The theater director, filmmaker, and comic book artist on The Dance of Reality, his first film in over twenty years.
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s new autobiographical film, The Dance of Reality, is set in his childhood hometown of Tocopilla, in northern Chile. The young Jodorowsky (played by Jeremías Herskovits) finds himself the target of his father’s overwhelming anger and his mother’s lamentations as he ping-pongs back and forth between their limitations and fantasies. The father, Jaime (played by Jodorowsky’s own son, Brontis Jodorowsky, in a truly cathartic gesture) is stone-cold, violent, and controlling, with a vision of life so loveless and bleak that his son cowers in anxiety and suffers panic attacks. His mother Sara, played by the soprano Pamela Flores, is an opera-singing, curvaceous apparition of emotional protection and nurturing, who rescues young Alejandro from the darkness, alienation, and anti-Semitism he encounters on a daily basis. These contradictions consistently bind his understanding of himself. When he tries to care for others, he fails; when he expresses his anger, he fails again. Feeling and consequence have a terrifying, mystifying logic that eludes him. In moments of despair, the 85-year-old director steps into the frame to reassure his younger self: “You are not alone,” he says, clutching the suicidal young boy, “You are with me. All you are going to be, you are already. What you are looking for is already within you. Embrace your sufferings, for through them, you will reach me.”
That “me” is Alejandro Jodorowsky, a legendary, incendiary artist. Escaping Chile and arriving in Paris in the late 1950s, he immersed himself in mime, surrealism, theater, and performance art, taking cues from Marcel Marceau, Luis Buñuel, and Antonin Artaud. His first short film, The Transposed Heads, appeared in 1957, followed by his first feature film, Fando y Lis, in 1968. Already writing comic books and heading a troupe called The Panic Movement, Jodo (as he is affectionately known) was now living in Mexico, where he filmed and then unleashed El Topo in 1970, a hallucinatory, brutal western starring himself as a gunfighter. The film entered the consciousness of the cultural elite—with Dennis Hopper and John Lennon as early champions—which helped secure funding for his tour-de-force,The Holy Mountain, whose central themes of alchemy, materialism and spiritual self-awareness were depicted with such radical imagery that it caused a riot at its 1973 Cannes Film Festival premiere. A few years later, he was removed from million-dollar production of Dune for spending too much money (He made up with the producer, Michel Seydoux, only last year; Seydoux produced The Dance of Reality). His other masterpiece, the horror film Santa Sangre, arrived in 1989. His novels and comic books, primarily The Incal, have been his most visible work, and have outlined his own brand of healing therapy, “psychomagic,” a technique based on, among other things, Jungian theory and the Tarot, and which he employs in this new film to confront the pain he still felt about his childhood.
We met in a midtown hotel room, days before a special, sold-out screening of The Dance of Reality at MoMA. Balarama Heller, the photographer who took Jodorowsky’s portrait for this piece, also joined in the conversation.
Alex Zafiris I don't think I've ever seen a film that shows, with such clarity, the struggle of inherited pain. How a child needs to detach from his parents, and find himself. This is the process that made you an artist.
Alejandro Jodorowsky Yes. I am an artist. Nothing else.
AZ You wrote the book first.
AJ It is coming out in English in September. They are translating it now. I am very happy. The film is only the first chapter. The book begins when I was born, and goes to today. It includes everything I did.
AZ When did you start writing it?
AJ I don't remember exactly. When I turned sixty, I began to write. I was directing theater and other things.
AZ You deal so much with memory and dream. What was it like to go back, literally and figuratively, into your past?
AJ It was incredible. The town was the same. No change! What a miracle. The other towns, a hundred kilometers away, near the coast, have become big and touristy. But Tocopilla, no! The only change was my house—my father’s store had burned down. There was a black hole. With technicians and photographs, I rebuilt the house I grew up in. That was the only change I made.
AZ Were there any people in the village who were still there?
AJ Yes. It was very dramatic. The Japanese man who cut my hair as a child—he was still there! I was afraid of him. He's in the film, the old Japanese man and his son. It’s incredible, because a normal person loses their past. Everything changes. Gabriel Garcia Márquez, in A Hundred Years of Solitude, describes a town, Macondo, that never changes. But that is a novel. My town was still there. I was astonished. The square, the street, had been a universe for me. Seeing it now, it was so small. Then I understood: you see your memories, they have an age. As you revisit your memory as an older person, you change them. This is what I did with the film: I changed myself, I changed the reality. Now, my memory is different. There is color now. And good parents! (laughter) A mother who is an opera singer. I'm very happy!
AZ You changed the story.
AJ I changed my reality, and that is not only for movies. It is an act of psychological healing. The world is so ill and we need to make art that can heal. We need to try to heal something, not go to movies to forget. You need to go to movies to find yourself. It’s different. That is what I do or what I try to do.
AZ Are you teaching about sublimation?
AJ Sublimation—yes, but, you only use words in psychoanalysis. When you say, “I am in love with my mother, or father,” the psychoanalyst says: “Sublimation.” What is sublimation? It is another dream. I invented psychomagic and I say, “You have a problem, you need to realize your problem. Not sublimation.”
AZ When you say “realize,” you mean, “understand?” Or “accept?”
AJ No. You want to kill somebody, you kill somebody! You perform a theatrical act.
AJ Say you want to make love with your father. Do it, but take a lover, put a photo of your father on his face, and go! And you act the incestuous relationship through metaphor, in a theatrical act. I produced a hundred plays in my life, in Mexico. After that, I knew what theater is. Theater can heal you. You take it as reality. All my films do this too.
AZ In the film, you are there with your younger self.
AJ Yes. I suffered a lot as a kid. We all have an interior child. You may no longer be young, but he is still there. I am an old person going down to the child’s level. You find yourself, and you speak with yourself. The child is afraid of darkness. In making this film, I was healing that child, but also, I’m showing you how I did it, so that you can heal yourself. You can change your memory.
AZ The memory changes, but doesn't it feel the same?
AJ No, the feeling changes. Listen: Every person thinks always that he is one, and that he will find happiness. But, we are five. First, we are a big emptiness, a vital energy that has no definition. Then we have four parts: intellectual, emotional, sexual, corporeal. Every one of these finds a different kind of peace. I find peace when my head is empty. In my heart, I need to be full! The person who meditates thinks, I need to be empty, but they are wrong. They need to be empty in the mind, but full of love in the heart. With sex and creativity, you need satisfaction. If you are not satisfied sexually, you suffer, you are not in peace. If your mind is full of words only, you are suffering. And the body needs to feel security. To have the big emptiness, you need to find your inner self—not your ego—your inner self, and to tame or dominate your egos. We have four egos. I explain this in my comic book,The Incal. Some people live in their body: they are athletic. Others live in the sex, they are creators, or sexually obsessed. Some live in feelings, and want to be loved, and to love. Some live in ideas, in prejudice, killing themselves for an idea. And everyone is living in money. Everyone! God is money. God is a green rectangle and the name is Dollar. What we can do? Either we have God, or we live without that God, with no money. With moviemaking, I am living without that God. I am not making films in order to make money. I am a creator. If money comes in, I am happy because I can make another film, yes––but if it doesn't come, I will make other things. It is not important. The first thing is not to live for money. The other thing is not to live with ideas. We must only use ideas for the moment, when they are useful. If they are not useful, we must let go of them. And you make new ideas. We need to make knots with people, but not neurotic knots. A neurotic knot is: I enter into a union with you, and then I cannot cut the union. A good, healthy knot is: We have a relationship, it ends, and we are free.
AZ All this takes a lot of courage.
AJ Yes, but courage doesn't mean not being afraid. It means not being a coward.
AZ Yes, exactly. You do it anyway. The other thing that I liked so much was how you show the way things transform from one person to another. For example, the father hates what he is hearing on the radio, so he puts it in the toilet and pisses on it. (laughter) And later, the mother pisses on the father to heal him from his attack of the plague. You showed urine as angry and destructive, but also as healing and beautiful.
AJ For me a person is not only sexual. Nudity is the truth. The act of urinating is not ugly, or dirty. Everything in your body is sacred.
AZ What are you going to do next?
AJ I don't know. Maybe I will make another film.
AZ Do you have any ideas?
AJ Yes! I am writing a new comic, Juan Solo. He is a Mexican murderer who became a saint. When I write, I focus on the essential. I take out everything that is not necessary to get to the essential image. Michelangelo, the sculptor, was asked: “How do you know when a sculpture is good?” He said, “I climb up a hill and push the sculpture down. What is broken is bad. I work with the rest.” When I shoot, I never put an object between the camera and the person. There’s never an aesthetic object there, because then the person would need a connection to this object. Another thing I do is … Let’s say I need to shoot you. I will make sure the camera doesn’t move dramatically. The camera should not exist—only you exist. The camera always needs to show something alive, not to move by itself. I also never use images of time, and never of any fashion. You need to go out of fashion, and out of time.
Balarama Heller In order to connect to the eternity in every person?
AJ Yes. The essential. Character is beautiful, not camera movement. Why? There is a dead person. What is important is this dead person who is covered in blood, right? Do I shoot here, or here? Or there? Or there? It is not important, because in our moment, this is interesting. It is a dead person. I will not make a film with camera movements, the way young people do now. The important thing is the content, not how you show it. This is another thing: I never do too many close-ups. I have a head and a body! I am not just a head; that’s when it becomes television. It becomes mechanical. It is not alive.
AZ You don't do many takes. Everything feels live.
AJ The only way to shoot something is like a poem.
BH Would you consider making a science fiction film again?
AJ I don’t have the money to do that. Science fiction needs a lot of special effects. The industry doesn't want me. They think I'm crazy. I will shoot my next film in Mexico. People are afraid to shoot in Mexico, with the narcotraficantes and all that. But eh, I will do it.
BH You worked in Mexico for a long time.
AJ Yes, I produced over a hundred plays. I was there for seventeen years, a whole part of my life. In Mexico they really wanted to kill me, they thought I was so weird. I changed the culture. Now all their museums want to do a retrospective of the work I did there. I became a legend. The first thing I did in Mexico was on television. I said, “Bullfighters are artists. Their work is with the bull. They make the art, then they destroy the bull. I will play piano, and then when I finish, I will destroy the piano.”
BH Like the Buddhist mandalas.
AJ Yes—but at that time, no one knew that. I destroyed the piano. What a national escandalo! The TV producers were astonished. I said, “Next, I will interview a cow! Because the asshole of the cow is the catedral gótica.” The director of the channel said to me, “No cows on television!” I said, “There are a lot of cows making telenovelas.” He banned me forever. Now I have a huge audience there.
Somebody asked me, “Are you happy that you influenced a lot of people?” The answer is, I am a human being, what do you want me to say? Yeah I'm happy, sure! I’m happy because nothing I did was a mistake. I was fighting against the system all the time. They put me in jail, it was a war. I believe in art. We can't have truth, because truth is so difficult. But we can have beauty. My obsession is to give to you something different. When civilization ends, Greece, Egypt, India—the only thing that endures is art. A country that does not have art despairs. War is not beautiful. Banks are not beautiful. Architecture used to have a lot of style, not anymore. Religion is not beautiful. Politics is not beautiful. What is beautiful now? Tell me. What is beautiful now?
AJ Love is beautiful. But do you know a lot of happy couples? I found love ten years ago, at seventy-five years old. I found my woman. But there was a lot of failure and fighting until I found the person who really goes well with me! It is very difficult. I ask, what kind of man should you have? Because you are so fine, like a medieval virgin! Maybe a Japanese sumo wrestler?
The Dance of Reality will be released in select theaters on May 23.
Balarama Heller provided the photographs for this piece. He is a photographer who lives and works in New York City.
Alex Zafiris is a writer based in New York.