If you could go back and visit your childhood self, what would you say? Would you offer words of advice? Warning? Wonder how the child you were both is and isn’t the person you became?
This theme is at the heart of “The Dance of Reality,” a new movie by Chilean-Jewish director Alejandro Jodorowsky. In it, Jodorowsky shows himself as a child (played by the precocious Jeremías Herskovits) along with his parents, his friends, and the strange cast of characters in the coastal town where he grew up. Throughout the movie he makes magical appearances as his older, now 85-year-old self, guiding the boy he was with a mixture of affection and pity.
The movie is a departure for Jodorowsky, a director best known for ‘70s cult films like “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain.” In those pictures he gained notoriety for brutal violence and heavy-handed symbolism, mystical and New Age ideas.
“El Topo” (“The Mole”), an acid-Western dripping blood, starred Jodorowsky as a leather-clad avenger and, later in the movie, as the savior of a group of deformed people trapped inside a mountain. In an early scene we see him declare “I Am God!” to a general responsible for massacring a village of innocent civilians, whom El Topo pitilessly castrates.
“The Holy Mountain,” which followed in 1973, was less violent but even more weird. It showed a Christ-like thief who makes his way through a landscape of underage prostitutes, profiteering churchmen and exploitative American tourists. After ascending a mysterious tower he is guided to enlightenment by an Alchemist (again played by Jodorowsky) along with the leaders of corrupt society, each represented by a planet of the solar system.
“The Dance of Reality,” in contrast, is less concerned with archetypical myths or the Perennial Philosophy than it is with the old question of how a sensitive boy turned into a mature artist. At the same time it uses characters, images and themes that have appeared in nearly all of Jodorowsky’s films, providing, perhaps, a partial clue to their origins.
Jodorowsky has been enjoying a renaissance lately in the English-speaking world (in France and Latin America he never really went away). For a long time he was a myth himself, the psychedelic South American director who made disturbing head films in the ‘70s and then disappeared.
In part this was because of legal wranglings with Allen Klein, the producer and Beatles manager who owned the rights to Jodorowsky’s early work. Klein had backed Jodorowsky at the urging of John Lennon, who saw “El Topo” during its original six-month midnight run at the Elgin Cinema in New York City, but fell out with him when the director refused to adapt the French erotic novel “Story of O.” For the next 30 years Klein blocked Jodorowsky’s films from being screened or rereleased.
The two men eventually reconciled, and Jodorowsky’s early pictures — including his first movie, “Fando y Lis,” which caused a riot at the Acapulco Film Festival in 1968 — were reissued in 2007. Klein’s company, ABKCO Music & Records, is now the North American distributor for “The Dance of Reality.”
Jodorowsky was hardly idle in the interim, however. After breaking with Klein he directed “Tusk” (1980), a children’s fable set in India; “Santa Sangre” (1989), an oedipal horror film about an insane circus performer, and “The Rainbow Thief” (1990), an eccentric underworld drama starring “Lawrence of Arabia” duo Omar Sharif and Peter O’Toole. (He later disavowed both “Tusk” and “The Rainbow Thief,” due to his lack of creative control.)
He has also had a prolific career writing graphic novels, including “The Incal,” a sci-fi dystopia set in the so-called “Jodoverse,” which he created with French comic book artist Moebius, and “The Metabarons,” a spinoff featuring a dynasty of eponymous warriors that he made with Argentinian Juan Gimenez. And he has written a small library of books on subjects like the Tarot (a particular obsession), a form of Tarot-based therapy he calls “psychomagic,” and an autobiography, “Where the Bird Sings Best,” which will be published for the first time in English this fall.
It’s Jodorowsky’s least successful project, however, that brought him back into American consciousness. “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” a documentary by Frank Pavich, revisits the filmmaker’s failed attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s epic science fiction novel in the mid-1970s. Often called “the greatest movie never made” (competing for the title with Stanley Kubrick’s “Napoleon”), the project was going to feature a cast that included David Carradine, Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, and Salvador Dali as the mad emperor of the universe. Pink Floyd was commissioned to write the score.
In the documentary we see interviews with Jodorowsky — bright eyed and animated in his Paris apartment — along with collaborators like writer and special effects artist Dan O’Bannon, painter Chris Foss, and recently deceased Swiss artist H.R. Giger, who later gained fame for designing the “Alien” movies. In the end we hear Jodorowsky express outrage at the Hollywood executives who refused to fund the movie’s production, and his relief that the version made by David Lynch turned out to be “terrible.”
Pavich argues that Jodorowsky’s designs for the film influenced movie history anyway, through the work of his collaborators on later blockbusters like “Star Wars,” “Alien” and “The Fifth Element.” But the failed project had a more tangible effect as well. While making the documentary Pavich brought Jodorowsky back together with his old producer, Michel Seydoux, who offered to finance his next film. The result is “The Dance of Reality,” Jodorowsky’s first movie in 23 years, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013 together with “Jodorowsky’s Dune.”
Although “The Dance of Reality” is autobiographical, it is not strictly factual. Jodorowsky’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Ukraine who settled in Tocopilla, the mining and fishing town where he grew up. His father, Jaime Jodorowsky Groisman, was a devoted Stalinist and strict disciplinarian who ran a general store called Casa Ukraina, here depicted as a women’s lingerie shop. His mother, Sara Felicidad Jodorowsky, was cold and unaffectionate toward her son, which Jodorowsky claims was because he was conceived through rape. (This is depicted, to some extent, in the movie.) It was not a happy childhood.
Jodorowsky reinvents many of these details in the film, especially those pertaining to his mother, who is portrayed as a loving figure. “I change my memory — art is for that,” he said in March, at the film’s New York premiere at the Museum of Modern Art. He even imaginatively fulfilled her ambition to be a singer by casting an actual opera singer, Pamela Flores, who delivers all of her lines in song.
As with many of Jodorowsky’s movies, “The Dance of Reality” is a family affair. Jaime is played by Jodorowsky’s son, Brontis Jodorowsky, who appeared as the naked boy in “El Topo” and was cast to play the hero, Paul Atreides, in “Dune.” Also included are his sons Axel Jodorowsky, a “Theosophist” who instructs the young Alejandro in the mysteries of religion, and Adan Jodorowsky, who plays an anarchist revolutionary and who provided the music for the film.
Although “The Dance of Reality” lacks the shock value of Jodorowsky’s earlier work it is still very much a Jodorowsky film. Like “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain” it is composed of episodes strung together in a meandering, quest-like sequence, rather than as a unified story. (For this reason I doubt that “Dune” would actually have been such a masterpiece even if it had been made, especially since it was planned to be 14 hours long.) The movie veers off in a new direction when his father decides to leave home to assassinate the president of Chile, General Carlos Ibáñez del Campo, shifting the emphasis of the movie away from the young Jodorowsky and toward his tormented father.
Jodorowsky’s great strength has never been his stories, however, but his images. Despite his eclectic use of symbols, Jodorowsky’s movies belong to the vein of medieval and Renaissance strangeness associated with painters like Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Breughel the Elder, and which filtered into the 20th century through movements like surrealism, Jungian psychoanalysis, and New Age interests in alchemy, astrology and the Tarot. A particularly Breughelian scene in “The Holy Mountain” shows a corpulent older woman and her husband in their dingy attic apartment, he in the bathtub and she perched next to him on a six-foot-tall toilet.
“The Dance of Reality” partakes of this sensibility, but it stands apart from it as well. Favorite images that reappear in the film include people carrying black umbrellas through the desert and hauling old Victrolas around town, men dancing homoerotically in smoky taverns, and a collection of severely maimed and disfigured characters who populate the main street of Tocopilla. Whereas in previous films the presence of such figures went unexplained, however, here they are disabled miners whose limbs were torn off by dynamite. Unlike his earlier movies, which were never quite of this world, “The Dance of Reality” is set in a real time and place. Rather than present his images directly, as he did in earlier works, Jodorowsky introduces them as inspirations for his younger self.
Jodorowsky’s scorn for realism goes beyond his odd visual palette. At MoMA he explained his indifference to cinematic conventions, saying, “I’m not trying to hypnotize you and say this is reality.” Rather, he’s interested in exploring emotional, spiritual and metaphysical processes in ways that are transparently symbolic.
In “The Dance of Reality” this kind of magical storytelling occurs when his mother cures his father from a plague by pulling up her dress and urinating on him, thereby transmitting her healing powers. When Alejandro has his hair cut for the first time it peels off like a wig, and then disintegrates into thin air. Sara Jodorowsky treats her son’s fear of the dark by taking her clothes off, stripping him to his underwear, and smearing them both in black shoe polish. At the end of the movie his father cures his own paralyzed hands by shooting pictures of himself, Stalin, and Ibáñez, in a ceremony that smacks of Jodorowsky’s own psychomagic.
Although Jodorowsky’s movies have often contained references to Judaism, those were usually filtered though the lens of the Western esoteric tradition. In “El Topo” a tiny woman leads the revived hero down a path blowing a shofar, while the Alchemist in “The Holy Mountain” puts on a tallis and a pair of tefillin to perform his alchemical rites.
Here, in contrast, Jodorowsky’s Judaism manifests itself through his experience of anti-Semitism. He is called “Pinocchio” by his schoolmates and mocked for being circumcised, while his father, despite Communist loyalties and an avowed atheism (at one point he forces his son to flush a collection of religious symbols down the toilet, reciting with each one “God does not exist”), is ostracized by his fellow radicals for his Jewish origins.
It is probably a mistake to read too deeply into “The Dance of Reality” as a key to the rest of Jodorowsky’s work. While some of his imagery might have a biographical basis, it is equally possible that he is simply presenting his life using the images that have long interested him. Like all beguiling artists, he seems to hum on his own frequency.
What’s important is that “The Dance of Reality” is a beautiful film — visually, it is the best looking of all Jodorowsky’s movies — and it is a touching depiction of the pains of childhood. As Jodorowsky says to his younger self: “Everything you are going to be, you already are. What you are looking for is already within you. Embrace your sufferings, for through them you will reach me.” It’s harsh advice, but given with tremendous love.
Ezra Glinter is the deputy culture editor of the Forward.