BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE FILMS OF ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY

By • May 1st, 2007 •

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Anchor Bay
6 Discs
Not rated, but be prepared…

FANDO Y LIS – 1968. 96mins. 1.66:1 AR.
EL TOPO – 1970. 124 mins. Color. 1.33:1 AR.
THE HOLY MOUNTAIN – 1973. 113 mins. 2.35:1 AR.
LA CRAVATE – 1957. 35 mins. 1.33:1 AR.
LA CONSTELLATION JODOROWSKY – 90 mins.
EL TOPO Original Soundtrack – 18 cuts
THE HOLY MOUNTAIN Original Soundtrack – 24 cuts

Optional Subtitles in English, Spanish, Brazillian Portuguese and French.
Commentary tracks by Jodorowsky.
On-screen Jodorowsky interview.

Several years ago I was hired to do the re-write of a screenplay called TRYPTICH for Producer Pierre Spengler and director Alejandro Jodorowsky. Apparently the script, which had been written in the 80s, was now hopelessly outdated. Jodorowsky had enjoyed STREET TRASH, a film I’d written and produced, and had mentioned it in interviews over the years. I was thrilled to be writing for one of the great visionaries of cinema.

After Spengler and Jodorowsky received the first draft, they flew me, and my writing partner, Rocco, over to Paris to discuss the impending re-write. Jodorowsky’s apartment was filled with comic books he’d written. Despite being in his early 70s, he was, as Rocco so aptly described him, “a lion in winter.” Dressed in black, with a mane of white hair, he was irrepressibly energetic and creative. We had a pleasant time getting to know each other a little, than took a train to Amsterdam to scout locations for the film. I have several wonderful memories about that trip, but perhaps the best – which defined each of our personalities most clearly – was when Jodorowsky, Rocco and I strolled through Amsterdam’s infamous Red Light district. Whores were hanging out of doorways on either side of the street – most of whom were black, and looking pretty much like James Brown – not a terribly sexy or attractive display of womanhood. Rocco, who was terrified of catching something airborne, let alone through physical contact, hovered in the direct center of the street, equidistant from either row of leering hookers. I was regarding the whole spectacle more casually, but with no sexual stirrings whatsoever from such a mangy lineup. Jodorowsky, on the other hand, was invigorated by the spectacle, waving his arms in the air and proclaiming, “If I lived here, I wouldn’t need Viagra!”

Like most of Jodorowsky’s projects, TRYPTICH never got off the ground. His work in film is sparse. Worse, it has been extremely difficult to find over the years, and never in pristine condition. An ongoing feud with Allen Klein, who owned the negatives to EL TOPO and HOLY MOUNTAIN, kept them out of public view for over three decades. Finally, the feud ended, and Anchor Bay has released three of Jodorowsky’s films in a six-disc boxed collection that simply must be owned. Even if you don’t take to his use of the medium, it still must be owned. There’s so much more here than just his work.

Jodorowsky’s films ushered in a new era – the 70’s – an era which promised everything, but alas, only delivered a few remarkable things. I’m not of the “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” school, which touts the 70’s as the most creative period of filmmaking we’ve ever had. For me, the 70s were a disappointment after EL TOPO and HOLY MOUNTAIN. Sergio Leone’s work in the late 60s was more grandiosely creative and experimental than anything that came along in the 70s except for Jodorowsky. Altman, Scorsese and a few others did good work, but Jodorowsky had set a standard – and perhaps a challenge – which was rarely equaled and never bettered. RAGING BULL certainly equaled it, but that was in 1980 – the 70s were gone. I’m happy to say, I co-produced a 70s film that may not have equaled, but definitely held up the honor, of the decade’s promise – THE PROJECTIONIST (1971). It’s out on DVD now, and has sold maybe a thousand copies. (Great support from the cinephile community!) Saul Bass’s insect film, PHASE IV (’74), though terribly flawed, was worthy, as was GIMME SHELTER (’71). But we’re generally talking very early 70s. I kept waiting, and waiting, and the revolution never came.

In addition to launching the 70s on a false high note, EL TOPO jump-started the “midnight show” ritual that was followed by such flicks as THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW, PINK FLAMINGOS, THE HARDER THEY COME and STREET TRASH. And he both embraced and parodied film genres and directors, as well as the key spiritual/cultural shifts of the period. So, beyond the jaw-dropping quality of these DVDs, their importance to film and cultural history is undeniable. And Jodorowsky’s commentary tracks are supremely informative and riotously personal.

HOLY MOUNTAIN is his best film, though EL TOPO is justly his most famous. Despite (or because of) the eye-candy onslaught of fabulous imagery, with dazzling sets and props following one another without respite, the mind grows a bit exhausted by it all. There are no valleys, just hills. And halfway through, a section featuring representatives of the various planets becomes somewhat redundant, adding to the lull. However it picks up again, and delivers an unforgettably imaginative leap of an ending that punctures the balloon of the Aquarian Age in a narrative form as surely as GIMME SHELTER did, two years earlier, using the documentary format. His lively commentary provides excellent historical and personal contexts, and his comments about Jean Luc Godard are priceless. You’ll laugh out loud.

Listening to Jodorowsky’s analysis of almost every image made me feel a lot better about not knowing what was going on half the time. The blend of Eastern and Western religious and social symbolism is so dense that it inevitably (and rather quickly) becomes his own personal ideology. He even admits that the room of Tarot Cards were his own concepts and renderings, a gesture he later regretted as being wrong-headedly egotistical, since there’s a lifetime of depth to be found in the original tarot illustrations. But it would have all become his own vision anyway, just because of the strength of his montage.

EL TOPO is deliciously pretentious, overwhelmingly derivative, and yet utterly original. Its excessive art direction, camera angles, sound effects, music, dialogue, violence, gore, unabashed nudity and sexuality, comprise a sensational trip with absolutely no acid necessary. The music veers from Morricone-esque to Fellini-esque. Jodorowsky acknowledges as influences Elvis Presley, Zorro, Luis Bunuel, Sergio Leone (that’s okay – Leone borrowed back for DUCK YOU SUCKER), Orson Welles (dubbing in post production), not to mention various religions (on the HOLY MOUNTAIN commentary, he mentions hanging with Arica, a group of spiritual seekers that thrived during the 60’s, 70’s, and beyond. A friend of mine was part of that commune when Jodorowsky was with them, and she reports that everyone knew he was observing for his own purposes, not really participating).

Alejandro Jodorowsky discovers an obscene image in an old church during our location scout for TRYPTICH in Amsterdam

Continuing on the theme of influences, I can see Chaplin in the mix. And he one-ups the LONE WOLF AND CUB series by toting around an entirely nude seven-year-old child (Brontis, his actual son, whose seventh birthday it actually was during filming, plays the child in the film and, according to the commentary, was traumatized by some of the goings-on). In borrowing all these iconic images and narrative threads from the past and using them in his own way, he was doing, in the 70s, something akin to what Tarantino was doing in the 90s and beyond.

EL TOPO is an immaculate, full frame print. It’s better than what I saw at the Elgin Theater all those years ago – a 35 mm print which accrued more scratches and splices with each viewing. There had been a rumor that the director himself was in the booth, recutting the film week by week. But twenty years later I was on a train to Connecticut and spotted Ben Barenholz sitting nearby. Barenholz had been the owner of the Elgin Theater, from which the ‘Midnight Show’ was launched. He was also one of the more prescient of the indie film producers, getting behind Romero’s MARTIN, the Coen Bros BARTON FINK, Lynch’s ERASERHEAD, and many others. He seemed like he wanted to be alone on that train-ride, but I had to ask about the rumor/legend/myth of Jodorowsky in the booth. “No,” he replied quietly, “The projectors kept tearing the print, the projectionist kept repairing it, and each time it broke we lost a shot or two, so over the months it just got shorter and shorter. Jodorowsky had nothing to do with it.”

Two discs are devoted to the actual soundtracks of EL TOPO and HOLY MOUNTAIN. These are eclectic compilations of musical forms, appropriate for the wide-ranging generic ideas expressed in the films. In other words, don’t expect any one cut to put you into a mood which successive cuts will maintain.

When one realizes that this boxed set represents half his output on celluloid, one can see why Jodorowsky is considered the unlucky Fellini. Imagine doing a visionary surrealistic masterpiece like these every two years, which is what Fellini managed, instead of once per decade, which is what Jodorowsky’s filmmaking efforts produced. Imagine what his DUNE would have been like (you can get a reasonable approximation of it from watching the excellent accompanying documentary – LA CONSTELLATION JODOROWSKY). Jodorowsky is fatalistic about his career. He makes a lot of dough off his graphic novels, and does tarot readings once a week in Paris, for which people line up down the block.

It is important, however, now that this myriad-disc release has hit the market place, that he somehow parlay it into another feature. The time is right. And the Lion in Winter is certainly capable of delivering us another classic.

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