Wednesday, January 28, 2015
a dream Jodorowsky had once then Frank Herbert’s book. How Jodorowsky was going to lend his psychedelic style to a huge science fiction. Had it been released, a few years before “Star Wars” changed Hollywood forever, it might have started a mass spiritual awakening. This was Jodorowsky’s goal anyway. Of course, the movie wasn’t made, falling apart before active production even started, and “Dune” ascended into cult movie heaven. There were so many legends and speculation about the project that it was a natural topic for a documentary.
“Jodorowsky’s Dune” explores the conception, attempted execution, and eventual collapse of the film. Apparently, “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain” were huge hits in Europe, prompting French producer Michel Seydoux to contact Jodorowsky. Seydoux promised to finance whatever insane thing the director wanted to do. And what Jodorowsky wanted to do was “Dune,” even though he had never read Frank Herbert’s book and had no intention of staying true to the source material. The film documents the extraordinary collection of talent and names Jodorowsky assembled, his “spirit warriors,” and how the visionary film came very close to being made.
Moebius created for the film. We see the amazing space ships and buildings painted by Chris Foss and H.R. Giger. We hear about the psychic encounter Dan O’Bannon had with Jodorowsky. We hear the famous names well known to be attached to the film and the stories around them. How Salvador Dali was meant to play the insane Emperor of the Galaxy, even though Dali demanded 100,000 dollars per minute of screen-time. How Orson Welles, as the decadent Baron Harkonnen, only agreed to be in the film after Jodorowsky promised Welles’ favorite chef would prepare meals for him every day. Yet we also hear about the lesser known names attached. About how David Carradine was meant to play the hero’s father, how he chugged Jodorowsky’s bottle of Vitamin E. About how Jodorowsky’s son was cast as Paul Atreides, after a year long training regiment with France’s number one martial artist. We learn about the director’s plan to have each planet feature music from a different band, like Pink Floyd or French prog-rock band Magma. The film discusses the mysterious visit Jodorowsky had with Mick Jagger, also meant to be in the film, or a random appearance by Udo Kier.
The best thing about “Jodorowsky’s Dune” is that it roughly assembles what the film’s plot would be. The documentary gives us a clear look at how Jodorowsky would fuse his mystical style with a more traditional science fiction story. The film would begin with a long shot, zooming through the entire galaxy, before coming to the planet of Dune and the wrecked pirate ships in its orbit. Jodorowsky talks about how the hero would be conceived from his castrated father, how his wife would transform a drop of blood into a drop of semen. How the camera would follow the droplet of blood through her uterus. Or the details concerning the Harkonnen mansion designed by Giger, with its pathway of giant cutting knives. Jodorowsky even spoils the ending of the proposed film, which would feature the enlightened hero dying at the villains’ hands but his consciousness spreading to every person on Dune and even to the planet itself. “Jodorowsky’s Dune” illustrates that the film would have been just as far-out, visionary, and impressive as you’d expect a space epic from Jodorowsky to be.
a talking heads documentary. Luckily, the heads that are talking are fascinating, intelligent, captivating people. At the center of this is Jodorowsky himself. The director is a fantastic interview subject. He’s always energetic, even at 85 years old. He’s an excellent storyteller, delivering the tales about the film’s pre-production with vigor. Jodorowsky’s enthusiasm is such that he switches between English and Spanish randomly. Jodorowsky is such a captivating figure that I can’t believe he hasn’t been interviewed for more films before. There are interviews with other people involved with “Dune.” The late H.R. Giger, who has since passed, and Dan O’Bannon, who passed some time before the doc’s release, were both interviewed which is great. The movie also throws in interviews with Jodorowsky admirers like Nicholas Winding Refn and Richard Stanley. Mostly though, the director himself is the film’s central figure, as eccentric and fascinating to watch as you’d expect him to be. Most amusingly, the film allows Jodorowsky to ramble off-topic, even pausing the interview so he can pick up one of his cats.
Director Frank Pavich was smart enough to mix up his approach. The interviews are cut with animatics of Moebius’ extensive storyboards, which are a treat in of themselves. Throughout the film, we get an intimate peek into Jodorowsky’s script-book for his “Dune,” a phone book sized collection of art, storyboards, script pages, and production drawings. These shots frequently come to life, being animated on-film. There’s even some fun abstractions, Dan O’Bannon’s text dancing around the photographs of Jodorowsky. While “Jodorowsky’s Dune” is frequently a talking heads doc, the director brings the subject alive in some interesting ways.
Zelig, influencing some of the major films of the next decade from behind the scenes.
“Jodorowsky’s Dune” is a fantastically entertaining documentary, mostly because it picked such a fantastically entertaining person as its subject. Even though “Dune” didn’t get made, this movie remains inspiring. The director’s philosophy, that failure opens the door for more opportunity, is presented as pretty powerful stuff. I’m happy that “Jodorowsky’s Dune” reignited interest in the filmmaker and directly led Jodorowsky to directing again. By discussing his greatest film never made, it looks like the elusive cult filmmaker might get a few more chances at making great films. [9/10]
Tuesday, January 27, 2015
The Rainbow Thief
After the critical success of “Santa Sangre,” for the first time in his career, Hollywood came calling for Alejandro Jodorowsky. Though hardly a major studio release, “The Rainbow Thief” was the director’s first bid for mainstream acceptance. Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, and Christopher Lee weren’t huge box office draws in 1990 but they were still the biggest stars the director had ever worked with. Considering how fiercely independent Jodorowsky has always been, he bristled under the constrains of a production. Reportedly, the screenwriter refused to let him change a word of the script. “The Rainbow Thief” met with middling reviews and miniscule box office, causing the director to disappear for another two decades. It is the second of his films that Jodorowsky would disown.
Uncle Rudolf, an eccentric millionaire who loves his whores and his dogs, has a sudden heart attack and slips into a coma. Out of the woodwork emerges all the expected vultures. One of the would-be heirs is stranger then the other. That nephew, Meleagre, carries a set of Tarot cards and a large Irish wolf hound with him everywhere. A few years later, Meleagre befriends a pickpocket and shoplifter named Dima. The two live together in the sewers, waiting for old Uncle Rudolf to die and to inherit his fortune. When this doesn’t happen exactly, the odd friendship is thrown into turmoil.
It’s not impossible to see why the film’s producers thought Alejandro Jodorowsky would be a good fit for it. “The Rainbow Thief” is a whimsical tale with a number of surreal touches. A carnival features prominently in the background. There’s a Ferris wheel, a dwarf, a giant, a cross-dressing fortune teller, and even some unexplained Christ imagery thanks to an odd carnival game. The opening scene with Christopher Lee riding around on a cow-colored cart, banging symbols together, giving caviar to dogs and bones to people, are amusingly demented, powered by Lee’s unhinged, opera-singing performances. The eccentric characters, with their dead dog puppets and rainbow-colored hookers, provide several opportunities for the director to indulge in his favored bizarre imagery.
The thing I liked the most about “The Rainbow Thief” is its setting. Filmed in Poland, the story takes place in a port-side city. The buildings have an old world European feel to them. When exactly the story is set is never specified. The time period appears to be the turn of the century and most of the costumes support this, along with the old-timey presence of carnivals. But there’s also jukeboxes, motorized vehicles, and electric lights. Some of the fashion is more late eighties then 1880s, including a leather-clad punk. By being so vague about the time period, “The Rainbow Thief” settles upon a fairy tale-like tone where it could take place at any time or place.
The biggest problem with “The Rainbow Thief” is that its narrative lacks any sort dramatic drive. It takes forever for a proper plot to emerge. Dima quarrels with Meleagre, both waiting around for the uncle to die. Dima has a number of adventures with the other odd characters living in the town. He swindles people out of their possessions, looking to make a little cash. Very little adds up and it's all so leisurely paced. When Uncle Rudolf finally drops dead, it still feels like the film is in search of a plot. The movie lurches into its climatic final act before the audience even realizes it, the story coming to a close without it feeling like anything was resolved.
What “The Rainbow Thief” is actually about is the relationship between Dima and Meleagre. The story, of two unusual friends who don’t appear to like each other but rely on one another more then either realizes, is not a unique idea. Unfortunately, the film can’t sell any sort of union between the two. This is because they don’t ultimately have very much screen time together. Dima is usually off on his own adventures. Melagre is usually brooding in the sewers. When the two are sharing the screen, they’re usually sniping at one another, wondering why they stick around. The realization that their friendship means something arrives bluntly, more likely to make the audience shrug then cry.
“The Rainbow Thief” concludes when Dima decides he isn’t putting up with Meleagre’s bullshit anymore. He hops on a train, headed towards a boat headed towards Singapore. At the same time, a hurricane strikes the city, leading to the film’s sole exciting sequence. Harsh gales beat down on the streets, rain blowing horizontally. Deciding to rescue his friend, Dima wades through the flooding sewer. My favorite moment has him climbing up on a pipe to avoid a swimming colony of rats. I imagine this sequence, with its constantly rushing water, the actors soaked up to their necks, was an ordeal for both the cast and the crew. However, it leads to the one truly exciting moment in the whole film, as the audience wonders how the rushing currents will affect the characters.
Peter O’Toole, meanwhile, gets to indulge in some over-acting as Prince Meleagre. O’Toole spends the film hanging out in the sewers. His beloved dog dies in the early half of the film. He appears to hollow out the animal’s body, turning him into a hand puppet. So O’Toole gets to play both a deranged an old man and his doggy best pal. Meleagre is a singularly odd character, ranting to himself in deranged ways that don’t make sense to anyone else. From his sewer home to his abrasive personality, O’Toole’s character is far too out-there to ever be believable or likable. You know something is wrong when the oddness in a Jodorowsky film is a weakness instead of a strength.
“The Rainbow Thief” at least looks pretty good. The production values were decent, as evident by the flood of rushing waters. The film has a number of interesting shots or angles. As the storm rolls in, O’Toole yells up at the ceiling’s port hole, lightening flashing overhead. A climatic climb up a ladder is tightly cropped on the actors’ faces, providing some decent tension. Jean Musy’s musical score is fairly listenable. As always, Jodorowsky gets the most out of his budget.
|Hideous DVD artwork.|
Monday, January 26, 2015
After the fraught production and subsequent non-release of “Tusk,” Jodorowsky spent a few years in the wilderness. Like his mysterious elephant movie, the cult filmmaker seemingly disappeared. And like the magician he’s always been, Jodorowsky reappeared in 1989 with “Santa Sangre.” Somewhere in his journeys, he started an unexpected business relationship with Claudio Argento, brother of famous Italian fright-meister Dario Argento. Under Argento’s guidance, Jodorowsky made an identifiable genre piece, a horror film. Despite working in a recognizable genre with a traditional screenplay, the filmmaker sacrificed none of his unique talent or eccentric sensibility. The result was a more accessible film that was still undeniably Jodorowsky’s work. “Santa Sangre” started a minor stir on the art house circuit in ’89, receiving great reviews and reviving interest in its director. Years later, I would seek out a copy of the film, being exposed to Jodorowsky for the first time, and having my mind blown in the process.
The film follows Fenix, a disturbed young man. His father was a knife-thrower at a circus while his mother, Concha, runs a religious order, worshiping an armless female saint. When his father’s infidelity drives mom crazy, she burns dad’s genitals with acid. In response, the man hacks his wife’s arms off. Years later, Fenix escapes the mental hospital he has stayed at for the last decade. He reunites with his armless mother, becoming her hands, performing everyday tasks for her, the two literally becoming inseparable. Concha controls her son’s mind, claiming his hands as her own. She forces her will on him, causing Fenix to murder anyone who comes between them.
Like all Jodorowsky movies, “Santa Sangre” is full of symbols. The film begins with Fenix rejecting human behavior, acting like a bird. As we flashback to his childhood, we see an eagle fly over a city. Like the eagle tattoo on Fenix’s chest. Or, more pressingly, like his namesake, the mythical phoenix. Blood, knives, arms, chickens, swans, the USA flag, and many more symbols litter the film. Despite the oblique symbolism and deeper text lurking all throughout the film, a clear thesis emerges in “Santa Sangre.” The film brings Jodorowsky’s obsession with parenthood, and how parents affect their children, to the forefront. It’s an entire motion picture devoted to the psychological trauma inflicted on kids by their parents.
an aged eighties rock star. While performing, he wears a ridiculous, sequined cowboy outfit, in American red, white and blue. (Is Jodorowsky drawing a comparison between Orgo’s cruel behavior and American foreign policy? Or simply mocking the iconography of the cowboy? It’s hard to say.) Orgo is uncompromisingly sexual, seducing every woman around him, from the highly sexual Tattooed Woman to Fenix’s conservative mother. His status as a walking gonad is furthered by his job as the knife thrower. The knife is a blatant phallic symbol, one of the film recognizes several time. He’s a cruel father. After Fenix cries, Orgo accuses the young boy of not being a man. He ties his boy down, carving a tattoo in his chest. Throughout the film, the eagle tattoo becomes a burden on Fenix, representing his father’s boorish legacy.
“Santa Sangre” is the most sexual of any of Jodorowsky’s films. However, you can’t call it an “erotic” film. If anything, the film seems to find sex an inherently vulgar idea. Orgo’s lust is flared by the Tattooed Woman, another of the circus’ performers. She is curvaceous, with a prominent ass, pleasantly thick thighs, and a heaving bosom. Her artistic tattoos emphasize her natural curves. Despite Thelma Tixou’s appealing sexuality, the character is vulgar and unattractive, licking Orgo’s knives and shaking her ass at him like a displaying mandrill. The film shares Concha’s opinion, perceiving any sort of sex as something unseemly. The film illustrates this by cutting between a sex scene and a dying elephant’s last seconds alive. The elephant sprays blood from its truck, a disturbing phallic symbol and definitive Jodorowsky image. From this moment on, Fenix correlates sex with death. Throughout the film, his sensual desires become murderous.
While Fenix’s father is a boorish macho man of the worst type, his mother is a consumed by religious mania. Her name is Concha, a crass Spanish slang word for female genitalia, an early indicator that she’ll become the ultimate smothering mother. Her particular religious belief gives the film its title. Her chosen saint is a Mexican girl who was raped after having both her arms cleaved off by her attackers. Concha believes that the girl’s blood still flows in her church. A visiting cardinal declares the holy blood to be paint, labels the woman delusional, and tears down her temple. That Concha inevitably shares the same fate as her chosen saint, arms cut off by an angry man, only furthers her religious mania. Afterwards, she becomes even more convicted, using her son as a weapon of her religious mania. Blood, of course, is a feminine symbol. Orgo is the ultimate terrible father. Concha, meanwhile, is the ultimate terrible mother, smothering her son into becoming a killer.
“Santa Sangre” is also an ode to the circus. As a young man, Jodorowsky performed in a traveling circus as a clown, a tumbler, and a mime. Though clowns and mime usually show up in his film to some degree, “Santa Sangre” brings this interest to the forefront. The early scenes of Fenix’s childhood portray the circus as somehow innocent. The clowns are always playful and friendly. The performers are always colorful and energetic. This contrasts later with the crass, sleazy burlesque club Fenix and his mother find work in. The two’s elegant mime performance is pushed off stage by a group of cuchi-cuchi-ing showgirls. Later, a dancer performs a school girl themed striptease. Among this common background, however, the film makes room for the beauty of mime. A key moment has Fenix and Concha performing a routine describing the Biblical creation of the world, apparently a performance originated by Marcel Marceau, a friend of Jodorowsky. It’s a singularly lovely moment and one of the film’s best.
In the past, Jodorowsky’s films always featured lots of bizarre, disturbing imagery. So that the filmmaker would eventually attempt a full blown horror film isn’t surprising. By collaborating with Claudio Argento, Jodorowsky made a film that, at times, feels like an Italian giallo. While spying on her husband and his lover, Concha retrieves a conveniently placed flask of acid. The sequence is moodily shot. It builds up to a burst of gore, dismembered arms flying into the air and blood spurting from a slit throat. The most impressive moment of traditional horror in “Santa Sangre” has the Tattooed Woman being stalked and murdered. During this scene, the film begins to feel a lot like a Dario Argento film. An unseen killer slashes at a woman with a knife, the scene bathed in bright colors. The blood flows freely, the woman repeatedly stabbed. A few shots even recall the infamous opening kill of “Suspiria.” In an intense moment of fantastically orchestrated Grand Guignel, unlike anything Jodorowsky had previously made.
As a child, Fenix’s only friend was Alma, the deaf-mute daughter of the Tattooed Woman. By the end, Alma, still wearing the clown make-up she had on as a child, finds Fenix again. Alma is the only person who sees Fenix as an independent person, helping him to realize that his hands are his own. “Santa Sangre” has a twist ending, one that is quite apparent on a second viewing. Today, when twist endings like this are more common, it’s tempting to accuse the twist of being a cheap ploy to throw audience's off-guard. However, “Santa Sangre’s” twist is not a lame attempt to shock viewers. Instead, it feeds into the film’s deeper themes of parental abuse and lingering psychological trauma.
The ending is also, admittedly, somewhat derivative of “Psycho.” For the first time in his career, Jodorowsky made a film obviously indebted to other directors. Aside form Hitchcock, “Santa Sangre” features blatant callbacks to older films. A field trip has the asylum inmates taken to a screening of Luis Bunuel's "Robinson Crusoe," Jodorowsky admitting the huge influence that director has had on his career. Fenix’s favorite films is “The Invisible Man,” which he watches religiously. He dresses up as the character, attempting the same experiment. Why does he desire to be invisible? To free himself of the obsessions in his life? A lengthy sequence has Fenix courting a woman pro-wrestler, named La Santa. Jodorowsky has admitted this is a deliberate reference to the Santo and Wrestling Women films of the 50s and 60s. (Because this is a Jodorowsky film, the female wrestler is played by a male bodybuilder with fake breasts and an obviously dubbed woman's voice. Why? You're asking the wrong questions.) The home where Fenix and his mother lives has expressionistic angels, recalling “Caligari.” “Santa Sangre” has enough references that bodies emerging from their graves, in white sheets, remind me of Mario Bava’s “Planet of the Vampires,” though I don’t know if that’s deliberate.
The performances in “Santa Sangre” are all strong. Axel Jodorowsky, one of the director’s sons, is excellent as the conflicted, damaged Fenix. Blanca Guerra is powerful and frightening as Concha. An excellent score from Simon Boswell, who previously provided the crazy disco score to Michele Soavi’s “StageFright,” calms and centers the film. The music is acoustic guitar-driven. The soft, strong strings power several key moments. “Santa Sangre” is by far the smoothest looking film Jodorowsky had made up to this point. Every dollar of the budget is on-screen, giving the film a clean, well constructed appearance.
The pacing is not perfect, faltering a little in the middle when the story seems to repeat itself. All things considered, “Santa Sangre” might still be my favorite Jodorowsky film. Disturbing, horrifying, touching, darkly funny, full of fascinating themes and subjects, surreal but still grounded in reality, it showed that the director could still make a powerful, personal statement even within the confines of a traditional genre movie. [Grade: A]
Wednesday, January 21, 2015
Poo Lorn L'Elephant
All of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s films are, to a degree, obscure. Only now, after DVD releases, a documentary, and a new film, is the director starting to receive wider recognition. “El Topo” is known to movie fanatics, film historians, and weird cinema buffs. Yet even it was unavailable for years. Out of all of Jodorowsky’s obscure, unseen films, one stands above the rest as the most hard-to-find. Jodorowsky shot “Tusk” in India in the late seventies, after his too-ambitious-to-ever-be-realized version of “Dune” fell apart. The film was not widely seen in its day and has never receive a home video release. The director, on his end, disowned the movie and never talks about it. “Tusk” was virtually unknown for decades, even among Jodorowsky fans. That is until two years back. A blurry, scratchy copy of the film, sourced from a long-along recorded French VHS, surfaced on file-sharing sites and, not long afterwards, Youtube. As dismal as the quality is, at least ‘Tusk” can now be seen. Is it a hidden gem or a rightfully ignored misstep in the cult filmmaker’s career?
The story follows the lives of two separate individuals, both born on the same day. One is Elise, the daughter of a rich white businessman living in India. The other is an elephant, one among many that the man keeps on his property as work animals. Named Genesh by the locals, but nicknamed Tusk by the white men, the elephant and the little girl develop a bound. Going their separate ways, the two live parallel lives. When she returns home as an adult, Elise and Tusk renew their bound, just as the elephant’s life becomes endangered.
“Tusk” is not like Jodorowsky’s other films. There is no surrealism or evident satire. The film tells a straight forward story in a traditional manner. There is no obscure symbolism, no references to Eastern mysticism, no elements steeped in shamanism, spiritualism or philosophy. There is no graphic violence or aberrant sexuality. There are no physically deformed characters, amputations, castrations, acid trips, or crucified farm animals. There’s not even any mime. “Tusk” has been described as a children’s film. Though it contains some salty language and a few murders, “Tusk” is probably appropriate for the 8-and-up crowd. This makes it a serious anomaly in Jodorowsky’s career. Even more so, since we’re coming off the excesses of “The Holy Mountain.”
The main dramatic meat of “Tusk” comes from the way the life of Elise, the girl, compares to the life of Tusk, the elephant. Both are born on the same day, at the same moment. Both loose their mothers, Elise's dying in childhood and Tusk being separated from his as a youngster. Elise is so distraught by how Tusk is treated, that she retreats to her room and doesn’t eat. Similarly, the elephant stops eating, only laying on the ground. When Elise is shipped off to boarding school, Tusk is broken and trained to be a work animal. When she returns, both the girl and the elephant rejoice. When Elise gets fed up with her father’s bullshit, she runs off into the night. At the same time, Tusk escapes his cape and flees into the jungle. Throughout the film, the elephant suddenly appears to save the girl’s life. The connection is not deliberately psychic. It is, instead, a decent example of the way Jodorowsky incorporates his magic realism into the story.
As expected, “Tusk” features a lot of elephants. Good for us that the elephants are pretty good actors. There aren’t as many long stretches in the film devoted to elephants wandering around, doing their thing as the IMDb reviews would lead you to believe. The film properly sells the size and powers of elephants. Though the film is always sympathetic to Tusk, he seems almost too dangerous at times, on the edge of going on a rampage. He defends the people he cares about, killing another elephant that attacks Elise. Jodorowsky clearly had an affection for the animal and that shows through in the movie.
Tusk’s rampage also speaks to the film’s interest in animals. Considering Jodorowsky has never been shy about killing animals on-screen before, it’s interesting that he’s so compassionate to the animal’s plight. Those that hunt animals are painted in a very negative light. When Tusk is taking out the bad guys at the end, it’s notable that he spares the main villain’s cute animal sidekick. Jodorowsky also returns to his pet theme of the relationship between parents and children. Elise and her father are at odds to begin with. However, when Tusk is captured and on the verge of escape, the two both cheer for the elephant. The elephant unites both of them, allowing them get past their differences.
The biggest problem with “Tusk” is its buffoonish bad guy. The villains are led by Sharkley, a nasty man with nasty motivations. He pursues the elephant for the money, primarily, but also because he seems gratuitously evil. He’s also needlessly vulgar, farting, swearing and casually committing murder. His sidekick is far more annoying, making wimpy exclamations. The bad guys seemingly extend the plot pass it’s logical point, leading to fist fights and chase scenes. The rest of the film is fairly serious and realistic, which makes the cartoonish, broad villains hard to swallow.
“Tusk” assembles a cast of character actors and obscure names. Cyrielle Clair, a French actress of minor acclaim, plays Elise. She’s lovely to look at and gives a decent performance. She’s a likable presence. Even if the character’s addition to the film is questionable, Christopher Mitchum is decently charismatic as the brave Cairn. Anton Diffring also does a decent job as Elise’s father. It’s a subtle performance. He could have easily played the role too broad, as a shallow and evil parent. Instead, he gifts the character with some nuance, his actions rooted in real world concerns. The film’s cast is solid enough to help distracts from its narrative problems.
“Tusk” has a bizarre musical score. The music can best be described as electric guitar covers of traditional Indian music. This is sometimes effective, adding a local flavor to the film. Some times it’s extremely distracting. Other times, the music is softer, enhancing the emotional scenes of the film. It’s a bizarre musical score, showing Jodorowsky’s odd, underground roots in this family film. The lousy sound quality of the print I watched didn’t help matters.
Jodorowsky has said that “Tusk” was taken away from him by the producers. The director’s envisioned, preferred cut would have been shorter, apparently. This would have been good, as “Tusk” runs a little too long in its current form. However, it’s doubtful an official release, much less a director’s cut, will ever surface. The film is simply too obscure, even by the standards of Jodorowsky’s other cult favorites. The washed-out, barely watchable bootleg currently swimming around the internet is probably the best version of this minor film we’ll ever see. “Tusk” is not terrible, and deserves better, but I can’t call it an overlooked masterpiece either. [Grade: C+]
Tuesday, January 20, 2015
The Holy Mountain
La montaña sagrada
The underground success of “El Topo” attracted a number of unexpected fans. Among them was John Lennon. Lennon loved the movie so much that he convinced Allen Klein, the Beatles business manager, to buy the rights to the film. Klein gave “El Topo” a nation-wide release, which went over about as well as you’d expect. Even if Jodorowsky’s wild visions were hardly palpable to the public at large, Klein still thought the guy could make him money. The big shot producer cut Jodorowsky a fat check, a million dollars, to allow him to make his next magnum opus. With that money, Jodorowsky made his most ambitious yet. The result, “The Holy Mountain,” may be the strangest film ever made.
A movie as weird as “The Holy Mountain” did not emerge from a vacuum. During the film’s pre-produciton, Jodorowsky was heavily involved in Eastern mysticism. At one point, the director didn’t sleep for a week and freely ingested psychotropic drugs. Before filming actually began, Jodorowsky and the main cast spend three months studying various spiritual texts and lessons. The director was influenced by Zen, Kabbalah, Tarot, Rosicrucian, the novel “Mount Analogue” by Rene Daumal, John Lilly's isolation tank experiments, and magic mushrooms while creating the film. The result is a highly surreal spiritual text put to film. While “El Topo” decimated philosophical concepts among a traditional narrative, “The Holy Mountain” devotes itself entirely to delivering the filmmaker’s beliefs about the human soul to the masses.
Like all Jodorowsky films, the film’s strangeness hides the rather clear main plot. A thief, who resembles Christ, awakens in a strange city. He climbs the tower of an Alchemist, in search of gold. Instead, the Alchemist accepts him as a student. The Thief meets seven other students, each connected to a different planet, each representing a horrible sin of the mortal world. Together, the group heads out on a journey to ascend the holy mountain, meet the immortals who live at the peak, and learn their secrets. It’s easy to write that out but the film is far from straight-forward.
The town also has an odd relationship with religion. The masked soldiers carry skinned, crucified sheep. Later, a kitschy shop, manned by obese men dressed as Roman centurions, sell cheap statues of Christ. (The shop is marked with the sign “Christs for Sale!” Subtle, Alejandro.) The movie doesn’t give a shit about subtly anyway. In its opening minutes, the Thief is strung up on a cross by the locals. After walking across the shop, the shop owners have the Thief carries a huge cross through the streets. They get him drunk, make a cast of his body, and sell them to the customers. This emerges the man. The actual people in the city seem to mistake him for Christ too. A prostitute with a pet chimp, who is part of a trope of prostitutes all dressed in the same clothes (including a prepubescent girl), seems to devote herself to the man. Of course, it is not revealed to the audience that this Christ-like figure is a common thief until a half-hour into the movie. Jodorowsky knows how hamfisted and obvious his symbolism is. Obviously, he’s commenting on the commercialization of Christianity and the corruption of the church. Mostly though, I think he’s fucking with us.
Once inside the Alchemist’s tower, “The Holy Mountain” reveals its secret weapon: Its unforgettable set design. The main hall of the tower is painted like a rainbow. The Thief is bathed in a jeweled fountain along side a baby hippo. The room where the Alchemist turns the Thief’s excrement into gold is shaped like the Star of David, the walls painted blue. The other travelers are located in a golden room that constantly rotates. The group burn all their money, along with effigies of themselves, in a huge room shaped like an eyeball. The center of the eye is a fire pit. Given a larger budget, Jodorowsky went nuts creating unique, unforgettable landscapes.
This critique continues into the next chapter. The man from Jupiter manufactures art, reducing an artistic endeavor to something down on a conveyor belt. And to hammer it home, the art is made by people painting their asses and sitting on a piece of paper. Jodorowsky is criticizing the commercialization of art. This section is also highly sexual. The man made a computer, a giant box, that responses to sexual stimulation, via a giant green dildo. Seriously. When brought to orgasm, the computer expands, transforms, and even gives birth to a baby computer. Wow. On Saturn, meanwhile, a woman dressed as a clown hands out toys to kids dressed as Santa Claus. She manufactures toy guns and propaganda to convince children to hate the country’s enemies. This section speaks for itself, satirizing propaganda and the way pop culture brainwashes kids. My favorite moment from this section is a briefly glimpsed comic book about “Captain CAPTAIN!”
Wait, we’re not done yet. The hardest section to handle is the one about the man from Urunus. His wife is a hideous fat woman with green pubes. She sits on the commode, sings annoying songs, and plays with a life-sized hobby horse. The man, meanwhile, is the president’s adviser. Casually, he instructs the president to murder 4 million people. Some of this imagery, like the man smashing a cake, is hard to grasp. However, this section is the director critiquing the way governments make grand decisions damning people’s lives without any care for their welfare. The section devoted to Axon, the man from Neptune and a police chief, contains some of “The Holy Mountain’s” most extreme imagery. While dressed in leather bondage gear and carrying a giant toy gun, he castrates a young boy. Axon’s has a room covered wall-to-wall with jarred testicles. Along with his officers, he massacres a group of protestors, spraying them with red liquid. They bleed gumballs, birds, and coins. Here, Jodorowsky is parodying not police brutality but masculine posturing and machismo. This is illustrated by Axon's home, which built around giant statues of his naked, muscular torso.
After the excess of the middle chapter, “The Holy Mountain” regains focus in the final third. The party of ten, including the Thief, the Alchemist, and his female assistant, begin their journey towards the Holy Mountain. They gather in a temple, shaving their heads, abandoning any sense of self. Everyone takes magic mushrooms, which the actors did in real life by the way, and accept the inevitability of their own deaths. They are reborn. There’s a dog, flowers, and a boat trip. The Thief births his malformed buddy before tossing him overboard. By this point, “The Holy Mountain” has lulled the audience into a trance. Now the film can wash over you, taking in every odd thing it does.
Before launching into its final lap, “The Holy Mountain” indulges in some more counterculture satire. At the mountain’s base is a building called the Pantheon Bar. There, would-be hippies gather and spew nonsense. One claims the Holy Mountain is inside of all of us. The travelers dismiss this as bullshit. Another man pops pills, extolling the values of LSD. Finally, a muscled bound wrestler can walk through the mountain but only through it. He can never climb it. It’s surprising to see the the director was so willing to poke fun at the people who probably enjoyed his films the most. Jodorowsky kept making ultra-weird movies long after the seventies were over. The guy was in it for the art, not to entertain stoned hippies.
As the characters reach “The Holy Mountain’s” peak, the film comes to its point. All the while, the Thief’s prostitute and her pet chimp followed behind the search party, scaling the mountain by herself. The Alchemist informs the Thief that the student has surpassed the master. He tells him to go home with the woman who loves him, that this is more important then any spiritual fulfillment. Meanwhile, the immortals living on the Holly Mountain are faceless mannequins. In the final section, the film becomes incredibly meta. Jodorowsky dismisses the characters from the mountain. The camera pulls back at his command, revealing the crew. Jodorowsky instructs us to leave the Holy Mountain and return to reality. He is talking to the characters and the audience. The trip is over, go home now that your minds are properly blown.
In “El Topo,” Jodorowsky cast himself as the lost man seeking enlightenment. In “The Holy Mountain,” he cast himself as the master who passes down wisdom. After watching the film, I felt like I had experienced a psychedelic trip myself, which was doubtlessly Jodorowsky’s intention. Did I find spiritual fulfillment? No. Did I feel like I had been transported to a completely alien world unlike anything I had ever seen before? Yep. And I didn’t even mention the Tarot card symbolism or all the dead animal carcasses. “The Holy Mountain” is not as assessable or re-watchable as the director’s other films. It can be a hard-to-watch slog at times. However, the trip is worth it, if only because you’ll see things no one else could have conceived of. I’ll reiterate: “The Holy Mountain” may be the weirdest film ever made. This gives it value. Only Alejandro Jodorowsky could have made this movie. [Grade: A-]
Monday, January 19, 2015
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s goal as a filmmaker, which he has repeated frequently, is to make movies that will have the same effect on the audience as psychedelic drugs. He strives to make, not merely entertainment, but experiences. With “El Topo,” the director came the closest to realizing this vision. When the film was screened at midnight in New York’s Elgin Theater, to a packed house of stoned hippies and weirdos, Jodorowsky finally found an audience susceptible to his ideas. “El Topo” became one of the earliest midnight movies, a true cult classic that included figures as divergent as John Lennon, Peter Fonda and Roger Ebert among its cult. The film’s mixture of spaghetti western tropes, intense violence, strange religious satire, bizarre imagery, and far-out spiritual and philosophical concepts made it unlike anything that came before or since. It remains Jodorowsky’s seminal work.
As in “Fando y Lis,” Jodorowsky builds a simple story from which he hangs countless heady ideas and unbelievable images. “El Topo” follows the titular gunfighter who wanders into a massacred town with his naked son. After killing the banditos there, he sets out on a quest to defeat the four great gunfighting masters of the deserts. Prodded on by an avarice woman, the Mole wins each duel by cheating. Through his journeys, El Topo is transformed, becoming the hero to an underground village of deformed humans. Like the mole, he digs a tunnel for his new friends to escape. Yet the world remains violent and cruel, forcing El Topo to revert back to his old ways.
The primary theme of “El Topo,” a movie which discusses a multitude of concepts, is the quest for enlightenment. El Topo begins the film as a violent man, a gunslinger that’s quick on the draw. He travels the desert, doling out justice and vengeance as he sees fit. He’s not a man with a purpose, aside from where his journey takes him. By seeking out the four masters, El Topo is attempting to find meaning. He fails, each time, and is destroyed. Only then, after loosing everything, is he reborned as a peaceful man. Even then, El Topo struggles, his past returning to haunt him in unexpected ways. The path to enlightenment is a tangled one. The film’s achingly human protagonist makes mistakes, complicating his own journey. To make it clear that “El Topo” is a story about someone coming to a spiritual conclusion, Jodorowsky cast himself as the titular character. “El Topo” was a journey for its filmmaker too.
an acid western. One of those movies that freely mixes the weather-worn tropes of the western with psychedelic flashes and hippy philosophy. In its first third, “El Topo” functions like a highly irregular western. Like the Man with No Name or Django, El Topo rides into a town in trouble. Littered with dead bodies, the town is ruled over by a cruel general and his gang of psychotic bandits. Like many spaghetti westerns, “El Topo” freely mixes political and religious satire with bullets and cowboy hats. The bandits execute the innocent town folks, in a way that brings WWII execution squads to mind. More of the goons torment the local monks with homoerotic routines, striping them nude, writing on their asses, and riding them like animals. Like many spaghetti westerns, “El Topo” is also extraordinarily violent. Bright red blood explodes out of bodies with an intense furiosity. Hundreds of dead bodies hang from ceilings. A man slashes his own throat, throwing up gallons of blood, before plummeting off a tower. After defeating his gang, El Topo castrates the General who then blows his brains out with a shotgun. In these early scenes, “El Topo” feels like a particularly intense spaghetti western but doesn’t step outside of the boundaries of the subgenre.
In its next portion, however, the film becomes a wildly different creature. By introducing the four master gunfighters, “El Topo” explicitly communicates its philosophical ideas. The first master, a soft-spoken hippy wearing only a loincloth, approaches life from an entirely subjective perspective. He doesn’t believe death to be real, so he doesn’t believe he can die. His total commitment to subjectivity allows bullets to pass through him. The second master uses total discipline to give him complete control over his fingers. His absolute control over his hand allow him to handle delicate wooden sculptures without crushing them. He also believes in the power of love, doing everything with his mother, believing this makes him a fuller human being. The third master lives with a field full of rabbits, which perish and die when evil is around. His expert aiming is a result of him trusting his heart over his head. The last master has no possessions and is completely free of all desires. He bounces El Topo’s bullets back at him with a butterfly net. Jodorowsky uses the gun fighting concept merely as a way to present different spiritual concepts.
How El Topo reacts to each of the masters reflects on his lack of growth as a person. He cheats each time, setting traps for each man. He digs a pit for the first master, leaves a spike on the ground for the second master’s mother, and blocks the third master’s bullet with a tin plate. These victories don’t make him feel any better. After gunning down the first master in cold blood, El Topo screams towards the sky in agony. By the time he reaches the third master, he is actively questioning his journey. He continues ahead anyway, assuming he’ll learn something after it’s over. He learns something all right. He discovers the hollowness and hatefulness of his life style.
The second half of “El Topo” is entitled “Psalms” and feels very different from the western-influenced first half. El Topo awakes in the underground cave, where the deformed inhabitants have worshiped him for decades. In that time, El Topo’s beard has grown long, his hair wild, his body dressed in white robes. This is some obvious Jesus symbolism. I don’t even think Jodorowsky was audacious enough to cast himself as a Christ figure. If anything, Jodorowsky is parodying heavy-handed symbolism like this. Instead, this transition precedes a rebirth, which is literally shown when Jodorowsky crawls between an old woman’s legs. He shaves his head, dressing in the robes of a simple monk. El Topo finds a new purpose in life, determined to shovel a way out of the cave, so the deformed populace can be free. El Topo becomes his namesake, the mole, digging through the rock. Having been through the hell of the desert, the film’s protagonist is finally free to recreate himself into a more noble person.
This leads to one of the oddest portions of an exceedingly odd film. Outside the mountain is a place referred to as the Big Village. The film spends a lot of time focusing on the strange decadence of the town. Slaves are hunted through the streets, their bodies branded with the town’s symbol. Nude hookers arrive in wooden boxes, kept in a huge underground brothel. Hideous old women, some of them with men’s voices, force themselves on the slaves, claiming things happened the other way around. The slave is then hanged in the streets. The obese town sheriff defecates in a golden commode after spending the night with three boys. The church services involves a game of Russian roulette. The town’s symbol is the Masonic all-seeing eye, positioned in a pyramid. What is the meaning of this choice? It’s hard to say. Is Jodorowsky aligning the decadence of the village with the American dollar? Is he mocking the Masons Abrahamic beliefs? Or was the symbol chosen just because it was easily identified? This is just one of the mysteries of “El Topo.”
“El Topo” ends on a powerful image. The freaks under the mountain escape, marching on the village with their twisted, malformed bodies. They are met with machine guns, mowed down. Enraged, El Topo picks up a rifle again and guns down everyone in the town. This was doubtlessly a cathartic image for the counterculture crowd that ate up “El Topo” in 1970. The finale trades in the same transgressive imagery as Todd Browning’s “Freaks.” Except in “El Topo,” the freaks get their revenge on the society that rejects them. The outsider tears down the culture that torments him. It signals an end of El Topo’s redemptive path but makes for an explosive finale.
“El Topo” ends on another iconic image, with the hero immolating himself, in a moment that purposely brings to mind Quang Duc’s suicide. This opens up “El Topo” as a politic film. The movie’s bountiful religious symbolism allows it to be interpreted from that angle as well. If you buy El Topo as a Christ figure, he’s as dark as one can be. Some even choose to read “El Topo” as a film about film, being about underground cinema’s symbolic journey to the mainstream. (And then, perhaps, destroying it?) This frames the choice of naming the main character and the film after a mole in a different, obvious light. Because “El Topo” is so full of life, energy, and esoteric ideas, it can be interpreted in countless different ways by every person who watches it.
“El Topo” is a far better constructed film then “Fando y Lis.” The camera work is more self-assured and smoother. On the remastered DVD, the film looks great, the desert stretching on forever in the wide-screen frame. The sound design is intentionally abrasive at times, showing the same mastery of the format that Jodorowsky had on his last feature. The music is surprisingly lyrical. Take, for example, the lovely melody that plays after the General’s castration. Though its hard to judge the acting when a film is as wild as this one, the performances are strong, especially Jodorowsky himself as the title character. You’d never guess that he was a director first and a performer second. It’s notable that, when begging in town to gain money to help carve the tunnel, when can see the director show off his clowning and miming skills.
For years, “El Topo” was unavailable due to issues with the rights holder. This granted the film a mysterious, forbidden air. When it was finally unleashed on the public again for the first time in three decades, it blew the minds of a whole new generation. “El Topo” has been called an experience. It’s an allegory, a metaphor, a collection of random ideas jammed together into a hodgepodge whole. If a film’s greatness is valued on its ability to be unforgettable, then “El Topo” must surely be one of the best. [Grade: A]
Sunday, January 18, 2015
Alejandro Jodorowsky has had as fascinating a career as any cult filmmaker could ask for. He began in obscurity, collecting interests in various esoteric topics, before making one of the definitive midnight movies. After creating a follow-up, he seemingly disappeared again, falling off the radar for years. He would return time and again, delivering another mind-melting cult oddity onto the art house circuit before vanishing again. And now, following a new film and a documentary about one of his many unrealized projects, it seems Alejandro Jodorowsky, at the age of 85, is hipper now then ever. He has a cult following for his shamanistic spiritual teachings, his comic books, but mostly his movies, which combine a number of divergent influences to create utterly unique visions unlike anything else ever put to celluloid. Over the next few days, I will attempt to assess, critique, and comprehend the mad worlds of Jodorowsky.
Fando and Lis
Fando y Lis
In the mid-sixties, Alejandro Jodorowsky was being influenced by many different things. Living in both Paris and Mexico City, Jodorowsky was heavily entrenched in performance art, studying mime and writing plays. He had also become interested in surrealism and anarchism, founding an artistic collective called the Panic Movement. Out of this bizarre collection of interests emerged “Fando and Lis,” Jodorowsky’s first feature film. A true example of underground film making, “Fando and Lis” was shot with next to no money and during the cast and crew’s free time. When the movie premiered at the Acapulco Film Festival in 1968, the audience was so shocked by it that they rioted. In time, the film would be banned in its native Mexico. Watching the movie now, fully aware of where Jodorowsky’s career would go, it’s easy to see that the director’s eccentric sensibility and knack for creating unique images was born in from the beginning.
Summarizing the plot of any Alejandro Jodorowsky film may seem daunting. The director has never been interested in mainstream story construction. “Fando y Lis,” for that matter, was shot with a one-page script and based on half-remembered memories Jodorowsky had of a stage play. Despite his trademark abstractions, the plots of Jodorowsky’s films can frequently be described in concise sentences. Fando and Lis are young lovers wandering a wasteland in search of a mythical city called Tar, where dreams are said to come true. Lis can not walk, so Fando must either carry her or push her around on a flimsy cart. On their aimless journey towards a goal that might not exist, the two strange characters encounter many more, far stranger characters.
Like all of Jodorowsky’s films, “Fando and Lis” has a dream-like tone, where reality is often interrupted by surreal or unusual events. Unlike many of of his other movies, this film is deliberately framed as a fairy tale. After the opening image of Lis eating a flower, while sirens play in the background, we cut to the credits. A voice-over starts with “Once upon a time…” before explaining the concept of Tar, a mystical, far away city where people live forever and no one is ever lonely or unloved. Aside the credits, we are shown images from classic fairy tales, of witches, giants, monsters, talking animals, and young adventurers. One image the camera lingers on is of Hansel and Gretel conquering the witch, which draws something of a direct parallel between that story and this film. Like Hansel and Gretel, Fando and Lis are two young people adrift in a world that means them harm.
“Fando y Lis” is usually described as a post-apocalyptic film. Even the back of the DVD case references it taking place in a world ravaged by the nuclear bomb. The movie itself doesn’t clarifies the nature of the catastrophe that has crippled the world. The post-apocalyptic nature is mostly an excuse to have the characters wander an endless desert full of very strange people. There are abandoned buildings and burnt-out ruins. There are also jazz bands, beggars, and priests. The point is: “Fando and Lis” is not horribly committed to the post-apocalyptic concept.
For all its surreal qualities, “Fando and Lis” is ultimately the story of two young lovers, trying to hold onto each other and survive. Like any couple, Fando and Lis have their ups and downs. The two’s relationship is explicitly romantic yet non-sexual. The film never implies any sort of physical attraction between the two. Considering one of the earlier scenes has Lis playing with dolls while Fando plays with toy soldiers, the two seem to be more like childhood soul mates than lovers. They have their good times. At one point, the two meet in a cemetery. Fando promises to bring flowers and a dog to Lis’ grave when she dies. Afterwards, they frolic among the graves, pantomiming scenarios. The one moment that comes closest to depicting a sexual relationship between the two is a fantasy sequence where Fando and Lis, both in the nude, paint each other’s name on their bodies.
It wouldn’t be a Jodorowsky movie without some vaguely defined, partially satirical jabs at organized religion and society. On their journey towards Tar, Fando and Lis encounter a man in a pope-like hat. He says some not clearly understood things before inviting the young couple to join him in an orgy in a mud pit. A little later, a priest and a blind beggar come across the two. The men inject Lis with a syringe, extracting some blood, which they both drink. Fando meets a group of old women, dressed in fancy clothes, sitting at a table atop a hill, eating hard-boiled eggs. This does not go well. The women crack the eggs and attack him. Men with bowling balls and a dominatrix clad in black leather beat Fando before wandering off. Clearly, Jodorowsky is taking some shots at religion and politics but they are not clearly defined.
The original American poster for the film promises an erotic journey full of phallic imagery. This is misleading marketing, as “Fando y Lis” is actually one of Jodorowsky’s least sexual films. There’s the aforementioned mud orgies but all the participants are partially clothed. A parade of male crossdressers march through the story. Fando joins in the dance, even putting on a dress. The most sexually explicit moment comes near the end when a group of men find Lis. They stripe her nude, inspecting the girl, before Fando chases them off. He is angry with the girl afterwards. Again, what does this stuff mean within the film’s wider themes? That’s a good question.
But what does it mean, if anything? Jodorowsky’s films are avant-garde but not Dadaist. He fills his movies full of obscure symbols with deep, not easily deciphered meanings. “Fando y Lis” seems focused on the trauma we carry with us from childhood. Before the end, Fando encounters his mother, burying her. The two most decidedly do not resolve their long lingering issues. Immediately after this scene, Fando is seen carrying Lis on his back, illustrating the metaphor perhaps too literally. The film even seems disgusted with the very idea of parenthood, displayed during the scene where Lis gives birth to a horde of pigs. Considering Jodorowsky’s own childhood was quite traumatic, it seems like a topic he would be interested in. Yet other things are on his mind here. The title characters seem to start out innocent but are quickly corrupted by the desolate world around them. The magical city of Tar is, of course, unreachable. By the end, the two are reunited peacefully anyway, finding their own sort of happiness. Naturally, this interpretation is highly personal and I expect everyone else could get something different out of the film.
Compared to his later films, “Fando and Lis” is far rougher. The film is not well paced and meanders quite a bit before it ends. The picture quality, even on the best DVD editions, is still muddy and dark. All of the dialogue was dubbed in later, meaning the actors’ lips frequently do not line up with the spoken words. The music is discordant and sometimes annoying. Weirdly, the sound design is quite good, giving the audience a good feel of the wasteland-like setting. The performances are difficult to read, given the material. Sergio Kleiner and Diana Mariscal certainly seem committed to the parts. The two are believable as a couple. They at least seem sure about what’s happening around them, even if the audience isn’t. Alejandro’s future films would remain this weird but his production values would get slightly higher from here on out.