Let me get this out of the way now: the fact that we are getting a double dose of Alejandro Jodorowsky this year is proof that we live in glorious times.
Not long ago, this would have been inconceivable. For a good thirty years, Jodorowsky was practically an urban legend among cult movie aficionados, his movies written about but little seen. His accomplishments were legendary: his mystical western EL TOPO single-handedly kickstarted the entire “midnight movie” phenomenon; his follow up, THE HOLY MOUNTAIN, was bankrolled by superfan John Lennon and (falsely) rumored to have been ghost-scored by a reunited Fab Four; and his aborted adaptation of DUNE would have featured contributions by everyone from Orson Welles to Pink Floyd to Salvador Dali (as an actor!). But a falling out with Beatles manager/consummate pop culture villain Allen Klein kept Jodorowsky’s seventies masterpieces out of circulation; apart from his comeback film SANTA SANGRE, the home video generation could largely only speculate as to whether they were Jodorowsky fans.
Fortunately, that’s changed in the past few years. A reconciliation with Klein led to an essential box set from Anchor Bay in 2007, blowing the minds of a new generation. With interest renewed, Jodorowsky began contemplating new cinematic projects, ranging from an EL TOPO sequel to a gangster movie starring Nick Nolte and Marilyn Manson. Earlier this year, director Frank Pavich released JODOROWSKY’S DUNE, a fascinating and frequently hilarious documentary about Jodorowsky’s insanely ambitious attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic. That film brought Jodorowsky back into contact with producer Michel Seydoux, who finally provided the means for Jodorowsky to make his first film in nearly twenty-five years.
Jodorowsky fans should know better at this point than to ask questions like “What’s the movie about?” but in the interest of lip service: THE DANCE OF REALITY (or LA DANZA DE LA REALIDAD in its original Spanish) is based on Jodorowsky’s semi-fantasized autobiography of the same name, and focuses on the director’s childhood in 1930s Chile. His mother, within the context of the film, is a loving, cartoonishly buxom woman who communicates exclusively in operatic soprano; his father, Jaime, on the other hand, is a stern would-be communist revolutionary who goes to extreme lengths to toughen his son. It is here that a plot synopsis breaks down: where does one mention the semi-nude Theosophist who lives on the beach and spouts proclamations on the neighboring goldmine? Or the roving street gang of amputees who sing protest songs and deliver vigilante justice? To watch a Jodorowsky movie is not to follow a traditional narrative, but to buckle in and go wherever it takes you.
As mean as it feels to say, the weakest material here is almost certainly the most personal. The scenes of young Alejandrito and his tribulations seem a tad on-the-nose; the line between autobiography and fantasy seems clearer than usual, which makes both seem slightly awkward. Young actor Jeremías Herskovits plays most of his scenes with a mix of confusion and amusement (which, to be fair, is a fairly reasonable response to finding oneself in an Alejandro Jodorowsky film). He’s adorable, but never entirely convincing.
Fortunately, as is often the case with the director’s works, it picks up steam once the initial plot is almost entirely abandoned. Around the halfway point, the focus shifts to Jaime’s convoluted attempt on the life of Chilean President Carlos Ibañez. It is here that Jodorowsky truly regains his old rhythms, turning an ostensibly straightforward assassination mission into a metaphysical spirit quest involving a prize showhorse, amnesia, and a costume pageant for dogs. Jaime is played by Jodorowsky’s son Brontis, who delivers a remarkable performance, capturing the fire of a man who clearly inspired both fear, awe, and ultimately pity in his own family. Brontis himself previously appeared as the oft-naked child of EL TOPO, and apparently underwent grueling martial arts training to play Paul Atreides in the never-realized DUNE; it’s not difficult to imagine that he worked some elements of his own father into his performance.
The question most Jodorowsky fans will have going into THE DANCE OF REALITY will be whether or not it feels like a true Jodorowsky film. The answer, ultimately, is yes: if it seems mellower or more low-key than his previous work, that’s only because his previous work includes fucking HOLY MOUNTAIN. Taken on its own merits, it is a thunderously weird and wonderful movie, filled with scenes and images that won’t leave you anytime soon; take, for instance, the inexplicable scene in which mother and child joyously slather each other with boot polish, or the jaw-dropping remedy for Jaime’s plague, which I will refrain from describing to keep from spoiling either the surprise or your lunch. When Jodorowksy is on his game, his work is unmistakable.
And as I said before, the fact that this film even exists is something close to a miracle. While Jodorowsky’s filmography is sparse, it actually only represents a tiny fraction of his output: in the time since he dropped off the film scene, he has worked extensively in comics (most notably with the late French cartoonist Jean “Moebius” Giraud), written and directed several plays, and authored dozens of books, ranging from novels to memoirs to psychomagical self-help manuals. He contributes weekly editorials for Telemadrid, and conducts a monthly Tarot seminar at the Librairie Les Cent Ciels in Paris. One of the most stunning moments in JODOROWSKY’S DUNE is toward the end, when he casually mentions that he’s eighty-four years old; he speaks, works, and lives with the energy of a man half his age. At this rate, he’ll be going for another fifty years; perhaps, at that point, he’ll be ready to make another film.
Now playing at Kendall Square Cinema.