Alejandro Jodorowsky

el atopo

Alejandro [ali-hahn-droJodorowsky [ho-dor-row-ski] (b. 1929) is a Chilean-French filmmaker and spiritual guru. Best known for his avant-garde films, he has been ‘venerated by cult cinema enthusiasts’ for his work which ‘is filled with violently surreal images and a hybrid blend of mysticism and religious provocation.’

Dropping out of college, he became involved in theater and in particular mime, working as a clown before founding his own theater troupe in 1947. After moving to Paris in the early 1950s he turned to cinema, directing the short film ‘Les têtes interverties’ in 1957. From 1960 he divided his time between Paris and Mexico City, in the former becoming a founding member of the anarchistic avant-garde Panic Movement of performance artists.

In 1966 he created his first comic strip, ‘Anibal 5,’ whilst in 1967 he directed his first feature film, the surrealist ‘Fando y Lis,’ which caused a huge scandal in Mexico, eventually being banned. His next film, the acid western ‘El Topo’ (1970), became a hit on the midnight movie circuit in the United States, considered as the first-ever midnight cult film, leading John Lennon to provide Jodorowsky with $1 million to finance his next film. The result was ‘The Holy Mountain’ (1973), a surrealist exploration of western esotericism. Disagreements with the film’s distributor Allen Klein however led to both ‘The Holy Mountain’ and ‘El Topo’ failing to gain widespread distribution, although both became classics on the underground film circuit.

After a botched attempt at filming Frank Herbert’s novel ‘Dune,’ Jodorowsky produced three more films, the family film ‘Tusk’ (1980), the surrealist horror ‘Santa Sangre’ (1989) and the failed blockbuster ‘The Rainbow Thief’ (1990). Since then, his attempts at producing further films have not come to fruition. Meanwhile, he has simultaneously written a series of science fiction comic books, most notably ‘The Incal’ (1981– 1989), but also ‘Technopriests’ and ‘Metabarons.’ Accompanying this, he has also written books and regularly lectures on his own spiritual system, which he calls ‘psychomagic’ and ‘psychoshamanism’ and which borrows from his interests in alchemy, the tarot, Zen Buddhism, and shamanism.

Jodorowsky was born in 1929 in the coastal town of Tocopilla, Chile to parents who were Jewish immigrants from Ukrainian cities of the Russian Empire. His father was a merchant who was largely abusive to his wife. On one occasion, he accused her of flirting with a customer, and angered, he subsequently beat and raped her, which led to the birth of Alejandro. Because of this brutal conception, Alejando’s mother both hated her husband and disliked her son, telling him that ‘I cannot love you’ and rarely showing him tenderness. Alejandro also had an elder sister, but disliked her for he believed that she was selfish, doing ‘everything to expel me from the family so that she could be the centre of attention.’

Alongside his dislike for his family, he also held contempt for many of the local people, who viewed him as an outsider because of his status as the son of immigrants, and also for the American mining industrialists who worked locally and treated the Chilean people badly. It was this treatment at the hands of Americans that led to his later condemnation of American imperialism and neo-colonialism in Latin America in several of his films. Nonetheless he liked his local area, and was greatly unhappy when he was forced to leave it aged nine years old, something he blamed his father for. His family subsequently moved to the city of Santiago, Chile.

He immersed himself in reading, and also began writing poetry, having his first poem published when he was sixteen years old. Becoming interested in the political ideology of anarchism, he began attending college, studying psychology and philosophy, but stayed for only two years. After dropping out, and having an interest in theater and particularly mime, he took up employment as a clown in a circus and began a career as a theater director. Meanwhile, in 1947 he founded his own theatrical troupe, the Teatro Mimico, who by 1952 had fifty members, and the following year he wrote his first play, ‘El Minotaura’ (‘The Minotaur’). Nonetheless, Jodorowsky felt that there was little for him left in Chile, and so that year he moved to Paris.

It was whilst in Paris that Jodorowsky began studying mime with Etienne Decroux and joined the troupe of one of Decroux’s students, Marcel Marceau. It was with Marceau’s troupe that he went on a world tour, and he wrote several routines for the group, including ‘The Cage’ and ‘The Mask Maker.’ After this, he returned to theater directing, working on the music hall comeback of Maurice Chevalier in Paris. In 1957, Jodorowsky turned his hand to film making, creating ‘Les têtes interverties’ (‘The Severed Heads’), a 20-minute adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novella. It consisted almost entirely of mime, and told the surreal story of a head-swapping merchant who helps a young man find courtship success. Jodorowsky himself played the lead role. The director Jean Cocteau admired the film, and wrote an introduction for it. It was considered lost, until a print was discovered in 2006.

In 1960, Jodorowsky moved to Mexico, where he settled down in Mexico City. Nonetheless, he continued to return occasionally to France, on one occasion visiting the surrealist artist André Breton, but he was disillusioned in that he felt Breton had become somewhat conservative in his old age. Continuing his interest in surrealism, in 1962 he founded the Panic Movement along with Fernando Arrabal and Roland Topor. The movement aimed to go beyond the conventional surrealist ideas by embracing absurdism, and its members refused to take themselves seriously, whilst laughing at those critics who did. In 1966 he produced his first comic strip, ‘Anibal 5,’ which was related to the Panic Movement. The following year he created a new feature film, ‘Fando y Lis,’ loosely based on a play written by Fernando Arrabal, who was working with Jodorowsky on performance art at the time. The film premiered at the 1968 Acapulco Film Festival, where it instigated a riot amongst those objecting to its content and it was subsequently banned in Mexico.

It was in Mexico City that he encountered Ejo Takata, a Zen Buddhist monk who had studied at the Horyuji and Shofukuji monasteries in Japan before traveling to Mexico via the United States in 1967 to spread Zen. Jodorowsky became a disciple of Takata, and offered his own house to be turned into a zendo (Buddhist meditation hall). Subsequently Takata attracted other disciples around him, who spent their time in meditation and the study of koans (a statement which provokes the ‘great doubt,’ to test a student’s progress in Zen). Eventually, Takata instructed Jodorowsky that he had to learn more about his feminine side, and so he went and befriended the English surrealist Leonora Carrington who had recently moved to Mexico.

In 1970, Jodorowsky released the film ‘El Topo,’ which is sometimes known in English as ‘The Mole,’ which he had both directed and starred in. An acid western, ‘El Topo’ tells the story of a wandering Mexican bandit and gunslinger, ‘El Topo’ (played by Jodorowsky himself), who is on a search for spiritual enlightenment, taking his young son along with him. Along the way, he violently confronts a number of other individuals, before finally being killed himself and being resurrected to live within a community of deformed people who are trapped inside a mountain cave. Describing the work, he stated that ‘I ask of film what most North Americans ask of psychedelic drugs. The difference being that when one creates a psychedelic film, he need not create a film that shows the visions of a person who has taken a pill; rather, he needs to manufacture the pill.’

Knowing how ‘Fando y Lis’ had caused such a scandal in Mexico, Jodorowsky decided not to release ‘El Topo there,’ instead focusing on its release in other countries across the world, including the United States. It was in New York City where the film would play as a ‘midnight movie’ for several months at Ben Barenholtz’s The Elgin cinema. It attracted the attention of rock musician and counter-cultural figure John Lennon, who thought very highly of it, and convinced the president of The Beatles’ company Apple Corps, Allen Klein, to distribute it in the United States.

Klein also agreed to give Jodorowsky $1 million to go towards creating his next film. The result was ‘The Holy Mountain,’ released in 1973. It has been suggested that it may have been inspired by Rene Daumal’s surrealist novel ‘Mount Analogue.’ The Holy Mountain was another complex, multi-part story that featured a man credited as “The Thief” and equated with Jesus Christ, a mystical alchemist played by Jodorowsky, seven powerful business people representing seven of the planets (Venus and the six planets from Mars to Pluto), a religious training regimen of spiritual rebirth, and a quest to the top of a holy mountain for the secret of immortality. During the completion of The Holy Mountain, Jodorowsky received spiritual training from Oscar Ichazo of the Arica School (part of the Human Potential Movement, formed around the concept of cultivating potential that its advocates believe is untapped), who encouraged him to take LSD and guided him through the subsequent psychedelic experience. Around the same time, Jodorowsky participated in an isolation tank experiment conducted by John Lilly.

Shortly thereafter, Allen Klein demanded that Jodorowsky create a film adaptation of Pauline Réage’s classic novel of female masochism, ‘Story of O.’ Klein had promised this adaptation to various investors. Jodorowsky, who had discovered feminism during the filming of ‘The Holy Mountain,’ refused to make the film, going so far as to leave the country to escape directing duties. In retaliation, Allen Klein made ‘El Topo’ and ‘The Holy Mountain,’ to which he held the rights, completely unavailable to the public for over 30 years. Jodorowsky frequently decried Klein’s actions in interviews.

Soon after the release of ‘The Holy Mountain,’ Jodorowsky gave a talk at the Teatro Julio Castillo, University of Mexico on the subject of koans (despite the fact that he had initially been booked on the condition that his talk would be about cinematography), at which his former mentor, Ejo Takata appeared. After the talk, Takata gave Jodorowsky his kyosaku (a flat wooden stick or slat used during periods of meditation to remedy sleepiness or lapses of concentration), believing that his former student had mastered the art of understanding koans.

In 1974, a French consortium led by movie producer Jean-Paul Gibon purchased the film rights to Frank Herbert’s epic 1965 science fiction novel ‘Dune’ and asked Jodorowsky to direct a film version. Agreeing, he planned to cast the surrealist artist Salvador Dalí as the Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV, who requested a fee of $100,000 per hour. He also planned to cast Orson Welles as the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, who only agreed when Jodorowsky offered to get his favourite gourmet chef to prepare his meals for him throughout the filming. The book’s protagonist, Paul Atreides, was to be played by Jodorowsky’s own son, Brontis Jodorowsky. The music would be composed by Pink Floyd, Magma, Henry Cow, and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Jodorowsky set up a pre-production unit in Paris consisting of Chris Foss, a British artist who designed covers for science fiction publications, Jean Giraud (Moebius), a French illustrator who created and also wrote and drew for ‘Metal Hurlant’ (‘Heavy Metal’ magazine’s predecessor), and H. R. Giger. Frank Herbert travelled to Europe in 1976 to find that $2 million of the $9.5 million budget had already been spent in pre-production, and that Jodorowsky’s script would result in a 14-hour movie (‘It was the size of a phone book,’ Herbert later recalled). Jodorowsky took creative liberties with the source material, but Herbert said that he and Jodorowsky had an amicable relationship. The production for the film collapsed, and the rights for filming were sold once more, this time to Dino de Laurentiis, who employed the American filmmaker David Lynch to direct, creating the film ‘Dune’ in 1984.

After the collapse of the Dune project, Jodorowsky completely changed course and, in 1980, premiered his children’s fable ‘Tusk,’ shot in India. Taken from Reginald Campbell’s novel ‘Poo Lorn of the Elephants,’ the film explores the soul-mate relationship between a young British woman living in India and a highly prized elephant. The film exhibited little of the director’s outlandish visual style and was never given wide release. Jodorowsky has since disowned the film.

In 1989, Jodorowsky completed the Mexican-Italian production ‘Santa sangre’ (‘Holy Blood’). The film received limited theatrical distribution, putting Jodorowsky back on the cultural map despite its mixed critical reviews. It was a surrealist film with a plot similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho.’ It featured a protagonist who, as a child, saw his mother lose both her arms, and as an adult let his own arms act as hers, and so was forced to commit murders at her whim. Several of Jodorowsky’s sons were recruited as actors. He followed it in 1990 with a very different film, ‘The Rainbow Thief.’ Though it gave Jodorowsky a chance to work with actual ‘movie stars’ Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif, executive producer Alexander Salkind effectively curtailed most of Jodorowsky’s artistic inclinations, threatening to fire him on the spot if anything in the script was changed (Salkind’s wife, Berta Domínguez D., wrote the screenplay).

Jodorowsky spent almost a decade reconstructing the original form of the ‘Tarot de Marseille’ (a classic deck of tarot cards). From this work he moved in to more therapeutic work in three areas: psychomagic, psychogenealogy, and initiatic massage. Psychomagic aims to heal psychological wounds suffered in life. This therapy is based on the belief that the performance of certain acts can directly act upon the unconscious mind, releasing it from a series of traumas, some of which are passed down from generation to generation. Psychogenealogy includes the studying of the patient’s personality and family tree in order to best address their specific sources. It is similar, in its phenomenological approach to genealogy, to the Constellations pioneered by German psychotherapist Bert Hellinger, an experiential process that aims to release and resolve profound tensions within and between people.

Jodorowsky has several books on his therapeutic methods, including ‘Psicomagia: La trampa sagrada’ (‘Psychomagic: The Sacred Trap’) and his autobiography ‘La danza de la realidad’ (‘The Dance of Reality’), which he’s filming as a feature length film in 2012. To date he has published over 23 novels and philosophical treaties, along with dozens of articles and interviews. His books are widely read in Spanish and French, but are for the most part unknown to English-speaking audiences. Throughout his career, Jodorowsky has gained a reputation as a philosopher and scholar who presents the teachings of religion, psychology, and spiritual masters, by molding them into pragmatic and imaginative endeavors. All of his enterprises integrate an artistic approach. Currently Jodorowsky dedicates much of his time to lecturing about his work.

For a quarter of a century, Jodorowsky held classes and lectures for free, in cafés and universities all over the city of Paris. Typically, such courses or talks would begin on Wednesday evenings as tarot divination lessons, and would culminate in an hour long conference, also free, where at times hundreds of attendees would be treated to live demonstrations of a psychological ‘arbre généalogique’ (‘tree of genealogy’) involving volunteers from the audience. In these conferences, Jodorowsky would pave the way to building a strong base of students of his philosophy, which deals with understanding the unconscious as the ‘over-self’ which is composed of many generations of family relatives, living or deceased, acting on our own psyche, well into our adult lives, and causing our compulsions. Of all his work, Jodorowsky considers these activities to be the most important of his life. Though such activities only take place in the insular world of Parisian cafés, he has devoted thousands of hours of his life to teaching and helping people ‘become more conscious,’ as he puts it. Presently, these talks have dwindled to once a month and take place at the ‘Librairie Les Cent Ciels’ in Paris.

Jodorowsky started his comic career in Mexico with the creation of ‘Anibal 5’ series in the mid 1966 with illustrations by Manuel Moro, and had his turn in drawing his own comic strip in the weekly series ‘Fabulas pánicas’ that appeared in the Mexican newspaper ‘El Heraldo de México.’ He also wrote original stories for at least two or three other comic books in Mexico during those days: ‘Los insoportables Borbolla’ was one of them. After his fourth film, ‘Tusk,’ he started ‘The Incal,’ with Jean Giraud (Mœbius). This graphic novel has its roots deep in the tarot and its symbols, e.g., the protagonist of The Incal, John Difool, is linked to the Fool card. The Incal (which would branch off into a prequel and sequel) forms the first in a sequence of several science fiction comic book series, all set in the same space opera Jodoverse (or ‘Metabarons Universe’) published by Humanoids Publishing. Many ideas and concepts derived from Jodorowsky’s planned adaptation of ‘Dune’ (which he would have only loosely based upon Frank Herbert’s original novel) are featured in this universe.

Mœbius and Jodorowsky sued Luc Besson, director of ‘The Fifth Element,’ claiming that the 1997 film borrowed graphic and story elements from ‘The Incal,’ but lost their case. The suit was plagued by ambiguity since Mœbius himself had willingly participated in the creation of the film, having been hired by Besson as a contributing artist, but had done so without gaining the approval of ‘Incal’ co-creator Jodorowsky, whose services Besson did not call upon. For over a decade, Jodorowsky pressured his publisher Les Humanoïdes Associés to sue Luc Besson for plagiarism, but the publisher refused, fearing the inevitability of the final outcome. In a 2002 interview with the Danish comic book magazine ‘Strip!,’ Jodorowsky claimed that he considered it an honor that somebody stole his ideas.

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