The Dance of Reality: Jodorowsky returns and remembers

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. Alejandro Jodorowsky, El Topo: The Book of the Film

Alejandro Jodorowsky is not a director whose work can easily be forgotten. Inevitably, any viewer of the Jodorowsky oeuvre will find a set of wildly provocative cinematic images seared across the surface of his or her mind – the only question is as to whether or not this marking will be understood as scarring, enlightenment, amusement or a combination of the three.

El Topo (1970)

El Topo (1970)

Unfortunately though, amusement seems to have become the more common way of viewing what were once understood to be Jodorowsky’s greatest works – El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973). The former is the surreal tale of El Topo, a cowboy of some sort who must defeat four great gunslingers in order to become the greatest of all – at least that’s how it begins. The narrative is largely swallowed up by a bizarre yet gorgeous bombardment of references to various religious iconographies. The latter film is similarly constructed, and the story is essentially that of a thief who finds himself on a journey with seven others to a holy mountain where the meaning of life is to be revealed – although this description will likely seem a little inadequate upon watching the film.

The problem with these films is that what once seemed like innovative filmic techniques, powerful visual imagery, and the most transcendental of messages, now looks a little more like a caricature of the naiveté of the psychedelic era. Many still see these as great films, but there is an element of irony in their appreciation that was not originally intended. One cannot help but wonder what would have happened had these talents been directed towards a more narratively traditional production – Jodorowsky came very close to directing Frank Herbert’s Dune (for more on this, check out the recent documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune).

Given all this, there could be no greater time for a repositioning of Jodorowsky’s creative energies, which is exactly what this eighty-four year old auteur has just delivered with his new autobiographical film, The Dance of Reality. Here is a modern approach to the experimental cinema from which Jodorowsky made his name, loaded with the bubbling virility of its creator, but without the more extreme (and in retrospect possibly pretentious) elements of his early films.

Alejandro Jodorowsky

Alejandro Jodorowsky

Taking an unusually linear approach to narrative (relative to his own work, not the mainstream), Jodorowsky’s first feature after a twenty-three year hiatus details the events of his formative years as a young boy in Chile.

Jodorowsky expertly captures the world as perceived through a young boy’s eyes, and possibly through an old man’s memory, evoking an authenticity in its representation of nostalgia that is quite rare in cinema. There is a sense of almost archetypal truth in the reflections on his relationship with both his mother and father, the warm glow of maternal care and a sense of painful distance from his stern father define the film. His father was a man far more complicated than the boy could know – a point that is a core element of Jodorowky’s meandering story. A powerful narrative divergence midway through the film, perhaps more figurative than literal, sees our focus shift to the father whose struggle for identity sees him first battling fascistic elements in Chile, before subsequently dealing with his own tyrannical tendencies. Powerful stuff.

Be warned however, that this is not family viewing in any sense, and the unprepared viewer is likely to see some of the most graphic and forceful imagery that they have ever encountered. Jodorowsky is not a man with any particular phobia of human bodily processes, seeing in them a kind of iconographic significance with which most viewers will not identify – myself included. But at its best cinema is about exploring ideas and breaking boundaries, and I  was certainly forced to reflect on my own sensibilities more than once during the film’s two hour running time.

Many will hate this, but it’s definitely art.

Another belated review from the Melbourne International Film Festival.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

8 thoughts on “The Dance of Reality: Jodorowsky returns and remembers

  1. Holy Mountain was the first non-mainstream movie I ever saw. Back at the old Valhalla when it was in Richmond in 1979. At 18 I hardly knew what to make of it.
    Only this week I found El Topo at the local video hire. There are plenty of surreal moments but in the end the weirdness grew tiring.
    Going by your comments here I suspect the new film preserves the director’s obsession with crap and flayed animals.

  2. Will definitely seek out Jodorowsky’s latest film. I’ve only seen “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain” (the latter is the better of the two films, imho) and I’m curious to view his other works. While his narratives tend to meander off in wild tangents, his imagery truly is striking and memorable. Thanks for this post.

  3. I will look out the new work, but have to admit, I didn’t ever really ‘get’ El Topo. Nice appraisal though James, and satisfyingly reflective, and thoughtful.
    Regards from England, Pete.

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