[Film/Spirituality] Alejandro Jodorowsky - Anarchy, Alchemy and Cinema
The Legendary Chilean-French alchemist auteur of psychedelic cult cinema - A mystifying psycho-magician and controversial maverick filmmaker (who wrote, directed, produced, scored, co-edited and starred in his own films.)
~ This article was moved to our resident creative's page after we received a seal of approval from Jodorowsky himself (05/07/20). Thank you Master ~
“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
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 being denounced by the majority of mainstream critics as a pretentious and self-indulgent charlatan, the mystical and electrifying films of Alejandro Jodorowsky present strange and perplexing visions that can be difficult to categorise or understand in any traditional sense. Alejandro Jodorowsky 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 that will boggle the mind.
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.
Jodorowsky film's 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) Ever since the beginning of his f 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 vicious 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 and original 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 to be an "acid-western”, a genre term used to define counter culture westerns of the sixties and seventies
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). “
"El Topo" eventually caught the attention of counterculture icons like John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, who all went on to praise the film publicly. John Lennon was so impressed by the film that he convinced Allen Klein, of Abkco Films, to secure the distribution rights to “El Topo” and finance the director's next project, but this business partnership with Klein would prove to be somewhat of a double edge sword for Jodorowsky, after a venomous falling out between the pair resulted in Klein withdrawing the rights to El Topo and Holy Mountain for almost thirty years.
THE HOLY MOUNTAIN (1973)
After the unexpected underground success of “El Topo”, Jodorowsky was bankrolled a million dollars for his next project and given free reign to indulge himself and create whatever he wanted. This resulted in The Holy Mountain (1973), an epic mind-bending experience that features some of the most surreal and challenging imagery you will see in your lifetime.
“Nothing in your education or experience can have prepared you for this film, Alejandro Jodorowsky's ‘The Holy Mountain’. A film completely outside the entire tradition of motion picture art, outside the tradition of modern theatre, outside the tradition of criticism and review. Criticism is irrelevant.”
The Holy Mountain is the ultimate acid-trip on film, a truly idiosyncratic piece of surrealist cinema that defiantly beats to the rhythm of its own drum. Upon viewing, spectators are battered and seduced with a hallucinogenic collage of fiercely beautiful yet profoundly disturbing allegorical images, all with the unnerving and magical ability to burn their way deep into your memory.
The Holy Mountain essentially abandons any comforting or formulaic narrative design and travels into being absolute cinema. The story is shown entirely through visual imagery, and the audio comes into play as an extension, or perhaps as an even bigger abstraction to the bizarre and raw motion pictures. Jodorowsky's film foregrounds the power of symbols and icons to create a universal visual language that enriches the ambiguous and cerebral narrative. The Holy Mountain is a film that celebrates the spectacle and artistry of cinema, the plot isn’t just secondary, it's almost unnecessary.
The Holy Mountain is a continuation of the director's expansive spiritual journey and his utterly relentless attack on everything the modern world has to offer. This insane film is a grandiose satirical statement that directly challenges and condemns organised Christian religion, American imperialism, consumerism culture, neo-colonialism, the regimentation of state and the supposed "rules of society” as methods of symbolic interpretation.
In a corrupt and greed fuelled post-apocalyptic world, a Christ-like figure, known only as The Thief, wanders through a series of gruesome and blasphemous scenarios in chaotic dystopian city. The Thief meets a powerful Alchemist, played by Jodorowsky, who transforms the Thief's excrement into gold and promises to do the same for his soul. The Alchemist decides to lead the Thief, his assistant and seven wealthy industrialists on a trans-formative quest to the mythical Holy Mountain of Lotus Island, where they hope to steal the secret of immortality from the nine immortals who reside at the summit.
From a great distance, The Holy Mountain might resemble an adventure film, but because this was directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky, it is infinitely more complexed and layered. The counterculture movement of the late sixties and early seventies was a time where filmmakers had the freedom to make really experimental art through cinema, and Jodorowsky took full advantage of this.
Every single frame, shot and sequence of The Holy Mountain is ripe with existential symbolism, ancient literary references and obscure allegorical metaphors that will leave you awe-struck, but unlike a David Lynch film, where he deliberately never reveals his purpose, Jodorowsky had a purpose and analogy for every single prop, piece, and direction contained in the film.
Before the principal photography began, Jodorowsky, his wife and the whole cast of mostly non-actors spent three months locked in a house studying under the direction of a Japanese Zen master and a disciple of Gurdjieff, their training involved sleep deprivation, Sufi, yoga and Zen exercises, guided meditation and taking LSD and hallucinogenic mushrooms for the first time.
Aside from being based in the mystical system of Sufism and the writings of George Gurdjieff, the main inspirations for the titular mountain in Jodorowsky's film came from two main sources, the first is Ascent of Mount Carmel, written by John of the Cross, a catholic mystic and counter reformationist of the 16th century. This systematic treatise follows the ascent of a metaphysical mountain in order to have a perfect union with God. The second source of inspiration is unfinished Mount Analogue (1952) written by French novelist René Daumal. The book describes the surreal discovery and allegorical ascent of a mountain that is difficult to perceive from certain angles and has other spacial distortions.
The Holy Mountain's visually psychedelic narrative channels the same metaphysical thrust of Mount Analogue's story, whilst the director's deep fascination for mysticism and occult practices like alchemy and the tarot served as the primary influence for the film's imagery and set design.
The film openly violates and de-centring Western religious traditions by creating a hybrid amalgamation of Western, non-Western and occult beliefs. A self-described “Psycho-magician” and “atheist mystic”, Jodorowsky has openly expressed his feelings that “Religion is killing the world” and has described The Holy Mountain as an “anti-religious statement”.
During filming, the Catholic church in Mexico were outraged with The Holy Mountain because of its shameless blasphemy and sacrilegious imagery. President Luis Echeverría’s regime was furious with Jodorowsky because of the scenes of animalistic soldiers in Mexican uniforms massacring civilians.
Jodorowsky got attacked and almost murdered whilst making The Holy Mountain, with over 2,000 irate people marching and protesting the filming with placards and signs. People wanted Jodorowsky straight up dead or out of Mexico, so once he finished the filming in Mexico, Jodorowsky hastily relocated his family to New York with the footage after receiving deaths threats from government officials and paramilitary groups.
Although all of Jodorowsky's multi-faceted esoteric films are vastly different from one another in terms of style and approach, the most recurrent and important thematic concern in his work is the concept of undertaking a quest, whether it be physical and/or spiritual, to tap into the collective unconsciousness of the universe and acquire a clearer sense of reality in order to find some semblance and meaning in one's life.
Jodorowsky's films reflect his own spiritual development, often featuring both him and his children in lead acting roles. The director shoots his films in sequence from start to finish and uses the process of filmmaking as a form of spiritual illumination. in his first feature “Fando y Lis”, the two main characters realise that the key to enlightenment lies in oneself, and this belief is maintained throughout the rest of Jodorowsky's future films.
His stories revolve around the importance of asking questions and the pain of trying to understand one's own existence in the universe, and while the themes of these films are universal, they are also very much a product of their time. The late sixties and early seventies found a lot of people seeking spiritual enlightenment through various means outside of the major organised religions. Mind expanding hallucinogenic drugs were a prominent part of this scene, and Jodorowsky's striking visual style is clearly influenced by this.
Alejandro Jodorowsky is an extremely difficult director to pigeonhole. Madman or genius? Egotist or ascetic? Pretentious or poetic? Visionary or shock-tactician? The best thing about Jodorowsky is that at various points in his eighty-eight years he has been all of the above. Aside from directing a handful of films, his career has involved worked extensively as a theatre director, poet, author, graphic novelist, screenwriter, spiritual guru, tarot reader and psychotherapist.
Jodorowsky's many selves inform and cross-pollinate each other, finding anarchic, otherworldly expression on film. Some of his ideas work and some of them don't, but it's the director's raw insanity and his undiluted, vivid imagination that makes him such a compelling filmmaker, having influenced countless directors and artists including David Lynch, John Lennon, Tim Burton, Dennis Hopper and David Cronenberg.
Although Jodorowsky's most acclaimed films (El Topo and Holy Mountain) are very much a product of their time, these psychedelic films represent a uniquely rich cross-pollination between the avant-garde and counterculture movements, well worthy of consideration alongside the work of filmmaking peers such as Luis Bunuel, Jean-Luc Godard and Federico Felllini.
Jodorowsky had the artistic potential and creative ambition to be one of the most prolific and celebrated filmmakers of all time, but the director has ultimately been his own worst enemy throughout multiple stages in his career, denying himself the chance to achieve any widespread fame and success because of his deep-rooted rebellious nature, his desire for unlimited creative control, his larger- than-life imagination, his defiant ideological position in relation to the Hollywood cinematic industry, and his provocative confrontation and depiction of “taboo” subjects in his work that most find difficult to talk about openly, such as sex, violence, war, society and religion.
After his original trilogy of films, Jodorowsky set his filmmaking sights for the world of outer space and attempted to direct one of the most ambitious film adaptations of all time, by trying to manifest Frank Herbert's "Dune", the bible of science fiction, before epic space dramas like Star Wars were common in mainstream culture. Jodorowsky assembled an incredible team of actors, artists and producers, he had French comic book legend Mobieus design all the spaceships and storyboard every shot for the entire film and H.R. Giger was brought in to do extensive character and set designs. Even though Alejandro and his unparalleled team of talent made sure the Dune project was completely airtight and had everything it needed to get made, including Mick Jagger, Orson Welles and Salvador Dali as cast members, Hollywood executives wouldn't allow this expensive, revolutionary, hallucinogenic and conscious-shifting space opera odyssey to be made with their "madman" for a director, so the project was ultimately stolen and given to David Lynch.
“The main reason he failed to become a big-name director is his inability to conform, obey or compromise. He is an anarchist, through and through".
After this rejection to direct this monumental project, Jodorowsky sank in a temporary depression but would eventually return to cinema to direct a string of film's including Sante Sangre (1989), The Dance of Reality (2013), Endless Poetry (2016), and Psychomagic (2020). The truly incredible story behind the making of Jodorowsky's awe-inspiring Dune adaptation ended up becoming the subject for a fascinating and inspiration documentary that is a perfect introduction to the maestro himself. Dune is currently being re-made by French-Canadian director Denis Villenueve, set for release later in 2020.
~ PSYCHIC GARDEN