Film reviews

Alejandro Jodorowsky Collection – Blu-ray Review

“I’ve got a feeling that there’s somethin’ more
Something that holds us together
Something that holds us together
The strangest feeling but I can’t be sure
Something that’s old as forever
Something that’s old as forever”
– J Cole, Note to Self

Much of this selection needs to be experienced by an open-minded (perhaps open-hearted) viewer as opposed to rummaging through a review seeking a star rating to determine the value of these films. Films like this are why I dislike star ratings. The works here have loftier aims than the next mainstream blockbuster. What may be equal in star rating may not be equal in feeling. To separately rate the films in this compilation of Alejandro Jodorowsky would give varying ratings. It’s their combination which brings forth a notable and potent body of work from a man who has been searching for his key to unlocking life like Bergman.

Watching the Alejandro Jodorowsky collection felt much like what J Cole sings on the bridge of his song ‘Note to Self’. The bridge calls for something more, something beyond. A spirituality that moves us and possibly guides us. These are by no means complicated lyrics, but they were the first that came to mind when embarking on these films.

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The descriptor ‘visionary’ is a horrifically marketed term, which is not worth the high glossy paper it ends up being printed on. Usually, we see the term used to describe a mainstream director who has a heightened stylised form. Sometimes innovative, often solid filmmakers whose progression and provocations only come from their rising bank balance or their rabid fanbases.

Jodorowsky and his movies are a different beast. As a filmmaker, he feels like an artist. A true auteur. When you view the credits on many of these surrealist flights of fancy, you note that he writes, directs, scores, and performs in them. His children often appear either in the films themselves or behind the scenes; by holding these roles, there is a feeling of an extension of the singular vision. His son Brontis, who stars as a naked child in the first half of El Topo, talks in the film’s feature about having a family structure while still growing up with a surrealist artist as a father figure. Despite the violence and eroticism that inhabits El Topo, Brontis seems more than well adjusted. Perhaps aided by Alejandro’s infamous art therapy named Psychomagic? Who knows?

The running through-line of these chosen movies is enlightenment through absurdism. In Jodorowsky’s debut feature, Fando Y Lis (1968) opens with its female lead Lis (Diana Mariscal) consuming a flower as if it’s the most natural thing the world. She chews the petals in banal fashion. Seemingly waiting for something beyond comprehension. This adaptation of a play of the same name tells a loose story about its titular characters Fando and Lis as they embark on a trek through a post-apocalyptic wasteland in search of a mythical city of Tar. A spiritual utopia promises the couple no more pain and strife.

Captured in high contrasted black and white, the film feels a lot like David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) at points – Jodorowsky has been noted as an inspiration for Lynch. Fando y Lis came out in the sixties and was disliked by critics. It’s not hard to see why. It’s a film that’s deeply difficult at points. Many of the scenes are left for the audience to decide what’s occurring within the metaphorical imagery. However, it’s also a film which holds a brutish misogynistic streak by the oafish Fando who ill-treats his paraplegic girlfriend like a shrill albatross.

Despite this, the film highlights much of what is seen in the other movies in the collection. Incendiary images which force a viewer to bring personal responses to what they are seeing. Images that seem to attack the bourgeoisie and materialism in a film that’s held together by two very tactile performances. It’s often unpleasant but also engaging, with its imagery sometimes giving echoes of the likes of Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Manon (1949).

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An interview with Jodorowsky on the El Topo (1970) disc has the filmmaker exclaiming that the surrealist cowboy feature was a direct response to the negative reviews of Fando y Lis. A violent, sun-blistering western, Jodorowsky himself stars as the cowboy in black who battles four sharpshooters while on an endurance quest for enlightenment. It’s a film which would probably make an interesting double bill with Lindsay Anderson’s rebellious If… (1968) but is full of the types of visual motifs that inhabits the likes of Brunel as well as American and Italian Spaghetti Westerns.

Noted as the film that brought the “midnight movie” practice to light, El Topo is the most infamous film on the list. Known for its bloody violence and controversial rape sequence (Jodorowsky claimed it was unsimulated before acknowledging the comments were problematic), El Topo’s most interesting aspect is the ideal of the unknown stranger becoming a leader of the community.

The emphasis on Eastern spirituality and Christian motifs while the film’s second half has its lead character become a leader of Mexican dwarfs and amputees, feels more than a few miles away from anything John Wayne may have done. In addition to this, the film’s abstract nature (aggressive editing transitions, philosophical monologues, trippy metaphysical visuals) makes the telling of what is classic western tropes feel like something beyond simple revisionism.

The Holy Mountain is the crowning achievement of the collection. A Christ-like figure is introduced to a spiritual guide who, of course, places him on the path towards spiritual enlightenment. It’s within this film that much of what has been seen previously really comes together. Images of maligned citizens being shot, only for birds to fly out of the open wounds. Gaudy tourists film the poor treatment of a country’s inhabitants, only for a police officer to sexually assault one of the tourists like some sort of sick joke. The Christ-like figure who observes all this while busking in the streets is taken, drugged, and has his likeness sold for a cheap buck. Despite the seemingly unsystematic arrangement of the visuals, a sense of frustration at material excess over spiritual gain is easily obtained.

The Holy Mountain, which was helped to fruition by John Lennon after El Topo, works well now, 50 years on. It triggers many of the right synapses. Introducing us to characters ascending from different planets, who hold the same ignorant processes that we face. We are given a war toy seller whose company markets the products using a computer programmed with the “politics” of the chosen government. It utilises data on children to indoctrinate them from birth and help them fight needless wars. It’s a moment that will make you stare blankly at Mark Zuckerberg.

One sequence introduces us to a factory owner who tries to condition people to only require shelter (not a home) as well as eat, live, and sleep within their workspace. It is a scene that not only reminds us of what so many companies have tried to execute in the past, but it also becomes a comfortable bedfellow with Boots Riley’s surrealist film of note Sorry to Bother You (2018). It’s no surprise that both films try to have the characters realise that they are more than their corporate worth.

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The fantastical elements of Jodorowsky’s fictional films, despite their sometimes more controversial or provocative elements, still work due to the distance provided for the viewer. The vibrancy of the technicolor. The humour of the absurdity. There’s something about the joyful playfulness and reckless abandon of the creations, that can speak to a viewer who is willing to reach out to what Jodorowsky is offering. This can’t be said for Psychomagic; the collection’s documentary in which Jodorowsky claims he can heal the world’s ills with his outsider art.

Many of his techniques are gleaned from his fictional works, and it is interesting to normal people with deep-rooted issues, who partake in what could only be considered as interruptive art to gain order and balance in their inner worlds. However, in watching a film like this, being ever wiser to the visual tricks of documentary filmmaking and living in a world which harbours people who are becoming more regressive and anti-scientific, one can’t help but feel that Jodorowsky is having us on with his art therapy.

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Jodorowsky’s fiction manages to give us the space to participate in what we’re observing, no matter how absurd. The same cannot be said for the non-fiction. There’s often all too much of a feeling that the viewer is somewhat being had, despite the conviction of all involved. Around the time it is suggested that Psychomagic can perhaps heal cancer, the film runs out of steam.

Where Psychomagic truly works is where we observe deeply hurt and lonely people obtain substantial positive signs of healing through good deeds and physical touch. Some of the actions exhibited feel like metaphorical acts to wink at the audience. However, the moments that truly connect are the moments in which people have to be in contact with each other. Something that in the year of covid-19 now feels more apparent. All of Jodorowsky’s work from the cowboys in black to the Christ figures to the regular people are looking for something to hold them together. These films often seem to find that.

Most of the extras can be found on the fictional discs. Vibrant and energetic interviews with Jodorowsky. Engaging introductions by Richard Pena appear in the three fiction discs also. A celebrated feature-length documentary can be found on the Fando y Lis disc while small films and insights can be located on the fictional discs. A rich and detailed booklet of essays also comes with the collection. Much of the extras provided are recently shot, giving the collection a solid reason to dip into a confounding and complex filmmaker.

Alejandro Jodorowsky Collection is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.

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