Absent from the limelight for over 20 years, the revered visionary, artistic shaman and extreme multi-hyphenate Alejandro Jodorowsky chose to step away from cinema rather than bargain with his artistic integrity.
Making no films at all was more dignifying than making them under the yoke of a profit-obsessed industry that, as he notes, doesn’t appreciate individualism. His art is not for sale unless that art is done exactly as he intended.
At 88, Jodorowsky has already achieved mythical status. He doesn’t tame his opinions. He doesn’t throw around false compliments. He doesn’t wish to be liked. Honesty is his preferred language, and one that’s rarely spoken among those interested in fame and power. Not hiding his disdain for the endless blockbuster slates rolled out by studios in recent years, Jodorowsky is confident there is a segment of the world’s youth who are equally disenchanted, who want to bet on art for art’s sake. He’s been cheered on by a successful crowdfunding campaign that allowed him to complete his latest project, Endless Poetry, in a glorious state of absolute freedom.
At times over-the-top theatrical and at others purely absurdist, this surreal, hand-crafted follow-up to The Dance of the Reality continues to navigate the colorful waters of Jodorowsky’s life as a young man in his native Chile, yearning to be a poet and to live a life worth writing about. In conversation with MovieMaker, Jodorowsky is vigorous, outspoken and, not surprisingly, humorous. He laughs at art’s perils and reaffirms he will endure by his own merits and rules. He worships cinema, and knows that success is momentary, but talent invaluable. He is an artist, the kind that doesn’t exist anymore.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): I know that it was very difficult to finance your most recent films, which is a shock given your incredible career. How is it possible that an artist like you has to face such constraints to make films today?
Alejandro Jodorowsky (AJ): Very good question. Look, from the moment cinema was founded, it was an invention to earn money. Israelites from Europe came escaping the war, and they bought cinemas. They made movies, they went to Los Angeles and they made drive-in theaters, short films, feature films, talkies… always thinking about making money and becoming American. They wanted to make something to change their nationality. That’s Hollywood. It’s industrial cinema. It’s not love for the work, but love for the rewards of the work. The reward of the work is money and then power. That’s why this happens, because it’s not art; it’s a business. When business comes into art, it limits art. It takes away the artist’s freedom. The artist is essentially a free and individual man.
Cinema, as it exists today, is a business. It has to be done by groups, and poetry and individuality are lost. People are not free because everything they make is to be liked. If it’s not liked, it’s not good. They seek an audience that’s already there, a mass audience, and when it’s for a mass and general audience, the work becomes mediocre. Do you understand? That’s the thing. When I started making cinema, I was already an artist! I had done 100 plays; I had been a dancer; I had worked in puppetry, painting, poetry, music, costumes, sets; I knew how to do everything! I wanted to create art. I thought cinema was for a poet to write his own screenplay, to direct it himself, to act in it, everything. I did everything when I made El Topo and Holy Mountain, and those films were art!
Of course, it was an arduous battle, and I couldn’t keep going because the industry is against art since it doesn’t produce money. How did I make these two movies now, The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry? I stopped making cinema for 23 years. I suffered a lot, but I saved money. I worked on other businesses, and I saved more money, so I could make two films. Let’s say that for 23 years, I saved money so I could put money into the films and lose it. And do what I want freely. To do the impossible, that’s what I want. That’s what I’ve done. Halfway through production, we were missing money, so I did a crowdfunding campaign. I asked for money on the Internet, and I told them, “This is money to lose, but also to have the satisfaction of producing something freely however you want. If you want artistic cinema, collaborate with me.” They collaborated and gave me $1 million between 10,000 people. I already had a part of the film because my films don’t cost more than $3 million. That’s nothing for the film industry. That’s how I made them. I was able to make my cinema freely.
The problem is that I don’t [play in] 400, 500 or 1,000 movie theaters. I have one movie theater in each city because the industry has taken over everything. Industrial cinema has publicity. The movie theater where the movie is playing in New York is going to be demolished in a year. Cinemas are disappearing. Where will auteur cinema go? Maybe to museums. My film The Dance of Reality opened at MoMA. Art-house cinema might have to stay in museums because they are destroying art-house theaters, then the big theaters and then multiplexes. Young people are tired of that. You think there are a lot of young people who like Spider-Man, Superman and other superheroes? That’s over now! Now they have to make monster films and then they’ll discover what is liked. What’s left? It’s good entertainment, necessary of course, but it’s about distracting oneself and feeling idiotic because most people are slaves to their jobs. They go to the movies for two hours, distract themselves happily, then they leave and continue to be idiots. That’s what it is, but it’s necessary.
MM: With that in mind, is cinema still poetry, or not anymore?
AJ: Depends who makes it. If I make it, it’s poetry [laughs]. But if it’s a group of industry people making it with limits, who have bureaucrats who come tell you, “If you want to make this, that’s really good, but take out six pages from your script,” or, “Take out this because it’s going to offend that person,” or, “Don’t do that”… then that artist does what he can because he has to earn a living. I think that for cinema to continue, artists, filmmakers and poets can’t think of it as a job; they need to have other jobs and then make cinema not to earn money, but to make art.
I sound crazy. That’s why I think this is crazy. I don’t understand. If you are interviewing me right now, it’s because you are interested in my film, right? Otherwise you wouldn’t do it. My film is of interest to people. It’s very high in the [per-screen average]. I never expected it, but that thing we call God has given people the opportunity to go. If God gives you money, you open your pocket and say, “Thank you very much,” because it helps you to continue. I’m not against making money. I’m against making money that cheapens your talent. I’m against selling yourself, prostituting yourself, castrating yourself. No! One has to do it freely. I believe in and trust the youth, and the proof is that they are coming to see the film. I was right. They are coming. This week, we were number one in [per-screen average], playing at only one movie theater [laughs]. More than War for the Planet of the Apes, and they have 400, 500, or 1,000 theaters. It’s humorous. It makes me laugh because industrial films cost millions of dollars, and then comes a little movie that cost $3 million and people come see it. Something is happening.
MM: You had never made a film in Chile before these two. All of your classics were shot in Mexico. What did it mean to you to shoot in your homeland?
AJ: I filmed them there not because I wanted to, but because my life happened in Chile. The next one I’m going to film is half in Mexico and half in France. When I arrived in Chile to make these movies, I didn’t know anyone. I had not been there in 40 years. It’s an incipient industry. It’s not a big film industry. It’s small. It still doesn’t have the development of Mexican cinema and much less than that of American cinema. There are limited technicians. I had to struggle to achieve the perfect quality I wanted. I had to teach people there how to do things. It was difficult. In two months, I had to get it all ready: casting the actors, deal with sets, everything. I got it all ready in two months, and then we had seven weeks of shooting. Everyone in Chile worked with intense enthusiasm. I had a scene with 5,000 people working for free, then 1,000 people in a carnival scene working for free. They did it out of their enthusiasm to make this type of cinema. It was a great experience.
MM: Was it necessary for you to film it in Chile?
AJ: Absolutely, because I’m trying to tell things like a painter. Van Gogh, Picasso or whoever, if you gave them a street and told them, “Paint it,” each one would paint it differently. Each artist has a style. I want to paint reality, so I have to go to that reality and from that, create my style based on that reality. Everything is real in my film, but artistically stylized: That’s the same street where I lived; the house where I lived was still there and the place where my father had his business was still there. I just brought in the furniture. Who was going to portray me? My son. And who was going to portray my father? My other son, my family. It was like that. I entered the reality, and I exalted it, but it’s reality. For the next movie, I’m going to visit the cemetery in Peru where my mother is buried. I’m going to film on my mother’s grave, not any other grave. I’m going to travel to Peru and film there.