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Alejandro Jodorowsky: the screen genie

He’s been hailed as one of our greatest living filmmakers with his mind–blowing cinematic visions. All in a day’s work, says cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorwsky, when you’re 30 years ahead of your time

Taken from the June 2007 issue of Dazed: 

Graphic novelist, astrologist, renowned tarot reader, poet, painter, mime and mystic, Alejandro Jodorowsky is also undoubtedly one of our greatest living filmmakers. His completely unique vision, particularly manifested in his first three features (Fando and Lis, El Topo and The Holy Mountain), is perhaps the closest we’ve come to seeing someone’s subconscious onscreen.

Raised in Chile by Russian Jewish parents, Jodorowsky spent his early years amid the reckless violence of a rugged port town, before eventually escaping to Santiago to attend university. By 1955, he had left South America for the seductions of Paris, and enlisted to study under the famous mime artist, Marcel Marceau. Quickly endearing himself to Marceau and his circle, Jodorowsky found himself a protégé of the likes of Maurice Chevalier and surrealists such as Salvador Dalí.

Protected beneath their gilded wings, Jodorowsky began various artistic experimentations of his own, and by the late 50s was directing avant–garde theatre and various short films, before relocating to Mexico in 1967 to direct his first feature, Fando and Lis.

“Nobody knew what I was doing, why I was doing it or where I was doing it. No one understood. They said I was crazy” – Alejandro Jodorowsky

A vaguely vampiric horror/romance involving a man and his paraplegic girlfriend, and their search for a mythical city called “Tar”, the film elicited a full scale riot at the 1968 Acapulco Film Festival due to its graphic sexual imagery and general high weirdness. Ultimately, this debut would clearly indicate Jodorowsky’s evolving aesthetic – a combination of refined nonsense and intense visual theatrics. He would cull inspiration from a variety of his own experiences, from artful pantomime to the vivid frenzy of the South American carnival.

Theatrics, religious symbolism and a fearless sexuality would continue to mark each of his future explorations on screen. “I was working in complete isolation,” remembers Jodorowsky, speaking from his home in Paris. “Nobody knew what I was doing, why I was doing it or where I was doing it. No one understood. They said I was crazy. Even the actors didn’t understand. When I did these films, it was a surprise to the industry. It was a big surprise that they would go on to make a lot of money. But now it’s very difficult to do that. Movies are an industry now and a very big one at that.”

In 1971, Jodorowsky wrote, directed, composed music for and starred in the psychedelic Western El Topo. A sepia–toned masterpiece combining Christ imagery, comic hi–jinx and the myth of Manifest Destiny, the film was applauded by people including John Lennon, and quickly attained cult status.

Due to Lennon’s public support, El Topo would help to establish a new strategy for distributing independent cinema, becoming one of the first of the long–playing midnight movies. “I was lucky with rock’n’roll,” explains Jodorowsky. “When I brought El Topo to New York, no one understood the picture. But John Lennon understood. John and Yoko Ono, they presented El Topo in the United States, they introduced it.”

Spurred by the unexpected success of the movie, Lennon and his manager Allen Klein reached deep into their pockets to fund Jodorowsky’s third film, the epically surreal The Holy Mountain. The film represents Jodorowsky finally and totally unbridled, free of financial constraint or egoist inhibition. A long–time student of mystic and spiritualist tomes, Jodorowsky fashioned his third foray into a kind of divine acid trip – meditative revelation through cinematic means.

The film is part science fiction, part social, cultural, political, sexual and religious critique. It is also visually stunning, a kaleidoscope of colour, costume and highly stylised set pieces. “I was advanced 30 years ago,” says Jodorowsky. “I was in advance of the time. And now is the time, in some ways, that I was talking about, for example with The Holy Mountain. Even today, it is an avant-garde, artistic picture. I’d like that film to play at museums, instead of in a theatre, because it is a painting, no?”

Due to legal hassles and a long-standing feud between the filmmaker and Klein, neither El Topo nor The Holy Mountain had been seen (except at rare screenings or as bootlegged video copies) for the last four decades. In 2008, however, a long-awaited truce between Jodorowsky and Klein resulted in the release of his first three films on DVD and once again, on the big screen.

“I was advanced 30 years ago...I was in advance of the time” – Alejandro Jodorwsky

“I’m very happy, because I was given the opportunity to remaster everything,” he says of the release. “I made better colour and now each is a complete film, and so I am happy. I make very good technical work on these films. I worked for a month getting everything perfect so that these films are now as they should be. They are very honest these films, no? They are out of time. I am no longer this person, but they are part of my life. So, I am reliving that. And I still believe in what I was saying.”

Following the release of The Holy Mountain in 1973, Jodorowsky was selected to begin pre–production on an expansive exploration of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune. With The Holy Mountain and El Topo being embraced by some of the most innovative artists of the era, Jodorowsky was able to enlist an incredible roster of talent for the project. Gloria Swanson and Orson Welles were cast as leads, Moebius and H.R. Geiger worked on production design, and Pink Floyd volunteered to write the score.

Eventually however, Jodorowsky’s efforts collapsed and the film was passed on to Ridley Scott and ultimately to David Lynch. Jodorowsky then went on to film several underwhelming work–for–hire films, focusing his talents instead on art, tarot and various mystical pursuits. 1989’s Santa Sangre was a return to form, a critically acclaimed feature that revisited many of his favorite themes, among them deformation, circus art and sexual perversion.

“As a film director he influenced my entire visual style. He is technically a holy man of a different sort” – Marilyn Manson

Meanwhile, his myth was continually evolving, particularly among musicians. Over the years, Jodorowsky continually found support from the rock’n’roll world, first by Lennon, then Peter Gabriel, and more recently, by Marilyn Manson. “With Holy Mountain, it was Marilyn Manson,” Jodorowsky explains. “He paid homage in a video clip, and then I was introduced to all these young gothics, who wanted to see Holy Mountain. I don’t know why, because I’m not rock’n’roll, but there are always young people who come to see the movies, and I think that is because of these musicians. I was very lucky in this way, that they understood what I was saying.”

Jodorowsky has since become quite close with Manson, even officiating over the latter’s 2005 marriage to now ex–wife Dita Von Teese. “He is one of my greatest all-time heroes, and a bit of a mentor,” Manson says of Jodorowsky. “As a film director he influenced my entire visual style. He is technically a holy man of a different sort.”

Jodorowsky’s intense exploration of all aspects of spiritualism has also earned him an international reputation as both a revelatory tarot reader and astrologist. He has even developed his own form of psychotherapy called “Psychomagic”, which attempts to heal deep–seated psychological scars passed down through past generations.

Jodorowsky has also evolved into one of the most prolific authors of graphic novels, working with a variety of artists to produce a long–running series of sci–fi comics that have been released all over the world. His first experiments with comic book writing began in the mid–60s, when he authored the "Anibal 5" series (with illustrations by Manuel Moro) and both wrote and illustrated a series entitled "Fabulas Panicas", which ran in the Mexican magazine Heraldo de Mexico.

“For me, comics are an artform, much like pictures,” Jodorowsky says of the genre. “It is another kind of art, but for me, it was the same in that it is a way for me to express my imagination. Everything I cannot do in movies, I make in comics, so it’s another way of expressing myself. It is very freeing, because you just have the artists, yourself as the writer and an editor and this is all. And you do it.

“It is like a camera. You have a cinematographer and you tell him what you want, yes? So, it’s possible to do this with art, if the artist is willing. And it’s a big happiness to do this, to describe what is in your mind, and have an artist bring that thing to life.”

Jodorowsky's idea for a new film, entitled King Shot and set to star Manson as a “300-year old pope” was unrealised. His day–to–day life consists of work on poetry, painting, writing and public lectures. “I am like a woman,” he says. “I have a woman inside me. And so... I create.”

After an intensely creative career, Jodorowsky is anxious to work in cinema once more, although he seems well aware of the changes in the industry and the difficulties of manifesting the complete purity of vision that marked his early work. “It is difficult now,” he admits. “But in every time there is a person who rises above these difficulties. And even if today is difficult, there can still come a person who does these things. A true artist can do that. A true artist is always out of his time.”