Interview: Alejandro Jodorowsky Talks Life, Art, And THE DANCE OF REALITY

Contributor; Toronto
Interview: Alejandro Jodorowsky Talks Life, Art, And THE DANCE OF REALITY
I cannot think of an artist with more integrity than Alejandro Jodorowsky, the man who made cinematic history by inadvertently creating the midnight movie via El Topo

It's an otherworldly film that came out of nowhere for American audiences, many of whom lined up around the block, night after night, to watch and rewatch Jodorowsky's surrealistic odyssey. El Topo offered a singularly memorizing experience in its apocalyptic meditation on heroes and egos, monsters and beauty, zen and violence, and good vs evil. 

One midnighter, a chap named John Lennon, was so taken by Jodorowsky's vision that he insisted to his manager, Allen Klein, that he buy El Topo and offer a proper New York engagement to the greater public. And so the film was taken from its newly born midnight home and unleashed upon the rational world of broad daylight Times Square to die forever, as there was simply no audience for this type of film before Jodorowsky created one. But that was 45 years ago. The release of more films, as out there as El Topo, gradually gave way to a culture that marginalized fringe films less and less each year, until aspects of the film inevitably infiltrated mainstream culture. And while El Topo would go largely unseen for years because of a nasty custody battle with Klein, whether people realize it or not, Jodorowsky had a major impact on etching out a palette for the bizarre. 

El Topo was followed by the psychotropic Holy Mountain, another spiritual odyssey that further reflected Jodorowsky's initial infatuation with mysticism and enlightenment. Like El Topo, it was well received by the counter-culture, and especially by transcendence seekers who felt his films and LSD made for a potent combination. 

Then in 1975, Jodorowsky was given the opportunity to exercise his thematic preoccupations via Frank Herbert's Dune, a recent sci-fi instant classic that, if made correctly, could've served as the great Hollywood proto-Blockbuster. That it would be in the form of Jodorowsky's propensity for abstract imagery - not unlike David Lynch's, who would butcher the novel several years later - made Dune's potential seem limitless. It would've been the ultimate art film. A space-age Lawrence of Arabia. But alas, Jodorowsky's dreams were bigger than his budget, and after two of the ten million dollars were spent on a thoroughly-illustrated storyboard book, investors pulled the plug, not only on Jodorowsky's Dune, but on the man's dreams and career as well. 

Now almost 30 years later, with little notable activity in between, aside from the lyrically haunting Santa Sangre, Jodorowsky's artistic wings are flying again. First in the form of Frank Pavich's documentary Jodorowsky's Dune which breathes life into Alejandro's deceased dream, exposing the project for it's potential, and Alejandro as the imagination-serving, dream-fulfilling artist he remains today. And now Jodorowsky's back in the writer/director chair with Dance of Reality, an adaptation of his own memoirs of the same name. 

Given that he's dealing in biography, Dance of Reality is certainly his most personal work since the 70s, but that is also not to say his trip down memory lane looks anything like reality-proper. Instead the film embraces the trip element of its journey into the immense imagination of a child, living in impoverished circumstances, hungry for escapism and magic. Life is, after all, entirely within the realm of how it's perceived and Jodorowsky's great gift is his ability to draw viewers into his world. Although that gift has been largely untapped for decades, The Dance of Reality is as fascinating a work as anything created by Jodorowsky throughout his life. And in the never-ending battle between dreams and commerce, it's artistically life affirming to see that past-be-damned, the fire behind Jodorowsky's eyes still burns as bright as ever. 

ScreenAnarchy: How has it been screening your first film in over 20 years?

Alejandro Jodorowsky: Now it's no big surprise but it was at Cannes. I was ill, psychologically ill because I was afraid. I made my picture without knowing if it would be accepted or not accepted. But when you do it that way you can find anything. And I was so happy when the public reacted well. They accepted me! In my picture, there is the history of a child who is not accepted. He's different. And all my life I've never had a country where I feel like I am this or I am that. I've never had a religion. I've never had a political party. I was never inside something. I was just going through life like a little comet. And when you are accepted, it's very important. 

I feel like I'm The Elephant Man when I see the picture. You know, when The Elephant Man is in the theatre and all the people are clapping, I start to scream! I learned to read completely when I was four years old. And from that moment I started to read books not only for children but for adults... I became a kind of monster. And all my life was like that. To be here, for me, is very important. Not only to try and win in a festival but to know a new public. That is, the real American public. The French public was very good but the French have a tradition of cultural intellectualism, historicism... here it's weird! No? It's a struggle. Anything can happen. So I'm very curious to see the reaction tomorrow (at the premiere) of the people. And if they like my picture I will feel very strong emotions cause I'll feel like I exist in some kind of... reality. 

What inspired you to make a movie after all this time?

Because I found the money. Frank Pavich made Jodorowsky's Dune. And originally when we tried to make Dune, Michel Seydoux lost $2 million and Hollywood said Jodorowsky is too crazy. We cannot do it...and I felt guilty! I never wanted a thing to do with Michel Seydoux. Then Pavich said we have an interview with him, do you want to do the film? I said 'but he wanted to sue me! Why?!' He said no no no no no he loves you! It was his big project. All The paintings from Dune are in his desk. So I went. And he was very friendly. And we started to speak and I realized he had a dream. To make a picture together. 

Then at the end of Jodorowsky's Dune we said, now let's really make a picture together. Then we were sitting in the park together and he says how much money do you need to start this project? I said $2 million and he said... I'll give it to you... Somebody gave me two million dollars in a minute!! It was real! Then I made a show of paintings in Mexico. The owner of the museum was at a dinner and I said I have two million but I don't want to say the plot of my picture or show anything.. but I do want another million. And The guy said 'I'll give it to you'. Just like that.. I could make my picture. I had already written my book but in September they translated it into English. It's my best book. With this book I could make 20 pictures! It was my whole life. Full of magic! 

Fifteen years after DUNE fell apart you made SANTA SANGRE. How did you come to make that film after being inactive for all of the 80s? 

That came about when Claudio Argento wrote a terror picture about serial killers. And so Claudio was the executive producer and he proposed to me to make this picture... And so I said yes and I made Santa Sangre, which is, of course, not a serial killer picture. But I only worked on the picture - for six and seven weeks - just like the guy who holds the camera is working. And all my life I've made pictures as a gift to the public. I don't want money. I give everything in order to make the picture .But sadly Sangro is the worst. I gave away all my artistic rights in order to do the picture.

I recently watched an interview you did in which you were discussing your first film FANDO Y LIS. You were saying how, looking back on the production, you saw an artist who doesn't care about anything except following his instincts ... which may be why it's a touch overexposed.

Yes! Just to do it! The unions wanted to kill me - they said I had no right to shoot the picture. At the time it was very beautiful but now it's considered a little overexposed. The photographer believed in what he was doing but it was also his first time. 

What happened in the years after FANDO Y LIS that inspired you to make EL TOPO?

I've always liked what you call monsters. Freaks. In my time they were called Mongolians. There was a man who was the son of a very wealthy diamond and gem dealer. He wanted to be my assistant so he became my chauffeur. He was so, so, so happy and we didn't know why. Then one day he says I want to produce theater - because I was directing theater in Mexico, I made one hundred shows - and I said don't produce theater, produce me a picture. It won't be expensive because all the people who worked on it, like the photographer, everyone of us worked free. And just like that I have the picture. Because I loved the monsters.

Were you a fan of John Lennon before he made his manager, Allen Klein, buy your film (and accidentally ruin the buzz in the process)?

No, because for me this kind of music was not important.. it was a show for me, you know? At that time I liked things like Thelonious Monk, I was loving Jazz. But Allen Klein, who got the picture, invited me to the Bangladesh concert. And they all loved my picture and then I loved them. They treated me very well there. And thanks to John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono, I had the money so I could make The Holy Mountain. He's a genius because he saw I was a genius (laughing). We're human if somebody loves our work, we love them. I had a lot of luck with rock 'n roll. Later it was Peter Gabriel. Then later it was Marilyn Manson. And the other day it was Kanye West! They like what I do and I'm happy.

I've heard you say that with films like EL TOPO and THE HOLY MOUNTAIN you were trying to technically replicate the effect of drugs without doing them.

I was trying to do that, yes sure! I wanted to change the audience's mindframe. Because if the person's going to go to the theater for two hours and eat popcorn, I don't want him to come out the same person. I want to make a picture that changes the human mind. I was trying to do that. 

Did you have any techniques in mind during production?

Well, I was born an artist. Some people are born sportsmen, some people are businessmen.. Every one of us has a value but not the same value. Myself, I am an artist and art is my life. And so I don't have an idea of how to do these things - just the idea that I want to make my idea. If someone loves another person you don't ask them why they love them. They just love them. When you're having an orgasm, you can't say "I am having an orgasm". You don't say "how did you prepare that orgasm?" You fuck and then you have an orgasm!

In the documentary, La constellation Jodorowsky (1994), you sort of say how in the late 60s/early 70s you were very focused on enlightenment but sort of came to conclude that reality was mysterious enough without focusing on enlightenment...

It's that every person is enlightened. Why search it when you are it? I still believe that religion and mysticism are these incredible things. It's just I believe in giving every moment of life to this universe. It's here. I believe in a union between all human beings. I believe you can sing with a person who is in China. And tomorrow that person will appear here. I believe life is magic. I didn't change my ideas, I developed them.

When you read Frank Herbert's DUNE, what aspects of the story did you recognize as a perfect platform for the ideas you were developing? 

I'll tell you, I wanted to escape Allen Klein at that time. He wanted to make The Story of O, which was to be a sort of pornographic picture, and I just didn't want to do that. And then I received the call from Michel Seydoux and he said I want to produce a picture. And I said what do you want to produce? And he said Dune because I have a friend who just read it and tells me it's fantastic! It started like that. And then, when I wanted to make the movie, since the book is so literary, I thought to tell the story in 100 pages... you wouldn't understand anything. Like literary prostitution. Very few images. When I read the novel, I thought it was fantastic and wanted to see what kind of images I could do. 

Did you see any similarities between Dune's protagonist Paul Atreides and the characters you played in EL TOPO or THE HOLY MOUNTAIN? 

Well, it was some kind of parallel. In the way of Dune, for me, the characters just seemed rooted in my world. Duke Leto.. Paul Atreides.. All that fits in my mythological world. Why? Because Frank Herbert was a person who read a lot of stuff like One Thousand and One Nights, Oriental Tales, The Ecologist. But then, in order to make these characters really fit in my world, I reinvented them, which is what every artist does.

There are a lot of recurring images throughout your films, but I'd like to ask about one image that you've always seemed especially fascinated with: the amputee... 

Well, if you come to see The Dance of Reality, you will see more amputees. And it's because when I was born there was a labour crisis in the United States and 70% of workers were in misery. They went to the copper mines searching for diamonds. And the diamonds would destroy the members. And they'd be on my street drinking. Drinking with them is one of my biggest memories from my childhood. That is one. But I have also a psychological fixation and philosophical. That is an economical explanation. 

Philosophically, every one of us is a mutilated person because when we are born, we are an enormous genius. But then society, family and culture, the economical system - all mutilators! We are not free. Not one of us is free. And the biological explanation is that I was circumcised and I've grown up feeling like a mutilated sex, without my foreskin. Whenever I'd see the skin off a banana or a steak, it was very difficult for me. I'm happy with it now but in terms of my movies, it was important that it was something I didn't have.. so I was a mutilator. Also, I lost a lot of teeth. And to lose your teeth is to be mutilated... And a part of my appendix (Laughter) but I will not tell all of my mutilations... Though I can't eat grease.. Or your barbecue.

Your films are incredibly unique and singular, but people often enjoy comparing you to Fellini because of your shared fascination with the circus and magic... even THE DANCE OF REALITY could be seen as an AMACORD type meditation... 

Listen, the human mind cannot accept what is new. They need something to compare. It's true. Whenever somebody makes something new it's compared to what came before. If I make a character with big breasts, I am Fellini. If I make a dwarf, I'm Buñeul. If I make a mutilated person - Todd Browning! If I make a picture about a character with guns who rides a horse, it's a western. If I make something not based in reality, I'm a surrealist. It's just titles. I watch a great deal of movies, almost one a day. I know what they are, I have a lot of fun, but I'm not influenced by any one them. 

Are you influenced by poetry? 

With poetry, I've worked for 60 years, not in order to publish, but to take out all of the influence. In Dance of Reality, my book, I take out Kafka, I take out Dostoevsky, Garcia Marquez... I take a lot of people out, because if you are an artist you have to find out what makes you you. Big or little, do what is you. 

How was it directing your son Brontis to play your father/his grandfather? 

Oh la la!! Well, that is a whole universe! There were a lot of problems. Because I had a woman fan who was with me only one time. And she says she's pregnant. And I was under the impression that I'm not able to have children. So when Brontis was born, I thought he wasn't my child. But I was very good. I accepted him and he lived with us. We always had a deal that when he became an adolescent, he was no longer my child. But he wanted me to be his father. So we had a problem. But then, one day, we spoke together and said 'why don't we make this a reality' and so I made him my son. It took a lot of work but we started to build our relationship. It was difficult.

And then in the shooting of this picture, it was a miracle because playing him - my father - working and abusing me as a child.. he was crying because he could see where I was coming from. And he was inside the clan, he was inside the family, and we were father and son. We became lost together. It was a very big experience for him and me. (Thinking) I've never talked about that moment... this was the first time... It was a healing exercise - psychomagical I call that. We need to see the problem and to open the problem. And to live the problem. And we need to realize that problem doesn't exist. It was like a kind of gift from God to be able to go to the town I grew up and reconstruct it. It was a fantastic opportunity for me, for him, for everyone who worked on the film. It was a healing that cost $4 million... in order to heal one of our little problems.

What was it like to relive all those old settings and moments from the annals of your memory?

For me, my memory was an enormous universe, even in only one street. When one person sees the street, that is all there is, but I conserve it as a whole universe. And in reality, what happened wasn't as important as my memory of it. 

I'd like to wish you congratulations on your film. It's wonderful! Thanks for taking the time to-

How is your emotional life?

How's my emotional life? I think I'm still sorting that out... I'm okay, I guess...

You seem a little skinny. You're like a child who is tame. Without a big explosion. Did you ever study martial arts? 

When I was much younger. Never seriously. What kind of advice would you give to a -ahem- tame child? 

Develop your violence. Go there. Go out. I would do Karatedo. I did that myself.

What did you learn from getting in touch with your violence?

It's fantastic because there's no more pain. It's a happiness to express ourselves. And I make pictures like that. If I didn't make pictures, I would be a criminal.

Amazing! Thank you so much again Mr. Jodorowsky! For this interview, but more importantly, for your films, which- 

You need to castrate someone!

I should? 

Yes! Yes!

Well, the week's still young...

The Dance of Reality opens in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, May 23, and will expand in the coming weeks. Visit the official site for more information
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