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Friday, January 30, 2015

Director Report Card: Alejandro Jodorowsky (2013)

7. The Dance of Reality
La danza de la realidad

In the many years since “The Rainbow Thief,” Alejandro Jodorowsky has come close to making another movie. For a long time, he’s discussed a sequel to “El Topo,” alternatively known as either “The Sons of El Topo” or “Abelcain,” that has yet to be made. “King Shot,” described as a metaphysical gangster film, was nearly made. Despite a producer credit from David Lynch and a cast that included Asia Argento, Udo Kier, and Nick Nolte, the proper budget couldn’t be raised. Unable to make movies, Jodorowsky devoted himself to writing books and comics. That is until the “Jodorowsky’s Dune” documentary reunited him with Michel Seydoux, the producer behind the unmade “Dune” film. A friendship rekindled, Seydoux provided Jodorowsky with the funds necessary to make a new movie, “The Dance of Reality,” his first in 23 years.

Based off Jodorowsky’s own autobiography, “The Dance of Reality” details Jodorowsky’s own childhood growing up in a poor Chilean mining town. Teased and rejected by kids his own age for his Jewish heritage, young Alejandro didn’t have many friends. His father, a shop owner and staunch communist, treats the child roughly, hoping to rise him as a touch man. His mother, a former opera singer, is kinder to the boy. “The Dance of Reality” follows young Alejandro as he goes through the trials of growing up and his father while he embarks on a political, spiritual journey of his own.

“The Dance of Reality” shows the value of the autobiography. By discussing his own childhood, Jodorowsky gives us a peak into how his creative vision evolved. In “El Topo,” Jodorowsky as the title character forced his son to enter adulthood at seven years old. In “The Dance of Reality,” we see Alejandro’s own father put him through a similar ritual at the same age. In “Santa Sangre,” the director told the story of a child torn in two by a father obsessed with reinforcing masculinity and a religiously frantic mother. In this film, Jodorowsky shows his own childhood as being something similar. His father was so afraid of his son growing up to be homosexual, he enforced insane restrictions on the boy. “The Dance of Reality” is framed as the director reflecting on his life. It begins with him talking directly to the audience. Several times, the adult Jodorowsky appears to comfort himself as a child. For further realism, the film was even shot in Jodorowsky’s childhood town. In his last film, the director went back to the beginning of his life, retroactively showing his fans the origins of his obsessions.

Despite being based on actual events, that the director himself experienced, “The Dance of Reality” does not lack Jodorowsky’s usual style. The film dips its toes into magic realism throughout. Jodorowsky’s father has hired a dwarf to stand outside the family shop, dressing him in various ridiculous costumes. The other citizens of the town, the unimportant characters, all wear white, detail-concealing masks, making them look like ghosts or non-entities. Before tickling his son, as another test of his manliness, the elder Jodorowsky materializes a feather out of thin air. A little later, he is spreading transparent boots over a shoehorn. As if to dispel any notions that the director has lost his touch, “The Dance of Reality” begins with the characters visiting a circus, with a duo of very strange acting clowns.

In a further meta element, the director cast his own son, Brontis Jodorowsky, as his father. The movie does not sugar-coat the relationship the filmmaker had with his father. Early on, the father forces his son to cut his long, girlish locks, a traumatic experience for the boy. He holds his son down, tickling him, threatening to punish him if he laughs. He slaps young Alejandro so hard that it breaks a tooth. The following dental surgery takes place with anesthesia. Even after going through an ordeal like that, his dad still questions Alejandro’s manliness.

Alejandro’s mother could not be more different then his father. Jodorowsky’s actual mother was a former opera singer. To illustrate this, the film has her sing every one of her lines. This is a whimsical touch that might be a bridge too far. At first, it’s a bit annoying. However, the film gets you use to it. As opposed to his atheist father, Alejandro’s mother was highly religious, praising God for miracles at one point. However, some of her spiritual background is more shamanistic, such as her belief that her son is a reincarnation of her father. The most touching moment between mother and son begins like its going in a weird direction. The young Alejandro has a existential crisis in the middle of the night, afraid that the darkness will consume him. His mother stripes both of them naked, covering their bodies in shoe polish, and play the rest of the night. It’s the sort of touching, sweet moment you wouldn’t expect from the master of visceral surrealism.

The reason, we discover, why Jodorowsky has been so enamored with politics and religion throughout his life and career is because both of those things played a huge part of his childhood.  His father, at least as depicted in “The Dance of Reality,” was a serious communist who worshiped Stalin on a nearly literal level. He shows his distaste for Chile’s current government early on when he urinates on the television during a presidential speech. In the middle of the night, he leaves his home, walking into the town’s red light district. He meets with his follow communists in a brothel, surrounded by transvestite hookers. His father’s political passion eventually run so high that he feels compelled to assassinate Chile’s president. This leads him on a nutty adventure. He sails on a boat, prevents the assassination of the country's leader from another killer while at a dog costume contest, and takes up a job as the presidential horse keeper. Genuinely falling in love with the horse, the elder Jodorowsky begins to question his loyalties to his political cause. “The Dance of Reality” heads off for even more unexpected territory from there.

Politics is only half of the film’s dual themes. “The Dance of Reality” also discusses religion and the future filmmaker’s interest in philosophy. Alejandro’s mother was so religious that, when his father suddenly becomes sick, she prays to God to make her a holy vessel of his powers. (How this plays out is probably the nastiest thing the director has ever put on screen.) Despite his father’s refusal, the young Alejandro befriends a local mystic. The mystic, also played by one of Jodorowsky’s actual sons, informs the boy to melt down his cross and Star of David into one medal. His father rejects this philosophy, applying to atheist beliefs that there is no afterlife. This pays off in a moment where the young boy freaks out at a funeral. He imagines himself in the casket with the zombie-like deceased, leered at by skeleton-headed watchers. Fantastically illustrated, it is easily the creepiest moment in the film.

Of course, there’s a bit of sex too. The film displays the young Alejandro’s primal scene, walking in on his parents’ enthusiastic love-making. Interestingly, the boy never comments on this, the film letting the moment pass by. A more personal encounter comes a little later. Alejandro’s class mates retreat behind a rock to masturbate together. They encourage the lead character to join in. However, they mock him for his circumcised penis. (The film gets around any uncomfortable nudity for the young actors by having them masturbate with dildos instead. I’m not sure this is any less odd.) The boy faces rejection for his heritage, even on this very basic level.

Jodorowsky has always been excellent at capturing the unique feel of his locations. The town of Tocopilla apparently changed very little since the director’s childhood. He fills the town with colorful, surreal characters, like a collection of crippled men, former mine workers, who gather in front of a store. Or, later on, a club occupied solely by gay sailors. An oddly touching moment has the young Jodorowsky gifting his brand new shoes to his only friend in town, which ends in tragedy. Tocopilla seems very dream-like, because of the director’s trademark style, but you come away from the film with an idea of what the real place is actually like.

“The Dance of Reality” is as much about Jodorowsky’s father as it is himself. Most of the film’s second hour is devoted to his father’s surreal adventures abroad. He replaces the president’s horse keeper, burying the man alive in a highly symbolic moment. The sight of the beautiful mare seems to send both men into fits of orgasmic glee. After failing to kill the president, the father goes mad, having a series of bizarre encounters. He befriends a kindly Christian carpenter, who gives him board, friendship, and a renewed sense of purpose, forcing the man to reevaluate his opinions about religion. He attends church with the man, giving away all of his cash, before running into political trouble, and being brutally tortured by government agent. Amazingly, he returns home, forced by his wife to totally discard his old, tyrannical beliefs. In “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain,” Jodorowsky told stories about lost individuals seeking enlightenment. In “The Dance of Reality,” he applies this same narrative to his own father. At first, these long sequences come off as meandering or besides the point of the main plot. However, eventually they won me over, being equal parts funny and inspiring, leading to an emotionally cathartic conclusion.

Even in a story as grounded as this, Jodorowsky creates some unforgettable sequences. A tribe of diseased people, all clad in black, march into a town, an incendiary image up there with anything from “El Topo.” The father’s attempt to give the sick masses water ends with them eating his donkey, which also recalls “Santa Sangre.” During his inadvertent spiritual quest, the father wakes up painted in red, white and blue. (The Chilean national colors but, no doubt intentionally, also the American colors.) In his amnesia, he became involved with a sad dwarf woman, living in the worst slum imaginable. The man, dressed strangely, sitting below an iron tower, surrounded by dogs, conversing with a real hunchback, would not be out of place in “The Holy Mountain.”  The funniest, most bizarre moment in the film has Jodorowsky’s dad fighting off a batch of misplaced Nazis, growing like an animal, swiping at them with psychic claws, reducing them to crying babies. The final images of the film are haunting and poetic, showing an old man near death, reflecting on his childhood, his memories, and his impending mortality, leaving behind the hurt of his early life. He may have been retired from movies for twenty years but Alejandro Jodorowsky never lost his touch for the surreal, absurd, or the oddly poignant.

An elegant musical score, a strong cast, and lovely cinematography cements “The Dance of Reality” as another brilliant film from Alejandro Jodorowsky. It is more personal, quiet, and emotionally resonant then his wild 1970s films without loosing any of that visceral power. It’s unlikely that “The Dance of Reality” will become a cult classic on the level of “El Topo.” Nothing ever really could. Yet it does prove what we already know: Nobody makes movies like Alejandro Jodorowsky. As true now as it was then. [Grade: A]

Given the difficulty he's had getting films funded in the past, and his age, it's hard to know if Alejandro Jodorowsky will ever make another movie. After so many failed attempts to film it, he's decided to instead make "Sons of El Topo" as a comic book. In an interview, he mentioned working on a director's cut of "Tusk" and a new film, which might be an adaptation of his comic series "Son of the Gun." If Jodorowsky does ascend to a higher plain of existence before making another movie, "The Dance of Reality" was a fine swan song. His legacy is secure. However, it would be awfully cool to have another film from the greatest cult movie maker to ever live. This Director Report Card has been like watching one of Jodorowsky's films. It was exhilarating, bizarre, and showed me things I've never seen before.

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