasional juggernaut movie moment. You may not treasure the full experience of Santa Sangre, say, but you remember the elephant’s funeral march. Even so, Jodorowsky’s world is all of a piece, and it has always seemed to me to be a hellish place to visit, a nightmare vision of Mexico (and by extension all of the Third World) as a post-civilized wasteland of cripples, corpses, fruitless rituals, and primal ruin.

As his films became more magical-realist and less apocalyptic (this includes 1980's Tusk, an ostensible children’s film made in India that begins with one of its era’s most spectacular traveling shots), Jodorowsky’s imaginary landscape still retained a creepy After-the-Fall feeling, poisoned by human decadence and waiting to be swallowed by the abyss. I’m pretty sure this was not the filmmaker’s intention – Jodorowsky has always been on a mission to create new myths, and expand his audiences' consciousness, and imagine new Christs and Buddhas, and save modern society from itself. He cast himself as a shaman time and again, and that’s what he wanted his film work to be, too – a path to enlightenment, to be employed alongside dope and Tantric sex and meditation and crazy costumes. But instead his films, including The Dance of Reality, are dreams of a world gone terribly wrong. El Topo remains famous as a stoner mind-fuck party movie, but it’s actually incredibly grim and disquieting; The Holy Mountain may be the most unpleasant movie ever made about salvation. Decades from now, that may be how Jodorowsky’s career is remembered – as one long, drunken, nauseating Day of the Dead parade.

 
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