Still from El Topo, written, directed, scored, and starring Alejandro Jodorowsky.
For more than half a century, Alejandro Jodorowsky has been revered as a master of the surreal—a puppeteer of grotesque fantasy and psychedelic excess. In 1962, he became one of the founders of the Panic Movement in Paris; an avant-garde art collective inspired by Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, the group staged extremely violent theatrical “happenings” meant to shock and repel. At the 1968 premiere of Jodorowsky’s first feature-length film, Fando y Lis, a riot broke out. The film was later banned in Mexico for its brutal violence and graphic sexual content. He went on to become a cult figure of American counterculture with his films El topo (1970), The Holy Mountain (1973), and later, Santa sangre (1989). A falling out with his financial backer resulted in the former two films being embargoed for nearly three decades. Their recirculation, along with the 2013 release of the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune and The Dance of Reality—Jodorowsky’s first film after a twenty-three-year hiatus—restored the filmmaker as a figure of mass worship and fascination.
When I encountered Jodorowsky, a wild filmmaker with the mischievous eyes, he seemed more tranquil than I’d expected him to be. I interviewed the now eighty-nine-year-old artist in March of 2015 around the English-language publication of his book Where the Bird Sings Best. The fictionalized autobiography tells the story of his Jewish family’s emigration from Ukraine to Chile and the impact of this history on his own coming-of-age. The book served as the basis for Dance of Reality and his most recent film, Endless Poetry. In both the film and the book, Jodorowsky turns his surrealist wand away from the allegorical figures of his past work toward the members of his own family, spinning them into characters of mythic proportions. They’re over-the-top fairy tales so full of light and sentimentality that they’re almost hard to reconcile with the violent angst of Fando y Lis.
We spoke on Skype in Spanish for more than an hour. I was in New York, he was in Paris. I told him my parents were Soviet Jewish refugees and that questions of inherited memory preoccupy me, too, and we talked of how family stories from our past inform our identity, how we reshape and retell those stories. I worried my questions were too personal—more about his own family history and less about the films that had made him a legend—but he responded ecstatically, his voice often rising to a giddy high-pitched tone, and he laughed constantly.
About an hour into our conversation, Jodorowsky’s wife, Pascale, interrupted to remind him he had to go soon. He asked if there was anything else I needed to know, anything at all. When we ended our conversation, he forgot to hang up the call. I could hear him walk away and exclaim, with childlike joy, “She was a Jew!” I sat and listened to the rustlings of their domesticity. After about ten minutes, they continued into the next room, and I could no longer hear their voices. The house eventually fell silent.
What follows is a translation of our conversation.
Your book Where the Bird Sings Best was first published in Spanish in the nineties, is that right?
Yes. It was published during the surge of interest in Latin American folkloric novels like One Hundred Years of Solitude and the novels of Vargas Llosa. But because my novel discusses Jewish ancestry, it has no nationality. Nor was it in the vein of magical realism that was popular at the time. I wrote realistic magic. Where the Bird Sings Best wasn’t immediately appreciated, so I put it aside to write other books, like Psychomagic, Metageneology—therapeutic books.
Is this the first time you’ve dealt with explicitly Jewish themes? You’ve used religious iconography in your films, though they come more from Catholicism and other spiritual practices.
Yes. My father hid that he was Jewish. He never signed his full name, Jaime Jodorowsky, just Jaime. He disguised himself as a Russian and never told me that I was Jewish until it became clear to me around the age of thirteen or fourteen, when I started being bullied at school. Chile at that time was split half in favor of the Allies and half in favor of the Nazis. I never had a Jewish education or a Bar Mitzvah, never celebrated the holidays. My father hid all that from me. I always felt an absence of nationality and never had something of my own, a place that belonged to me. So I took it upon myself to write this novel.
Was there a moment that inspired you to explore your Jewishness?
It was part of the process of searching for myself, searching for my identity. My father was an atheist and a Stalinist. He was a businessman who didn’t believe in culture. I didn’t have any kind of metaphysical aspirin, nothing to calm the anxiety of being mortal. I looked for teachers of all kinds, and finally I found a Zen monk—a Japanese monk with whom I meditated for five years. I also discovered I had Jewish origins and began to study Kabbalah and the Torah. If you want to know where you’re going, you have to know where you come from. I had to return to all of this to understand why my father was the way he was, why my mother was the way she was, both of them trying to survive in a country that didn’t want them. I decided to confront who I was.
And having confronted your past, having immersed yourself in your practice of Zen, then tarot and psychomagic—were there specific elements of this Jewish religious or cultural history that resonated with you?
Look, when I was four, my father told me I would die someday and that there never was nor ever could be a God. When I began to explore religion, religious Jews seemed extremely intelligent but with a tremendous mystical madness based exclusively in language and in Kabbalah. That I came from a universe of madmen, of men who were mad with God, that’s what drew my attention. When I began to study tarot, I discovered that there are twenty-two Major Arcana cards, like the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Tarot had a lot to do with Kabbalah, with Jewish tradition, but it was a world without the religious insanity.
In the prologue to your book, you write, “While all the characters, places, and events in this book are real, the chronological order has been altered. This reality was further transformed and magnified until it achieved the status of myth. Our family tree is the trap that limits our thoughts, emotions, desires, and material life, but it is also the treasure that captures the greater part of our values. Aside from being a novel, this book may, if it is successful, serve as an example that all readers can follow and, if they exercise forgiveness, they too can transform family memory into heroic legend.” What has transforming family memory into legend given you? What was this process like?
You begin meditating and you see how far you’ve come. You see to what degree you love yourself, to what level you’ve arrived mentally and spiritually. You say to yourself, The best that I’ve achieved, everything I’ve been able to transcend, my ancestors also could have arrived at this level of transcendence because they, too, were human beings, but they didn’t get there. It’s all a long story of couples searching for one another, searching for love, searching for security, searching for peace, searching for self-actualization and not finding it. So I have to give all the characters in my family tree the same spiritual level that I myself have been able to attain. For example, in the book, Teresa, my paternal grandmother who became fed up with God, ends up falling in love with an ape-man. She discovers the wonder of falling in love. I give her the love that she never actually had. I free her from this Jewish tradition and I put her in another one—in an encounter with a more animalistic reality. I give my family members what they never had. I meditate on what it was exactly that they could have achieved and never did, and I give it to them. I imagine it. The imagining functions as a cure. This artistic process changed my life because I discovered my world. My world has a foundation now. I don’t hide being Jewish anymore. I’m not ashamed to talk about it now. And yet from the age of thirteen or fifteen, until about forty years later, I never talked about it. It’s a very powerful neurosis—to not know where one came from and not love what one was. The family tree is what one was. It’s important to recognize it head-on and love it.
Is there a difference between using your imagination to fill in your family history and using it in your films, where you’re supposedly dealing with fictitious characters?
Each art has its own rules and different forms, nothing more. All art consists of the same content—a human being expressing himself. The difference is only in the form, the content is all the same. All of my work consists of works of initiation. It’s the complete opposite of Shakespeare.
How do you mean?
Take Hamlet, for example. Hamlet doesn’t change, and at the end, he dies like an idiot. Don Quixote de la Mancha continues being Don Quixote until the end of the book. In these books, there’s no development in the characters, no spiritual development. What’s the point of all these classics if a person cannot change? The universe is changing, the universe is expanding. Everything is constantly changing. So when a human being remains unchanged, like a rock, clinging to what he or she is throughout an entire lifetime, it’s a tragedy. A human being has to be fluid, changing, expanding, developing, and at any given moment, has to ask, Why am I suffering? Why does this bother me? Why am I searching for something? Why do I hate such and such thing? Why can’t I forgive and why can’t I liberate myself from this? All of my work is that, it’s the development of a character who slowly but surely expands, self-actualizes, and reaches a higher spiritual level. My characters obtain wisdom. To arrive at such wisdom is to arrive at the joy of living.
Would you agree that the journey toward self-actualization in your work is almost always connected with one’s parents? The son in El topo has to bury the photo of his mother before he can become a man. Fando, in Fando y Lis, also has to bury his mother.
Your question makes me laugh. We are born from a father and a mother—your life is formed by a father who has intercourse with your mother, and you’re born. Life wants to reproduce itself. Life has, I think, two major motivating principles. One is material and the other spiritual. The material motive is to reproduce, to be immortal. To live as long as the universe by reproducing. And the other motive is to create consciousness. We reproduce in order to create a consciousness. Our mind is a wonder. It’s something miraculous, incredible.
Your work often raises the question of what differentiates humans from animals. Why does that interest you?
Humans are animals! Our body is animal. How could animals not be present? But art needs contrasts in order to exist. It requires conflict. Violence exists in my art as part of a process that later produces peace, actualization. Bad art uses violence solely for the sake of distracting the viewer or the reader, which is to say it enacts a violence that gives pleasure. Heroes with pistols in hand, kicking one another, robbing, murdering, raping—this isn’t sacred violence. Even in the Bible, there are scenes that include daughters who sleep with their fathers in order to become impregnated, brothers who kill one another, et cetera. There are terrible things in the Bible, but they’re necessary in order to provide a contrast. If there isn’t contrast, there isn’t creation.
Has your view of the animalistic aspect of human beings, our ability to do physical harm to one another, changed over time?
I think animals are wonderful! I couldn’t live without a cat. My cat is a wonder. I love animals. So the animalistic human, the human as animal, is not an aggressive beast—it’s something wonderful.
Can you pinpoint a particular reason for taking this long to stop creating stories based on archetypes of sons and parents and finally start dealing with your parents and your own story?
I waited until I could forgive them. It took me a long time to forgive them. If your parents haven’t fulfilled what they were supposed to, you have a right not to love them, not to see them. You have the right to free yourself and have your own life. But even if you live your own life, all of this will remain inside of you. You have to come to terms with what you carry inside of you, make it yours, absorb it. In the film I’m making right now, I thank my father for all that he gave me. Everything he gave me is everything he didn’t give me. Thanks to him, I was able to discover mysticism, because my father never gave me that. I was able to discover humanity, because my father never gave me humaneness. Thanks to my mother who didn’t know how to love me, I finally discovered how to love a woman. It took me seventy years to find the love of my life! If I am born into this body, I have to self-actualize. It has taken me awhile, but I’m getting there. Look, I’m eighty-six years old and only recently was able to make a film where my father transforms into a hero at the end.
And how does that come about?
Because I forgive him over time, I show him how to become a hero. It’s an artistic creation, a very important one for me. And for everyone. Because who doesn’t have problems with their parents?
Who doesn’t have them?
(Laughter) It’s true. Having created a work of art out of all of this, does it feel like you’ve reached an end goal, or was this just another part of the healing process?
Look, I was born an artist. I have an imagination, I can do any kind of art. That was my calling. For better or worse, I am an artist. So I create art. The bird sings, but no one teaches it to sing. I make art because it is essential for me.
What was your trajectory as an artist before the publication of this book in English and the release of your two most recent films?
I suffered and I suffered. For my father, all artists were pansies. He was a businessman who taught me two things—God doesn’t exist and “buy cheap, sell high.” So I told myself, I’m going to buy high, sell cheap. At around seventeen, I sat down behind an old typewriter and wrote a poem. I immediately became encircled by friends, I became the new Rimbaud. Then I studied Expressionist dance, then puppetry, marionettes, and theater. I discovered I wanted to do pantomime. At twenty-three, I had a large theater company in Chile. Then I went to Paris. In Paris, I studied and wrote pantomimes for Marcel Marceau. I directed Maurice Chevalier. I joined the Surrealists. I studied philosophy at the Sorbonne. I did whatever I wanted. Always creating, moving forward and creating. Then I created the Panic Movement and performed the “happening.” In Mexico, I revolutionized the theater, directing more than a hundred plays in ten years. And that’s that. I’ve done a lot. I make comics, too.
What drew you to theater?
Theater is heroic. It disappears. You put on a play and it disappears. Nothing remains. You work while the ecstasy lasts and when it ends, it’s over. It doesn’t enter into history. Only the memory remains for the few people who saw it, nothing more.
How does film compare?
Theater is an urban ritual. Film is a global ritual. Theater is a momentary ritual in the present. Film lasts for a long time. It persists, leaves a trace. Theater happens for a city. Film happens for the planet. The world of theater is limited because of live actors. But film has everything. It’s the most complete form of art that exists.
But they’re both dreams. It’s all artifice, and we all know it.
It’s art! Of course, theater is flesh and bone. And film is light, all light.
In your film Dance of Reality, you chose not to hide the artifice. The actress who plays your mother is clearly wearing a wig, there’s dubbing when she sings—
All art asks, What is art? And “What is film?” is the theme of all film. I don’t want to drive the viewer crazy trying to convince him that this is reality. The viewer isn’t watching a reality, he or she is watching a film. Film is unreal. But within that unreality—it’s like a sculpture. You don’t paint a sculpture the color of flesh, you don’t make it breathe artificially. That’s what realist film does. It’s a plaster sculpture, painted the color of flesh, with artificial breathing. My film is something else.
Do you feel you have a greater ability to control details when you are directing a movie as opposed to when you are writing?
You have a menu of expression in film. But now it’s a more limited menu because it’s so expensive. When you create an image, you have to think about how much it costs—that’s the main limitation in film. You’re forced to become a businessman.
So you don’t think the director has that much freedom.
I have freedom as a director because I make cine de autor. But now there are very few filmmakers of that kind because you don’t make any money. Film today is a business. It’s industrialized.
Endless Poetry is a continuation of Dance of Reality, and we see members of your own family once again playing various roles of other members of your family, yes?
We move from Tocopilla to Santiago. My father had a store in a working-class neighborhood. The film tells the story of how I got out of there, how I wrote my first poem, and how thanks to that poem, I got out of this commercial environment. I lived in front of the train line. Every Saturday, a drunk worker was killed by the train while crossing the tracks. So I wanted to tell the story of how I gradually found myself surrounded by artists, poets, and how I was freed by art.
What is it like seeing your son play the role of your father?
It was very interesting for him and for me. I try to avoid using movie stars in my films—I try to use people who are not actors so it’s more realistic. In this film, there is a character who is an old, eighty-five-year-old artist who has a platonic love affair, and I got the great Nobel-nominated, Syrian poet Adonis to play the part. I want the artist that I portray to be a real poet, a real artist. I’m looking for reality through film. I have a tarot reader who dances tarot, so I cast the famous dancer Carolyn Carson. I don’t like movie stars because they always play the same part. I want viewers to be watching performers who actually are what they are in real life.
You want to depict something more than pure ego.
Exactly, more than ego. I’m not interested in showing someone’s ego on screen.
Has the weight of memory, of your family’s past, become lighter for you now that you’ve made it into art?
It has become something wonderful. The artist transforms into his own artwork. And in the process your perception changes, your relationships—
You feel liberated.
I see it in my dreams. I used to have tremendous dreams, with monsters and stuff, nightmares. Now I have the most delightful dreams. They teach me things. I create art, learn, read tarot. I enjoy myself. My dead come back to visit me, I speak with them. Your inner life becomes so pleasant when you’ve worked on yourself. It’s a long process, but it’s so worth it. You begin discovering sublime feelings—love, generosity. You discover compassion, humanity. All of this exists, but we believe it doesn’t exist. And slowly over time you start to discover it. To the point that I can’t eat chicken anymore! When a plate of chicken arrives on the table, I feel bad for the chicken.
You feel yourself one with all beings—animals, humans …
Yes! The poor little animals we eat make me feel bad. And Pascale, my wife, is much younger than I am. She’s in good health and she’s a carnivore. So we have two menus! She eats steak and I eat rice!
But you’re happy.
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. I want to live as fully as possible. In the morning, I wake up and I say to myself, How wonderful! One more day. Whatever will be will be, but it’s a wonder to be alive. It’s wonderful to grow old on the outside but not on the inside. It’s wonderful! It’s incredible to be alive. I’m going to try to live as long as possible.
That’s fantastic. And maybe you’ll give us more works of art to enjoy?
Whatever is possible! Whatever’s possible, I intend to do it. Your questions were very pleasant.
Perhaps we didn’t speak enough about your career.
People want to talk about life, not always the same thing over and over.
You mean you’ve had enough talk of your films?
Too much. I’m tired of all that now.
Elianna Kan is an editor, translator, and literary agent who lives in New York and Mexico City. She teaches literary translation at Columbia University.
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