Venerated by cult cinema enthusiasts while dismissed by most other critics, the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky present strange and magical visions that are not easily categorised or understood. Informed by a lifetime of spiritual journey, Jodorowsky’s cinematic output is filled with violently surreal images and a hybrid blend of mysticism and religious provocation. His completed films are few in number (only six features to date, two of which he has subsequently disowned), and are typically associated with the youth counterculture movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, especially the “head film” subgenre and the “midnight movie” phenomenon. While canonical directors like Buñuel and Fellini were celebrated darlings of the critical establishment, Jodorowsky (who wrote, directed, scored, and often starred in his personal films) was lurking on the fringes of the film world, bringing his distinctly surreal and esoteric sensibilities to the screen in controversial films like Fando y Lis (1968), El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973). Although these films seem no more dated today than many other “countercultural” films of the same era (e.g. Godard’s 1967 film, Weekend), critics have been slow to re-evaluate Jodorowsky’s works. One looming reason for this has been the very limited availability of his films: due to long-running ownership disputes, most of them have merely circulated as poor-quality bootlegs distributed by cult movie traders and retailers – but this is beginning to change, as several of Jodorowsky’s films are finally receiving an official DVD release as of the time of this writing. Time will tell if cultish overvaluation will stand alongside critical reappraisal as Jodorowsky’s films are rediscovered by a new generation, but an examination of his life and ideas is crucial for understanding just what makes his films important.
Alejandro Jodorowsky was born in 1929 to Russian Jewish émigrés in the small coastal mining town of Iquique in the deserts of northern Chile. One of his earliest memories was discrimination emanating from the American colonial influence upon Chile, for Chileans were forbidden to walk on “the beautiful side of the gringo colonies” (1) where American mining industrialists lived prosperously. But Jodorowsky would also face local prejudices wherever he lived in subsequent years due to external perceptions of his nationality. (2)
When he was eight years old, his family relocated to the capital city of Santiago. There he became fascinated with anarchism and eventually attended college for two years, studying psychology and philosophy. Jodorowsky then dropped out and alternately worked as a circus clown, a stage actor and a theatre director, developing strong interests in marionettes and mime through his intense fascination with physical expression. The art of mime allowed Jodorowsky to do away with an actor’s reliance on written theatrical texts, instead foregrounding the way that actors themselves produce meaning. By age 23, he had formed his own theatre company with 50 actors, but feeling that he could learn no more in Chile, he abandoned his local success to pursue an education in France. At this time he also severed many ties with his family and this assisted him in his firm repudiation of a specific sense of nationality.
He arrived in Paris in 1953, studying mime with Etienne Decroux before joining the troupe of Decroux’s famous pupil, Marcel Marceau. During the next six years, Jodorowsky wrote several of Marceau’s more noted routines, such as “The Cage” and “The Mask Maker”, and embarked upon a world tour with Marceau and another member of the company. Upon returning to Paris, Jodorowsky directed Maurice Chevalier’s successful music-hall comeback (after the scandal of his having endorsed the Vichy government during World War II), plus a number of plays. In 1957, Jodorowsky directed his first film, a 40-minute filmed mime routine based on Thomas Mann’s novella The Transposed Heads (or The Severed Heads), the exotic and absurd story of two young Indian men whose heads are transposed without their knowledge, complicating the Cartesian split between mind and body. Jean Cocteau liked the film so much that he wrote an introduction for it. Viewers today, however, are unable to see the film, for it has been lost; the sole print was apparently taken by actress Ruth Michelly and never returned to the director.
The Severed Heads is noteworthy because it marks Jodorowsky’s first attempt to integrate his experience with mime and theatre into film, a project that would continue in each of his subsequent films. There are often scenes of mime in his films, such as the comical begging routines performed by the reborn El Topo in the film of the same name, or the dramatic mother/son routine that takes centre stage in Santa Sangre (1989). A theatrical influence can be seen in the series of images, landscapes and tableaux that compose his films. He often shoots from a stationary (or slowly moving) camera setup, depending upon pantomime and physical expressiveness to convey the force of action. Spoken dialogue tends to be used rather sparsely, often taking the form of aphorisms; while some critics have complained that these aphorisms seem trite and simplistic, their usage suggests an attempt by Jodorowsky to escape the film’s written text by compressing a world of meaning into short philosophical declarations.
From France, Jodorowsky then travelled to Mexico, where he eventually directed over 100 plays, including many avant-garde and surrealist plays that were controversial at the time, by such writers as Beckett, Ionesco, Arrabal, Adamov and Strindberg. He also produced original plays during this time and experimented with radical adaptations of pre-existing work, such as staging Strindberg’s Dream Play with only two characters. While some of these works were staged for audiences at the National Theatre, others were performed in the Mexican countryside for the lower classes; according to Jodorowsky, it was quite possible to keep these audiences interested in philosophical content by putting two naked women onstage during the performances. (3) In a sense, this staging of transgressive and potentially prurient visuals alongside serious philosophical and artistic themes is indicative of the films that he would make several years later.
During the 1960s, Jodorowsky travelled back and forth between Mexico and Paris. Greatly inspired by surrealism and determined to reinvigorate its artistic movement, Jodorowsky contacted André Breton in Paris, but was dismayed to find that Breton had become very conservative in his old age as surrealism became accepted and incorporated into high culture. While Breton still envisioned a poetic and fantastic movement, Jodorowsky was more influenced by elements of popular youth culture that Breton did not appreciate – such as rock music, science fiction, pornography and comic books – which would all factor into Jodorowsky’s later work. Together with absurdist playwright (and later filmmaker) Fernando Arrabal and writer/artist/animator Roland Topor, Jodorowsky founded the “Panic Movement” in 1962 as a way to go beyond surrealism by embracing irrationality, the mysterious and the absurd, emphasising an explosive sexuality, a fearless sense of rebellion, and a collapsing of all time into the present moment. Named after the god Pan (meaning “totality”), the concept of a “Panic” artist also meant someone whose output was “polyvalent”, traversing many different media in order to avoid simple categorisation; artists like Cocteau, Leonardo da Vinci and Pier Paolo Pasolini were inspirations in this sense. Despite their general aesthetic, Jodorowsky maintains that the idea of a “Panic Movement” was largely a tongue-in-cheek joke for its three founders; each person created independently, labelling their own work as “Panic”, while they secretly laughed at serious attempts made by critics and other artists to theorise or follow the invented “movement”. (4)
This, however, is not to say that the “Panic art” produced during this period was a joke. Arrabal was at work on some of the best plays of his career, while Topor wrote the novel The Tenant (upon which Roman Polanski’s 1976 film was based). Jodorowsky wrote three books, began a popular weekly comic strip called “Fabulas Pánicas” (“Panic Fables”) in a right-wing Mexican newspaper, and directed a 4-hour “happening” called “Sacramental Melodrama” on 24 May 1965 at the Second Paris Festival of Free Expression. In “Sacramental Melodrama”, all manner of chaotic and surreal acts took place, such as his twisting off the heads of two geese while having his leather costume cut off by topless women, using a wooden cross (with a crucified chicken nailed to it) as a giant phallus, the symbolic castration of a rabbi, and a huge plastic vagina spewing live turtles and other objects into the audience – all to the constant sound of a live rock band. This was an expression of Jodorowsky’s desire to create theatrical spectacles that, in the absence of a written text, could not be repeated; in an essay on “The Goal of the Theatre”, he stated that the ephemeral character of theatre sprang from a subplot of unforeseen and unrepeatable errors and accidents, not from written texts and object-traces. (5)
Jodorowsky’s ideas on theatre and film are directly inspired by surrealist writer Antonin Artaud; he once cited Artaud’s The Theatre and Its Double as his “bible”, and it was Artaud’s travels to Mexico that inspired Jodorowsky’s own work there. (6) Artaud wanted to create a Theatre of Cruelty that abandoned written texts and spoken language, instead basing performances upon a visual language of corrosively violent and bleakly humorous symbols (often using marionettes and mime to convey meaning) that would directly affect the spectator’s unconscious and provoke a shattering of normative reality through psychic excitation. (7) Jodorowsky echoes these sentiments when he claims that his films are densely layered with symbols (e.g. symbols of the Tarot) in order to hopefully activate universal symbols lying dormant within the viewer’s unconscious. Various critics have accused Jodorowsky of self-indulgently piling inscrutable layers of symbolism from all manner of religious and mystical faiths in his films, leading the director to defensively assert that his films are only as limited as the viewer’s own sense of spirituality, but his invocation of mysticism (much like Artaud’s theory of an “alchemical theatre”) is a means of searching for an “objective art” that speaks to a Jungian collective unconscious. People cannot defend themselves against images in the same way that they can defend against semantic properties. (8) Truth can only be found by discarding the logic of semantics and embracing, through filmic images, the universal language of symbols that all cultures share in some form through mysticism. (9)
J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum suggest that “Jodorowsky’s taste for outrage and scandal – characteristically pursued in simplistic terms of paraphrasable content and lurid detail, rather than in those of stylistic or formal expressiveness – virtually reversed Artaud’s radical scenario for reforming the spectator.” (10) Although I would argue that Jodorowsky’s stylised content is essentially based upon the same sort of visceral shock and mystical qualities (e.g. his deceptively “simple” aphorisms and symbolically surreal juxtapositions) theorised by Artaud, the formal qualities (e.g. stationary camera set-ups and “realistic”, non-assaultive editing methods) in most of his films do seem to work against Artaud’s goal of driving audiences toward a tragic awareness of the dark forces composing the world. Citing Erich von Stroheim and Buster Keaton as inspiration, Jodorowsky instead prides himself on the “miraculous” qualities that unfold (almost theatrically) within the realistically framed image itself; for example, in El Topo, he filmed in broad daylight, using few close-ups of actors, and eschewing editing techniques like fades, dissolves, and other effects, in order to lend an immediate sense of realism to the imaginary elements at work. (11) Similarly, The Holy Mountain begins like a fairy tale, with carefully crafted shots (including overhead shots that reveal the symbolic composition of the settings), but as the characters approach their final goal of attaining immortality through enlightenment, a more documentary-style handheld camera gradually takes over by the time that Jodorowsky ends the film with a direct invocation that the spectator change his/her own sense of reality. He also films many scenes in real locations, often using non-actors, such as street dwellers, found there (e.g. the polluted, prostitute-filled streets of Mexico City in Santa Sangre).
Such methods found their expression in Jodorowsky’s first feature, Fando y Lis, based on Arrabal’s play about two young lovers on an absurd desert journey to reach a mythical city called Tar. Eager to escape the written text, Jodorowsky adapted and directed the film using only his memory of the stage production and a one-page script. He removed the play’s secondary characters, replacing them with a series of surreal and transgressive encounters that hamper the lovers’ progress across a post-atomic world. Filmed on weekends over two years, a hint of realism was brought to the film by allegedly portraying actual violence done to the actors; according to handbill from the film’s premiere: “The actors, enduring a veritable ‘Via Crucis,’ were stripped naked, tortured, and beaten. Artificial blood was never used.” Although these claims were slightly exaggerated, the final product remains a disturbingly sadomasochistic piece of art. Lacking the plethora of mystical and Eastern religious symbols found in Jodorowsky’s subsequent films, Fando y Lis is more reminiscent of Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert (1965), although it was erroneously compared to Fellini’s Satyricon (1970), despite being made two years before Fellini’s film.
Separated into cantos recalling Dante’s Divine Comedy, the fable begins with Fando pushing a cart holding his paralytic lover Lis, a drum and a gramophone across the desert in search of Tar, the last standing city. They share the innocence and playfulness of children, but that is soon spoiled by an encounter with decadent bourgeois people partying amid ruins to the music of a burning piano, ignorant of the destroyed world all around them; for entertainment, the women seduce Fando and trick him into humiliating himself, and Lis meanwhile recalls how she was lured by a God-like puppeteer figure (played by Jodorowsky) and raped by three men as a young girl. Bearing very little relation to Arrabal’s original play, the film follows the cruel conflict between the two titular characters, symbolising Jodorowsky’s view of his own relationships. Fando (a role that Jodorowsky himself wished to play) mistreats the helpless Lis as he would a toy, beating and threatening to leave her, though it pains him to do so; he must destroy her to realise how much he has actually loved her all along. Jodorowsky relates Fando and Lis to Jung’s concepts of animus and anima (respectively), describing them in the film as “one body with two heads”. (12) In desperation from their absurd quest, they slowly realise that Tar only exists within their own minds, representing any unachievable ideal, from God to paradise to happiness. Along the way they also encounter a pope nursed by a pregnant woman, lustful white-haired matrons gambling over a younger man, sadistic women armed with bowling balls, and a doctor who drinks Lis’s blood instead of giving it to a blind man. Fando is sexually humiliated by a vision of his dead father, and recalls that his mother had turned his father over to the authorities as a revolutionary. (13) After Fando finally beats Lis to death, she becomes an unofficial saint figure for the locals who snip pieces of her flesh to take as communion; distraught at her graveside, Fando becomes overgrown with weeds as he repeatedly implores Lis to speak to him.
Billed as a “Panic Film”, Fando y Lis premiered at the 1968 Acapulco Film Festival, where a riot nearly broke out during the screening due to the film’s blasphemous, violent and provocative imagery. Assailed by death threats and an angry mob waiting outside the theatre, Jodorowsky had to be sneaked out of the screening and whisked away, hidden in the bottom of a car. Part of the furious public response to the film was due to recent political tensions in Mexico: hundreds of unarmed strikers and student demonstrators had been killed by police and military troops at the “Tlatelolco Massacre” in Mexico City during the previous month. Though the film was banned in Mexico, it was cut by 13 minutes and re-edited for a short run in New York where it was poorly received before dropping out of circulation. In the years when the film was considered “lost” and unseen, Jodorowsky’s mysterious debut feature was even rumoured to have been an actual documentary about the Tlatelolco massacre. (14) His “critique of our society’s vices” had touched a raw nerve exposed by the counterculture; he would later argue that art must be directed toward the growing youth market to prevent it from becoming bourgeois, and that anti-bourgeois art must create scandal in order to provoke change. (15) Nevertheless, the scandal surrounding Fando y Lis was sufficient to secure enough funding for Jodorowsky’s next picture filmed in Mexico, the surrealistic Western, El Topo.
“Everyday life is surrealistic”, says Jodorowsky, “made of miracles, weird and inexplicable events. There is no borderline between reality and magic.” (16) Using a flurry of archetypal symbols to tap into a collective unconscious becomes his means of transcending this borderline. But for all the “objective art” supposedly produced in this way, Jodorowsky’s films are also very personal pictures (often featuring him and his sons in central acting roles) reflecting his spiritual development. Foremost is his belief in making films into books of sacred symbols inducing spiritual illumination; reminiscent of Artaud’s ideas about transforming the spectator, everyone making and viewing his films (himself especially) should be destroyed and reborn as new people. (17) For this reason, he shoots his films in sequence from beginning to end, using the filmmaking process as a search for spiritual illumination, beginning with an initiation rite (i.e. violence, for he believes that art must be violent) and moving toward enlightenment. In Fando y Lis, the key to illumination (Tar) lies within oneself, and this belief is maintained throughout the subsequent films in various forms: El Topo represents Jodorowsky’s negotiation of Zen Buddhism, while The Holy Mountain is based in Sufism and the writings of G.I. Gurdjieff, Tusk deals with Hinduism and Tantrism, (18) and Santa Sangre springs from “psychomagic”.
Speaking of El Topo (“The Mole”), he famously announced that “I ask of film what most North Americans ask of psychedelic drugs. The difference being that when one creates a psychedelic film, he need not create a film that shows the visions of a person who has taken a pill; rather, he needs to manufacture the pill.” (19) El Topo is thus intended to be read as less a product of Jodorowsky’s own mind than a process of spiritual illumination akin to the religious sensations experienced by many countercultural drug users; of course, this was helped by the film’s eventual reputation as a “head film” during which many audience members did partake of such substances. Nevertheless, El Topo is in many ways Jodorowsky’s personal quest toward an enlightened identity that can transcend death. The film opens with the titular gunfighter and his nude son (played by Jodorowsky and his son Brontis, respectively) riding across the desert, where the son is instructed to bury his first toy and his mother’s picture now to become a man. Over the opening credits, we are told that the mole lives underground and searches for the sun; sometimes its journey brings it to the surface where it is blinded. After this central metaphor, the film is divided into four biblical sections: Genesis, Prophets, Psalms and Apocalypse. El Topo and his son ride into a blood-drenched town where bandits have raped and massacred hundreds. He kills these lascivious bandits, (20) then finds their Colonel and his men in a Franciscan mission. El Topo announces “I am God” before castrating the Colonel (who then kills himself) and killing the rest of the motley junta. He then abandons his son to the care of the mission’s surviving monks and rides off with a young woman named Mara who he has rescued. El Topo can live in the desert by miraculously summoning food and water from the ground, but Mara cannot – at least until El Topo rapes her to unleash her first orgasm. Mara then makes El Topo prove his love for her by killing the four Masters of the desert and becoming the best gunfighter. El Topo cheats his way into killing the first three Masters, who are all far more spiritually enlightened than him and have progressively fewer worldly possessions. According to one of the Masters, El Topo is full of self-righteous hate instead of self-effacing love, and should be trying to disappear entirely rather than find himself through violence. The Fourth Master possesses only his own life and chooses to kill himself to prove to El Topo how little life means. Humiliated by his dishonorable victory, El Topo rushes through the desert, smashes his gun, and assumes a Christ-like pose of self-sacrifice as he is gunned down by a Woman in Black (representing El Topo’s Jungian alter-ego) who has previously joined their journey and sadistically lusts after Mara. Unable to accept this emasculated man, Mara chooses to ride away with the Woman in Black while El Topo’s body is hauled away by a group of deformed people. (21)
El Topo awakens reborn years later in an underground cavern filled with people deformed by incest. Though he has been worshipped there as a deity, he immediately declares that he is only a man, not a god. He and a Dwarf Woman climb up to the surface and enter a nearby frontier town where they beg for money to build a tunnel for liberating the cavern dwellers. In the deeply bourgeois town, cultish puritanical beliefs mask an undercurrent of socially sanctioned racism, colonisation, economic exploitation, debauchery and violence; for example, black slaves are roped and branded for sport while waiting to be sold off or falsely accused of rape by lustful white women. El Topo and the Dwarf Woman are paid to have sex for a jeering brothel audience, after which they go to get married, only to find that El Topo’s grown son Brontis is the priest there. Brontis has vowed to kill his father for abandoning him, but spares El Topo until the good work digging the tunnel is finished. Dressed as El Topo once was, Brontis is unable to kill his father when the tunnel is completed, while a flood of deformed people stream down toward the town where they are massacred. With superhuman strength, El Topo resists the townspeople’s bullets and kills them all off, then immolates himself as Brontis, the Dwarf Woman and her just-born baby ride away together.
Jodorowsky brought El Topo to New York, where it played for over a year as allegedly the first “midnight movie”, garnering large profits and a considerable cult audience. (Still scandalised by Fando y Lis, Mexico refused to let El Topo represent them at the Cannes Film Festival). John Lennon was so impressed by the film that Beatles manager Allen Klein purchased the distribution rights and would finance much of the budget for Jodorowsky’s next film. While some critics in the alternative press proclaimed El Topo as one of the greatest films ever made, more mainstream critics complained that it was an overly violent, pretentious, nonsensical mess of crude surreal imagery with little to say and no goal but exploiting the counterculture. Pauline Kael, for example, accused the film of being “commercialised surrealism” that is ultimately “sanctimonious” and reinforcing of “conventional pieties” in a way that Buñuel’s films are not. (22) However, while Buñuel’s attacks on religion are primarily confined to Catholicism, Jodorowsky not only violates but de-centres Western religious traditions by creating a hybrid amalgamation of Western, non-Western and occult beliefs. A self-described “atheist mystic”, he has claimed to hate religion (for it “is killing the planet”), but he loves mysticism and occult practices like alchemy. (23) What is important in Jodorowsky’s films is not just that (organised) religion’s discourses of political power and tradition are attacked and subverted – but also that a hybrid mysticism is elevated in their place, drawing upon a more universal sense of spirituality that underlies all religious and occult beliefs, evading issues of specific nationality and political culture. Interviews with him suggest that he mixes belief systems with a subversively playful attitude, as if constructing his own mythology from so much spiritual raw material.
Jodorowsky has said several times that he does not care about political revolution (e.g. compared to Godard’s counter-cinema), but rather about spiritual revolution on a personal level. “We can only change our oppressors. It is impossible for people to liberate themselves from oppressors”, Jodorowsky says. “People have to change themselves.” (24) However, the somewhat apolitical nature of the hybrid mysticism in his films is political in itself because of how it defies the institutionalisation of religion within national and cultural contexts. Regardless, Jodorowsky’s films as a whole are far from apolitical. They all share an anarchic disregard for political institutions and a sharp critique of consumer culture. As a fundamentally American film genre (though Sergio Leone’s Italian Westerns were also an inspiration), the Western provides a narrative framework and iconography that Jodorowsky plays with, almost to the point of straight-faced parody; he would repeatedly claim to have set out to make a Western, only to end up with an “Eastern”. The larger-than-life Western hero exemplified by El Topo in the first half of the film becomes its polar opposite as the reborn, “enlightened” El Topo. Jodorowsky also wanted to show Mexican characters as “very wonderful” (reflecting their “very wonderful culture”), not as outlaws and bad guys, as in typical Westerns. (25) Similarly, he costumes a legless man riding on the back of an armless man after an outfit worn by John Wayne: “Two cripples make one John Wayne”, says Jodorowsky. (26) Likewise, he claims that the town, adorned by the symbol of an eye inside a pyramid (from a symbol on the back of the American dollar), represents the United States – a “guilty society” (27) structured upon racism, fanatical Christianity, westward colonisation, bourgeois social values and rampant consumerism.
Based upon René Daumal’s unfinished novel Mount Analogue and The Ascent of Mt. Carmel by St. John of the Cross, The Holy Mountain (1973) continues Jodorowsky’s quest for illumination and critique of consumerism. A Christ-like Thief awakens to find a partial-limbed dwarf befriending him. Together they enter a city where white tourists gleefully photograph students being massacred by soldiers, men dance with police in gas masks, and religious icons are offered for sale. There they watch a miniature reenactment of “The Conquest of Mexico” (an allusion to Artaud, who wrote a similar play (28) using toads and lizards dressed as Aztecs and conquistadors; armed with Christian crosses, the conquering toads march from their three ships to the tune of a Nazi march before blood pours from the pyramids and the whole set explodes. After more strange and blasphemous episodes, the Thief ascends a giant pillar and discovers inside the lair of the Alchemist (played by Jodorowsky). After the Alchemist turns the Thief’s excrement into gold, he offers to do likewise with the Thief’s soul, introducing in a series of vignettes the most powerful industrialists and politicians in the world – thieves of a greater kind who will embark upon a spiritual journey together. (29) One sells masks and padding to change people’s superficial appearance (including electrode implants to animate bodies in death); another sells drugs to turn innocent people into killers (reminiscent of LSD tests on American troops) and mystical weapons for the counterculture’s marches and sit-ins; another mass-produces art and creates a female sex machine; another uses government data to create war toys for conditioning children to fight in future wars (e.g. casting Peruvians as “hyper-sexed brown native vampires” defeated only by crosses the colour of white skin); another is a chief of police who initiates troops by castrating them; yet another is an architect who sells coffin-shaped sleeping shelters instead of houses.
Following these vignettes, the film becomes less overtly surreal and more spiritually instructive (although this second half of the film pales in comparison with the first part). The Alchemist explains that there is a holy mountain in every spiritual tradition, and he wishes to lead these people to the summit of one such mountain on Lotus Island. There they will fight a group of immortals and steal the secret to eternal life. The Alchemist instructs them to burn their money, destroy their self-images, and give up their individuality as they join together in a series of ceremonies for illumination before going to the island. Upon reaching the island, they find masses of failed searchers who all have theories about the Holy Mountain; for example, one person says that the Holy Mountain is in drugs like LSD, but the group ignores this idea, indicating Jodorowsky’s belief that drugs alone are insufficient for reaching enlightenment. Each of the group members must face strange and nightmarish trials as they ascend the mountain. Nearing the summit, the Alchemist leaves them to attack the immortals on their own, while he tells the Thief to leave and seek eternity through the love of a prostitute who has been devotedly following him throughout the story. The group discovers that the “immortals” are merely dummies sitting around a table with the Alchemist. He tells the industrialists that they have attained reality instead of immortality – at which point he commands the camera to zoom back, revealing the film equipment and crew. Breaking the illusion of film must happen, he explains, for “real life awaits us”, suggesting that film as a spiritual experience has limits beyond which spectators must actively exceed to change their lives. (30)
The Holy Mountain premiered at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival and opened to lacklustre reviews in New York, where its release was extremely limited due to producer Allen Klein’s fears that the film was not commercial enough. (Klein would subsequently revoke El Topo and The Holy Mountain from circulation altogether for decades, hoping to prevent their official release until after Jodorowsky’s death, in order to reap the sole profits. Both films were remastered and screened at Cannes in 2006, in advance of their 2007 DVD release.) Lacking the generic framework of El Topo, the film delves more blatantly into its evocation of a mystical journey (with mixed results). However, Jodorowsky also mounts more viciously surreal attacks on Christian religion, consumer culture and the political systems of the Americas than in his previous film. Regardless of its easy targets, The Holy Mountain is in some respects a more mature film because, despite all of its pedantic spirituality, it sees Jodorowsky reaching the limits of drugs, violence and the filmic medium itself. Compared to the profilmic violence of Fando y Lis and the Peckinpah-style carnage of El Topo, the artificiality of the stylised bloodshed in The Holy Mountain is foregrounded; for example, when student demonstrators are massacred by police, the assaulters throw buckets of blood upon the writhing people as strange objects (e.g. birds, food, etc.) emerge from the protestors’ wounds. Jodorowsky plainly shows the tubes and devices that deliver the fake blood, as if abstracting the brutality to deliberately illustrate narrative film’s incapacity to ever accurately capture or replicate the horrors of reactionary violence.
Following The Holy Mountain, Jodorowsky began work on freely adapting and directing a film version of Frank Herbert’s epic space opera, Dune. The expensive international co-production was to have starred Brontis Jodorowsky as the messianic hero and featured Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson, David Carradine, Udo Kier, Dalila Di Lazzaro and Salvador Dali. Each of the planets in the film was to be designed by a different artist to reflect different cultures; the spaceships were designed to look like organic, semi-living creatures. Jean “Moebius” Giraud, H.R. Giger, Dan O’Bannon and Christopher Foss became part of the creative team. Pink Floyd was signed to write most of the film’s music. After a year of preproduction, the film’s Hollywood producers backed out, fearing the film was not marketable enough, and the project died. Giraud, Giger, O’Bannon and Foss would be reunited several years later to help make Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). (31) Meanwhile, Jodorowsky and Giraud began collaborating on The Incal, a series of popular comic books that realised many of their ideas from the abandoned Dune project. To this day, Jodorowsky continues to write collaborations (mostly science-fiction) with many of Europe’s great comics artists, and his reputation as one of the world’s foremost writers of comics has surpassed his reputation as a film director in many circles.
Jodorowsky’s next film (adapted from a novel by Reginald Campbell) would be a French children’s movie called Tusk (1980), set in India during the era of British colonisation. (32) Announced in the opening credits as “A Panic Fable”, it is about a young English girl named Elise who is born at the same moment as an elephant named Tusk. Elise befriends Tusk and saves him from captivity before returning to England for her formal education. Upon returning to India as a young woman, Elise saves Tusk from being killed after he goes wild during a ceremony, but after Tusk kills another elephant to save Elise one night, he is sold off to ivory poachers. Elise’s father soon changes his mind and tries to locate Tusk to placate his daughter. Upon finding Tusk, the elephant escapes captivity, only to fall into a poachers’ trap. Tusk eventually escapes and derails a “Holy Train” used by an English priest to travel the countryside, bribing locals into Christianity by giving out rice. The poachers kidnap Elise, but Tusk saves her and she reunites with her human love interest. The film ends with Elise’s father burning his uniform and joining a Shivite ceremony – an Englishman who finally opens up to local beliefs and rituals – while Tusk walks off into the wild. Jodorowsky acknowledges that, as a children’s film, Tusk is “a comic strip in two dimensions” (e.g. scenes open and close with rotoscoped stills) with caricatured characters, lacking the symbolic intensity of his earlier films. Nonetheless, Tusk (who bears an “Om” symbol on his forehead) is representative of the elephant-god Ganesh, a force of “sexual spirituality” that cannot be contained by British colonisation and domination. As an endangered species that is yoked into the service of “progress” as a work animal, the elephant symbolises the death of sacred beliefs beneath the laws of white colonisers. Jodorowsky likened shooting the film in India to shooting in Mexico, for “civilised” colonisers kill other countries through a blindness to see indigenous cultures – as with the British in India, the Spanish in Mexico and the Americans in Chile. (33) Considering the film a disappointment in which too many creative compromises were made by lack of resources, Jodorowsky has since disowned the film, and it was released to poor reviews.
During the 1980s, Jodorowsky developed and began lecturing with a new form of therapy called “psycho-magic”. Psycho-magic combines Jungian psychoanalysis with forms of superstition and mysticism (e.g. the Tarot) that speak to the subject’s unconscious. This is based upon the belief in a “family unconscious”, with past familial relationships (stretching several generations back) controlling all aspects of a person’s current relationships and conceptions of the world. “If I want to understand my self”, says Jodorowsky, “I have to understand my family tree, because I am permanently possessed, as in voodoo. Even when we cut ties with our family, we carry it. In our unconscious, the persons are always alive. The dead live with us. […] Exploring the family tree means engaging in a fierce battle with the monster, like a nightmare” (34). These ideas would shape Jodorowsky’s next film, Santa Sangre (1989), for which he accepted a nominal directing fee in exchange for total creative control. The film tells the story of Fenix (Adan Jodorowsky), a boy who grows up in the “Circo del Gringo”, a Mexico City circus run by his American ex-pat father, Orgo. Fenix’s mother Concha heads a church called Santa Sangre whose martyr is a young girl who was raped, her arms cut off, and left to die in a pool of blood that has never dried. A developer’s bulldozers destroy the church after the local cardinal declares it a sham and a heresy. Meanwhile, Orgo performs a knife-throwing act (with blatant phallic overtones) with the circus’s Tattooed Woman, who has adopted a deaf-mute girl who befriends Fenix. Orgo initiates Fenix into manhood with a large tattoo of an eagle (as in El Topo, a symbol taken from the American dollar) on his chest. When Concha discovers Orgo and the Tattooed Woman in flagrante delicto, she splashes acid on his genitals, provoking him to cut off Concha’s arms before killing himself. Years later, a grown-up Fenix (Axel Jodorowsky) lives like an animal in an asylum; after seeing the Tattooed Woman on the streets during a night out, he escapes the asylum and meets his now-armless mother outside. The Tattooed Woman is violently killed by an unseen assailant, so the deaf-mute girl escapes her abusive custody. Meanwhile, Fenix has become his mother’s arms, and together they mime the biblical creation story. He wants to replicate his father’s phallic knife-throwing act with a friendly stripper, but his mother jealously makes Fenix kill the woman instead. Tortured by his actions, Fenix begins dressing as the titular character of The Invisible Man (James Whale, 1933), trying to make himself disappear. He tries to find love with the World’s Strongest Woman, a hulking wrestler he is convinced will be able to fight off his murderous compulsions, but she is killed as well. The deaf-mute girl stumbles upon Fenix’s home, but instead of killing her, he kills his mother – who says that she will never be out of his life because she is inside of him – only to discover that she has been dead all along and he has been miming with a life-size dummy of her. Having finally reclaimed his hands, Fenix and the girl walk outside and surrender to the police.
Although containing various images lifted from his earlier films, Santa Sangre is a much more accessible, less obscurely mystical film than Jodorowsky’s previous works, due in part to the conventions of the horror genre. Allegedly inspired by the true story of a Mexican man named Gojo Cardinas who killed dozens of women under the apparent influence of his mother before being incarcerated and rehabilitated, Santa Sangre is in many ways a novel retelling of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), with that film’s psychosexual subtext here put on full display with overt symbolism (e.g. Concha, the castrating mother’s name, is slang for “vagina”) and mixed with elements of The Hands of Orlac (Robert Wiene, 1924), The Invisible Man and George Romero’s zombie films. The influence of producer and co-writer Claudio Argento, brother of Italian horror director Dario Argento, also seems unmistakable. Claudio Argento would describe the film as “a reflection of the roots of social crime. According to Jodorowsky and myself, there is no such thing as a ‘criminal’; evil is always instigated by a corrupt society and the family, which influence an individual throughout his entire life.” (35) For Jodorowsky, the film drew upon his own childhood memories of the circus, and his “terrible” relationship with his mother, who allegedly tried to live through him and with whom he had little physical affection; characters with dominating or pseudo-incestual maternal relationships have figured into virtually all of his earlier films. He also describes the film (which took six years to write) as a process of emotional psychoanalysis and of finding redemption for his misogynistic past [as evidenced in Fando y Lis], his inability to love, his relationship with his sons and his return to filmmaking. (36) But however personal the film, Santa Sangre still bears a smattering of political critique, whether in the American stars-and-stripes splashed around the gringo circus, the emblematic eagle symbolising American currency instead of Mexican national identity (as on the Mexican flag), starving slum dwellers feeding off the waste (a dead elephant symbolising Christ) of the gringo circus, the syncretic Santa Sangre church being destroyed by Catholic officials and greedy developers, etc. The film received mixed reviews, but many praised it as a return to form for Jodorowsky, who had not released a widely seen film for almost two decades.
The Rainbow Thief (1990) is Jodorowsky’s most recent film to date, but it was strictly a director-for-hire job. Alexander Salkind allegedly produced the film as a present to his wife Berta Domínguez D., who wrote the script. Jodorowsky was brought in to direct, on condition that he respect the script, include no violence and cause no friction with the cast and crew. Set in a sort of Dickensian modern city, the eccentric Prince Meleagre (Peter O’Toole) is destined to inherit a fortune from his comatose Uncle Rudolf (Christopher Lee), but as Rudolf’s family squabbles over the inheritance, the Prince instead moves underground to the sewers. A thief named Dima (Omar Sharif) becomes his servant after being promised part of the inheritance, but when Rudolf finally dies, he leaves his money to a brothel. The Tarot-studying Prince repudiates the money, claiming that he has instead discovered an alchemical transformation of the soul that transcends death. Dima leaves to board a ship, but returns to rescue the Prince during a violent flood, finally realising their true friendship. The Prince lets himself drown, but after Dima escapes the sewers, he finds the Prince’s stuffed dog suddenly reborn and swimming in the flotsam, and they venture off together. Despite an outlandish street atmosphere and a messianic protagonist advocating the Tarot and alchemy over material wealth, there is little to suggest Jodorowsky’s influence upon the mediocre film and he has since disowned it.
Jodorowsky directed an “Ópera Pánica” in Italy in 1993, featuring most of his sons. He was awarded the Jack Smith Lifetime Achievement Award at the Chicago Underground Film Festival in 2000. Apart from his continued work with psycho-magic, the Tarot and comics, he has allegedly written a semi-sequel to El Topo entitled Abelcain, a film noir called Tryptych, and a film called King Shot, but none of these projects have been completed as of the time of this writing.
Although beyond the scope of this profile, Jodorowsky’s work is deserving of further study within the context of Third Cinema, surrealism, magical realism and post-colonial studies. As is the case with many cult/counterculture/underground films, his works have been treated as the foreign/exotic and indefinable “Other” of both commercial and art cinema. While filmmakers of the same era – such as Glauber Rocha, whose Antonio das Mortes (1969) was praised by Jodorowsky and could be seen as an influence on El Topo – were championed by critics, others have remained largely neglected by generations of cultural tastemakers. The truly transgressive and politically viable qualities of Jodorowsky’s films have been contained as carnivalesque and exploitative curiosities, almost dismissively relegated to midnight movie circuits and cult film catalogues. Only by re-evaluating these films both within and beyond their place in the cult tradition can we see them as a cohesive body of work evoking a continual spiritual journey and a sustained challenge to the political/religious climate of the Americas.
- Jodorowsky in Uri Hertz, “Alchemy and Cinema: interview with director Alejandro Jodorowsky”, Third Rail, no. 4, 1980. Accessed 12 April 2006.
- Jodorowsky in B.J. Demby, “Highlights from Cannes”, Filmmaker’s Newsletter, Nov. 1973, p. 18. Accessed 12 April 2006.
- Jodorowsky in L. Loud, “The Virgin Mary is a Chicken”, American Film, March 1990, p. 80. Accessed 12 April 2006.
- Jodorowsky in Jay Babcock, “Your Brain is a Crazy Guy”, Mean Magazine, no. 6, Dec. 1999–Jan. 2000. Accessed 12 April 2006.
- Alejandro Jodorowsky, “The Goal of the Theatre”, City Lights Journal, no. 3, 1966, p. 72–73. This issue of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s literary journal also included Jodorowsky’s account of “Sacramental Melodrama” (pp. 75–83). Footage of the happening can be seen in Louis Mouchet’s 1995 documentary La Constellation Jodorowsky. In an article entitled “How to Make Cinema”, from Jodorowsky’s official website, he maintains that the provocation of accidents is one of the keys to filmmaking, for minimal scripting allows for greater on-set improvisation; see http://www.clubcultura.com/clubliteratura/clubescritores/jodorowsky/diablo01.htm.
- Jodorowsky in Hertz.
- Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double, Grove Press, New York, 1958.
- Jodorowsky in Rick Kleiner, “Alejandro Jodorowsky”, Penthouse, June 1973, pp. 60–64. Accessed 10 April 2006.
- Jodorowsky in Ed Halter, “The Universal Language: An Interview with Alejandro Jodorowsky”, Cinemadmag, 2004. Accessed 13 April, 2006. [though URL seems to no longer work]
- J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, Midnight Movies, Harper & Row, New York, 1983, p. 90.
- Alejandro Jodorowsky, El Topo: The Book of the Film, Douglas Book Corporation, New York, 1971, p. 128. One potentially noteworthy exception in Fando y Lis is a rapid crosscutting between flashbacks and present during temporal transitions. This same sort of flickering transition was memorably used the following year by Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider (1969). Hopper would later enlist Jodorowsky’s help while rushing to edit The Last Movie (1971).
- From Jodorowsky’s commentary track on the Fando & Lis DVD (Fantoma, 2003). The influence of Jung and Wilhelm Reich is frequently visible in Jodorowsky’s films.
- This episode is entirely absent from Arrabal’s play, but was no doubt inspired by Jodorowsky’s knowledge that a similar fate befell Arrabal’s father under Franco’s rule. Arrabal’s surreal and autobiographical debut film, Viva la Muerte (1971), also features a young boy named Fando who discovers that his mother had turned his father over to the authorities. Interestingly, it ends with an ailing Fando being pushed upon a cart by a young girl as they start off on an absurd journey of their own (to find his father).
- See Hertz.
- Jodorowsky, El Topo: The Book of the Film, p. 169.
- Alejandro Jodorowsky, “For a Mutation of the Human Consciousness”, Prism Escape, no. 1. Accessed 8 April 2006.
- Jodorowsky, El Topo: The Book of the Film, pp. 105–06. In the documentary La Constellation Jodorowsky, Jean “Moebius” Giraud would claim that Jodorowsky makes many creative decisions unconsciously, largely through chance and intuition, as a method for tapping into one’s own mysterious inner self.
- Jodorowsky in Hertz.
- Jodorowsky, El Topo: The Book of the Film, p. 97. He has credited lucid dreaming, meditation, frequent lack of sleep and occasional drug use as stimuli for his cinematic visual ideas.
- One of the bandits is played by Alfonso Arau, who later directed such films as Like Water For Chocolate (1992), a fine example of magical realism. Although influenced largely by (European) surrealism, Jodorowsky’s films also exhibit many traits of magical realism, such as a Latin American critique of (Euro-American) colonisation, capitalism and religion; a celebration of hybrid peoples and religious syncretism; and a deliberate locating of magical and miraculous events as commonplace within the domain of normative realism.
- Inspired by horror films, physically deformed or disabled people are a recurring element in Jodorowsky’s films. “To me, normal people are monstrous, because they are so similar”, he has said. “I don’t call it deformity. It’s…natural imagination; nature has a big imagination. Maybe to some people they’re monsters, but not to me. I find beauty only in ‘monstrosity’” (quoted in Stefan Jaworzyn, “Wrapped in Salamander Cloth, He Played House”, Forced Exposure, no. 17, 1991, pp. 36–39). He has also claimed that Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932) is the only film in which he liked all of the actors, and hints that he might be a reincarnation of Browning (quoted in Jarrod LaBine, Fad, no. 36, 1996). The ending of El Topo suggests that the “freaks” in his films represent society’s outcasts, especially members of the counterculture (many of whom self-identified as “freaks”) – hence Hoberman and Rosenbaum’s contention that El Topo is the counterculture’s “messianic revenge fantasy” (p. 98).
- Quoted in Hoberman and Rosenbaum, pp. 100–101.
- Jodorowsky in LaBine. Although many counterculture members became fascinated with non-Western religious beliefs (e.g. Buddhism, Hinduism) because of the “exotic” allure and potential to offer an essentially “different” spirituality, Jodorowsky’s intimate knowledge of a variety of Western and non-Western beliefs seems more carefully calculated and far less Orientalist. As a person with no declared nationality, all cultures and belief systems appear to offer him inspiration. Furthermore, he does not privilege any of the discourses of power tied to religious beliefs.
- Jodorowsky in Demby. In El Topo, for example, the eponymous mole metaphor entails an upward search for “the blinding light” of spiritual enlightenment. This can be taken either negatively (i.e. “when you find your ideas, your life is over”) or positively (i.e. becoming blind means no longer needing to see the light, thus collapsing the duality), according to Jodorowsky in El Topo: The Book of the Film, pp. 110–11.
- Jodorowsky in El Topo: The Book of the Film, p. 112.
- Ibid., p. 99.
- Ibid., pp. 123–24.
- Artaud, pp. 126–132.
- Jodorowsky allegedly wished the film’s making to be an alchemical process as well, choosing one of New York’s most hardened and combative film crews for the demanding shoot. The cast and crew spent one month living together, sleeping only 4 hours per night, in order to unite and be turned “from shit to gold”.
- Hoberman and Rosenbaum note that Jodorowsky had used this same sort of invocation to the audience at the end of a stage adaptation of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra several years earlier in Mexico City (p. 107). Fellini would employ a blatantly similar gimmick ending in And the Ship Sails On (1984).
- Alejandro Jodorowsky, “The Film You Will Never See,” Métal Hurlant, no. 107, 1985; accessed 25 April 2006.
- Special thanks to Don at Subterranean Cinema for providing me a copy of this film. Please visit his website at the link in the Web Resources below.
- Jodorowsky in Hertz.
- La Constellation Jodorowsky.
- Claudio Argento in Luca M. Palmerini and Gaetano Mistretta, Spaghetti Nightmares, Fantasma Books, Key West, FL, 1996, p. 14.
- Jodorowsky in Forced Exposure.
The Severed Heads (1957) short
Fando y Lis (1968) feature
El Topo (1970) feature
The Holy Mountain (1973) feature
Tusk (1980) feature
Santa Sangre (1989) feature
The Rainbow Thief (1990) feature
The Dance of Reality (2013)
Endless Poetry (2016)
Documentary on Jodorowsky
La Constellation Jodorowsky (Louis Mouchet, 1995). Available on Fando y Lis DVD, Fantoma, 2003, and Santa Sangre DVD, Anchor Bay, 2004.
Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double, Grove Press, New York, 1958.
Jay Babcock, “Your Brain is a Crazy Guy”, Mean Magazine, no. 6, Dec. 1999–Jan. 2000.
Ben Cobb, Anarchy and Alchemy: The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, Creation Books, New York, 2007.
B.J. Demby, “Highlights from Cannes”, Filmmaker’s Newsletter, Nov. 1973, p. 18.
Ed Halter, “The Universal Language: An Interview with Alejandro Jodorowsky”, Cinemadmag, 2004.
Uri Hertz, “Alchemy and Cinema: interview with director Alejandro Jodorowsky”, Third Rail, no. 4, 1980.
J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, Midnight Movies, Harper & Row, New York, 1983.
Jack Hunter, Inside Teradome: An Illustrated History of the Freak Film, Creation Books, London, 1995.
Stefan Jaworzyn, “Wrapped in Salamander Cloth, He Played House”,, Forced Exposure, no. 17, 1991, pp. 36–39.
Alejandro Jodorowsky, El Topo: The Book of the Film, Douglas Book Corporation, New York, 1971.
Alejandro Jodorowsky, “The Film You Will Never See,” Métal Hurlant, no. 107, 1985.
Alejandro Jodorowsky, “For a Mutation of the Human Consciousness”, Prism Escape, no. 1.
Alejandro Jodorowsky, “The Goal of the Theatre”, City Lights Journal, no. 3, 1966, pp. 72–73.
Alejandro Jodorowsky, “Sacramental Melodrama”, City Lights Journal, no. 3, 1966, pp. 75–83.
Pam Keesey, “Madmen, Visionaries, and Freaks: The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky” in Steven Jay Schneider (ed.), Fear Without Frontiers: Horror Cinema From Across the Globe, FAB Press, 2003.
Rick Kleiner, “Alejandro Jodorowsky”, Penthouse, June 1973, pp. 60–64.
Jarrod LaBine, “Interview”, Fad, no. 36, 1996. [see web resources below]
L. Loud, “The Virgin Mary is a Chicken”, American Film, March 1990, p. 80.
Massimo Monteleone, La talpa e la fenice: Il cinema di Alejandro Jodorowsky, Granata Press, Bologna, 1993.
Luca M. Palmerini and Gaetano Mistretta, Spaghetti Nightmares, Fantasma Books, Key West, 1996.
Michael Richardson, Surrealism and Cinema, Berg Publishers, Oxford, 2006.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Alejandro and the Academy: Anarchy and Alchemy: The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky by Ben Cobb by Margaret Barton-Fumo
Alejandro Jodorowsky – official website
Includes a comprehensive listing of Jodorowsky’s works, several exclusive scripts and texts, photo album, discussion forum and a section where Jodorowsky answers queries about psycho-magic and the Tarot. In Spanish.
Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Several online articles can be found here
The Symbol Grows
A useful fan-site dedicated to Jodorowsky’s films, including a collection of hard-to-find print resources (e.g. the “Sacramental Melodrama” text), reviews, images and interviews. Includes many of the texts cited in the bibliography above.
An excellent site for information and trading of rare cult and underground films; contains a full transcription of the long out-of-print El Topo: The Book of the Film, and several substantial interviews with Jodorowsky.
An essay linking Jodorowsky’s films to the Mexican avant-garde filmmaking tradition.
The Film You Will Never See
Jodorowsky’s discussion of the aborted Dune project.
Your Brain is a Crazy Guy
An interview on many aspects of Jodorowsky’s work, including his ideas about the spiritual potential of online video games.
I Am Not Making Hot Dogs
An interview on art, the nature of reality, censorship and the apocalypse.
Rain Taxi interview
An interview on Jodorowsky’s early years in Paris, the benefits of scandal, and his feelings on nationality.
American publisher for English-language versions of Jodorowsky’s various European comic series.