Monday, January 26, 2015
Director Report Card: Alejandro Jodorowsky (1989)
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]