May 21, 2011

INTERVIEW: Alejandro Jodorowsky

by Steve Dollar

Alejandro Jodorowsky in THE HOLY MOUNTAIN

Now an avuncular 82, Alejandro Jodorowsky still has the air of a sly wizard about him—even over an Internet phone connection across the ocean in Deauville, France, where he was vacationing this week. This, after all, is the guy who once claimed: "Most directors make films with their eyes. I make films with my cojones." Not even age can wither that kind of spirit, as the Chilean émigré remains just as provocative in thought now as when he played the macho shaman in his classic cult movies El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973), wildly influential hippie-era mindfucks that spun the tripped-out counterculture on its pointy little head.

The movies spent a long time in limbo, circulating on multiply dubbed VHS tapes for years before lingering legal issues were sorted out and they were released in remastered high-definition versions in 2006, complete with screenings at the New York Film Festival. Now they’ve been reissued in Blu-ray editions, and The Holy Mountain has a six-week run at MoMA's PS1 in Long Island City, where it will be screened three times a day in a theatrical gallery setting.

Paris has been Jodorowsky’s adoptive home since the 1960s, when his work in avant-garde street theater led him to create something he called the Panic Movement, a polymorphously perverse circus in which Antonin Artaud met lysergic freakout, and which forecast the metaphysical violence and sexuality of the films to come. As reported in the 1983 cult-film history Midnight Movies, by J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, the movement's grandest spectacle was a four-hour event staged in 1965 called Sacramental Melodrama.

"Against music provided by a six-piece rock band, a set consisting of a smashed automobile, and the visual frisson provided by a cast of bare-chested women (each body painted a different color), Jodorowsky appeared dressed in motorcyclist leather. He slit the throats of two geese, smashed plates, had himself stripped and whipped, danced with a honey-covered woman, and taped two snakes to his chest."

The Holy Mountain

There's not a huge leap from that to Holy Mountain, a landmark of visionary filmmaking pitched somewhere between magic ritual and surreal burlesque. It's a rude, rowdy satire of contemporary society framed by a transcendental quest that becomes a cosmic "gotcha!" It's also a reminder of a time when making a movie could be like a gunfight. Jodorowsky populated his cast with drunks, prostitutes, disabled dwarves, monkeys, one-eyed men, plenty of naked people and an impromptu circus of frogs and lizards in costume. The movie's mesmerizing design evokes multiple religious traditions and occult imagery, including a set constructed of original tarot-card paintings and a shocking parade of flayed, crucified lambs held aloft by villagers (the filmmaker paid a local restaurant to supply the carcasses, then returned them to be served as dinner). There is still nothing quite like it, although everyone from Dennis Hopper to Darren Aronofsky have taken cues from its method and madness. I reached Jodorowsky in a Skype-to-cellular call that found the director (and, for a much more productive stretch, author of comic books and graphic novels with collaborator Moebius) in a relaxed good humor. His admirable, if heavily accented English didn't always survive the compromises of the international connection which perhaps accounts for any inconsistencies in the transcript.

What do you think of the latest editions of the film?

It’s very, very good quality. The first time the public will see the film as I wanted to do it. We have only old versions, bad color.

Has the meaning of it changed for you over the years?

When I make this picture, I was not making a business. I was not thinking in money because movies are an industry. I was acting as an artist, a poet, and doing something that was coming from very deep of me. I cannot judge that picture because it is a part of me. It’s out of time. I did what I did. It’s like a painting. It’s there. Everything I wanted to know in The Holy Mountain, later I knew. I developed the Tarot, I developed all kinds of things while in the picture. It was like some step in the search of myself.

The Holy Mountain

Watching it again, I was struck by how damn funny it is—it’s kind of a cosmic joke, a send-up of society.

Spiritual problems, pictures are not speaking about that. Myself, I try to speak about that. You see the Spaghetti Western, the heroes are fighting for money all the time. They are seeking gold, they are not searching for consciousness. In El Topo, yes—the search is other, it’s another thing. The characters were searching themselves, changing. That is the difference. I still believe in this. Pictures can be the greatest art of all the arts. Movies can be art, not only industry.

Before you started shooting, you submitted to training in a method called Arica. What was that like?

There was a guru named Oscar Ichazo. I was not a guru. I was a director and I needed to play a guru. I bring him to Mexico. He asked for a lot of money. I wanted him to enlighten me. The guru, he gave me an LSD! And then he was directing eight hours my visions. That was an adventure. It was a very difficult experience, because in Mexico it was new for that country at that time. The right wing of the country think I am making black mass, they get crazy. Was a big scandal. They fear something that was not real. The rumors. The people were saying I am diabolic, I don’t know what. And then they went to kill me. I needed to escape. I finished the picture in New York.

I’m sure the police loved having you there!

Yes. The police, there was a time I took them by surprise. I have this guy dressed up as policeman, and then I stopped the cars. Every shot was like this, without permissions. Only I needed to do it. I did it.

The Holy Mountain

Do you miss the insanity of movie making?

When I make a movie I am another person. The way I eat, very few. Rice, legumes. I don’t eat meat when I shoot. I don’t make love. Like a monk. It’s true. I don’t see friends. Only the family who is appearing in my picture, I am completely isolated. Only the picture. When I make a picture I don’t have a lot of money. I can’t lose time. You cannot sleep more than four and five hours day. You have a lot of problems. [He tells an anecdote about procuring animals from a zoo and employing superannuated scenics to paint the sets]. I have not a studio. It was underground. Without a star. The picture you see, they are not actors. They are people I find in the bars. Every person was what you see in the picture, they were that. That was an experience to shoot that in that way.

I am always impressed by the scene where you staged a circus with toads and lizards. You just don’t see that in movies anymore.

That was difficult to do the costume, then to dress the toad, [which emitted an acid spray when agitated]. When you put the costume [on the lizards] they would [blow out air] and escape the costume. We did it. In the middle of the market, the persons who were looking at the scene were really persons looking. Everything there was in reality, in reality I did these things. I didn’t want actors. Actors are a lot of ego. I used persons. I don’t want to be disturbed by the egos of these stars. These enormous egos. Art cannot go in the Hollywood system. It’s not possible.

The Holy Mountain

It’s been decades since you made a new film. Do you ever think about getting behind a camera again?

I don’t make more pictures because I have nothing to say. But when I have something to say then I make a picture. I don’t need to make a picture to live. For me, picture is a relaxation. I will be the producer of my next picture. I have not too much. I have a million dollars. But I will do it. And I will make the picture in order to lose money. I have that amount of money in order to lose that money. For me, a big picture I need to do with the intention to lose all the money. The production of movies today is the money. They are making a lot of money and then it’s a good picture. I understand. You go, because you need to take fun. You see the movie, you went out. You are still an idiot. In artistical picture, like in a museum, you see a masterwork and something happens in you. There is an opening of the sensibility. And then you will never forget what you see or what you listen to. You never forget. It can give to you something, not only entertainment. Not only go to the movie and forget the world for one hour and a half and go out to the same world. At the end of the year I will make another movie, The Dance of Reality. That is what I am doing. [Laughs]. I will be in the street but I will be happy!

That’s great news.

Yes, in the town I was born in, in Chile. The whole town will collaborate with me. I speak to the authorities. They will do it.

The Holy Mountain

Are you still doing tarot readings every week?

That is free. Every Wednesday. I go to a café near my house and I sit there and read the Tarot. Only for three hours. Twenty-two persons I read for. It’s always full of persons from different countries. It’s a real art, the Tarot. Not to read the future. You read the Tarot to talk about present problems, and past problems, not the future. The persons know without publicity. They know. They come. I need to make a lottery because there are too much persons. All kinds of person. All ages, all nationalities, all social levels. Every person. Emotional problems. Sexual problems. Wealth problems. A lot of problems have the people. What is my weight? I am doing well? I will get divorced. Human beings have a lot of problems today. The Tarot is optical language like paintings. Almost 40 years I have studied the Tarot. I wrote a book, The Way of Tarot. I don’t believe in prediction. There you can say anything you want. I read the Tarot to two presidents. I read the Tarot to French politicians. In Chile it was always one hour, the president.

It was a big surprise to see you on Twitter (as @alejodorowsky).

Yes, I will have 200,000 followers. Every day it’s growing. The twitters sometime I make in English. For me it is the new literature. The new poetry is there. It’s free, you do that because you love to do that. The characters are limited and you have immediately answer. Now when I make a sentence I know 200,000 people read it. You have immediately answer! Fantastic literary communication. Philosophical, also. A lot of persons speak idiocies, no? How they go to the bathroom. It’s silly. But if you use that technique with real soul, with a desire to communicate, it’s the most important invention of our century. That’s what I believe.

[Blu-ray editions of El Topo and The Holy Mountain are available now on Abkco, and for rent from GreenCine. The Holy Mountain runs through June 30 at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City, NYC.]

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Posted by ahillis at May 21, 2011 9:39 AM


This is the kind of thinking that we need more of. In the privately funded world of art it's called 'reckless' and in the publicly supported world of art it's called 'the point'. Thankfully there are still some people willing to treat the former as if it were the latter and suffer the consequences. Whether it turns out brilliantly or not is a question only for the ungracious. I'm always thankful for the generous reckless artists.

Posted by: JeanRZEJ at May 21, 2011 5:00 PM

Bravo!!! Someone speaks the other!!!

Posted by: JoAnn Jansen at May 23, 2011 2:22 PM


Posted by: Leo at May 24, 2011 10:27 PM

"spun the tripped-out counterculture on its pointy little head"?

that's funny. i like it. even tho the "pointy little" part's not true. history shows that the "tripped-out counterculture" was right in the long run.

but i forgive steve dollar for his smartass bullshit.

why? because he interviewed alejandro jodorowsky!

Posted by: d nova at May 26, 2011 11:48 AM

Bless you for my absolution!

I just wanted to say that a revolutionary societal movement can be "pointy" and also prescient.

Lest we forget:

Posted by: Steve Dollar at May 27, 2011 2:22 PM
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