Jodorowsky’s Dream

Alejandro Jodorowsky with crew
Alejandro Jodorowsky with crew

A New Era of Film

The late 1960s and early 1970s was a time of Cultural Revolution for much of the world, or rather a Countercultural revolution. With the world essentially at war once again, the rise of what was known as the “hippie” movement grew. Spirituality and peace were being spread on campuses of universities through protests. Tim Leary was introducing the United States to LSD, Hunter S. Thompson was starting the world of Gonzo journalism with his jaunts on the campaign trail and in Las Vegas, and Ken Kesey was becoming legendary with his acid inspired One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It was a period of time where people experimented with illicit hallucinogens and used their experience to fuel their paranoid and often surreal fantasies that accompanied them. One such artist, in this new Avant-garde, surrealist scene, was the filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky.

Jodorowsky made a name for himself in the South American scene with controversial films like Fando y Lis (1968) and his two more famous films El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973), both of which had some similarities and connections to his first film, La Cravate (1957) in terms of their stylistic elements and overall avant-garde style. They explored topics that main stream directors often ignored and they used their surrealist points to show intricacies of the themes that Jodorowsky liked to focus on. His themes were often controversial; topics like religion, sexuality, racism, war, commercialism, and the changing attitudes of people. He critiqued the governments of countries of South America, where his films would make their premiere, and frequently made jabs at the American government. And because Jodorowsky had creative control, he had the influence over the camera, set design, plot structure, and other aspects of the films that overall gave Jodorowsky’s films a familiar scheme to them that allowed them to be unique to him.

Alejandro Jodowosky was born to Ukrainian parents in the town of Tocopilla in 1929. He later moved to Santiago and finally to Paris in 1953. He began to work with Marcel Marceau and soon began work on his first films. This led to the creation of his first film, La Cravate, which was entirely mimed with the use of props and a minimalist but over decorated set. Jodorowsky later went on to create the films El Topo and The Holy Mountain which would became critical successes for him. From the start of his career he chose to shoot a majority of his films in Spanish, besides The Holy Mountain and what would have been Dune. His work is heavily influenced by the Spanish culture of Chile and Latin American traditional imagery and themes. Catholicism, a prominent religion in Latin American countries, has a prominent place in many of his films, as he criticizes the concepts and themes of religion. Religion was considered to be a form of conformity and thereby anathema to “the counterculture that Jodorowsky’s films appeal to: the uniform rejection of all societal conventions including (perhaps especially) religion” (Brekenridge 2). His films speak for their time. They are, as Hunter S. Thompson may have called them, pure “gonzo”.

The Avant-Garde in Plot and Style

After the success of The Holy Mountain, Jodorowsky then began to go into pre-production on his vision of Dune. Dune would have featured Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, music by Pink Floyd, and overall set, character, and prop design by H. R. Giger and Dan O’Bannon. O’Bannon and Giger later went on to work on Alien by Ridley Scott, which used shots taken directly from designs for Dune (Jodorowsky’s Dune). When Dune was canceled, Jodorowsky turned away from film and soon began to work on comic books, such as L’Incal as well as other pieces for the Heavy Metal magazine. He didn’t return to cinema until around 1980 and even then only made a few films between then and the 1990s when he worked as what was described by some as ‘a director-for-hire’, he helmed films he would later disown due to a lack of creative control. Jodorowsky has recently announced that he is officially returning to cinema with the film Endless Poetry, which is due out in 2016 after its successful crowd funding campaign.

Concept art for a ship from Jodorowsky's Dune project
Concept art for a ship from Jodorowsky’s Dune project

Jodorowsky’s work is hard to describe to someone who may not understand the ideas of avant-garde cinema. The best way to describe them is to use a very common term used to describe films that go beyond the norm of filmmaking, a cult film. Cult films exist because cinemagoers discover movies that they think deserve a better status in the modern world of cinema, Cult films usually follow a “broader spectrum of para-cinematic practices (e.g., trash, exploitation, horror)” (Tierney 130). Jodorowsky’s films in particular are considered “cult” by many because they adhere to cultural topics that are often unknown to foreign film goers, a quality “that make them inaccessible or difficult to consume or understand, or, alternatively, those that fit in with preconceived notions of the ‘other’” (Tierney 131). For one thing, he rarely works in a fashion that makes the film feel coherent at first viewing. He almost seems to purposefully go out of his way to find ways to break the conventional rules of narrative structure.

The Holy Mountain has prime examples of this from start to finish. While the film has some traditional narrative structure, the beginning being centered on our introduction to the drunken man who becomes our protagonist, a half hour into the film we still have yet to have a clear understanding of what the conflict is and what is being addressed. We are an hour into the film and we seem to be still getting exposition about other characters. An hour and fifteen minutes in we are starting to have more understanding of what the conflict is, as our protagonist joins a group of people on a trip up The Holy Mountain. The ending of the film however reveals the entire thing is just a film as Jodorowsky’s character, The Alchemist, compares life to the nature of film and the structure of narrative. In this way the ending recalls La Cravate, which seems to follow this theme of life being just an act, as men and women are shown to be able to replace their heads and faces with the ease of taking off an item of clothing.

Jodorowsky as the Alchemist.
Jodorowsky as the Alchemist.

This follows a tendency of a lot of Jodorowsky’s films, as he rarely followed a traditional Hollywood structure and wanted to stand out from everyone else in any way possible. The whole reason Dune was never fully funded is because Jodorowsky refused to cut the film under its projected twelve-hour running length. He felt that it would take away from the message he saw as true to his vision of the film (Jodorowsky’s Dune). El Topo’s narrative is directly counter to the traditional Hollywood ideas as well, despite the tropes it follows from Westerns. Its plot points are very rarely distinct, and frequently intercut between what appears as exposition to a greater plot point that may be later presented. El Topo, despite being a two hour film, is split into two parts that are clearly distinct from each other due to the nature of how the two parts interact. This isn’t to say they don’t adhere to the general understandings of how plot structure work, all his films have traditional tropes that they follow in terms of where the protagonist is going and how he gets there. El Topo in many ways is a revenge film for part of it, as El Topo takes revenge on different masters, following instructions from woman, though this aspect of the film quickly changes when he is betrayed.

Shock and Awe

As El Topo makes use of shock imagery to get its message across, we have a similarity in The Holy Mountain as we have a bizarre combination of religious and political satire that is repeatedly expressed through shock imagery during the early moments of the film. Jodorowsky isn’t afraid of to push what some may call “the buttons.” The opening provides a scene of our hero lying in the dirt in his own urine as he is picked up by a quadriplegic man and a tribe of naked children. This religious influence also is entirely apparent in Jodorowsky’s work, especially in the acid western El Topo where the El Topo himself is looking for enlightenment. Satire is strongly at work, though, as a band of four banditos are shown to hold monks at gun point, force them to dance, forcefully romanticize them, strip them and put them into skirts, and blow their noses on pages of the Bible. At the same time, spirituality is reflected on respectfully at points, such as when El Topo recites the Bible verse “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” which is taken from Christ’s crucifixion.

The opening of The Holy Mountain could almost be seen as a satirical, quick take on the Christ story. After the man and his new friend get high they wander into a nearby town where they encounter soldiers who openly rape women, whose husbands film and take pictures. The man and his friend stumble upon a stage production of the fall of the Aztecs with lizards and frogs replacing the Aztecs and the Spanish (the frogs are later blown up after being drenched in blood), and our hero is captured by obese men who are dressed like romans and the Virgin Mary (who is also referenced in the first fifteen minutes of El Topo when we see one of the monks forced to be dressed as the Virgin Mary, complete with blood for lipstick). While in captivity, our hero is used to make a mold to construct Christ effigies due to his similar appearance. The hero carries around one of the effigies as prostitutes follow him, an almost identical image to Christ carrying the cross to his death.

The scene where the woman is raped is a good example of Jodorowsky’s love of pushing “the buttons” on controversy. In the scene the woman is with her husband filming an execution when a soldier runs up and begins to force himself on her. Instead of her taking it as a threat, she is shown to enjoy it and begs her husband to film the event. He films for a while and then asks the protagonist to take a photo of him in front of the act. The entire time you notice that the husband and wife are both speaking American English and the husband is wearing a stereotypical sombrero. Jodorowsky seems to be implying the disgusting attitude and desensitization that exists in American society toward things like sexual violence. Similar scenes in the film that touch upon this desensitization are any shot of someone being killed, where blood is replaced with paint of different colors or in one instance birds and fruit.

We never see actual blood connected to a death of a human in the film, only substitutions, as if Jodorowsky is noting the glorification of blood and gore in cinema that was starting to slowly arrive in the art house and independent films of the 1970s. El Topo almost completely contradicts this idea with an opening where the two main characters, the titular El Topo and his son, enter a town that just endured a massacre. The massacre isn’t skirted around and the pure horror is emphasized, even having sound that makes the scene more stark and depressing. La Cravate pushes the idea of humans having an objective view on appearance, through a store that is shown to screw people’s heads off and replace them with different heads. A similar idea reappears in The Holy Mountain with the muse of Venus who has a factory that creates latex masks for people. At one point, the muse says “We know that people want to be loved, not by what they are but what they appear to be” (The Holy Mountain), which almost directly connects to the entire plot of La Cravate, where the lead chooses to replace his head in the hopes of being loved for his physicality.

The Cast

Jodorowsky liked working with a diverse cast. Both El Topo and The Holy Mountain feature actors missing limbs, a large number of women in central roles, and people of different ethnicities and cultures. Children in his films are often portrayed living in a communal life under supervision by a guardian, such as the boy in El Topo or the mice children that live with the muse of Pluto in The Holy Mountain. He cast his son in both films and also cast other members of his family in assorted roles. Jodorowsky himself usually took on the role of one of the protagonists, the titular El Topo, or the Alchemist in The Holy Mountain. It could be inferred that his decision to cast such diverse cast members was a reaction to the environment he worked in. His son reflected that they came from “a society characterized by misery, ignorance, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and violence under the military dictatorship of General Carlos Ibánez.” (Quintin 23). His characters frequently show similar attitudes to them, “they are thrown into history, thirsty for a relief that they can’t find in ideology or religion, wealth or power.” (Quintin 23) which can definitely be seen in La Cravate as the hero is searching for love, or El Topo where el Topo is looking for enlightenment, or The Holy Mountain where our hero is hunting for riches.

Nudity is a common trend in Jodorowsky’s work. It’s not only present through much of The Holy Mountain but also El Topo and his comics such as L’Incal. In The Holy Mountain our hero is taken by a band of naked children and a paraplegic man. They tie him to a cross and begin to stone him before he breaks off the cross, scares the children, and smokes a joint with his new found friend. Nudity is never strongly sexualized, despite a few moments with three women who are shown to be sleeping together, but often as “a symbol of purity and innocence” and usually used somehow to indicate the changing theme of innocence lost, which presents itself strongly in El Topo when the “moment in the film when the child is finally clothed (ironically in a monk’s cassock) comes at the moment at which he loses his innocence” (Brekenridge 5), though nudity despite his tendency to use nudity for a metaphor, Jodorowsky is not afraid of human sexuality. In El Topo we see a man organize beans in the form of a woman’s body and then eat the beans that make up her breasts. In The Holy Mountain we have the “love machine” constructed by the muse of Jupiter who boasts of his one thousand lovers. La Cravate is one of the few films that doesn’t feature much of the nudity present in Jodorowsky’s later work; however, there is still a sense of sexualization that exists in the film through the lover of the main character, who is shown to be wearing a bright purple garnet with a deep cleavage. She also is shown to only like the main character for his body, not his face.

The Art of Jodorowsky

Visual aesthetics are just important to the main characters of La Cravate, but also to Jodorowsky himself. Color is always vibrant in his films, especially El Topo and The Holy Mountain. When the protagonist of The Holy Mountain arrives to the top of the tour where he meets the Alchemist, we see the walls are made of rainbow panels, creating a tunnel-like effect. When the town is shown earlier, all the men and women are wearing vibrant colors that distinguish them from the tattered clothing of the protagonist. In El Topo, while the color has been faded from many prints, many of the characters are shown wearing multicolored outfits and elaborate and ornate costumes. The bright and ornate colors are also apparent in Jodorowsky’s short film La Cravate, which features many of the characters wearing bright yellows, purples, and pinks.

Ornate costumes aren’t the only thing that Jodorowsky loves to show, he also loves ornate buildings that are often drastically different in terms of their inside and outsides. He is theatrical in every way, both in a cinematic sense and stage sense. He has been compared to other filmmakers for this style “Jodorowsky’s taste for the theatrical and the extreme makes him close to Browning or Fellini, and maybe also to Syberberg” (Quintin 23) In The Holy Mountain we see a tall, thin tower that our main protagonist enters. When he does enter it the tower is suddenly a gigantic, massive hall that extends far deeper back than the tower could possibly hold. El Topo’s Colonel lives in what looks like a small mud hut from the outside, but what is then revealed to be a multi-room structure. This “bigger on the inside” appearance is even emphasized by showing a swarm of pigs come from the mud hut the moment the Colonel leaves. Another example from The Holy Mountain is The Pantheon Bar on Lotis Island (the island that has the Holy Mountain itself). The Pantheon Bar is shown to be a rundown shack made of cheap, chipped clay, however inside we are shown that it is filled with dancing people and actually seems to look more like an outdoor cemetery.

This bizarre juxtaposition adds to the surrealism of Jodorowsky’s work, painting his worlds to be a bizarre mixture of real and unreal. In La Cravate, we get a look at a more play-like take on architecture where buildings are shown as cardboard cut outs, though some doors in the film are shown to be large and heavily decorated, as if part of a mansion. Despite this simple take in La Cravate, there is still an air of ornateness to the world around it, which shows that the people of this city are able to easily change out their physical body parts to create a whole new self. Jodorowsky’s unique view on architecture is also notable in his other work. L’Incal, which was not only written by Jodorowsky but also had his direct input in terms of art design when he worked with Moebius, has some shots of halls that appear to be almost endlessly gigantic in terms of their size (Jodorowsky 132), some of which become connected directly to the plot (Jodorowsky 8). Dune would have also made use of such massive structures, including the halls of Baron Harkonnen which would have been designed by H. R. Giger. Early illustrations shows massive halls that Baron would’ve had inside of structures that could not have possibly fit the halls they showed (Jodorowsky’s Dune).

Editing and Final Thoughts

In terms of his editing work, Jodorowsky was obviously involved directly in the process. The editing is frequently fast paced in his films and almost frantic when an action sequence occurs as shown in both El Topo and The Holy Mountain, which were both edited Fredrico Landeros (though Jodorowsky is directly cited as one of the editors for The Holy Mountain). More dramatic scenes are paced slowly, though interspliced occasionally with fast and repetitive cutting. Cross cutting and jump cuts are common place. A scene in The Holy Mountain noticeably jump cuts from the main band of prophets walking on a path to suddenly walking with a chained tiger who was previously not there. La Cravate doesn’t quite have the same vibe in terms of editing, but as Jodorowsky’s first film it can be inferred that he didn’t have quite the same handle on cinema quite yet. Despite this however, he still makes use of similar camera angles that are later found in El Topo and The Magic Mountain, such as wide framed shots and distinct close ups that give us just an image of the character’s face. His work often features ambient sounding music, often with chanting or drums, common in both the duel in El Topo and the opening of The Holy Mountain. Jodorowsky wrote the music and this can be identified when listening to both soundtracks, as they have very similar structure to them in terms of the ambience and drumming.

Jorodowsky’s films encompass a different type of art cinema that is rarely seen today. His work is an artform of surrealism that is comparable to the early film work of Andy Warhol or Salvador Dali. He was given full control and often took advantage of this by his wild use of story structure, editing, and creative design. His films standout as they are different from what one would expect. They aren’t your average Westerns or dramas, or would be science fiction epics, but at the same time they are often cited and referenced as being quintessential to their genres. His films feel like dreams: disjointed, in-congruent, wild. It is as if we have stepped into Jodorowsky’s mind and have sat in on one of his dreams of what he felt a film should be like, and it is magical.

Works Cited

Brekenridge, Adam. “A Path Less Traveled: Rethinking Spirituality in the Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky.” Journal of Religion and Film 19 (2015): 1-22. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.

La Cravate. Dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky. Perf. Raymond Devos Saul Gilbert Marthe Mercury Margot Loyola. 1957. Digital File.

El Topo. Dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky. Perf. Alejandro Jodorowsky. ABKCO Records, 1970. Digital File.

The Holy Mountain. Dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky. Perf. Alejandro Jodorowsky, Horacio Salinas. ABKCO Records, 1973. Digital File.

Jodorowsky’s Dune. Dir. Frank Pavich. Perf. Alejandro Jodorowsky Michel Seydoux H. R. Giger Chris Foss Nicolas Winding Refn Amanda Lear Richard Stanley. Sony Pictures Classic, 2013. Film.

Moebius, and Alejandro Jodorowsky. The Incal. London: Humanoids, 2011. Print.

Quintin. “A Liar’s Autobiography.” Cinema Scope (n.d.): 21-23. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.

Tierney, Dolores. “Mapping Cult Cinema in Latin American Film Cultures.” Cinema Journal 54.1 (2014): 129-35. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.

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  1. Stovall

    I adore Holy Mountain.. it has imagery that is unlike anyrhing else I have ever seen. And believe me, I have seen some wierd shit, especially at film school…

    I am happy that Jodorowski is involved with film making again.

  2. A true visionary genius!

  3. Jodorowsky is an ABSOLUTE LEGEND and El Topo one of the greatest films ever made. Holy Mountain, Santa Sangre, they’re all just wonderful.

  4. Herring

    If you don’t know the man and his work – he is one of the few artistic geniuses walking this planet.

  5. Have not seen any of his movies and never heard of him.
    That is not good eh? Is he as good as Tarkovsky, the russain director, especially of ‘nostalgia’….

    • Jodorowsky cannot and should not be compared to any other director. His work is in a league all of its own.

  6. Collado

    I love this guy – a real legend – I just wish he had been allowed to make more films.

  7. This man is a complete genius! If you go deep into his phrases, teachings or just comments you’ll make your day. His infinite wisdom and sensitivity as well as his shocking manners will shake yourself quite deeply.

  8. Hmm, you’ve heard of “1000 films to see before you top it”. Are this guy’s “100 Films To See While You’re Stoned”? Discuss.

  9. Darius Lin

    Only seen Santa Sangre – very good – should really make an effort to see the others.

  10. Corrinne

    After watching El Topo for the first time, I buried my first toy and my mother’s picture.

  11. Remarkable man and director. I’m not so keen on El Topo as a lot of people are, although the ending is truly amazing.

  12. Each frame is a Dali picture .

  13. He makes other surrealists look like John Major.

  14. What an exciting man, and so wise too. I applaude him.

  15. Interesting!

  16. Jodorowsky is one of my favorite filmmakers, not just for his breadth of vision, but for his wacky and idiosyncratic way of perceiving the world through the visuals of cinema. I still shudder to think what his Dune may have been like…Great article!

  17. Kandace

    He looks like the dad of celebrated British actor Phil Davis.

  18. ivanly

    My college had a showing of The Holy Mountain last year.
    I already was a fan of the movie but it great seeing it on the big screen. I even won an original print of the Japanese poster.

  19. My first encounter of Jodorowsky was in his role of The Alchemist in “The Holy Mountain.” I recall being blown away by his performance. Something was alluring about his delivery for the words. Shows how strong of a creative spirit he had to be so compelling in so many ways.

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