For nearly 40 years, the Chilean-born eccentric Alejandro Jodorowsky has reaped both the disadvantages and the rewards of worldwide cult status. His first feature, Fando y Lis (Fando and Lis, 1968), premiered in Mexico just one month after the Tlatelolco student massacre of 1968 (1), provoking a riot that forced the director to escape from the theatre out of sight, crouched on the floor of a limousine. His next film, El Topo (The Mole, 1971), became a mass hit as the inaugural “midnight movie” at the Elgin in Manhattan, although a later dispute with his distributor (The Beatles’ manager Allen Klein) trampled that success, condemning Jodorowsky’s most accomplished films to the purgatory of the bootleg video market. Decades passed by as his work suffered the aesthetic downgrade of haphazard dubbing, poor image transfers and unsightly Japanese censorship bars. Over the years, his fan base steadily accumulated, strengthening their devotion while Jodorowsky expanded his side careers as a prolific author, comic book scenarist, and self-appointed “psychomagician”. A few years ago, he reconciled with Allen Klein and in 2007, it appeared as if the long-awaited theatrical return and DVD restoration of El Topo and The Holy Mountain (1973) would urge Jodorowsky’s quiet acclaim out of the underground, and more importantly, into the academy.
Unfortunately, the Spring release came and went quietly, with nary a mention by Dave Kehr (2) – although Jodo-fans faithfully documented the entire process online, filling 15 pages of the Criterion web forum first with preliminary hypotheses and later an exhaustive comparison of frame-grabs. In May of 2006, David Church wrote an extensive piece on the director for Senses of Cinema in which he anticipated the DVD restoration and voiced an emphatic appeal for a reappraisal of Jodorowsky’s films, citing the ready critical parameters of “Third Cinema, surrealism, magical realism and post-colonial studies.” In addition to Church’s suggested methodology, Jodorowsky’s directorial form also demands further study. The technique of El Topo and The Holy Mountain, in particular, is notably reserved and calmly composed, generating a stark contrast against both the outrageous content of his films and the popular style of his artistic contemporaries, who balanced out similarly psychedelic material with garish close-ups, wild camera movements and disorienting jump cuts. Consider the discernible traces of Jodorowsky’s background in Parisian and Mexican experimental theatre, his collaborations with Marcel Marceau, Fernando Arrabal, and Leonora Carrington, his association with Jean Cocteau, and the various themes that lace through his films and novels, and you have a body of work primed for textual analysis. It is now over two years since May 2006, and not one academic has responded to Church’s challenge. Bearing the responsibility of the first book on the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, Anarchy and Alchemy makes a decisive step towards widespread recognition of the director, although its position as a labour of scholarship is not as sure. The book is undoubtedly well researched – its organisation of biographical information, rare images and print material, production anecdotes, and outside sources is conscientious and authoritative – but not quite definitive, as the descriptive blurb on the back cover would have us believe.
British journalist Ben Cobb has accomplished the daunting task of synthesising a wealth of information and bringing it to a needed light. The two most valuable chapters of the book, in fact, unearth significant documentation of Jodorowsky’s least-known projects in glorious detail: namely, a thorough and illustrated description of his aborted (pre-Lynch) adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, which boasted a cast that included Orson Welles, Salvador Dalí, and Gloria Swanson, designs by H.R. Giger, special effects by Dan O’Bannon, over 3,000 storyboards by Jean “Moebius” Giraud, and a soundtrack by Pink Floyd. The other revealing chapter, titled “Early Configurations”, contains Jodorowsky’s personal account of the four-hour experimental performance Sacramental Melodrama that he presented at the Second Paris Festival of Free Expression in May of 1965. It was the most memorable effort of the short-lived Panic Movement, helmed by Jodorowsky, the Spanish playwright Fernando Arrabal, and the French artist and author Roland Topor. All three admitted an influence of Antonin Artaud’s “theatre of cruelty” (Jodorowsky would later refer to The Theatre and Its Double as his “bible”) and they published the theories behind the Panic Movement in a compelling, manifesto-like format (3). Much has been written about the group in French and Spanish, but as of now the chapter in Cobb’s book (originally published in 1966 in City Lights Journal) stands as the most prominent record of the movement in English. Perhaps more appealing for the insight it provides into the artists’ later work than as a stand-alone creative effort, the Panic Movement made an undoubtedly significant contribution to 1960s theatre, and remains a largely untapped resource for scholars across the humanities who are researching any of the three leaders of the group.
For the reader who is already familiar with Jodorowsky’s newly available films – the surrealist triumvirate of Fando y Lis, El Topo and The Holy Mountain, as well as the out-of-print but attainable Santa Sangre (Holy Blood, 1989) – the chapters on Dune and the Panic Movement are the book’s saving grace. Cobb’s summaries of Tusk (1980) and The Rainbow Thief (1990) are also of interest because copies of the films (both dismissed by the director as paid-for-hire failures) are extremely difficult to find. Every film mentioned in Anarchy and Alchemy is given a scrupulous shot-by-shot exposition, accompanied by copious footnotes. Cobb’s lengthy descriptions well illuminate the unreleased and unavailable films, but wax unnecessarily in the chapters detailing the cult hits. Cobb is certainly capable of writing insightful exegesis, as evidenced by his shrewd observation of the imagery in The Holy Mountain and the treatment of postcolonial themes in Tusk, but unfortunately the purely descriptive content far outweighs the analysis in his shot-by-shot sections. At times, his annotation will provide a useful backing to his argument, but for the most part his notes are either basic citations, anecdotes culled from magazine interviews and DVD commentaries, or encyclopedic entries that answer unwritten questions like “what does deus ex machina mean?” or “who was André Breton?” The result is a text that attempts to court both die-hard fans and academics, although the latter may find Anarchy and Alchemy to be scholarly in format only.
Cobb’s sources were apparently limited to Anglophone materials, and he conducted his interviews with Jodorowsky (the longest of which is transcribed in the last chapter of the book) in English. In person, the director has a surprisingly calm, optimistic, and hilariously disarming temperament that can charm even his most ardent detractors – especially when he speaks in his halting, self-described “Speedy Gonzalez” English (4). In the wake of El Topo’s early ’70s success, his distinctive personality secured him television interviews with both Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson, and he entertained J. Hoberman in Chapultepec, Mexico (5). His broken English still manages to convey a formidable intelligence when spoken aloud and in sync with other elements of physical expression. Disembodied and written down, Jodorowsky’s English loses some of its wit, and it becomes difficult to take his words seriously. The limitations of language also prevented Cobb from incorporating a vast amount of Spanish- and French-language materials into his research. Jodorowsky has written three autobiographies – El maestro y las magas (2005), La danza de la realidad (2001), and Donde mejor canta un pájaro (1994) – in addition to a host of other nonfiction works, novels, and short stories, all of which would contribute to a more thorough reading of his films (6). As it stands, Cobb’s book is an excellent introduction to the director, although a few noticeable absences remind the reader of what it could be.
Yet Anarchy and Alchemy still deserves a space on the shelves of university libraries, in the study carrels of graduate students and in the offices of tenured professors. Cobb has performed an extensive survey of all of the materials at his reach, piecing his findings into a cohesive and fascinating narrative. It certainly delves much further than the extant (or rather, nonexistent) articles on Jodorowsky (save for J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s chapter on El Topo in Midnight Movies), and it often slips into a nearly academic tone familiar to those of us who choose to study directors that straddle the line between high and low art. As all researchers know, spending a lot of time combing through specialty magazines and amateur reviews will usually reveal at least a few surprises of intelligent writing. Currently, a place for exploitation and cult film studies is finally being eked out in the halls of higher education – Eric Schaefer’s contribution to the “In Focus” section on teaching difficult films in a recent issue of Cinema Journal is one indication of this change (7).
Anarchy and Alchemy is a hybrid of high and low culture, in keeping with the mixed appeal of Jodorowsky’s own work. Its publishing house, the British-based Creation Books, supports this quality; some of the literary categories listed on its website include “Occult”, “Sex/Fetish”, and “Manga”. Nonetheless, Cobb’s book is the latest in Creation’s highly regarded “Persistence of Vision” series that covers underground and unconventional cinema, regularly gaining reviews in serious-minded film journals. Oblong in shape and larger than the typical university press trade paperback, Anarchy and Alchemy has the handsome appearance of a coffee table book but with a much more substantial text.
Such contrasts bring to mind the discordant history of Jodorowsky’s own distribution, raising the question, how should his films be marketed to the public? He first encountered fame at the Elgin, where screenings of El Topo guaranteed sold-out theatres – until Allen Klein took over the distribution and moved the film uptown to a ritzier venue, where it unceremoniously bombed. From that point on, the cost of production would always correspond to the magnitude of the film’s failure, with Dune representing both the height of expense and the nadir of Jodorowsky’s success. More recently, an entire year went by where it seemed as if the prestigious Criterion Collection was going to release Jodorowsky’s DVDs. The box-set in stores now was intended to be the first release of Criterion’s Eclipse series, which at the time was rumoured to be a line specifically for cult films. At some point, however, the deal fell through and the less esteemed (yet respectable) Anchor Bay Entertainment took up the distribution, and Jodorowsky’s DVDs are now being marketed alongside the “ultimate edition” of The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981) and a Mario Bava box set.
Jodorowsky’s films have always thrived in the underground, and the director himself has repeatedly asserted that he “hate[s] normal things” (8), finding inspiration in Todd Browning’s Freaks (1932) and solace in comic-book conventions, where he is always treated like royalty. Most of his current fans seem to have discovered him by way of Santa Sangre, a tribute to the horror genre that was produced by Dario Argento’s brother, Claudio, while those who seek to “elevate” his films into critical discourse tend to focus on the timely treasures of El Topo and The Holy Mountain. Anarchy and Alchemy attempts to appeal to both types of viewers; it has a foreword written by Alan Jones, a journalist with horror film industry affiliations, and an introduction by Stephen Barber, a professor at Kingston University with a penchant for the experimental, who has published books on Artaud and the Vienna Action group. Until now, Jodorowsky’s career has followed the path of his cherished character “el topo” or “the mole”. After living the life of an esoteric cowboy, el topo experiences something of a reincarnation in a deep cave among the company of a horde of Browning-esque “freaks”. He burrows a hole so that the group can escape to the world outside, only to see his friends cursorily shot down by the wretched townspeople. Disgusted with the quality of life above ground level, he self-immolates in an act reminiscent of the Vietnam War protests of 1965.
The lush IFC Center in New York’s West Village frequently holds midnight showings of El Topo and The Holy Mountain in the spirit of the Elgin, but with higher ticket prices and a much classier décor. So far, no riots have broken out, and no-one has been driven to self-immolation. Ben Cobb’s book may not be the academic tome some of us have been hoping for, but it is a well-written and informative read regardless. Currently, it is making its way into the sights of film critics, theorists, and historians by way of prominent bookstore displays and distribution through Amazon, as well it should. Jodorowsky’s films may fare best under the radar, but it is our responsibility as cinema scholars to analyse and take note of his work, so that it does not slip completely out of sight.
Anarchy and Alchemy: The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, by Ben Cobb, Persistence of Vision, vol. 6, Creation Books, London, 2007.
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- The Tlatelolco massacre took place on 2 October 1968, just ten days before the Summer Olympics took off in Mexico City. At least several hundred students took advantage of the publicity surrounding the Olympics to protest the country’s strict Penal Code and corrupt police system. Aided by the military, the police opened fire on the unarmed students. The total number of casualties remains unsolved; the government reported only four dead, while the commonly accepted number fluctuates between 200 and 300 deaths. One month after the tragedy, the Mexican public understandably remained in a state of unrest, and rumours abounded falsely linking the violent, controversial Fando y Lis to the massacre. David Church cites a 1980 interview that Uri Hertz conducted with Jodorowsky, in which the director remembers a rumour that the film was actually a documentary about the massacre.
- Kehr writes a weekly column on DVD releases for The New York Times. In addition to his column, he maintains an excellent blog.
- Cited in J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, Midnight Movies, Harper and Row, New York, 1983. The most extensive Panic manifesto can be found in Fernando Arrabal’s official book on the movement, Le Panique, Union Général d’Éditions, Paris, 1973.
- Quoted in Cobb, p. 267.
- Recounted in J. Hoberman, “You Had to Be There…”, The Village Voice, December 5, 2006.
- As of 2008, Jodorowsky has written at least 25 books, in Spanish and French, on a wide range of both fiction and non-fiction topics. Donde mejor canta un pájaro/Where a Bird Sings Best (Seix Barral, Barcelona, 1994) is the first of a trio of what could be considered autobiographies. Donde mejor canta… is Jodorowsky’s narrative recreation of his family tree. La danza de la realidad: Psycomagia y psycochamanismo/The Reality Dance: Psychomagic and Psychoshamanism (Siruela, Madrid, 2001) is Jodorowsky’s most conventional autobiography in form, although he describes the book as a non-fictional “imaginary autobiography” that occasionally embellishes the truth. El maestro y las magas/The Master and the Wisewomen was published in 2005 by Siruela in Madrid, and by Albin Michel in France the same year, under the title Mu: Le maître et les magiciennes. This book focuses on Jodorowsky’s relationship with Zen Master Ejo Takata, and takes place mostly in Mexico during the 1960s. One year after the release of Anarchy and Alchemy, the esoterically-inclined publishing house Inner Traditions International is now publishing an English translation of this book, under the title The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky: The Creator of El Topo (Park Street Press, Rochester, 2008). I have written a brief review of this translation for Film Comment, vol. 44, no. 5, September-October, 2008, p. 79.
- Eric Schaefer, “Exploitation Films: Teaching Sin in the Suburbs”, Cinema Journal, vol. 47, no. 1, Fall, 2007, pp. 94-97.
- Quoted in Cobb, p. 276.