The series The Psychomagic Cinema of Alejandro Jodorowsky is now showing on MUBI.
I can’t easily think of another filmmaker as uncompromisingly personal as Alejandro Jodorowsky. He and his cinema evoke either a magnetism for their idiosyncrasies, or a complete dismissal for their shock-value as distasteful nonsense. There is no in-between. His concoction of mysticism and erratic, physically aggressive cinema is part of a deeply personal and spiritual journey through art, one which he adapted into his own therapeutic practice known as “Psychomagic.” Over time I have come to understand Jodorowsky’s difficult and fascinating career as a cinematic odyssey composed of two halves—first an exploration of the external for a mystical and elusive “truth” and then an internal excavation and confrontation with trauma, reality, and the subconscious.
Heavily influenced by surrealists like Dalí and Buñuel, as well as avant-garde boundary pushers like Antonin Artaud, Jodorowsky developed his own theatrical style that consistently pushed narrative, structural, and thematic boundaries and encouraged sensorial confrontation with his audience. He worked for the French theater movement “Panic” and his debut film Fando y Lis (1968) transferred the movement’s dogma to film. Its central titular characters venture out in the desert to find a lost city and come across many different kinds of people, most of them disturbed, erratic, and with wildly preternatural tendencies. As with the Panic movement, the film’s violent and demonstrative performance art created an expected rise out of audiences and critics alike when it first released.
Artaud’s idea behind the “Theater of Cruelty,” wherein performance is direct confrontational action and by that virtue the audience becomes an active and even psychologically complicit part of the action, is present throughout Jodorowsky’s filmography from Fando y Lis on, creating shocking sequences of physical exertion that blur lines between performance and pain. Artaud’s ideas remain both the root and stem of Jodorowsky’s aggressive and unrestrained approach to art, frequently resulting in his use of brash and shocking terminology in describing his own cinema. His liberal use of phrases like “rape” can be a major turn-off for new and old film enthusiasts, especially today when moral concerns are becoming more frequently considered in the way art is discussed. It doesn’t bode well for Jodorowsky’s legacy as an artist of excess and confrontation. His tendency for expressing sexuality through violence is inherent to understanding the personable quality of his movies, but is also one of the major problematic elements of his career and has gotten Jodorowsky into much trouble.
Jodorowsky’s early cinema, though heavily influenced, didn’t coalesce into any singular direction or artistic thesis. His movies were instead vaguely circling around an insatiable search for a “cinematic truth,” especially in The Holy Mountain (1973)where the metaphorical search turns literal. A crazed and lost man encounters an Alchemist (played by Jodorowsky) who takes him, along with a group of morally corrupt individuals, through the Andes to discover the boundaries between truth and lies, in art and the world. Every Jodorowsky film is essentially a search for meaning from the point of view of the filmmaker himself, and thus also autobiographical, but particularly in his early work, it’s a structured search, consisting of levels and encounters with people who either teach or challenge the protagonist.They go from a lost and aimless soul towards a path of purpose. The journey is generally peppered with a combination of violence, aggressive sexuality, philosophical diatribes, and pan-theistic mysticism. The Holy Mountain, a beautifully realized if unfocused work, ends with the Alchemist revealing the charade that he and his apprentices are actively participating in, breaking the fourth wall and thus, knocking over the boundary of art and reality.
It’s fair to ask whether the philosophical dialectics at work in Jodorowsky’s films, delivered very much in the manner of a guru or sensei, are all nonsense. On the other hand, it’s more useful to simply accept that Jodorowsky’s movies are difficult for audiences to connect to and frankly are all the better for it. In an interview with SXSW, he professed that the question which manifested itself following the failure of both his unfinished Dune adaptation and his disastrous movie Tusk was “why do I make art,” and he rejected the idea of money or entertainment as possible answers. For Jodorowsky, the factors of finance and viability go against the foundation of what cinema means to him as a personal endeavor. To strip the personability and weirdness, no matter how esoteric it may be, for the sake of ‘relatability’ and consequent ‘profitability’ is to betray what brought him to cinema in the first place.
Economic troubles were commonplace in Jodorowsky’s career, and a divorce from his wife forced Jodorowsky into a tragic corner in the early 1980’s, one that many of his characters find themselves in—lost, aimless, searching for the truth in art. One would think that Jodorowsky’s journey as a filmmaker began with Fando y Lis, but it was after Tusk that his cinema truly started to coalesce around a thesis. When he briefly left cinema to work with French graphic artist Mœbius on a graphic novel called The Incal, it was a time of clarity that allowed Jodorowsky to realign and re-define his artistic journey—a time which eventually lead to his own therapeutic practice known as “Psychomagic” or the “Art of Healing.”
His early films are his most popular today because of their eccentricities and low-budget filmmaking style that convey a wild, exploitative curiosity, in turn becoming cult classics for B-movie aficionados. This popularity led to new 4K restorations by Arrow Video, specifically for his first three movies. The post-Tusk filmography of Jodorowsky, however, is where the heart of the man lies, where all of his disturbing flaws, his aching desires, and his traumas exist. His movies, from Santa Sangre (1989) to Endless Poetry (2016) are introspective to the point of becoming therapy for Jodorowsky. Through this, Jodorowsky’s vision and themes are fully realized artistically and philosophically—for better and for worse.
Over time, and certainly as I grew older, Santa Sangre has become my favorite Jodorowsky movie and the one which I consider his best. I love the freakish, madcap, and ambitious nature of The Holy Mountain, and it is certainly a masterpiece, but Santa Sangre was the movie which finally combined Jodorowsky’s penchant for the bizarre and grotesque with an additional emotional density that balanced out his artistic experimentation with an empathetic personality. It was the first time when Jodorowsky’s central character, always a cinematic manifestation of himself, has a distinct past and familial blood ties. In this case, Jodorowsky’s troubled relationship with his mother reveals itself violently and tragically. She is portrayed in the film as a demonic prestige who mentally controls the young Jodorowsky (named Fenix) like a ventriloquist’s dummy and forces him to commit murders disguised as magic acts.
Santa Sangre can be considered a metaphorical precursor to his more directly autobiographical films The Dance of Reality (2013)and Endless Poetry, which explore Jodorowsky’s upbringing in Chile from childhood to adulthood. Jodorowsky’s career between these three films and the ambitious failure of The Rainbow Thief (1990), his most underrated work in my opinion, marks a return to his emotionally painful upbringing and an effort to heal through art as the mode of confrontation. The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry feature many disturbing sequences of abuse, sexual violence, and elaborate outbursts of sorrow and misery. They also feature some of the most intricate and beautifully orchestrated moments in all of Jodorowsky’s cinema.
A particularly amazing scene in Endless Poetry, one that illustrates the core of Jodorowsky’s view of art, which rejects limitations and convention at all cost, is when a young Jodorowsky and his real-life poet-friend Enrico Linh decide to enact their concept of “poetry in action.” They spontaneously begin a journey, hand in hand, walking in a straight line, with zero deviation—if there is a car in the way they climb over it, if there is a house in the way, they knock the door down and walk through it. This exercise can be considered the way a young Alejandro dreamed his career as an artist would go—limitless, unwavering, and in the truest sense of Antonin Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty,” an artistic career of direct action and confrontation rather than merely theory.
Confrontation with himself is where the legacy of Jodorowsky as a filmmaker is defined. Since he treats cinema and art in general as a method of healing, it must in turn reveal ugliness. Sexuality has always been a major point of controversy in evaluating Jodorowsky, especially because it is coupled so inseparably with violence in his cinema. His characters are relentlessly assaulted, molested, raped, and explicit in their sexual relationships with each other. In an interview with The Staff in 1971, Jodorowsky rejects the notion that his movies are sexually violent for the sake of it. He says “El Topo is not violent, it is a process I begin with violence but I finish it with love… our normal reality is war and violence and selfishness. You go to the normal reality, and construct your soul and your spiritual reality and all the human beauties. This is not violence, it is a process.”
In his latest film, Psychomagic: The Art of Healing (2019), Jodorowsky turns art and performance into a therapeutic process. Despite the documentary’s inspiring stories of redemption and healing, it’s hardly an easy watch because the healing sessions are so radically diverged from the concept of physical boundaries. Most subjects are stripped naked during the process and are puppeteered into engaging in very intimate acts. In a way, it is his cinema come to life, his art manifested as a way to help people in need and in trouble. Also like his movies, it is, on first glance, deeply uncomfortably, uncompromising, unconventional, and perhaps a bunch of nonsense—but that’s Jodorowsky, take it leave it.