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Alejandro Jodorowsky Remains the Godfather of the Midnight Movie

Alejandro Jodorowsky Remains the Godfather of the Midnight Movie

Articles - Directing

Since the dawn of home video, the unavailability of two cult classics by Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky—the legendary midnight movie favorite El Topo (1970) and its mind-blowing successor, The Holy Mountain (1973)—has been a source of great frustration for devotees of strange cinema. Many of them (this writer included) have spent irrational sums of money importing inferior transfers of the films in various formats from Japan, where they were still available. Now, after years of waiting for Jodorowsky and producer Allen Klein (the notoriously prickly president of the Abkco record label and former manager of The Rolling Stones and The Beatles) to settle their infamous feud, the films are finally being released in pristine form on American DVD.

The films are available individually or in an impressive box set that also includes soundtrack CDs for both titles, as well as Jodorowsky’s early feature Fando and Lis (1967), his short film La Cravate (1957), the feature-length documentary La Constellation Jodorowsky (1994) and a wealth of supplementary features (the usual interviews, commentary tracks, trailers, photo galleries, etc.). While Fando and Lis had previously been released on domestic DVD (accompanied by the La Constellation Jodorowsky documentary) several years ago by Fantoma, these new releases from Abkco (in association with Anchor Bay) represent the first time that Jodorowsky’s most significant work has been made available for home viewing to the American public, which subsequently marks these releases (particularly the exhaustive boxed set) as among one of the most important film events of the year.

But before we succumb to complete hyperbole, it’s also necessary to really examine the films themselves; indeed, some of them have not necessarily stood the test of time. Time is the key factor here, as Jodorowsky’s early works are definitely a product of their era. Consistently described as “psychedelic” and “hallucinogenic,” The Holy Mountain and particularly El Topo were midnight movie phenomena in the drug-haze days of the early 1970s, and one suspects that the mind-altering substances wafting through their late-night screenings may have efficiently blinded many viewers to certain flaws that become more obvious in the sobriety of one’s 21st-century home. Fando and Lis and El Topo in particular can be rather rough going these days; both films seem somewhat static and sluggish in their pacing, and the perceived mysticism of El Topo is also hampered by elements of thematic confusion, egocentricity and chauvinism (the latter being a quality that Jodorowsky has acknowledged as a personal one). Still, both films contain some remarkably bold, stylized set pieces and images of striking power. While some of the philosophies seem somewhat pretentious today, the films do also offer genuine intellectual food for thought (which is certainly more than you can say for far too much contemporary cinema).

Having acknowledged that, The Holy Mountain is actually a flat-out masterpiece, and one of the most astonishing and original films of the 1970s. While Jodorowsky’s previous films were free-form perversions of familiar genres, The Holy Mountain is largely unclassifiable in its sheer narrative experimentalism, visual splendor, outlandish humor and mystical mind-bending. Loosely structured as the spiritual journey of a Christ-like figure and his all-knowing guru (portrayed, respectively, by Jodorowsky’s son and Jodorowsky himself) amidst a surreal world of corruption, the film is an eye-popping (literally, in one grotesque moment) assemblage of unforgettable imagery and spectacular sets that must be seen to be believed. The Holy Mountain is easily the highlight of Jodorowsky’s film career; all cineastes with a taste for the unique should seek it out immediately. Like David Lynch’s Inland Empire, it’s the kind of movie that makes directorial self-indulgence an occasional blessing.

If Jodorowsky’s cinematic oeuvre is sporadic and (by his own admission)somewhat unpolished at times, this is simply a reflection of the fact that film is only one of many artistic mediums that he has explored through the years. Born in 1929, Jodorowsky was a clown, a mime, a puppeteer, a writer and a theater director before he became a moviemaker. In recent years he has focused his energies on writing surreal graphic novels, conducting tarot readings and—in the unlikeliest of career transitions—developing his own form of psychotherapy. His career really became significant in the 1960s with his involvement in the theatrical “Panic Movement,” co-founded with Roland Topor and Fernando Arrabal (who would later direct films that actually make Jodorowsky’s seem “normal” by comparison).

Following the four early films collected in the new box set, Jodorowsky’s subsequent cinematic output has been problematic. The rarely-seen Tusk (1980) was an ill-fated film that the director essentially disowned due to its production problems. He came back strong with Sante Sangre (1989), a bloody and baroque carnival-set horror film that demonstrated that the director had (thankfully) not mellowed with age and remains among his best work. Unfortunately, he followed that with The Rainbow Thief (1990), a woefully misguided drama not even enlivened by the unlikely casting of Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif and Christopher Lee. Jodorowsky has not directed a film since.

Given his advanced age and uncompromising vision, it may be unrealistic to expect that we will see another film from Jodorowsky, and this is lamentable. As he himself admits, he now feels that he has a richer comprehension of complex ideas that he was only just beginning to understand at the time he made El Topo and The Holy Mountain.

MovieMaker spoke with Jodorowsky by phone recently while he was at home in Paris. He apologized repeatedly for his limited English, but his ideas came through loud and clear, and for such a reportedly intimidating figure, he was never less than friendly, gracious and often very funny.

Travis Crawford (MM): It must be very gratifying to see El Topo and The Holy Mountain become available to the public again after so many years. What are your feelings about that?

Alejandro Jodorowsky (AJ): Thirty years ago, I would have been very happy. But now, though I feel good, it’s been so long… How can I really be happy with that?

MM: What’s it like for you to see the films again after so long?

AJ: Well, I have a tenderness when I see what I was fighting and trying to do when I was just 40 years old. I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted to do, and I admire that.

MM: Can you look at them objectively as films, or are they personal artifacts for you?

AJ: Of course I can’t see them objectively. If someone shows you your old liver or your old brain, how can you look at them objectively? It’s just impossible. But I am happy that the daughter and family of Allen Klein gave me the opportunity to remaster the pictures, and these copies are the best ever. That I am very happy with—the fact that I could finally have the pictures the way I wanted to have them.
MM: Can you talk about the reasons behind why the films were held up for so many years?
AJ: Because after the producer [Klein] had a big success with El Topo, he had this erotic picture, The Story of O, and I literally had to escape [to get out of making it]… I was in London, and I hopped on a plane to hide myself in Los Angeles, trying to make another picture. He said “If you don’t want to do this picture with me like this, no one will see your pictures anymore.” And that was the start of the fight. I disappointed him, but now I realize he was reasonable in some way, because I disappointed him personally. He was sure we could have had an enormous success with this erotic picture. And then for all these years, there was some kind of fight.
MM: Do you have any relationship with Allen Klein now?
AJ: Yes! We sat down together after I called him on the telephone and said ‘Why are we still fighting after all these years? We should make peace—we’re old now and we’ve changed.’ We sat down and within just five minutes, we were really good friends. We forgot everything.
MM: Let’s talk about how your career began.
AJ: I started at five years old. I learned to read immediately and didn’t stop. Then I started to make poems, theater, paintings, puppets—everything! I don’t like to work. I want to live my life with art; that has always been my thing.
MM: Now you work heavily in the medium of graphic novels and comics.
AJ: I make graphic novels, theater and involve myself in therapy.
MM: Did you always want to direct cinema specifically, or was this just another of many artistic interests?
AJ: I always wanted to make movies, but I waited until I was almost 40 years old because I wanted to have my own world—my own way of saying things in films. I wanted to realize my own style and my own personality in how I say things in movies, so I waited.
MM: Do you find cinema more creatively fulfilling than these other art forms?
AJ: At that time, I thought movies were an intimate art and could reflect a surrealist way of thinking. I didn’t realize that movies were an industrial art, I thought it was a pure art—period.
MM: Not a commercial medium.
AJ: No, not a commercial art. I didn’t realize that at that time.
MM: The DVD box set contains your early films like Fando and Lis and La Cravate, but obviously your big breakthrough hit was El Topo. At the time, did you have any idea that the film would virtually invent the midnight movie phenomenon of the 1970s?
AJ: No, I had no idea—I was just fighting against old Mexico. They were saying I was crazy and that I would never sell the picture to another country. It was a big fight, so I never expected something like that.
MM: What was it like to see the film succeed when it was released in America?
AJ: I was so astonished! It started when I was at a rock festival in Bangladesh, and I realized that John Lennon and George Harrison and these rock stars liked my picture. It was a big surprise for me, but also a big happiness, because when I showed Fando and Lis, it was a big failure. When we opened El Topo in New York, I remember Allen Klein asked me what kind of a party I wanted, and I said I wanted to invite 100 people to a little hotel room, with one bottle of champagne for each person. (laughs) It was a fantastic party!
MM: The success of El Topo led to The Holy Mountain. One of the most amazing things to me about that film is that it looks like such an ambitious, hugely expensive production…
AJ: It was not so big, really. It only cost $1 million.
MM: Only $1 million?
AJ: It was all that I had! I make miracles. I wanted to make a big picture with what I had. A lot of the workers were old and out of work, and I rented a very, very old studio. While we were shooting the first sets, we were already making the second sets; and then while we shot the second sets, we had finished the third.
MM: Was the film entirely financed by Klein?
AJ: Well, not entirely. We still needed $300,000, which my assistant, Robert Taicher, gave me. It was another miracle.
MM: Wasn’t the film originally supposed to star Dennis Hopper?
AJ: No, no, no. We did originally propose it to George Harrison. I met with him in New York and he wanted to do it, but there is a scene where someone’s anus is cleaned, and he didn’t want to do that. At the time, I said ‘Well, if you don’t do that, I can’t use you.’ I wanted that scene in the film and I thought it was important.
MM: Had you always intended to play the spiritual guru in the film yourself?
AJ: When I acted in El Topo and The Holy Mountain, it was only because I couldn’t find an actor who wanted to do things like that, and they didn’t understand what I wanted to do—they thought I was crazy. In Mexico it was a scandal; it was a fight to make those films.
MM: Because El Topo and The Holy Mountain are considered such classically hallucinogenic films, I have to ask you: Did drugs ever play a part in your creative process?
AJ: No, because I was saying I wanted the pictures to be the drugs. Only one time, in The Holy Mountain, when we were shooting at the pyramid, I tried to have everyone eat mushrooms. But the photographer—he was a simple Mexican person and he didn’t understand why we were eating mushrooms in order to shoot—put a distorted lens on the camera and it just didn’t work.
MM: What is the significance of the tarot for you, both with respect to The Holy Mountain and in your work in general?
AJ: The tarot is a language that I’ve studied for so many years—not to see the future, but as a kind of spiritual structure. It’s very important, but it’s a language that you have to learn like French or English or German. It’s difficult to explain it, but for me it’s very useful.
MM: This is not just in The Holy Mountain, but in your life as well?
AJ: At that time, I didn’t know the tarot as I know it now. After The Holy Mountain, I continued to study the tarot and shamanism, and I wanted that but didn’t know enough about it.
MM: Your follow-up to The Holy Mountain, Tusk, is virtually a lost film today. Will we ever have the opportunity to see it again?
AJ: Tusk is a failure because I didn’t have the opportunity to make a good film. I was with a producer who was not a known person and he put me in India without a chance to shoot what I wanted to shoot. I never really finished the picture.
MM: Are there any films today that you really admire?
AJ: I liked Oldboy, that is a great movie. I also liked the Chinese version of “Hamlet,” The Banquet. There is an American or English picture that I liked, The Prestige, which was interesting.
MM: Do you plan on returning to directing?
AJ: Everything now is so commercial, and I’m searching for the money to do a few things. One is King Shot, which will cost $5 million. But for an “artistic” director, finding $5 million is like trying to get $500 million—it’s very difficult. When I wanted to make Santa Sangre, I had to search for money for five years. I’ve only been searching for two years now, so maybe in three more years, if I’m not dead, I can do it. Sons of El Topo would cost $12 million, so it’s even more difficult. But I’m very interested in making a documentary of a thing called “psychomagic,” which is a therapy I do. So if I can’t find the money for the other films, I will produce that documentary myself later this year.
MM: Is that the therapy that we see a little of in the Constellation Jodorowsky documentary that’s also included in the DVD set?
AJ: That was the very beginning of it, but it became enormous later. This is a lot of what I work on today.
MM: Any final thoughts on these films being made available to the public again?
AJ: I was in South Korea for a screening, and the theater was full of young women and men; I like that they can see the movies again. The technique is not like a commercial film—it’s art. Maybe in The Holy Mountain, I made some mistakes, but you could show it in the Museum of Modern Art! I never thought about making money, and that’s the reality. I continue to think like that. mm

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