Thursday, June 2, 2011

Getting acquainted with ... Alejandro Jodorowsky

This is the fourth in my monthly Getting Acquainted series, in which I watch three films per month by filmmakers (directors, actors, etc.) whose work I need to better acquaint myself with. I discuss the films freely, so this is your SPOILER ALERT.

Five months ago I had never even heard of Alejandro Jodorowsky. Then within two days at the end of January, it was like he willed himself onto my radar.

He first came up when someone in the Flickchart community on Facebook posted about having just seen Jodorowsky's El Topo, and wondering if they needed to reconsider their top 20 all-time films. That kind of praise tends to make a person take notice. Then just two days later, Don Handsome sent me a link to this website, which really deserves its own separate post: It's called "If We Don't, Remember Me," and it includes animated gifs from movies -- famous (and not so famous) stills from dozens of movies (some of them repeated) that move, in a repeating loop. You can see it for yourself better than I can describe it, so I urge you to go to the link above. Anyway, one of the movies on that site that got several animated gifs was Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain.

I actually thought at first that these might be Jodorowsky's only two features -- that's why, you may remember, I said last month that I might have to cheat on this edition of Getting Acquainted. The cheating would have been watching two movies rather than my usual three. But as it turned out, I must have been looking at a poor listing of his work, because he seems to actually have made five features, three of which I have now seen.

So who is this Alejandro Jodorowsky -- whose name is credited as "Alexandro" on those two movies, but since then has adopted the more familiar J instead of the X -- anyway?

Well, Jodorowsky is a Chilean experimental filmmaker, whose work has primarily been in Mexico, where he's lived most of his life. His ethnically ambiguous name is the result of his Jewish parents having emigrated to Chile from the Ukraine. His difficult family life growing up -- he was conceived as the result of his father raping his mother because his father thought she was cheating on him -- certainly informs the bizarre images I saw this past month. Many of these images were not seen by audiences for many years, as at least one of his films (The Holy Mountain) was impossible to see until recently. However, he had some very notable friends who were big supporters of his avant-garde visions (among them John Lennon), and El Topo was one of the first-ever midnight movies, as it played for months in a theater in New York where pot smoking was tolerated by the management.

If I haven't indicated it successfully so far, this guy's stuff is weird.

But let's discontinue the bio at this point and get into the specifics.

El Topo (1970, Alejandro Jodorowsky). Watched: Wednesday, May 11th

I knew I had something interesting in store from this film's opening moments, which include a gunslinger riding up on a town where everyone has been slaughtered in brutal ways. (The first corpse you see is skewered on a long pole.) The brutal slaughter was not necessarily what tipped me off to the film's different feel, however -- it was the fact that riding in with him was a naked boy of about seven or eight years old, his son. Why the boy has no clothes is never explained.

What qualifies as a plot in El Topo involves the title character (el topo means "the mole") first avenging the slaughtered community by tracking down those who did the slaughtering at a nearby monastery, then leaving his son with the monks in order to duel and defeat the four fastest gunslingers in the land. He does this at the urgings of a woman he meets, who takes up the journey with him. He finds each famous fighter and defeats him, not usually by superior skill, but some kind of trickery. They are also joined on their journey by a second woman with a man's voice. She later steals El Topo's love interest and leaves him for dead. (In a film like this, this could not possibly qualify as a spoiler.) El Topo is saved by a bunch of physically disabled "freaks" and convalesces for many years in their cave, where he becomes something of a messiah figure. Because of their infirmities, they cannot escape the cave -- they need an able-bodied person (such as himself) to escape through a hole in the cave ceiling and then tunnel back in to set them free. Only this doesn't go exactly as planned. Oh, did I mention that Jodorowsky himself plays the lead?

If this structure itself is not weird enough, it's the details within the structure that make it so. For the first time here we see Jodorowsky's fascination with misshapen human beings. There are a number in this film, but one in particular stands out -- a symbiotic pairing of two humans in which a man with no legs rides on the back of a man with no arms. Each provides the limbs the other doesn't have, and together they become one (semi-)functioning whole. What's interesting is how these freaks are not accorded the usual dramatic breaks. In fact, as they are aligned with El Topo's enemy, he guns them down -- despite the pitying attitude that would normally be displayed toward such half-humans in most narrative films. (I am guessing that Jodorowsky was heavily influenced by Tod Browning's Freaks.)

Another disturbing recurring image in El Topo is graves covered by swarms of bees. Several times in the film, we see either grave sites that are teeming with bees, or dead bodies that appear to have been picked clean by them. It's like they're playing the role that would normally be played by maggots. Jodorowsky's own unique take is somehow more grotesque and unholy.

It's hard to really talk about El Topo on the whole because it's built so much on specific vignettes characterized by specific imagery, whose meanings are not always clear and may not relate to the other vignettes. However, a pretty deep contempt for humanity runs throughout this film. At seemingly five- to ten-minute intervals throughout the movie, humans are slaughtering other humans for sport, pride, or simple meanness. There's a whole town of religious cultists whose main object is to humiliate and kill the freaks in the second half of the film. No motivation is given for these actions -- we are just meant to believe it's human nature.

The film is ultimately a trip that's worth taking. I can't begin to talk about all the weird things that happen in this film, and having some of them left as surprises is probably more important than having the actually details of the plot (such as they are) left unspoiled. The pure visual fascination of what Jodorowsky conjures is worth devoting two hours, even if you aren't a fan of experimental cinema. And if you aren't, you are definitely better off with this than ...

The Holy Mountain (1973, Alejandro Jodorowsky). Watched: Tuesday, May 17th

Although El Topo was the only Jodorowsky film I'd heard praised, The Holy Mountain was the one I was truly looking forward to because of the images I'd seen on the website discussed above. This despite the fact that Don Handsome, who sent me the link, expressed his reservations about The Holy Mountain after his own curiosity compelled him to rent it. If I dug El Topo, I seemed likely to dig The Holy Mountain as well.

For starters it's a lot more colorful than El Topo. While that film is a western and everything is some shade of brown, The Holy Mountain is overflowing with color. In fact, the opening credits sequence brings you right in to the film's vibrant palette, as a possibly nefarious religious figure shaves the heads of two topless women against the background of some kind of ornate temple. Moments later, you're seeing a street performance involving a miniature kingdom full of toads dresses as people in the kingdom, flopping among one another as a miniature volcano erupts and the scene explodes into battle and violence. There are also a bunch of people in the street being randomly executed nearby. And this all before the movie is ten minutes old.

There's even less of a plot in this film than in El Topo -- more just an aimless (but profound) condemnation of organized religion. Street merchants mold the body of a Christ figure (is it actually Christ?) so they can sell life-sized casts of Christ to the masses. The man is actually The Fool, of tarot card fame, and he is accompanied by a dwarf without legs or hands. The Fool eats the face of one of the molded Christ figures in a parody of eating the body of Christ. He eventually ascends the outside of an obolisk-like tower (this is actually a breathtaking scene) where he meets an alchemist (Jodorowsky), who turns The Fool's own excrement into gold. He then introduces The Fool to seven other mortals who will accompany him on his journey to enlightenment, who correspond to the planets in our solar system and are each the stars of a satirical segment which shows them in their natural habitat: a cosmetics manufacturer (Venus), a weapons manufacturer (Mars), a millionaire art dealer (Jupiter), a war toy maker (Saturn), a political financial adviser (Uranus), a police chief (Neptune) and an architect (Pluto). Eventually these characters all go together to a holy mountain on an island.

I've left the plot synopsis intentionally choppy and unspecific, a) because I didn't want to steal wholesale from the synopsis contained on wikipedia, which I relied on heavily to even get this far, and b) because it kind of reproduces the experience of watching this movie. Even though this movie is in English (El Topo was in Spanish), you feel an even greater sense of watching a foreign film where you must have spaced out for a minute and lost your bearings within the plot because you failed to read some key subtitles. That's not to say The Holy Mountain "doesn't make sense" -- it's to say that making sense is besides the point. This movie is all about its indelible imagery. I mean, do you expect an image like the one below to make sense?

It's all about the grotesque immediacy of what you're seeing. It doesn't have to be about anything else to be worth watching. Worth loving? Maybe not. But worth exposing yourself to, indeed.

Plus Jodorowsky's sense of humor is a lot more evident in this film. There's an entire scene devoted to an elaborate "orgasm machine," and what you have to do to make it achieve its purpose. I laughed at other absurdities, some of which I don't remember right now. And f I don't remember all the details, that's by design as well -- some of them are meant to just hit your eyes and bounce off, then linger somewhere in your subconscious. Unless you see the movie again, to try to solidify the experience into something more concrete. Maybe I will ... but probably not for another decade or so.

Santa Sangre (1989, Alejandro Jodorowksy). Watched: Saturday, May 28th

Maybe Jodorowsky himself thought he was done after The Holy Mountain, and couldn't possibly top its bizarre collection of images and characters, because it took him 16 years to make his next film. Santa Sangre obviously reinvigorated him, because he made another film the very next year. (Not discussed here.)

Santa Sangre is clearly the work of Jodorowsky, and not only because it features his son Axel (around 20 years old) in the starring role. At the same time, it's heaps more coherent than either of the previous two works discussed. The plot involves a circus troupe in which the young protagonist, named Fenix, witnesses his father killing his mother, after his mother maims his father while he's cheating on her. The boy is a child magician, his father is a knife thrower and his mother is a trapeze artist. The knife thrower is cheating on her with a woman covered from head to toe in tattoos. In anger after being maimed, the knife thrower cuts off his wife's arms, then staggers out into the street and kills himself. Small wonder that Fenix spends much of his life in a mental institution following this. Pick back up with him as an adult, who imagines himself possessed by the spirit of his dead mother -- she controls his arms in an imagined circus act in which she, armless, stands in front, and he stands behind, his finger nails grown long and painted red as though they actually belonged to her. Fenix kills a number of cheap women (including a strong woman played by a man in drag) while his arms are possessed by the vengeful spirit of his mother, including the tattooed woman. However, Fenix is also in love with the tattooed woman's daughter, a deaf-mute he's known since childhood.

The film certainly has its bizarre imagery, and plenty of it. However, it's almost all in direct service to the story. And with Jodorowsky, with coherence comes a slightly lower sense of importance. Santa Sangre is more clearly a film belonging to a specific genre -- surrealist horror -- than anything else I've discussed. And by not being as out-there, it's probably also not as interesting.

However, we definitely do see the director's familiar concerns. Not only is there a dwarf and several armless or legless characters -- the circus being a perfect home for people like that -- but the very act Fenix imagines himself to be involved in with his dead mother is a direct echo of the symbiotic human relationship I discussed in El Topo. By providing his mother's missing arms, Fenix is essentially like the legless man on the back of the armless man. Two halves make a whole. Plus, Jodorowsky's fascination with religion suffuses this production as well. The film opens with Fenix's mother trying to prevent bulldozers from razing a temple, where they pray to an armless girl who was raped and killed in the town. The building (called Santa Sangre) is knocked down after a religious figure arrives on the scene and declares their worship to be heresy. Not to mention that the whole film struggles with the brutal circumstances of Jodorowsky's own conception, as described earlier, in ways that are quite literal. Normally a filmmaker would disguise his ideas through symbolism, but not here. They're as naked as the boy at the beginning of El Topo.

Okay, I've about Jodorowsky'd myself out for today. On to June, where we'll return to much more conventional territory.


Mike Lippert said...

I got aquainted with the man's work when I picked up a copy of his box set cheap on Ebay. It's every interesting stuff and I find more compelling and meangingful that say someone like David Lynch who I guess could be comparable. I'm just curious to see if Jodorowsky will ever get that El Topo sequel off the ground which he has been talking about for so long and whether or not, if it ever comes out, there's even an audience left to see it.

Vancetastic said...

I know, I keep hearing that El Topo 2 (it would not be called that) is due out "in 2011 or 2012," but that kind of seems unlikely. I think that could be the longest gestation between a first movie and a second outside of the straight-to-video sequel Bambi II.

It's hard to figure out who exactly is comparable to Jodorowsky. Lynch seems a bit more gothic in his weirdness, while this is more carnivalesque. I could see how a director like Terry Gilliam might be influenced by Jodorowsky's stuff.