• Denholm Hewlett

[Cinema/Spirituality] Alejandro Jodorowsky

The legendary Chilean-French alchemist auteur of psychedelic cult cinema. A mystifying psycho-magician, multidimensional artist, and controversial maverick filmmaker (who wrote, directed, produced, scored, co-edited and starred in his own films.)

“I ask of film what most North Americans ask of psychedelic drugs. The difference being that when one creates a psychedelic film, he need not create a film that shows the visions of a person who has taken a pill; rather, he needs to manufacture the pill himself.

Alejandro Jodorowsky was born in 1929 to Jewish-Russian immigrants in the coastal mining town of Tocopilla, in the deserts of northern Chile. This child would unwittingly grow to become one of most revolutionary artists of his generation with a multi-dimensional artistic career spanning sixty years.

Since 1948, Jodorowsky's highly audacious creative philosophy has seen him undertake the roles of director, poet, author, producer, screenwriter, lead actor, composer, editor, set and costume designer, comic artist, clown, puppeteer, theatre director, psycho magician and relentless self- promoter.

Revered by cult cinema enthusiasts as a revolutionary poetic genius of the film world, while denounced by the majority of mainstream critics as a pretentious and self-indulgent charlatan, the mystical and electrifying cult films of Alejandro Jodorowsky present strange and perplexing visions that can be difficult to categorise or understand in any traditional sense.

The auteur is informed by his diverse artistic background and a lifelong spiritual journey, the director's films are immensely complex and multi-dimensional symbolic pieces of avant-garde cinema, brimming with hidden meanings, metaphysical concepts and ancient literary references.

"What I am trying to do when I use symbols is to awaken in your unconscious some reaction. I am very conscious of what I am using because symbols can be very dangerous. When we use normal language we can defend ourselves because our society is a linguistic society, a semantic society. But when you start to speak, not with words, but only with images, the people cannot defend themselves." - Alejandro Jodorowsky

Jodorowsky is best known for his string of surreal and mystical avant-garde films he made during the height of the counterculture movement of the late sixties and early seventies. His work gained a somewhat legendary reputation on the underground film circuit and found a devoted audience amongst cult cinema aficionados who were appreciative of the director's heady mixture of surrealism, esoteric mysticism, and savage violence.

The director's films are known for their breathtaking and confrontational visual style, which always takes full precedence over any dogmatic narrative structure, assaulting audiences with a vivid kaleidoscopic barrage of shocking imagery, bloody animalistic violence, mysticism and alchemy, religious iconography and cultural symbolism. His films have defiantly challenged and polarised critical opinion for their highly esoteric and inscrutable nature as well as their provocative and satirical condemnation of organised religion, corrupt political regimes and consumerism culture.

Jodorowsky's ultra visceral and immersive psychedelic cinema is characterised by the auteur's own idiosyncratic philosophy and perspective of the world, he combines his distinctly arcane and provocative sensibilities along with his colossal mystical imagination and arresting visual style to construct an unforgettable cinematic experience that will try to make you think, make you feel and, in turn, make you challenge and transform your own personal life philosophy and the world you see around you.

Jodorowsky is an infamous raconteur, and it's often difficult to distinguish between the facts of his early life from the myth, but one of his earliest memories was the mistreatment he encountered from the American mining industrialists who lived and worked prosperously in his local area and discriminated against the native Chilean people. This childhood experience is ultimately what influenced the director's future condemnation of American Imperialism and the neo-colonialism of Latin America in his films.

The director owes his sense of showmanship, bizarre imagination and carnivalesque visual aesthetic to his early days in Chile, becoming involved in the dramatic and exciting world of the circus from an early age while spending most of his free time immersed in reading/writing poetry. While studying at university, he developed an intense passion for theatre and was particularly fascinated with the art of puppetry and pantomime.

Jodorowsky alternated between worked as a stage actor, circus clown, marionette and theatre director for several years before travelling to Paris in the early 1950's to pursue an education in the art of mime under Etienne Decroux and Marcel Marceau, two of most famous mime artists of all time. Jodorowsky went on to perform on a world tour with Marceau's troupe every night for the next five years, and wrote several of the groups most notable mime routines, including “The Mask Maker” and “The Cage”.

In the early 1960's, Jodorowsky joined forces with surrealist playwrights Fernando Arrabal and Roland Topor in Paris to establish and spearhead the 'Panic Movement', an anarchistic style of surrealist avant-garde theatre heavily influenced by the films of Spanish director Luis Buñuel and Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty, Jodorowsky's own personal “bible”.

The Panic Movement was created as a direct response to artistic censorship and surrealism becoming mainstream, they concentrated their collective creative efforts on staging extremely violent, chaotic and surreal theatrical “happenings” that were designed to shock audience members into a state of crisis, assaulting them through a relentless bombardment of clashing yet rhythmic audio-visual stimuli; a discombobulating sensory overload that neutralised the audience's bourgeois passivity and re-defined how people experienced and perceived theatre and the world around them.

FANDO Y LIS (1968) Since the beginning of his career, Jodorowsky's controversial artistic visions have been driving people crazy. The enigmatic director first crashed onto cinema screens in 1968 with “Fando y Lis”, an ambitious yet imperfect adaptation of an absurdist Fernando Arrabal play of the same name.

Shot over the course of two years in Mexico without the permission of the existing film directors unions, this poetic and highly fractured black-and-white surrealist fable chronicles the episodic quest of Fando and his paraplegic lover Lis as they traverse a bizarre and malevolent post-apocalyptic wasteland in search of the mythical city of Tar, where the ancient legends dictate that all of their wildest dreams will come true.

Brimming with outrageous surrealist imagery, savage mystical violence, extensive nudity and electrifying sound, “Fando y Lis” was an audiovisual grenade that provoked a full scale riot when it premiered at Acapulco Film Festival because of how shocking and vulgar the material was. Audiences couldn't handle what they were seeing! The film was subsequently banned and vilified as 'corrupting and corrosive' by the Mexican Government, earning it's director a string of death threats which forced him to retreat into the shadows and threatened to destroy his new filmmaking career.

The unmistakable Dionysiac quality that “Fando y Lis” has is ultimately what makes it such a compelling cinematic experience: the shocking sensory assault of the film, the heinous violence being inflicted, the sardonic explosions of hilarity, excess and depravity all culminates towards an unleashing of primal instincts, a cathartic exorcism of destructive energy and a celebration of chaotic excess. Jodorowsky's debut feature is still just as inflammatory as when it was first made, and although it lacks the abundance of cultural and religious symbolism found in the director's later work, it did manage to establish some of the important thematic concepts that would continue to characterise all of Jodorowsky's subsequent films.

EL TOPO (1970)

Unfazed by the controversy of “Fando y Lis”, Jodorowsky went on to write, direct, score and star as the lead in the film for which he is still best known for today, the mystical Spaghetti-Western “El Topo” (1970).

If you ever happened to see this film before the twenty-first century, you would have done so at a special midnight screening or at an art festival or in a museum exhibition or via a poor-quality bootleg or laserdisc, because for the majority of its existence, this iconic ultra-violent western film has been one of the legendary “lost” enigmas of the underground film circuit.

This brazen Western chronicles the nightmarish and allegorical journey of the eponymous character, a violent and mysterious black-clad gunslinger with supernatural shooting abilities, as he travels on horseback with his naked son across a surreal and treacherous desert on his desperate quest for spiritual enlightenment. El Topo” is considered an "acid-western”, a genre term used to define counter culture westerns of the 60's and 70's.

The film is characterised by Sam Peckinpah style violence, deformed characters reminiscent of Bunuel's earlier films, and a constantly shifting, prismatic mirage of symbolism, philosophy and mythology lifted from every religion and occult belief system under the sun. Jodorowsky stars as the titular gunslinger and the director's son plays the role of El Topo's son.

“El Topo” channels all of these elements to construct a metaphysical confluence of spirituality and mysticism, a de-centred amalgamation of various faiths, holy books and religions, which explores the danger of any one 'power' or ideological system having absolute authority.

"El Topo” completely divided the critics, but it had developed a devoted cult following at the smoky, flea-bitten Elgin Theatre in New York, where it was screened exclusively at midnight viewings. This pioneering style and approach turned the film into an underground sensation that revolutionised the way films would be displayed by inventing the 'Midnight Movie'. This counterculture film phenomenon paved the way for many of Jodorowsky's contemporaries, resulting in films such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Eraserhead (1977) and Pink Flamingos (1972).