Michelle gives a brief overview of three stunning movies that have defined Jodorowsky's career as a film maker.
EL TOPO (1970)
El Topo is the perfect place to start for adventurous film enthusiasts who want to get acquainted with the absolute insanity that is the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky. Jodorowsky himself plays the titular character, El Topo, a mysterious, black leather-clad cowboy who is traveling in the desert with his young son. The film initially plays out as a deconstructed western (sometimes called “Acid Western”) and eventually transitions into an odd religious allegorical piece. Some of the symbolism is blasphemous in nature and the film as a whole can be seen as a critique on various religions. If you have never watched a surrealist art film before some of the imagery in this film will blow your mind and most likely shock you.
This film takes place in a crimson blood-splattered nightmare punctuated by incomprehensible interludes and conversations. Jodorowsky pulls no punches in depicting the savage beauty inherent in the stark wasteland of the arid desert and some scenes are very brutal and hard to watch. On the flip side, surrealism often teeters on the precipice of lunacy; you will more often than not be laughing hysterically at the exaggerated and ludicrous characters. Is some of this stuff weird for the sake of being weird? I would say yes, but at the same time I don’t think this is a negative thing. What else is art for but to explore uncharted territory and cross boundaries?
After watching this film, you may feel conflicted and unsettled. You will most likely ask yourself one of two questions: “What in the hell did I just watch?” or “Where can I find more crazy stuff like this?” If you do end up in the latter category, then you will be excited to discover that this is just the entrance to Jodorowsky’s psychedelic rabbit hole, and there are even more fantastic sights to see if you care to travel further inside.
THE HOLY MOUNTAIN (1973)
If you are still with me after watching El Topo I commend you. However, you still will not be fully prepared for the balls-to-the-wall madness that will assault your eyeballs while watching The Holy Mountain. After the underground success of El Topo, Alejandro Jodorowsky was able to secure funding for a bigger budget feature. The extra money let him exercise his creativity much more fully and fill The Holy Mountain to the brim with a cornucopia of bizarre imagery and sounds. This film is hands down the weirdest thing I have seen in my entire life. I have watched a lot of films so this is a very bold statement indeed.
In normal films, there may be some light symbolism or things that can be construed as metaphor; in this film everything is symbolic and it’s up to the viewer to make heads or tails of what is going on. It’s an exercise in post-modern, Dadaist filmmaking designed to test the limits of comprehension. The basic plot covers a “hero’s journey” of sorts as you follow a man on his quest to climb the famed Holy Mountain and attain enlightenment. On the way you will see a midget with no arms, a Jesus statue factory, an entire village populated by small lizards wearing fancy hats, a baby hippo who likes to frolic in water fountains, a giant mechanical robot vagina and other freakish sights. Honestly, it’s impossible to describe this film to someone without sounding like you are just making it all up.
What makes this film watchable (at least for me) is the joy and love for cinema that Jodorowsky imbues into every single scene in the film. He goes in all the way and travels wherever his vision takes him; narrative structure be damned. Some of it doesn’t work but when it does it’s incredible. Perhaps it can be described as self-indulgent and there are people who seem to hate anything that is considered avant-garde, but there should be a place for everything and anything in cinema. Now that you have climbed your own cinematic Holy Mountain, you are ready to see what is at the summit. Things are going to get quite a bit darker from here on out.
SANTA SANGRE (1989)
Santa Sangre is Jodorowsky’s attempt at making a horror film; being the genius that he is, it is anything but conventional. The tone is much more somber and foreboding than his earlier films and the plot is somewhat straightforward (for him anyway). It’s always interesting to see a director’s style mature as he ages and refines his techniques. After coming from the rollercoaster ride that is The Holy Mountain, this film will seem subdued in comparison. The color pallet has been reduced to dark muddy browns, burnt orange and occasional splashes of red. It almost seems like a religious fresco come to life albeit with decidedly unholy connotations.
At the center of the story is a man named Fenix who resides in an insane asylum for unknown reasons. The film travels back and forth into different periods of Fenix’s life to attempt to illustrate just what happened to make him lose his mind. As an interesting aside: the child and adult version of Fenix are played by both of Jodorowsky’s sons! Fenix’s childhood was spent living and working at a carnival with his trapeze artist mother and various other oddities and freaks. It jumps around between present day and the past quite frequently so you have to pay close attention to keep everything straight.
There is a very sinister atmosphere which makes the film tense to watch. Jodorowsky is the master of playing with the audiences’ perceptions and expectations. While the story may be easier to follow initially, it eventually evolves into a nightmarish fever dream full of unexplained occurrences and surreal fragments. I would say that this is the most accessible film of Jodorowsky’s oeuvre but it is more satisfying to watch after you have the context of his earlier works. It is intriguing to watch a director discover his passion, completely give himself over to it and finally wrangle it under his control. People say many things about Alejandro Jodorowsky, but the one thing they never say is that he bores them.