A filmography for Alejandro Jodorowsky is at the end of this review.
The Chicago Underground Film Festival (CUFF) kicked off on what will forever be known as “Raj Kapoor day” in all of Illinois. I was attending a swank reception at the Indian consulate, my hands black with ink from some volunteer work I had done earlier at the Film Center. Surrounded by pure formality, accompanied by a couple of dirty looks, I slid my Festival press badge around my neck to try to seem important. It worked, and I grabbed some curry. Heading down to the Fine Arts theater, the center of CUFF, I could already spot the hipsters and wanna-be filmmakers I would have to live with for the next 6 days. The opening night film Straightman (16mm, 101 minutes) seemed loved and hated, no in betweens. By the end of the festival, this is how I felt about everything.
Of course at that point I had already suffered brain damage from city parking tickets, outlandishly expensive meals at the “Artist’s Café,” diabetic bums practically crying in my arms, directors passing out in the back seat of my car, and Akira Kurosawa poking fun at Penny Marshall. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t amused, with directresses spreading rumors about me spending the night together and grown guys reciting Vanilla Ice late on Michigan Avenue, along with suddenly finding out you’re giving Tromeo from Tromeo and Juliet a ride home. Who says it’s not the best fun, when a friend in the projection room presents an unsuspecting audience with a bizarre half hour soft-core gay porn, or you end up discovering that the person you’ve just talked to for 5 minutes is the maker of your favorite short in competition. The name of the film was The Moschops (Jim Trainor, 16mm, 13 minutes), an animated tale set entirely in the Permian era that is refreshingly straightforward in its poetry. Not only my favorite short but some of the most defined faces and expressions I have seen in cartoons in years.
Of the other shorts I liked, Jay Rosenblatt’s King of the Jews (16mm, 18 minutes) probably has the lowest ranking on my list. Interesting in its first two parts, but then ends up completely lost when the director tries to connect Christ with World War II. Lucy’s Dream (Relah Eckstein, 16mm, 12 minutes), a flawlessly designed retro vision from the mind of a small dog, has almost purely aesthetic concerns, something that starts to wear you out as the festival progresses. I didn’t feel the need for anything in particular to look “pretty,” and students seem sure insecure about this nowadays. I did see two 35mm shorts, blown up from Super 8, that weren’t either necessarily beautiful or ugly. The first, appropriately titled The Drowning Room (Patrick Jolley and Reynold Reynolds, 12 minutes), was shot entirely in a submerged neighborhood of West Atlantis. In it, a family struggles to survive with water everywhere in between them. The second film, Routemaster (Iippo Pahjala, 16 minutes), is an impeccably edited car race that builds to sensuous momentum as the vehicles flash by. In the same spirit, #11 [Marey <-> Moire] (Joost Rekveld, 35mm, 20 minutes) has a lot to say about rhythm and energy in only a few simple strands of animation. A frenzied Jesus Christ bows his head up and down repeatedly in Domain (Julie Murray, 16mm, 12 minutes), a quick but funny collection of ruler holograms. Speaking of double images, I never knew how ugly Nancy Sinatra was till I saw Lee Hazlewood in New York (Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley, video, 8 minutes), so I thank the filmmakers for that. Also doing a good job of de-glamorizing its subjects is The Penny Marshall Project (Greg Pak, video, 12 minutes), especially when co-star Akira Kurosawa turns to the camera in Blair Witch style nostril shot and speaks some rampant Japanese.
In contrast to this spoof came a perfectly serious docu called Who Needs Hollywood! The Story of Video Pioneer John Dorr and EZTV (Nina Rota, video, 27 minutes). Looking back at a time when video wasn’t as rampant, and filmmakers seemed less cynical about technology, unspoiled John Dorr really made wonders on a betamax deck. Though his concerns were closer to theater than anything else, his films reminded me of the kind of drama lacking in the experimental programs of the festival. Everything seemed like meaningless excess, art being made just for the sake of it being made. Fortunately Alejandro Jodorowsky was around to lighten things up, with his unclassifiable filmography.
Rumor had it that Mr. Jodorowsky was only accepting one interview per day. This discouraged me, and then finally seeing him in person, his gestures, the way he carried himself, I stopped thinking of the possibility of a meeting. I watched both El Topo and The Holy Mountain (slightly faded 35mm prints) with a calm I wouldn’t have had if I knew I’d be sitting in his hotel room a few days later, queries in hand. As it happened, I ran into him late one night outside the Fine Arts. He had walked out of his own Santa Sangre professing he couldn’t stand to see his sons on the screen anymore. I had walked out too, because I had seen it already many times, and I assured Mr. Jodorowsky that it was because I had promised my parents I would eat dinner with them. He seemed to understand, and his wife joked that she hoped my mother wasn’t as distraught as the one from the film. It turned out that they were awaiting a ride to go see Jennifer Lopez in the new film The Cell. I later asked Jodorowsky about it, he answered quite impatiently, “It’s commercial picture trying to say they’re making art. It’s completely idiotic! Jennifer Lopez-oh la-la-la-la-la (rolls eyes). I hate her! The bad guy is ridiculous. In the end, it tries to be psychological thriller-and she is kicking the guy like Mike Tyson! Pah! Pah! Pah! How is that? It’s not possible.”
While the publicist sitting across from me laughed, I tried to be as serious as possible about his response. I saved my giddiness for the stories about his youth. “I went out of Chile with 100 dollars,” he said with a big smile when I asked him about his first trip to Europe, “5 weeks touring the Pacific Ocean! In Barcelona, I didn’t know where to go, so I just followed a dog. He went to the market, and then to the prostitutes. And this is what the dog wanted to show me.” He continued about Paris, “When I arrived in Paris I immediately called Andre Breton. It was 3 in the morning. I said, ‘I am here!’ He said, ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘I am Jodorowsky, and I’m here to save the surrealismo!'”
To my amazement, Jodorowsky explained to me that when he burns himself at the end of El Topo, this is more a reference to his family and hardly related to Buddhism, “My grandfather died like that. Here was a lamp [points upward to imaginary lamp] and here was an alcohol barrel [points downward]. And blafff! It go in. This was a legend for my mother, because she had not been born yet. ‘The legend of the burning grandfather.’ So, in order to be loved by my mother, I needed to burn myself.”
“Maybe we will make another picture. Who knows? I am not at an age where I don’t want to obtain anything through my pictures. And I am glad, because when you do something, you do it because you love it-for the big pleasure of doing it!” This preceded a long response to a question I asked about whether he was still working on his soul, as he famously used to say while working on his pictures. He guaranteed me, “No, I find myself. I don’t need nothing. I live always in a bookstore– my room is full of books. Full, full, full. But I don’t read them. Because the secret is, when you learn you’re immortal, you don’t need to learn nothing more.” Certainly he still watched films, even if he had nothing more to learn from them, for the big pleasure of watching them, or something, “Everyday. From 10pm to 2am. On DVD. The rest of the day I work.” I asked what kind of stuff he watched, “Go ahead take a look.” I turned my head and saw a 4 foot pile of tapes and discs on top of his TV set, “You can see, I watch all types of films.” I sorted through them and picked up some Lon Chaney, “That is my preferred actor of all time,” he said eagerly, “Of all time, eh.” The 2-set Fight Club DVD was also sandwiched in between the ’30s horror, “The novel is better than the picture. The novel is incredible. The picture does what it can. But it is an interesting picture, no?”
When I was about to ask him about young filmmakers of today, and if he had seen anything notable at the festival, Jodorowsky was interrupted by a phone call from his son Adam. My question was answered when I learned that this little boy, who had played an important role in Santa Sangre, was now 20 and making his own films. The Jodorowsky spirit lived on, I said almost to myself. Jodorowsky responded, “Yes, he make very good pictures. Very short. 3 or 4 minutes. Very fantastic.” I asked if he was trying to adapt any particular style, “Not realistic. He’s now making pictures without speech, like the silent movies, but very ‘actual.’ He makes comic/surrealist situations. Very good. Very well done. Much better than me!”
Calling the elevator up from the lobby, I knew a long dark shaft awaited me. I was not excited about any of the features I saw at this Festival, which I suppose I should start to talk about. I mentioned my discontentment to James Fotopoulos, director of the competing Migrating Forms (16mm, 80 minutes), also mentioning I had recently been facing a transitional phase in my cinephilia that sort of felt like burnout. In an email he responded to me, “Your transitional phase is not rare. We all go through it constantly. The transitions will only end the day you die.” Strong words for a passing email, but they made me think. At least I know now that it is not burnout (I think). His film is perfect for my thinking, because it is not anything usual. A woman and a man meet several times to have sex in a near inhospitable apartment. Each encounter feels more and more masochistic for them, as the woman starts to create her own “pornography.” Could this have been unsettling for me in more ways than one, relating to some vague metaphor of how I view movies? I would like to leave this thought open-ended, but I can assert James Fotopoulos knows what he is doing.
In Metal (16mm, 88 minutes), Christopher E. Brown has trouble finding the right performances from his actors, though his efforts are honorable. In Jon Jost’s new film, Six Easy Pieces (video, 68 minutes), a segment shows two girls swimming aimlessly in a pool for what feels like an eternity. One girl asks the other, “How long have we been swimming here?” while the spectators are asking, “How long have we been watching these girls swim?” Seriously though, I would have enjoyed this as a gallery installation. Rustin Thompson’s 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle (video, 73 minutes) was the subject of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s long review of the week in the Chicago Reader. His interest baffles me, and the review was surprisingly long for a film that contained a rare first-person honesty from a concerned and motivated filmmaker, yes, but not much more than this in typical political guerrilla filmmaking style. Benjamin Smoke (Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen, 16mm, 70 minutes), which was recently picked up by Cowboy Booking, didn’t give me much to care about its subject, and Sam Wells’ Wired Angel (16mm, 2000), not enough time to appreciate its images. This about wraps up features.
There is one I have forgotten to mention that I didn’t even see, but whose directress I have already referenced twice in this article. I only bring this up now because her presence left an odd feeling with me and I’d like to run into her again. Alas, it will probably be a long time from now, or maybe never again. Right now I’m only left wondering what Ken Anger (in town to introduce Jodorowsky at the weekend ceremonies) was thinking when politely nodding at his film fanatic groupies. They would sit in the back of theater every night, and never shut up. And then I thought about the Fine Arts, which will eventually be torn down. The night I saw the last half hour of John Michael McCarthy’s agonizing Supestarlet A.D. (16mm, 80 minutes) I observed the crumbling walls of its sad Theater #2. In a half dream state, I imagined a bulldozer crashing through and silencing this terrible film with sunlight. That would be the day.
Alejandro Jodorowsky Filmography
1990 The Rainbow Thief
1989 Santa Sangre
1975 The Holy Mountain
1971 El Topo
1967 Fando y Lis