When famed cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky was 23 years old, he cut off all relations with his family, moved to Paris, and began his career as a "panic" theater director, then as a film director, making such bizarre surrealistic films El Topo and Santa Sangre which would earn him art-house fame as one of the most imaginative directors of the twentieth century.
23 years ago the director stopped making films and turned to writing book-length comics instead, using his considerable imagination to create extra-terrestrials. At the same time he continued with his passion for psicomagia, the act of using symbols to change one's life, influenced by his lifelong experience with spiritual traditions from Mexican shamanism to Japanese Buddhism. Using the same principle of psychomagic, he became famous in Paris for leading weekly tarot readings in a café, attracting flocks of fans drawn by the hope of being the one whose tarot card would be drawn and read by the brilliant idiosyncratic Chilean.
Now--23 years later--at the age of 86, Alejandro has unexpectedly come up with a new film, the masterpiece Dance of Reality, which more than any of his other films directly confronts the personal issues that have led him to go so far in his imaginative ventures. The first half is based on true life events in his childhood, which he recounts in the first chapters of his eponymous autobiography.
film stills by Pascale Montandon
"Why are you so timid?" Alejandrito's stern imposing father (played by Jodorowsky's son Brontis) demands of the scared little boy in the first scene, set in a circus, as a couple of colorful clowns (in typical Jodo fashion) wander about. The nervous golden-haired boy in his bright teal suit hides behind his father with a distinct expression of unease, anxious about displeasing the patriarch.
It is this terrifying father-son relationship that structures the first half of the movie. The father wants his long-haired boy to be a man and has his golden locks chopped off. He slaps him hard to test his courage, until a tooth is knocked out. He takes him to the dentist to repair the tooth and forces the boy to accept the drilling without anesthesia, to prove that the child "has the willpower to take pain like a man." An older Jodorowsky, played by Jodorowsky himself in black garb, occasionally steps in to console himself as a child: "You are not alone. I am with you. What you need is within you. Live!"
Throughout, the scenes are exuberant in creative images: dogs with kangaroo tails, a surprise shot of one hundred wooden chairs, an amputee hunchback who asks the blonde urchin to scratch his back for him (until the father attacks), a white-faced stranger dressed as the Queen of Cups ("Theosophe") who imparts beliefs in the divine to the boy until the father, learning of this, slaps him out of it. "There is no God!" the Stalin-look-alike patriarch screams. "We die and we rot!"
And most compelling of all: the boy's mother with enormous breasts who sings her loving lines of solace to her son in operatic trills, while drawing him to cuddle between her prominent curves. Later, when the boy has a nightmare of being consumed "by blackness", she paints him black--and herself as well--and the two chase each other in a sensuous inky game of hide-and-seek, until his fears are settled.
"Is this all true?" I asked Jodorowsky, when I met him last spring in the Martinez Hotel in Cannes.
"All true," the director nodded, more statuesque and somber than his exuberant image in his films (in which he acts) belied. "That scene with the fish and the seagulls, for example, that really happened!"
He was referring to one of the most spectacular scenes in the film. The boy, taunted by his father for being 'effeminate', runs to the sea and in anger begins to throw a rock into the waters, even though Theosophe beside him on the sand warns him that he will kill all the fish of the world.
Jodorowsky's eyes widened like a child's. "It really happened. My father told me I was a coward. I threw stones at the beach. The ocean rose and grew dark, and suddenly all these dead fish were piled on the sand, with hundreds of seagulls swooping down from the sky, grabbing the fish. The miners, the poor people, ran onto the beach celebrating..." His voice lowered in compassion. "They were hungry." He mimicked the arms scooping the dead fish. "It was incredible!"
What is also true is the context of the film: the impoverished (and anti-Semitic) town of Tocopilla, where the Jodorowskys were reviled as prosperous Jews who ran a shop.
"The children in the neighborhood laughed at me," Jodorowsky said. "They called me Pinocchio. Because of my nose."
Prevalent in this tense anti-Semitic neighborhood are bedraggled miners, lacking arms and legs (as in so many of Jodorowsky's films), based on the fact that a dynamite explosion (from a US mining company) deformed them.
The ominous story of the red shoes--another anecdote in the film--was true as well: the guilt Jodorowsky carried for inadvertently causing the death of a poor friend with his gift of shiny shoes (with slippery soles), given to him (according to his autobiography) by his mother, and here in the film by his nasty father.
But what is not true is the second half of the film in which the father takes off for Santiago to kill the fascist president, General Ibanez.
"My father, a passionate Communist, always spoke of killing the dictator to fix Chile," Jodorowsky murmured, letting me in on the seed of truth in this story too.
But here, the enraged father goes so far as to actively plot a bizarre assassination attempt, which requires that he first becomes a horseman in charge of the general's stunningly white horse, Bucephales, who gallops in the fields to the tune of "Midnight Cowboy." After the gripping (or non-gripping--plot spoiler!) assassination efforts, the father ends up tortured in prison, forced to swallow his own medicine: to "resist pain like a man," just like his son, in the dentist chair, before him.
The father, in the second half of the film, is humbled.
He even weeps in a church, where (in a pointed attack at anti-Semitism) he offers more alms than the Christians.
"I humanized my father," Jodorowsky confided.
He did not hesitate from expanding upon his still painful memories of his father. "My father never saw me. If I made a drawing, he was blind to it. I wanted to be loved by my father. I admired him." He paused. "When my father died, I did not cry. When my cat died three days later, I cried a lot."
"And my mother never touched me," he added, revealing a shocking contrast between her and the warm-bosomed operatic matriarch in the film.
"You know, we have a legend that the mother and father are sacred," Jodorowsky continued directly. "There are terrible fathers and mothers. I show that already in Santa Sangre. I myself come from a crazy family of raped immigrants in misery. My mother's mother was raped by a Cossack. My mother was born from rape. And I was born in 1929, the year of crisis."
"My only gift," he smiled. "Was my imagination. I have a great imagination. Every person has some gift, but not the same. My gift was imagination. I was alone as a child. I lived in fairytales, adventures, Shakespeare. They are the friends, my books. Once a week I went to the movies: Frankenstein, Hunchback of Notre Dame. I like monsters."
I asked if making this film felt like an enormous healing.
"Yes," the director said. "I healed my soul."
It took many years to come to peace, he added.
Psychomagic, he explained, is based on the idea that magic is the poetry of the world, its feeling. To heal one has only to feel the "reality of the dance." "Feelings without intellect are very strong," he stated.
And yet this film, like his others, is supremely violent, with inexorable cruelty. Is this the upshot of the "dance of reality"?
"The world is not violent," Jodorowsky leaned forward with sincere passion. "But there is a lot of violence in it. The world is a golden cup with garbage. The issue is not to confound to be and to have. To have leads to violence. I need to show this violence in my films."
He clasped his hands with conviction. "Art is also violent. When a child is born, you can see the violence, you see the blood. When a galaxy explodes in the sky, it is violent. An orgasm is a kind of violence. Positive violence."
A positive violence that can give birth. In his book Psicomagia, Jodorowsky expounds a belief in lucid dreaming: creating the reality you wish in your life through your imaginative direction, using the power of images. His film is a lucid dream that accomplishes the director's wish. Alexandrito, waiting back home with his mourning mother, for his beloved fascist father to come home, has his dream come true: the film ends with the family united on a dock, holding each other with tender arms, as a ship departs into...
Death? The end implies the ending of a painful childhood--or the ending of a life. "For you, I do not exist," says an older Jodorowsky holding his younger self, on the beach, in an earlier scene. "For me, you do not exist. At the end, all our memories become words among the ashes. A dream. Give yourself to the illusion."
"Nada más que el viento," the last voice-over announces, in similar vein, as the ship leaves the ghosts of the past, resting behind on the harbor, and the elder Jordorowsky, venerable in his black suit, parts with a skeleton. "Nothing more than the wind. Detach from the past, the burden of all these years."
"But always keep the heart of a child."
At the premiere of The Dance of Reality at Cannes, I had the privilege of watching Jodorowsky and his team of actors---his sons--stand up on stage and bow over and over, under the spotlights, as the haunting theme song, composed by son Adan, played on and on, to the longest standing ovation I had ever witnessed. The bright light glittered in Jodorowsky's stark-white hair, as his sons' eyes filled with tears.
Son Brontis and director Nicolas Winding Refn clapping
postscript: Alejandro now is making a new film, about his young adulthood: Endless Poetry.