Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Director Report Card: Alejandro Jodorowsky (1980)

4. Tusk
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.”

However, if one looks a little closer, a few of Jodorowsky trademarks can be seen. Like most of the director’s films, “Tusk” is broken up into chapters. The chapter breaks are visualized by the scene fading to a desaturated painting. An Indian snake charmer seemingly transforms into a chicken in one scene. The villains of the film are possibly homosexuals, giving each other affectionate neck rubs. One smokes cigarettes made out of camel hair or monkey shit, an odd element. A late night chase scene, where Elise is threatened by a rogue elephant, has a dream-like quality to it lacking from most of the film. A British priest is revered by the locals but, in his private life, drinks far too much. This is a touch of religious satire present in the filmmaker’s other work. The biggest Jodorowsky element of the film is that the Maharajas' wife is, for no explained reason, played by a man in drag. Otherwise, “Tusk” is lacking in Jodorowsky signifiers.

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.

A deeper reading of “Tusk” reveals it as a criticism of western imperialism and the British empire. Elise’s father begins the film as a cruel businessman, exploiting the land and the people, never caring for the repercussion. The villains of the film pursue Tusk strictly for the money he’s worth. Elephants, shown in the film as intelligent and compassionate creatures, are frequently referred to as property, valued only for what they’re worth. Elise adopts the culture of the local people, much to her dad’s rage. When Tusk escapes, he targets not the hunters after him but symbols of British empire. He stands in the way of a train, literally stopping the forces of capitalism in its path. When further antagonized, Tusk pushes the train over, the cowardly priest inside. It’s notable that, at the end, after loosing his fortune, Elise’s father is converted to the local religion, taken to a temple and adorn in body paint.

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.

Another weaker factor in the story is its romantic subplot. Richard Cairn is an American big game hunter invited to India to hunt down the rogue elephant. He seems to develop feelings for Elise as soon as he sees her. As is expected, she is disgusted by the man and how many innocent elephants he’s killed. As their adventure goes on, the two grow closer. After saving her life at the end, Elise leaps into Cairn’s arms, giving him a big kiss. This happens with little build-up and is definitely one of the more laughable moments in the film. The romantic subplot ends up adding very little to the story.

“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.

During the rare times when he has acknowledge the film, 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+]

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