Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Bangers n' Mash 57: The 2014 Phantom Awards

Guess what I forgot to do? Post the link to the most recent episode of the podcast! This actually went up on the 22nd. Since it was January, Mr. Mash and I did our yearly ritual: The Phantom Awards! Yes, that made-up award show I created to honor the sci-fi, horror, and fantasy films I most liked last year.

Here it is, the last day of January, and a second episode of the podcast will not be out within the next hour. Why do the Phantom Award episodes take so long to cut? I don't know, though I suspect it's because the format is rough fit between our usual, heavily planned style and our occasional, more free form episodes. And, guess what?, the episode I'm currently editing is similar! It'll be out next month, along with two other shows, if everything goes according to plan. It might not but it should. Probably. Maybe.

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.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Recent Watches: Jodorowsky's Dune (2014)

Of all the most tantalizing films that were never made, I think Alejandro Jodorowsky’s adaptation of “Dune” might be the most exciting. For years, I’ve heard about the mysterious, unrealized project. About how it was going to be fourteen hours long and based more on 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.

The most vital thing about “Jodorowsky’s Dune” is it gives the audience the closest look we’ve ever had at the film that was not to be. The documentary shows some of the extensive story boards 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.

This is all the more impressive considering “Jodorowsky’s Dune” is not much more then what we’d call 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.

It wouldn’t be a discussion about “Jodorowsky’s Dune” without mentioning the influence the unmade project had many films made afterwards. “Dune” brought together Dan O’Bannon and H.R. Giger, giving us “Alien.” Jodorowsky’s massive bible went around every Hollywood studio, during the director’s failed attempt to raise funds. The film presents a good case that “Dune” was harvested for ideas by other films. The sweeping desert vistas were probably an influence on “Star Wars,” along with the presence of laser-swords and intelligent robots. The point-of-view of a robot, showing an on-screen HUB, showed up in “The Terminator.” We see clips from films as divergent in quality as “Flash Gordon,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Blade Runner,” “Masters of the Universe,” “Contact,” “The Matrix,” and “Prometheus,” all of which were possibly influenced by Jodorowsky’s unmade epic. The director even admits to stealing from himself, reusing many of the ideas conceived for “Dune” for his various comic book series. Most of these are coincidences, probably, but it’s a fun to present Jodorowsky’s “Dune” as a cinematic 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

Director Report Card: Alejandro Jodorowsky (1990)

6. 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.

However, when it comes down to it, “The Rainbow Thief” does not feel like a Jodorowsky movie. The film lacks any of the director’s deeper themes. There’s no discussion of spiritualism, mysticism, psycho-magic, philosophy, Jungian psychology, or even parenthood. Moreover, the movie lacks the sense of anything-can-happen surrealism that characterizes the director’s other films. To put it plainly, even with its moments of whimsy and eccentricity, “The Rainbow Thief” is simply not weird enough to be a Alejandro Jodorowsky movie. Even “Tusk” featured a dream-like sequence or two and an overall exotic feeling. This one doesn't even have that.

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.

In order to fill time before the film can end, “The Rainbow Thief” has to thrown around a bunch of characters and subplot. Dima swipes a gramophone from a dwarf early in the film. The dwarf pursues him throughout most of the film. Is this plot line ever resolved? Nope. What about the dwarf’s best friend, a seven foot tall giant? Contributes nothing to the plot. Dima’s love interest, an old fat woman? The Jewish bartender that he owes money to? The street urchin who live at the dock, one of which dies in a fist fight? The fortune teller played by a man in drag, a rare Jodorowsky-style element? None of these characters add to the story or pay off in any fashion. They are seemingly there just to pad out the run time.

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.

Perhaps the only thing “The Rainbow Thief” has anything in its favor is its leading men. Despite Peter O’Toole getting top billing, Omar Sharif is actually the star of the show. Sharif has some decent moments in the film. He seems to have a good time playing a rogue, constantly swiping items from hapless people. My favorite moment has him leading a blind lady down the stairs, only to make it off with his purse. The finale has Sharif doing some good acting, falling into a catatonic state for several hours or days. Sharif is likable enough to overcome the weak writing of his character.

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.
That Jodorowsky would disown “The Rainbow Thief” doesn’t shock me. The film lacks the feel, tone, and unique energy of all his previous films, even the subdued “Tusk.” That the director’s creative spirit was being restrained during its production is easy to see. The film is not without its highlights but they are few and far between. The pacing is unfocused, the story far too thin, and the execution tired and uninspired. The best thing I can say about the film? It’s short, running at a brief 87 minutes. “The Rainbow Thief” didn’t receive a theatrical release in the U.S. when it was new. Even now, it’s unavailable on DVD. (Though apparently a Blu-Ray exist in the UK.) Unlike Jodorowsky’s other hard-to-find films, this state of limbo is arguably where “The Rainbow Thief” belongs.” It is the director’s weakest work. [Grade: C]

Monday, January 26, 2015

Director Report Card: Alejandro Jodorowsky (1989)

5. Santa Sangre
Holy Blood

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.

Both of Fenix’s parents have damaged personalities. Each extends the masculine and feminine stereotypes to their furthest, disturbing ends. Fenix’s father is named Orgo, which is derived from organ, like “sex organ.” This is appropriate, since his dad is a symbol of brutish masculinity. His name is also one letter away from “ogre,” which also describes him. Guy Stockwell is a huge man, fat and grotesque. He wears garish make-up and a goofy blonde wig, making him look like 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.

Among the many things “Santa Sangre” is, it is also an ode to Mexico. The whole film is set in the dilapidated, impoverished streets of Mexico. The dusty, ruined city is practically a character onto itself. Jodorowsky captures the state of the time well, by focusing on the ruined store fronts, sleazy theaters, and poor communities. Yet “Santa Sangre” also celebrates the heritage of the country. One sequence is set on the streets of Mexico during a Dias de los Muertos celebration. A sleazy pimp plies cocaine and introduces a group of mental patient to an overweight prostitute. It’s not a very positive portrayal but doubtlessly a colorful one.

“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.

Despite its moment of intense violence, “Santa Sangre’s” horror is primarily psychological. After being freed from the asylum, Fenix becomes his mother’s hands. She controls him, the two linked. One notably impressive scene has the two playing a piano together or Fenix putting on his mother’s makeup. His fingernails are always painted red, signifying his constant link to his mother. Kudos to Axel Jodorowsky as Fenix, who really seems to be one with Concha in several scene. However, Fenix doesn’t just assume his mother’s attributes. He is sexually excited by the stripper in the burlesque club. When he decides to seduce her, he dresses in his father’s cowboy uniform. He stabs the knives around her in suggestive ways, mirroring an earlier scene between Orgo and the Tattooed Woman. Of course, mother appears, taking control of his arms back, forcing him to kill. Surely, Fenix knew that the cowboy routine would go horribly wrong. Yet this is all he knows. Because of his upbringing, he believes this is how a man seduces a woman. Fenix quickly realizes his sexual desires lead to murder. In one unforgettable moment, when sexually aroused, he pulls a python from his pants, the giant snake coiling around his neck. He is strangled by his own desires.

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.

Like all the director’s other films, “Santa Sangre” is full of unforgettable images. An early highlight is the funeral for the dead elephant. The circus performers wear their regular outfits except painted in black. Fenix’s father leads the procession on a horse, waving a US flag. The clowns spray tears from their eyes from concealed pumps. The elephant, in its giant casket, is dropped off a cliff. A village of poor, primitive-seeming people descend on the dead elephant, eating its flesh. This is just a sampler. We see chickens pecking at severed arms and dogs licking up blood. A man tears away his own ear. A dead body is hidden in a donkey costume. Corpses are painted white and transform into swans. An image of Christ appears in a room full of chickens. A white horse emerges from an open grave. These moments and more give “Santa Sangre” a surreal, dream-like power.

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

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+]

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Director Report Card: Alejandro Jodorowsky (1973)

3. The Holy Mountain
La montaƱa 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 Holy Mountain” is an exploration of philosophy and spiritualism. It is also a biting satire about the foibles of the human society. This is most evident in the film’s first third. In a space of about forty minutes, most of which goes by without any dialogue, we are introduced to the world of “The Holy Mountain.” The Thief and his friend, a man who crawls with malformed arms and legs, explore the city. Trucks full of dead bodies roam the street. Soldiers in gas mask gun down protesters. Meanwhile, American tourist, clad in garish sombreros, record the atrocities with handheld movie cameras. What Jodorowsky is getting at here isn’t subtle but he goes on anyway. A circus show, which the Thief and his friend is invited to perform at, portrays the conquest of Mexico by the conquistadors with frogs and lizards. The show ends with the miniature pyramids exploding, the reptiles being brutally killed. The director is mocking the economically prosperous America’s relationship with the poorer Mexico. People are dying in the streets while the Americans laugh and have a good time. It’s one of the most overt political messages Jodorowsky has ever made.

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.

A long section in the middle of “The Holy Mountain” is devoted to introducing each member of the traveling group. On one hand, this brings the pacing to a halt and is easily the strangest, most pretentious portion of the film. Each traveler represents a planet. They are said to be the most powerful people in the world. Each one also represents another crime of the human world. The first man, representative of Venus, runs a factory that produces many things. He makes masks that project people’s preferred image, hiding their true faces. He also makes devices that animate corpses at funerals. This criticizes the shallowness of the world and the cruel industries that take advantage of people’s insecurities. The woman from Mars, meanwhile, makes weapons. Soldiers toss themselves onto bayonets, bleeding yellow. Her male concubines sleep in a giant chamber. She produces weapons designed to appeal to hippies, guitars that are shotguns. She even sells to different religions, guns outfitted with crucifixes, silver Buddhas, or menorahs. Here, Jodorowsky is biting the hand that feeds him. He is making fun of the shallow hippies that embrace spirituality just because its trendy.

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.

The shortest section focuses on the architect from Pluto. Deciding people don’t need lawns or homes, he makes the perfect apartment: Coffin shaped boxes. Behold, the director is satirizing industry’s disinterest in people’s well fair. None of this satire is subtle. Yet the party member’s back story is part of the movie’s backbone. These people are the most wicked humans alive. They search for enlightenment, abandoning their worldly possessions. In order to gain true knowledge, one most know what’s it’s like to lose everything. So Jodorowsky can have it both ways. He can skewer the conditions of the world and explore his far-out spiritual ideas.

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 group climbs the Holy Mountain, the film reaches its nightmarish peak. The travelers are haunted by disturbing visions. We see dogs fighting. A woman in a tree, the branches covered with white chicken corpses, castrates one of the men. Two cows fucking is intercut with one of the women’s faces being covered with white slime. A man with sagging teats breastfeeds one of the travelers. His breasts transform into tigers who then spew milk. What the hell does it mean? Do we pass through hell before reaching enlightenment? Who knows. Is it freaky as hell? Obviously.

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

Director Report Card: Alejandro Jodorowsky (1970)

2. El Topo
The Mole

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.

Jodorowsky builds upon these idea in the setting of a spaghetti western. “El Topo” has been described as 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.

El Topo is accompanied on his quest by a woman, Mara. The two’s bizarre relationship is one of the hardest things about “El Topo” to grasp. After rescuing her from the General, El Topo abandons his own son to follow Mara's whims. While out in the desert, he rapes her, pulling her cloths off, dragging her across the dune. Midway through the film’s middle section, the two are joined by another woman. This woman speaks with a man’s voice and dresses in clothes similar to El Topo’s. After being whipped by Mara, the two women fall in love. This is illustrated during a sequence where the new woman cuts open a cactus, licking the insides suggestively. Eventually, the women betray El Topo, shooting him. So what does that mean? Considering a woman eggs on his self-destructive journey and then leaves him to die, it’s possible Jodorowsky is satirizing sexist ideas, even parodying the casual misogyny of the western genre. Yet it also difficult to read “El Topo” as a feminist text. It’s probably the most problematic aspect of the film.

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.”

Another topic floating around inside the film’s brain is fatherhood. In the beginning, El Topo commands his son to bury his teddy bear and his mother’s picture, saying he’s a man now at the age of seven. At the end of the first act, after running off with his woman, El Topo abandons his son. The boy, seen only in the nude up to this point, is suddenly clothed in a monk’s robe. When father and son meet again, years later, El Topo’s son is a man of the cloth questioning his faith. After helping his father’s newest mission, the son begins to wear his dad’s old clothes, his cowboy hat and leather chaps. The film ends with the son, now truly a man, dresses as his father, riding into the desert. The son inherits the father’s legacy. How does this reflect upon the film’s primary theme of enlightenment? Again, there is no clear answer.

“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.

Most importantly, this is a Jodorowsky’s film and is, thus, built on unforgettable images. When he guns down the bandits in an early scene, there is a quick flash on the screen of their faces splattered with blood. The General’s men taunt the woman by positioning dead iguanas between  their legs. She dresses the General inside a strange, stone dome, its walls covered with Catholic iconography. While traversing the desert, El Topo and his female companion bury themselves in the sand, rising up like undead zombies. He shoots a stone, causing water to spurt up from underground. She pulls egg shells from the sand. The first master is accompanied by two men. One has no legs, the other has no arms. The armless man carries the legless man on his back, the two becoming whole together. The second master has a lion chained up next to him, for some reason. After killing the last master, El Topo runs screaming through the dunes. A grave of rabbit pelts burst into flames. He pushes down a stone wall, a crucified goat nailed to the side. He pulls up a bee’s nest, rubbing the yellow honey on his face. Some of it makes sense, some of it doesn’t. It’s all definitively Jodorowsky and utterly unforgettable.

“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]