Bound by desert and ocean, the Chilean town of Tocopilla is an axis of gods and monsters. Known as “the devil’s corner,” the mining commune is divided by a power plant — a conduit for the strange electricity conjured from the dual-purpose landscape, widespread Roman Catholic mysticism, and a history of violence and neglect. This is the birthplace of Alejandro Jodorowsky.
The octogenarian director returned to Tocopilla for the first time in 78 years to film The Dance of Reality — his first feature in more than two decades (opening May 23). “The town never changes, because it’s forgotten by time. The same cinema, the same everything. Only my house was a veil. We reconstructed my house for the picture,” he told me by phone from New York, where he was preparing to screen Dance of Reality at MoMA in March. “If you know The Dance of Reality, you will better understand my other pictures.”
A potent blend of European art house theatrics, cult cinema madness, baroque violence, Eastern philosophy, Jungian tokens, and alluring depravity, the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky have amassed a fervent following. His first feature, the surrealist fable Fando y Lis, incited riots during the film’s 1968 premiere in Mexico, challenging viewers with its shocking imagery. Jodorowsky then entered the wild, weird west with El Topo in 1970 — a film dripping with blood and symbolism. In 1973, the filmmaker released his astonishing occult ode to sex, drugs, spiritualism, and anti-everything, The Holy Mountain. His ’70s output was championed by underground audiences. Both films becoming midnight movie fixtures, eventually attracting the admiration of artists like John Lennon and Yoko Ono. An auteur emerged from the delirious, arresting haze.
Tocopilla is the genesis for the characters who reappear throughout Jodorowsky’s movies — the circus performers, crippled beggars, and thieves who are misfits from his youth. “The workers in my village were in misery, mutilated in the mines from dynamite,” he reflects with sadness. “They lost their arms and legs and were treated like dogs. They drank alcohol meant for lamps while hiding in the backs of ships. I saw them. Every day. That is life. They are in the picture.” As the movie reiterates: “All things are connected in a web of suffering and pleasure.”
The saga of Jodorowsky’s alienated adolescence is explored through a surreal evocation of myth, poetry, and personhood. It begins with Jodorowsky as a boy (Jeremías Herskovits), naive and sensitive in a hypermasculine world. Torn between pleasing his cruel father (played with riveting intensity by the filmmaker’s son, Brontis) and distant mother (Pamela Flores, who sings her lines in operatic verse — the real Sara Jodorowsky dreamed of a career on the stage), young Jodorowsky is every bit as much of an outsider as the amputees littering the streets — his otherness defined by his Jewish-Ukrainian heritage, taunted for his long locks and circumcised penis.
The tale shifts from son to father for the second half of the picture, in which Jodorowsky Senior is propelled through a Christ-like transformation. Heightening the meta-reality further is the director himself, who acts as a spiritual guide, observing from the village’s scorching cliffs, cradling his younger self in his arms, nurturing the psyche of the familial trinity.
A line in the movie reveals Jodorowsky’s intentions for Dance of Reality: “Recovering your memory, you disappear from my life, and therefore my life disappears.” It is a salve. “In this picture, I am healing my problems. Everything I say is me, looking inside. You never forget what you were,” he advises. “Before I started the shoot, I told the family: ‘Listen, forget the movie. I am healing my soul, the soul of my family, and the soul of this town. I am a doctor. Don’t think in the picture. Do whatever I say.’” He embraces this rebirth off-screen, too. When I ask how he celebrated his birthday in February, he tells me, “I did nothing. I was naked all day. To myself I say, ‘I am born for my new life.’”
The Dance of Reality became perhaps Jodorowsky’s greatest act of psychomagic, he explains — a fusion of therapies and symbolic actions preached by the filmmaker, intended to heal psychological wounds. “It was a family affair. We were crying a lot of the time. We were very emotional. It was a great experience,” he muses.
“I told him my philosophical feelings, emotional feelings, and then I showed him the picture. He understood everything,” the director says of his son, Adan, who composed an incredibly moving, organic soundtrack for Dance of Reality. Alongside Brontis, son Axel (aka Cristóbal), who carries forth his father’s psychoshamanic teachings, stars as a theosophist. Jodorowsky’s wife, the artist Pascale Montandon created the carnival-esque costumes and helped the director conceive of the film’s vibrant color scheme. The couple collaborates on artworks under the name “Pascalejandro.” The nom de guerre is a touching surrogate; the director explains that, since 40 years separate him and his wife, he doesn’t intend to father a child he will not live to know. “But we created a painter,” he laughs.
Born from his own savings, the generous donations of fans, and the help of former Dune producer Michel Seydoux, Dance of Reality wastes no time letting us know where its loyalties lie. “There is no difference between death and wealth,” the director narrates over the film’s opening. “The religion is the money. Our life is the money. Our peace is the money. Everything is the money,” he passionately elaborates during our interview. “But, that is not reality — it’s the reality we’re making. It’s the reality that’s destroying the world. We need to go through something more healthy. We need to have hope.” And he does, offering this advice: “I say to the young artist, don’t make movies as a profession. Don’t make movies in order to live, in order to want money. Make your pictures when you can, but work is another thing. Don’t work in pictures for money. You will never be a real artist.”
Jodorowsky’s disgust for the commercial filmmaking industry is legendary. He draws the first poison dart: “Hollywood pictures, industrial pictures are the end of movies. They will kill cinema. Pretty soon we will no longer have movies. We will have television series only.” He likens Hollywood moviemaking to a death sentence for artist and audience. “Industrial pictures are not art. They are necessary sometimes, like a cigarette. But they kill you,” he warns. “One picture every day for six months, that’s OK. But one picture every day, that will make you an idiot.”
His venom is understandable considering his history as a filmmaker. Nearly a decade after the cult hits El Topo and The Holy Mountain, and following his ill-fated Dune and disastrous returns of 1980’s Tusk, Jodorowsky was coaxed back to the camera. He was enticed by the promise of creative control by producer Claudio Argento (brother of famous Italian horror director Dario) for the stunning Santa Sangre. But his artistry was stifled once more in the film that followed, The Rainbow Thief, which Jodorowsky has since disowned. Twenty-three years later, it took revisiting the making of Dune, in the bittersweet 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, and a reunion with Seydoux (the men hadn’t spoken in 35 years) to inspire him to pick up the camera once more. “It came to me like a unicorn,” the filmmaker declares.
Untangling himself from the past also allowed the director to fully embrace new technologies while creating Dance of Reality, which he shot digitally. “I was so happy to do that. With a new machine, you have new possibilities.” he expresses. “Time changes, the mind changes. Now we are using another machine. It is the 21st century. We are obliged to do that.” Twitter is another new platform for the artist, and he updates it daily. “It’s intercommunication. It’s fantastic. It’s like Japanese haiku,” he says. Reflecting on his early work, he sees the films with a similar fluidity: “I am an artist. I don’t know what I do. I do with my intuition. Like a dream. You can interpret a dream, but later you might have a different interpretation. Every time I see El Topo and my pictures, I have another idea of what I wanted to say. That is art. The art brings the vision.”
It’s the vision of filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn that captures Jodorowsky’s attention today. He counts the Danish director’s Bronson and Drive as two of his favorite contemporary films. Refn’s Only God Forgives bears a dedication to the psychedelic maestro. There were discussions about Refn creating a live-action adaptation of Jodorowsky’s science fiction graphic novel series The Incal, famous for its contributions from French artist Moebius. “He’s trying,” the filmmaker reassures. “It will take some years, because the picture will cost $200 million, and it is difficult to find that.”
The comic book world has afforded Jodorowsky the artistic freedoms he has frequently been denied. Knowing his tremendous love for all books, I expect him to rattle off a list of titles pulled from his 3,000-book library, packed to accompany him on the eight-hour flight from Paris to New York. “Do you know Milton Erickson? He’s a fantastic psychoanalyst teacher,” he asks me. “I’m reading him now.” Instead of getting lost in a book, the tireless Jodorowsky worked on the manuscript for a different adaptation of his own graphic novel during his whirlwind journey to the U.S. — the dark, modern-day gunslinger tale Juan Solo (Son of the Gun). “I already have all the budget. Then I am sure I will do it. I would like to start in September. If I cannot, it will be next year,” he reveals. And what of the sequel to his acid western El Topo that has languished in development hell?
“In order to do Son of El Topo [aka Abel Cain], I need $12 million,” he explains. “Nobody wants to give me that, it’s too much for them. They don’t believe in Son of El Topo. But they don’t realize my pictures… they are 60 years, 40 years, 30 years… they are still on the canvas. They are like a tortoise. They go very slow. And then I cannot make Son of El Topo. But, in three more days I am coming to Paris to sign a contract. I will make Son of El Topo a comic with a fantastic artist, José Ladrönn.”
Jodorowsky’s list of unfinished projects is as fascinating as his completed works. The proposed cast of King Shot, a “metaphysical gangster movie,” included Nick Nolte, Asia Argento, Marilyn Manson, Udo Kier, and Santiago Segura. It would have been his first time collaborating with his friend David Lynch, who was set to produce the film. “He is crazy,” jokes Jodorowsky about his brother-in-arms. The project was canceled due to lack of funding. “Pictures are expensive. You need to have some crazy person who will put up the money. Most people are cowards. They only want an idiot picture or an idiot romantic picture. They are idiots. The public is tired of that.”
“I don’t want to make something that will kill me, kill the actor, kill the public,” he continues. “I don’t want you to forget yourself for two hours seeing a picture. I want you to remember yourself seeing the picture, but not remember your problems. I want you to remember your life and the beautiful human beings you are. That is what I am trying to do.” I ask if this is what he wants people to remember most about his life and work. He doesn’t hesitate to tell me what he hopes his legacy will be: “He was free to do whatever he wanted, and he wanted the freedom to have artistical expression in movies. He was not delusional. He was free of that shit.”