Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Auteurs #59: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Despite not having attained some form of mainstream success, Alejandro Jodorowsky is someone that doesn’t need mainstream success or attention as he has become a cherished cult figure in the world of art, literature, and cinema. Making films that never play by the rules while bringing in elements of mysticism and philosophy into his work that made him stand out from others who also dabbled in surrealism. Even though his films were considered too strange for mainstream audiences, those willing to seek out his work would often find something that was unique as some believed they were also challenging. It’s something Jodorowsky is known for not just as an artist but also as a man.

Born on February 17, 1929 in the coastal town of Tocopilla, Chile, Alejandro Jodorowsky Prullansky was the son of Jewish-Ukrainian immigrants living in the town where his father Jaime Jodorowsky Groismann was a merchant and his mother Sara Felicidad Prullansky Arcavi worked at the shop as he would endure a very unhappy childhood filled with abuse and lack of love as he also had an older sister who also treated him badly. In Tocopilla, Jodorowsky also endured a sense of loneliness as he was disliked by the locals because of Jewish-Ukrainian background while he also had a disdain towards the American mining industry who he felt treated the Chileans unfairly. At the age of 9, he and his family moved to Santiago where it was through books where Jodorowsky found an escape from his tumultuous family life.

Growing into his teens where he was interested in poetry and literature, Jodorowsky also discovered the ideas of anarchism as it was something he gravitated to as it relates to his disdain of American imperialism and the ideas of his family. After a two-year period in college studying philosophy and psychology, Jodorowsky became interested in the world of theatre and mime as he left to join the circus where he briefly worked as a clown. At the age of 18 in 1947, Jodorowsky formed a theatre troupe where he wrote his first play as he had some minimal success in Chile. Yet, he realized there was nothing for him in his home country where he moved to Paris in 1952 to study mime from Etienne Decroux as he became part of her troupe. After a few years working as a mime with the famed Marcel Marceau, Jodorowsky returned to theatres where he began to stage numerous plays as he was starting to become interested in the world of film.

La Cravate/Teatro sin fin

In 1957, Jodorowsky decided to take a hand in filmmaking as he decided to adapt Thomas Mann’s novella The Severed Heads into a short film. Despite his inexperience in the world of film, Jodorowsky decided that the story would be told in pantomime as much of the story would be told just through performance and music. The twenty-minute short would have Jodorowsky in the lead role as he used whatever resources he had as well as friends he made in Paris to help him with the film as he would unveil it in 1957. Jean Cocteau would be among those who saw the short and praised it where he would later write an introduction for the short. Then some years after its release, the short was then believed to be lost until it was rediscovered in 2006. In 1960, Jodorowsky moved to Mexico City to settle while often returning to France where he would spend some time with the surreal artist Andre Breton as it would be an unsatisfying meeting for Jodorowsky.

His time with Breton would force Jodorowsky to create a movement with the Spanish writer Fernando Arrabal and the French artist Roland Topor that would put the ideas of surrealism away from the mainstream and embrace absurdity into its approach. The Panic Movement was considered groundbreaking where the men revealed a lot of what they were doing as Jodorowsky eventually filmed these presentations for a documentary short in 1965. The short revealed the movement’s take on surrealism and their refusal to take it seriously as it was seen by various surrealist groups as it was considered a major feat that brought surrealism back into the underground. The movement would also give Jodorowsky the chance to work on other things such as books, plays, and comic strips all playing into his desire to play into the world of surrealism.

Fando y Lis

Through his friendship with Fernando Arrabal, the two decided to write a film version of Arrabal’s play about two lovers traveling through a barren wasteland in a post-apocalyptic world in order to find a legendary land that can bring them hope. The two would create a loose version of the script as Jodorowsky wanted to infuse more elements of surrealism as well as critique some of the aspects of faith which was considered quite daring in a country such as Mexico. Despite Jodorowksy’s inexperience with filmmaking, he and Arrabal were able to get funding as well as call on friends such as Sergio Klainer and Diana Mariscal to play the lead roles with others including his then-wife Valerie playing small parts.

The shooting was largely set in the Mexican deserts as well as in rural places where Jodorowsky shot the film on weekends for several months with the aid of cinematographers Rafael Corkidi and Antonio Reynoso with the former playing one of the protagonist’s father. Jodorowsky wanted to play up that air of realism and surrealism into the story as well as have Mariscal do much of the film without walking as her character is partially-paralyzed. Having been aware that surrealism had become more bourgeois in recent years, Jodorowsky would maintain that absurdity into the film as he would put odd things such as mud people, old ladies playing cards and feeding a young man peaches, drag queens, and other strange things to really push the boundaries of what can be seen in film.

The film made its premiere at the 1968 Acapulco Film Festival where the screening was notorious for what was shown as it led to a riot which was becoming very common during one of the tumultuous years in Mexico. The film was later banned from the country for several years yet the film was seen at other festivals where the famed Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski praised the film and defended its contents. The film would also play in film festivals in the U.S. in 1970 as it received good reviews but was unfavorably compared to the American release of Federico Fellini’s Satyricon.

El Topo

Shortly before the completion of Fando y Lis, Jodorowsky met Ejo Takata who was a Zen Buddhist monk where Jodorowky would have a spiritual awakening during his meetings with Takata. It was around that time Jodorowsky met the renowned surrealist Leonara Carrington as these meetings would give Jodorowsky ideas for his second film as it would be about a Mexican bandit who travels to the desert to find spiritual enlightenment in a desolate world. Aware of the popularity of the western at the time, Jodorowsky wanted to create a more surreal take on the genre as he would star in the film as the titular character as well as do the score, create the sets and costumes for the film while having his own son Brontis play the titular character’s son.

With the aid of Rafael Corkidi in the cinematography, Jodorowsky would shoot the film in the deserts of Mexico though has no plans to have the film be shown there as he was considered persona non grata. The film would play with the conventions of the genre while displaying many things that were considered very strange to play into the development of the titular character’s violent journey for enlightenment. In the film’s first half, the character would see himself as a god but then would be brought back down to earth for its second half where it becomes a story of redemption and resurrection. All of it playing into Jodorowsky’s own spiritual experiences during his time in the Panic Movement as well as taking part of the drugs of the counterculture which was common during the time.

Despite being submitted as Mexico’s nominee for the Best Foreign Film category at the Academy Awards, the film wasn’t nominated nor, true to Jodorowsky’s word, did it play in Mexico following its 1970 premiere in various film festivals. Despite not getting any kind of distribution, the film was played at a private screening at the Museum of Modern Arts in New York City in late 1970 where Ben Barenholtz was at the screening and had it played in his movie theatre the Elgin in December of 1970 for a one-week run as a midnight screening. The result would be a major event as the film gained a cult following where the film played at the Elgin theatre for six months making lots of money and paving the way for the midnight movie phenomenon. After it had been seen by many including John Lennon and Yoko Ono who would befriend Jodorowsky, the two introduced Jodorowsky to Lennon’s then-manager Allen Klein who would buy the rights of the film and give it a proper release which didn’t do well financially in comparison to its run as a midnight movie.

The Holy Mountain

The cult success of El Topo was a big deal for Jodorowsky as even though it wasn’t played like a lot of films at the time. It was still considered a success as Jodorowsky was grateful for John Lennon’s endorsement that led to a meeting with Allen Klein who would give Jodorowsky a million dollars for his next film that included additional support from Lennon, George Harrison, and Lennon’s wife Yoko Ono. Inspired by the books Ascent of Mount Carmel by John of the Cross and Mount Analogue by Rene Daumal, the film would be about a group of people who join this strange man for a spiritual journey inside a strange mountain. With Jodorowsky playing the role of the alchemist as well as design the sets and costumes, co-edit, and do some of the music score, the film would feature a cast of unknowns for the film.

Once again teaming with up with cinematographer Rafael Corkidi for the production which was shot in Mexico, Jodorowsky wanted to get his cast and crew on a spiritual retreat before principal photography began as they would study many different ideas of spirituality while Jodorowsky was instructed by Arica School co-founder Oscar Ichazo to take LSD during the production. There was a sense of the unknown during the shoot yet Jodorowsky maintained a sense of control to create something that was indeed out there. Even as Jodorowsky wanted to break all kinds of rules for the film as he also obtained the services of classical musician Ronald Frangipane and jazz musician Don Cherry for the score.

The film made its premiere at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival that May where it was well-received as it led to a limited theatrical release in the U.S. in November of 1973. Though its initial theatrical run wasn’t successful, it was until the film was billed with El Topo as part of a midnight double-feature screening where the film was successful. The success was short-lived as Jodorowsky had a falling out with Allen Klein over Jodorowsky’s refusal to helm an adaptation of Pauline Reage’s Story of O. due to Jodorowsky’s support on feminism. Klein, who was known for being quite brutal with his business tactics, retaliated by having all of Jodorowsky’s feature films at that point be withheld and not shown to the public for nearly 30 years as it would become a source of bitterness for Jodorowsky.

Attempted Production of Dune

Following the falling out with Allen Klein while attaining some measure of success through the world of underground cinema. Jodorowsky did at least gain some clout to get various film producers and others in the industry in wanting to work with him. Having heard about Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel about a conflict between families over a mysterious melange which is the most precious commodity of the universe. Jodorowsky was interested in making Herbert’s story into a film as he heard that a French consortium led by Jean-Paul Gibon who had the rights to make it into a film. Jodorowsky met with French film producer Michel Seydoux, who had seen and liked Jodorowsky’s films, as the two decided to create a feature film version of Herbert’s novel. Though Jodorowsky hadn’t read Herbert’s novel, he was still interested in making into a feature film that would be like a spiritual experience similar to what hippies did with psychedelics but without the drugs.

The project was to feature visual effects work and designs by different artists such as Jean “Mobeius” Girard, Chris Foss, H.R. Giger, and Dan O’Bannon while the casting was to include Jodorowsky’s son Brontis as the lead role of Paul Atrides. The casting was to be even more extravagant as it would include the famed surrealist Salvador Dali, model Amanda Lear, Mick Jagger, David Carradine, and Orson Welles where Jodorowsky made them offers that were considered ridiculous. The ideas that Jodorowsky had were even crazier as he talked to the British rock band Pink Floyd and the French art-rock band Magma to do the music. By early 1976, $2 million of the production’s $9.5 million budget had been spent for its pre-production as Frank Herbert read Jodorowsky’s script which Herbert described as nearly the size of a phonebook for a film that was to be 14-hours long. While Jodorowsky admitted to taking some liberties with Herbert’s novel, Herbert did at least like what Jodorowsky was doing.

Just as a lot of things were about to come into play, the project was then halted as major studios in Hollywood who were interested initially on the film only to realize the grand scale of what Jodorowsky wanted. With Jodorowsky and Seydoux wanting more money to get their ideas going, the project eventually folded in the late 1976 marking an end what some believed to be the masterpiece Jodorowsky never made. In 2013, a documentary about the aborted production was released with new interviews from Jodorowsky, Seydoux, and Chris Foss as well as filmmakers Richard Stanley and Nicolas Winding Refn was released to great acclaim. The film showcased what could’ve been as Jodorowsky admitted to be heartbroken by the projects collapse as the rights was eventually purchased by Italian film producer Dino de Laurentiis who would eventually make the film that was directed by David Lynch for a 1984 release that received negative reviews as well as being a commercial disappointment.


Ravaged by the collapse of Dune, Jodorowsky was desperate for work as he was approached by the French production Gaumont to create a film version of Reginald Campbell’s children’s novel Poo Lorn L’Elephant. Jodorowsky said yes as it would be a very different project from previous films though the story about the spiritual connection between a young woman and an Indian elephant who were both born on the same day did play into Jodorowsky’s fascination with spirituality. Having teamed with Jeffrey O’Kelly and Nicholas Niciphor to help write a draft with Niciphor eventually writing the final script, the film was finally going to be made with a $1.5 million budget as Jodorowsky would work with an entirely French crew and cast as well as actors in India where the film was set. Despite not having to work with some of his previous collaborators, Jodorowsky would finally begin production in 1979.

The production would be troubling as Jodorowsky found himself fighting with producers and executives at Gaumont over the film’s visuals which would display little of Jodorowsky’s visual trademarks. Jodorowsky also struggled with the material as many of his past films were very sympathetic to characters who didn’t play by the rules of conventional society nor were part of it as he found himself unhappy with making a film where the characters were nearly normal. The shooting was unpleasant but it was in post-production where things became tense where Jodorowsky wanted to make the film shorter but the people at Gaumont won as the film would have a running time of nearly two hours.

The film was released in 1980 as it was not well-received nor did it get a wide release as the film would later be lost for many years except through poor-quality bootlegs as it is considered a rarity to be found on the Internet. Jodorowsky would disown the film as he was unhappy about his experience in making the film while still reeling from the collapse of Dune. Two years after the film’s release, Jodorowsky’s personal life was in dire straits as he divorced his longtime wife Valerie. For much of the 1980s, Jodorowsky would write novels and comics to keep himself financially stable while collaborating with artist Mobeius for the cult graphic novel The Incal.

Santa Sangre

After taking some time to recover from the unhappy experience of making Tusk and devoting himself to his work in comics as well as raise his children that included sons Brontis, Cristobal, Teo, and Adan as well as daughter Eugenia. It was around this time for much of the 1980s as Jodorowsky began to write a new film project that would be a slasher of film sorts that revolved around a young man, who would see his mother lose her arms following a fight with her adulterous husband, who becomes a serial killer targeting those who are threat to his mother under the command of his own mother. The idea itself was intriguing but given that Jodorowsky didn’t have much clout following the failure to get his version of Dune off the ground. Yet, Jodorowsky still had friends in the industry that included the Italian horror filmmaker Dario Argento who would give Jodorowsky’s script to his brother Claudio. Claudio Argento decided to produce the film as well as help polish the script with another Italian filmmaker in Roberto Leoni.

With Argento getting the money needed for the film, Jodorowsky decided to have the film be shot in and around Mexico City while sons Adan and Cristobal would play the lead role of Fenix with Adan as the young version of Fenix and Cristobal as the older version. With small roles given to Teo and Brontis as well as roles from Blanca Guerra and Guy Stockwell as Fenix’s parents, shooting began in mid-1988 with Jodorowsky getting Italian cinematographer Daniele Nannuzzi to shoot the film. The production didn’t just play into the idea of repressed memories and childhood trauma but also a man trying to cope with his demons as well as the presence of his mother who tries to prevent him from having a normal life. Jodorowsky also wanted to comment on the fallacy of faith as it relates to the strange beliefs of Fenix’s mother as she claims that the saint she worships is real until a Vatican official disproves those claims.

The film made its premiere in May of 1989 at the Cannes Film Festival where it played at the Un Certain Regarde section as it was well-received by audiences and critics. Following a release in Italy in November of that year as well as a very limited U.S. release, the film did initially receive mixed reviews in the U.S. yet received a glowing praise from renowned film critic Roger Ebert who had also enjoyed El Topo and The Holy Mountain. Ebert’s review would help the film achieve not just cult status in the intervening years but also with a new generation of critics who praised the film. While Jodorowsky was grateful toward Ebert’s praise, the film didn’t do well commercially due to its limited release though it did put Jodorowsky back in the spotlight no matter how brief it would be.

The Rainbow Thief

With the buzz he attained for Santa Sangre, Jodorowsky was approached by the famed producer Alexander Salkind about helming a film his wife Berta Dominguez D. wrote about an eccentric heir to a massive fortune who befriends a thief as they live underground in the sewers where they await word for the heir to receive his fortune and the thief to get a nice payday in return. Though the story didn’t appeal Jodorowsky in lieu with the rest of his body of work, Salkind revealed that the film would star Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif as Jodorowsky said yes to the project in a chance to work with the two acting legends. With Salkind funding and controlling the project as it would be shot in Gdansk, Poland, the film would be Jodorowsky’s most commercially-viable project to date.

Once shooting began in 1989, Jodorowsky received word from Salkind and producer Vincent Winter to not change a word of the script and do everything that is asked or he will be fired. Despite having a nice time working with O’Toole and Sharif as well as getting Christopher Lee for a small role, Jodorowsky became unhappy with making the film as he had no input in what to do or say visually. Jodorowsky’s attempt to create humor or anything whimsical would feel forced and uninspired as he would often squabble with Winter over the visuals and to create something unconventional as Jodorowsky often lost the arguments.

The film made its premiere in May of 1990 in London as it disappeared quickly from theaters with an indifferent response from audiences and critics. The film would later premiere in France in 1994 as it remains unreleased in American cinemas. The film was considered a low point for Jodorowsky as he would disown the film as he would also make some serious changes in his life where he moved his family to France in 1990 and devote himself towards making comics, novels, and speaking engagements devoted to his work and interests in the world of tarot cards. In 1995, tragedy struck when Jodorowsky’s son Teo was killed in an accident around the time Jodorowsky was to go to Mexico City for a lecture as well as meet Ejo Takata for the first time in years as it would be the last time they saw each other as Takata died two years later.

Attempted Productions of The Sons of El Topo and King Shot

In 2000 as Jodorowsky had attained a cult profile through comics and films, the director attended the Chicago Underground Film Festival that year where he was given a lifetime achievement award for his body of work. The festival also held screenings for El Topo and The Holy Mountain despite Allen Klein’s refusal to have the films be screened publicly. Nevertheless, the screening would draw great attention as well as the demand for Jodorowsky’s films to be available to the public as a new generation of film goers emerged wanting to see those films. In 2004, Jodorowsky and Klein settled their differences where a DVD box set of Jodorowsky’s first three films including the re-discovered La Cravate were released three years later to great acclaim. It was around this time Jodorowsky was trying to get a couple of projects off the ground as one of them was a sequel to El Topo. Often titled The Sons of El Topo or Abelcain, the film would be a sequel revolving around the two different sons of the titular character.

The project had begun around the mid-1990s with Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Arau, who had been in the film in a small role, trying to help Jodorowsky raise funds as it languished through the 2000s with shock-rocker Marilyn Manson and film star Johnny Depp expressing interests in appearing the film. Another project that Jodorowsky wanted to create was a metaphysical gangster film called King Shot as it was another film Depp and Manson expressed interest in as well as Nick Nolte. David Lynch offered to produce the film as he and Jodorowsky had become friends despite their own experiences with Dune. The film was to be set in a post-apocalyptic world with a casino in the middle of the desert shaped like the head of Jesus Christ while Manson would play a 300-year old pope. By the late 2000s, chances to raise money faltered as both projects eventually fell apart though The Sons of El Topo has often returned into discussion as Jodorowsky still plans to make the film. Nevertheless, Jodorowsky still maintained some interest in the film world where the New York City Museum of Arts and Design held a retrospective of his work in 2010 where Jodorowsky also gave lectures on art.

The Dance of Reality

In 2001, Jodorowsky released an autobiographical novel of sorts that was about his life as a child living in Tocopilla, Chile as it was a chance to make peace with his troubled childhood as well as to humanize his own father whom he admitted to having an unpleasant relationship with. While being interviewed for Frank Pavich’s documentary on the attempted production of Dune, Jodorowsky reunited with producer Michel Seydoux in the film where the two discussed plans to work together again. Jodorowsky had expressed interest in making a film based on his book where he returned to his hometown of Tocopilla where he received permission and some funding to have his film shot there. With Seydoux also raising funds, the plans to make the film about Jodorowsky’s childhood was starting to happen. With Jodorowsky appearing in the film as himself, the role of his father went to his eldest son Brontis while Cristobal and Adan would play small roles as the latter would also provide the film’s score.

Jodorowsky’s wife in artist Pascale Montadon would do the costumes as the rest of the cast would include Pamela Flores as Jodorowsky’s mother and Jeremias Herskovits as the young Alejandro. Jodorowsky got the services of cinematographer Jean-Marie Drejou and editor Maryline Monthieux to be part of his crew as filming began in the summer of 2012. Shooting in his hometown with the support of the locals gave Jodorowsky free rein to do what he wanted as he also recalled some of the visual ideas of Federico Fellini for the film. Yet, Jodorowsky also wanted to touch upon ideas of faith and the struggles he faced as a child as it would prove to be a very therapeutic experience for him. Especially as he was surrounded by his own family who get the chance to be in the home where it all began as the shooting was finished later that fall.

The film was completed in time for its premiere at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival that May where it played as part of a double-bill with Pavich’s documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune in the festival’s Director’s Fortnight section. The film was given a rousing reception from audiences and critics at the screening as it proved to be a major hit at the festival. Less than a month later, Jodorowsky premiered the film at his hometown of Tocopilla where it was also well-received as it made its U.S. premiere in February of 2014 at the South by Southwest Film Festival to great acclaim. While the film only got a limited theatrical release in the U.S. that only made more than half-a-million dollars against its $3 million budget. The film was a major hit with critics as well as art house audiences where the film marked as a major comeback for Jodorowsky.

Endless Poetry

Jodorowsky’s newest feature film is a sequel to The Dance of Reality as it focuses on Jodorowsky’s teenage years and his time as a young adult trying to find himself. Retaining the same cast for the film with Adan playing his own father in his 20s while Jodorowsky also appears in the film as himself. Jodorowsky received the services of the famed cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who is known for his work with Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai, to shoot the film as it was shot in Santiago, Chile and other places in the country while using crowd source funding to get money for the film as he received donations from fans as well as other filmmakers. The film made its premiere at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival in May of that year once again playing at the Director’s Fortnight section where it was well-received from audiences and critics proving that Jodorowsky still has the magic touch.

Despite not being part of mainstream culture or wanting to be in the often capitalist-world that is Hollywood, Alejandro Jodorowsky does remain to be an important figure in the world of cinema. While many of his greater work maybe considered cult films, that cult has gotten bigger as his films have influenced filmmakers, musicians, and artists as diverse as Nicolas Winding Refn, Luc Besson, Ridley Scott, David Lynch, Marilyn Manson, Peter Gabriel, and Kanye West. In attaining that air of mystique and intrigue that often makes cinematic figures so compelling, Alejandro Jodorowsky remains as cinema’s most mystical auteur.

© thevoid99 2016

1 comment:

ruth said...

This is a well-written, informative post on a filmmaker I don't know much about, so thanks Steven!