Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, January 18, 2015

Director Report Card: Alejandro Jodorowsky (1968)

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.

1. 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.

And it’s appropriate that the film begins with the voice of an adult speaking to a child. Childhood memories play a very important role in the unfolding story. Only minutes into the film, after we first see Fando and Lis traversing the desert, we cut away to the title’s characters’ strange flashback. As a small child, Fando played in a garden with his father, where he was first told the story of Tar. Lis’ childhood, meanwhile, appeared far more traumatic. We see her as a little girl in a theater. After interrupting a puppet show, where the director himself plays the puppeteer, the small girl is menaced by mimes and clowns before seemingly being raped by a trio of adult men. Later, we are given a glimpse of Fando’s traumatic childhood as well. We see his garish, drag queen mother mock and patronize him, while a crowd of fans treat her death scene like a theatrical experience. We see Fando at his father’s funeral, frightened by the people around him. By cutting back and forth between these surreal moments and the (admittedly equally surreal) current day, Jodorowsky creates a far-off atmosphere, where life is influenced by half-remembered nightmares and haunting memories.

“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.

Yet there are plenty of times when Fando and Lis are not happy. When not pushing her around in a cart, Fando has to carry Lis, illustrating her as a literal burden on him. At one point, the two come to a cliff side. Fando insists he can see many beautiful flowers. When Lis says she can’t see them, he becomes angry at her, dragging her across the rocky road. He increasingly begins to feel that the girl is holding him back. She feels like he resents her. This is metaphorically shown near the end when he wants to put handcuffs on her. In turn, she destroys Fando’s drum, a symbol associated with him throughout the film. Ultimately, the two are pulled apart by their differences, leading to regret on both sides.

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.

Maybe Jodorowsky’s greatest gift as a filmmaker is his ability to create utterly unforgettable images. Though crude, “Fando and Lis” is no different in this respect. While hanging out with an unexpected jazz band, we’re treated to the image of a burning piano, falling apart in reverse. Reverse footage is used several times, such as when Fando and Lis are burying a doll in the graveyard. At one point, Lis screams in a pile of cow skulls, a man atop the bones shrieking at her. Later, a group of sinister guys cut open a baby doll, filling its inside with small snakes. A man’s funeral is interrupted when his chest is cut open and a bird is pulled out. Someone then swallows that bird. Whether it makes any sense or is of interest to the viewer is purely up to personal opinion. Either way, you’re not likely to forget moments like these.

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.

Like all of the director’s films, “Fando y Lis” is less a coherent narrative and more of an experience. The film presents scenes and images that are indelible and unforgettable. The film has enough feeling and heart that it stops just short of being unlikeable pretentious. Will it leave most viewers scratching their heads, wondering what the point is? Probably. Will patient, discerning cult movie fans find plenty to like in it? Likely. [Grade: B]

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