Where to begin with Alejandro Jodorowsky

A beginner’s path through the mystical, psychotropic cinema of Alejandro Jodorowsky.

El Topo (1970)

Why this might not seem so easy

He’s the self-described “Cecil B. DeMille of the underground,” the silver screen’s preeminent mystic of the phantasmagorical; a writer, director, actor, composer, novelist, comic book author, guru, psychomagician and inspiration to Kanye West.

He has strong opinions on other filmmakers – “Spielberg is the son from when Walt Disney fucked Minnie Mouse” – and other filmmakers have strong opinions on him (“a commercial surrealist,” according to Luis Buñuel). He only has eight fiction features, a pair of shorts and, most recently, a documentary to his name; and yet the cinema of Alejandro Jodorowsky contains multitudes.

Jodorowsky is a cult figure whose critical reputation is just about catching up with the subcultural mystique that surrounded his work for decades, largely fuelled by its unavailability. Back in the 1980s, bootleg VHS copies of his most famous film, El Topo (1970), would exchange hands for a small fortune.

A brief history of his work prior to filmmaking is useful for orientation, given the reputation for impenetrability that Jodorowsky’s cinema has acquired over the years. He was born in the northern Chilean town of Iquique in 1929, with his family moving to the capital Santiago when he was a young boy. Here, jobs as an actor and circus clown led to his setting up a theatre company with a particular interest in puppetry and mime.

By 1953 he was in Paris, writing for Marcel Marceau’s mime troupe and directing Maurice Chevalier’s music hall return, before relocating to Mexico where he’d make his name directing over a hundred avant-garde and surrealist plays by the likes of Ionesco and Beckett. Co-founding what he would call the ‘Panic Movement,’ Jodorowsky staged a series of ‘happenings,’ unscripted events that emphasised the immediate, rebellious and absurd. ‘Sacramental Melodrama,’ a four-hour event staged at the 1965 Festival of Free Expression in Paris, is the most famous example of his Panic art, an 18-minute excerpt of which formed the basis of his 1965 short Teatro sin fin.

From the chaotic, free-associative textures of these theatrical beginnings, it’s not hard to draw a through-line to the visionary epics that would follow on the big screen.

Where to start – Santa Sangre

Santa Sangre (1989)

This 1989 masterwork is more conventionally organised than his more famous earlier pictures, making it the best entry point for newcomers looking to dip their toe in the filmmaker’s singular cinematic universe. Which isn’t to say that you’ll be sacrificing anything when it comes to gonzo, Jodorowskian purity. The circus workers, religious and oedipal fixations, mutilation, sexual deviancy and ripe symbolism are all present and correct. But here it’s all couched within a relatively linear narrative structure.

Drawing on the filmmaker’s own memories of the circus, Santa Sangre is, at least superficially, a reworking of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), with its protagonist driven to kill by a possessive mother. He provides her with his own knife-wielding arms after hers are sliced off by the boy’s father.

So it’s certainly a horror film, or at least a Jodorowsky film inflected with the tropes of the horror genre. Its circle of influence ranges from James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933) via the zombie pictures of George A. Romero to the expressionistic ecstasy of Dario Argento (whose brother Claudio co-wrote and produced).

What to watch next

Taking your next step, it’s worth noting that the water gets deep pretty quickly. If you found Santa Sangre’s genre crutch useful, then Jodorowsky’s second feature, El Topo, is probably your best bet. Described by critic Pauline Kael as an “acid western”, the film effectively sired the notion of the midnight movie, playing for more than six months to packed-out houses at New York’s Elgin Theater.

As the director himself rides onto screen, clad all in black, you’ll be forgiven for thinking you’re in for another Euro-style western, but it’s not long until things start getting weird. A hyper-violent, mystical fable, pregnant with religious and occult symbolism, El Topo’s bifurcated structure tells of a gunslinger’s path to enlightenment; an odyssey informed by zen philosophy, surrealism and psychedelia. John Lennon (along with George Harrison, Bob Dylan and Dennis Hopper) was one of the film’s biggest fans, convincing Beatles manager Allen Klein to buy the rights and put up $1m for Jodorowsky’s next feature.

The Holy Mountain (1973)

That would be The Holy Mountain (1973), a film that would substitute zen for Sufism, and move even further into the realms of the spiritual. It’s the stronger of the two pictures on which Jodorowsky’s cult reputation largely rests, more formalised in its thematic structure and home to some of the most ravishing images its director ever put on film. Even if you can’t tune in to its philosophical enquiries, or feel the teeth of its satire, the image-making alone is enough to keep your mind from wandering too far.

When The Holy Mountain flopped, it effectively disappeared for 30 years. Newly restored, it looks better than it ever has and is readily available to be puzzled over anew. Which is more than can be said for Jodorowsky’s next project. In 1975, he acquired the rights for Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel Dune and began work on what he called “the coming of a god; an artistic, cinematographic god”. The list of talent attached was incredible: Moebius and H.R. Giger on storyboard duties; Dan O’Bannon for VFX (having turned down Douglas Trumbull: “I cannot use him, he is not a spiritual warrior”); Mick Jagger, Orson Welles and Salvador Dalí among the cast. The film fell at the last hurdle, but the recent documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013) is testament to what might have been.

Endless Poetry (2016)

If you’re turned on to the more surreal elements of El Topo and The Holy Mountain, Jodorowsky’s debut Fando y Lis (1968), a slice of post-apocalyptic absurdism, is the place to go next. Otherwise, the director’s return to quality filmmaking some 24 years after Santa Sangre – having made up with Dune producer Michel Seydoux – took the form of an autobiographical diptych in The Dance of Reality (2013) and Endless Poetry (2016). The former charts the rise of fascism and the tyranny of an abusive father, while the latter takes on the artistic circles of the filmmaker’s teenage years in 1940s Santiago. Jodo being Jodo, suffice to say we’re a long way from the likes of Hope and Glory (1987) as far as cinematic memoirs go.

Where not to start

Jodorowsky has effectively disowned two of his features, the ‘Panic fable’ Tusk (1980), about a little girl and her elephant, and the 1990 reunion of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) stars Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif in The Rainbow Thief (1990). The latter was the director’s biggest production to date, a whimsical yarn about a pair of vagrants living in the sewers discovering the true value of life. The production design impresses, and it features a small role for Christopher Lee riding a mechanical cow around his living room while clashing a pair of cymbals to ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’, but otherwise its weirdness feels the product of expectation and the film was a major flop. Both were taken out of Jodorowsky’s hands, and Tusk is all but unavailable.

  • The Alejandro Jodorowsky Collection is available on limited edition Blu-ray from Arrow Video on 30 March.
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