A brief meeting with the magus of cinema
By Mark Pilkington for Fortean Times
A legless gunslinger crosses the desert atop an armless man’s shoulders; a thirsty hippo quenches itself at the fountain of youth; the invisible man wrestles an enormous anaconda in a mobile pharmacy: every great Jodorowsky film confronts the viewer with a riotous cavalcade of symbols drawn from the collective unconscious. Or at least the collective unconscious as imagined by Jodorowsky…
These days, aged 77, he’s busy writing and directing plays, writing comic books, performing his Psychomagikal healings, reading tarot cards in a Paris café and, when I caught up with him, promoting the new, extremely welcome, box set of his first three films: Fando y Lis (1967), El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973).
Given the brief window of time available, and the fact that there’s plenty of information about his career available elsewhere, I tried to steer conversation – as much as it is possible to steer a conversation with Jodorowsky – in other directions…
MP: You’ve described your films as ‘initiation cinema’ and ‘healing cinema’, can you talk about what this means.
AJ: In order to talk about initiation and healing cinema, we need to talk about the ‘industry’ of movies. The movie industry is a business for entertainment. And who controls this business?… The tastes and demands of normal people, no? But normal people represent mediocrity, not art; their entertainment is vulgar and gives you nothing with which to change your life. It’s like a cigarette; you smoke tobacco, and it gives you nothing, unlike marijuana, which always gives you something. That is the industrial picture.
In order to think about the ‘initiatic’ picture, we need to break with industry. The goal of industry is to make a lot of money – this is the measure of a film’s art. Three hundred million dollars – it’s a masterwork! If it doesn’t make money, it’s an awful picture, a failure. But the initiatic picture doesn’t work with money, it works with soul, with spirituality. A lot of spirituality is a good picture, lack of spirituality is a bad picture. It’s different.
And then, what is it to heal somebody? In reality, the biggest illness is not to be what you are but to be what the other wants you to be – the family, the society, the culture. They tell you “You need to be like this, with these morals, with these feelings, with this economy, with this political thing, with this religion”. And then, you go and sign a form that puts you into a spiritual jail for your entire life. The initiation, initiatic cinema, frees you from all these forms, from the artificial world where you started out in the belly of your mother.
Initiating – the art initiation – reveals to you the hell, this prison, and shows you how to escape from it. And to heal you is to give you the opportunity to be yourself and to have your own opinion. Hitchcock, in movies, is an ill person. Why? Because he has disguised himself as a genius of movies, but in reality, he’s making his movies in jail, because he’s saying, “That is a system that will make terror. This, the public will love. There, they will be anguished.” He’s directing your emotions; everything is done to hypnotize you in order to react in a certain way.
In a healing picture, they don’t say you need to react like that. You will react as you react!
MP: So, Hollywood film is mind control?
AJ: Yes, mind control. And all American pictures are US propaganda, it’s a form of imperial power.
Look at 300. First it is propaganda against Iran. Second, it deifies physical strength. It is preparing the young person to kill for his country in the anti-Islamic kamikaze! 300 is also racist towards black people – the bad people are monsters and black. And the emperor of the bad guys is also gay! Your initiation comes when you begin asking “Why? Why?! Why a gay? Why [is he] the biggest black person? The Persians are not like that! Why?!” It’s a critical initiation; that is when you start to know the limits of the jail we are born into.
But we need to go in another direction – we need to go see The Holy Mountain after that, The Holy Mountain criticizes, but then it proposes a possible path to liberation.
MP: Do you think ‘The Holy Mountain’, ‘El Topo’, ‘Fando y Lis’ – could have been made at all today? Is it even possible to make films like that anymore?
AJ: People say, ‘Ah, it was nice back in the day, because you could make films like this.’ But, actually, it was worse than today. Making Fando y Lis I almost got killed, really killed. The Mexican Minister of Defense called to threaten me, saying he wanted to kill me, I had to escape, they wanted to lynch me. It was not easy, but I did it. But if someone [like me] at 40 years old, 30 years old wants to do that, he will do something like that, but he needs to have enough courage and enough desire to make art as I have.
MP: And do you see anybody doing this today?
AJ: It’s difficult because my friends who are big talents get destroyed by Hollywood. Guillermo del Toro, I like him because he’s the next generation, but I knew him before his recent success – he’s full of talent, but now he’s obliged to do Hollywood style, mediocre films. Or Sam Raimi – now he’s making Spiderman, you know? It’s a shame! And all the big directors in the Asian movement, of Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, their talents are absorbed into Hollywood. And even the story, for example, for the original The Infernal Affairs is fantastic, but the Hollywood remake, The Departed, it’s awful, just a display of big egos, no?
MP: I completely agree. Did you see Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto?
AJ: No, I didn’t see that.
MP: It’s good – the central sequence of that, when they visit the Mayan city, is one of the wildest things I’ve seen since your own films. You should see it.
AJ: Sometimes, there are things that inspire me. For example, in the film The Prestige. I find something there that is metaphysical. Like Borges, no? The guy who was killing himself. That was something good. The mystery of prestidigitation was something that interested me there. Sometimes you don’t ask a picture to completely work. In an awful picture, you can find something fantastic. Takashi Miike, for me, is some kind of genius in some moments, and very terrible in other moments – it’s terrible! But in some moments he is incredible! I don’t admire Miike Takashi completely, but I admire a piece of Miike Takashi.
MP: Is the act of directing and producing a film closer to mediumship, priesthood, or neither?
AJ: Everything! When I made Santa Sangre, for example, I didn’t see a single person. Not one friend, no women, no nothing. I slept five or six hours a day because I worked until midnight and woke at 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning. I ate very little. I didn’t speak with anyone from the outside world. I just made my film. For me to make a picture is a kind of vital thing – you do it or you die. You need to be there. And when I came in the morning, then I gave the shot of the day. And when we finished shooting, all the technical people said, ‘What is the first shot for tomorrow?’ Ah, that made me angry, but I would tell them, and then I changed it in the morning!
MP: And how did you choose your crews?
AJ: It’s always some kind of compromise, it’s a searching process. The most important choice for me is the cinematographer. And they will help me to shoot the person he needs. Etc. And the actor is an encounter. But the most passionate thing for me is [finding] the places where I shoot. I travel in a jeep always, traveling into the city…
Shooting Santa Sangre we found a site where they were demolishing a house and creating a huge dust cloud. It was terrible, dirty, dirty! But I thought, ‘Go inside the cloud.’ And we went inside the cloud, we crossed the cloud, and there was the church. It was exactly what I needed, it was a church built specially for prostitutes. They all sat nearby and charged three dollars for their services. One dollar for the woman, one dollar for the pimp, and one dollar for the priest! Incredible, no?!! One dollar for the priest for every fuck!
MP: In your life, you’ve done many things – mime, filmmaking, theatre, writing, music, mysticism, therapy – is there anything you can’t do?
AJ: In my life, what is the most important for me – I work a lot – is what is the least commercialism: to make poetry. That for me is important, no? Very few people can read that. Poetry? Nobody reads poetry now. And I am lucky, they publish me. And I like to write theatre, now I am writing theatre, and I am directing a play in Turin, Italy. Then later in Naples, then in Belgium.
MP: Do you consider yourself to be of a particular nationality?
AJ: Well, I like Chile, because I was born there, but I don’t feel myself to be any nationality at all. In reality, I don’t have any one definition, no name, no nationality. This is good because every country I go to I like the country, it’s very good.
MP: Were psychedelics ever part part of your work?
AJ: No, the audience who came to see El Topo was full of people smoking marijuana. When they came to see The Holy Mountain, it was LSD. Myself, no. Because I was making the picture – why would I need that myself? I had one experience on mushrooms, and one experience with LSD, in order to know what they were like. It was with my master, Oscar Ichazo, who ran the Arica school of analysis. He initiated me one night, for eight hours – only one time. I think every person, starting from Bush and Blair and all that, they [should] take mushrooms one time, in order to open the mind – just one time. Because these dirty politicians only speak about materiality, not one word about spirituality. They need to open their minds.
MP: Have you ever experienced things that you could not explain or things that seemed mystical or paranormal?
AJ: This is my assistant, a kind of bodyguard. Ask him because he’s the person who sees more of the magic my life.
Assistant: Yes, there are many unexplainable things. You know, Alejandro has been reading Tarot for like 40 years, and he’s healed many people who stutter. Like ten or eleven! It’s very strange. I’ve seen him doing psycho-shamanic operations; and then when you discuss with the people afterward, it’s like they’ve been healed of something! It’s not really visible, though if you have the eye, if you look really closely and concentrate on the thing…
AJ: Now it’s a form of art for me. I do it… I do what I need to do. Now when I start to read the Tarot for a person, the person says something, and then we go on. I say to the person, ‘There, you are economizing two years of psychoanalysis’, because psychoanalysis doesn’t heal you, but helps you to live. But in order to heal – we need to do something more. But for me, life is weird, it’s full of little miracles!
MP: Do you pray? And if so, to who or to what?
AJ: No, I don’t believe in praying to an external god, but I think in the interior of ourselves, we have what I call the interior world. A world which is a clear point of light, which is not you, but it is the fountain of life within yourself. When they discovered America, there was a fountain where you wash and get young – the fountain of youth. The fountain of health is inside you. And every night, I try to approach there. That for me is to pray, to make emptiness and to come to the centre of yourself, to try to go there.
MP: Do you think it’s possible for the mind to exist separately from the body?
AJ: Yes. In my youth, I was a body who had a soul. Now I am a soul who has a body. For example, now I am having a little problem with asthma because I have the flu – and in the moments when I feel bad, I say, Okay, I will go inside myself. In order to let the body live his life, I will live my life. But, anyway, we are very, very, very mixed in our bodies. But in another way, we think the body is our servant, but our master also.
MP: You’re 77 now. How are you coping with growing older?
AJ: It’s fantastic! I like it a lot. I don’t want to change myself. If you said, Do you want to be 40 years old [again] and I would say, maybe my body, but not my mind. It’s a nightmare, a social nightmare to get old – to get Parkinson’s, to become an idiot, but every day the brain is making new connections and is developing, like the universe. Your soul is getting better and better because you are losing what is not necessary. It’s fantastic to get old! It’s an incredible feeling of freedom, incredible!
Now, for example, to make love, sometimes I have erectile problems. Sometimes it’s not so easy. But it’s not [a problem] because I can use my hands, I can caress – you can satisfy a woman in an incredible way, as the lesbians do it! What is the problem? Even at 80 years old, you don’t have sexual problems! [Laughter]
MP: We’ll print that! Death is a recurring theme in your films…
AJ: Not anymore… because in the past, I knew what despair was. Every night, I despaired that my life as over. And suddenly I opened my eyes… I don’t know how many times I’ve slept since. Death is the same. You die and there’s nothing – so you don’t suffer. And if there is something, immediately you will know.
MP: You have no fear of death?
AJ: Not anymore. I am completely prepared to die – spiritually, not corporally. My body wants to live. The body always wants to be immortal, not to die. And the soul accepts death – that is good. But it’s not good if my body wants to die, because my life is shorter. You menace me with a knife, and I will defend myself, I will ask somebody to protect me, no? Even if I say [to myself], “I can die.” I understand that.
MP: Do have any beliefs about what happens afterwards?
AJ: Why? Why be curious about what will happen, it will happen anyway, it will happen! Either I’ll go there or there – everything will happen. It’s fantastic – the future is fantastic! Anything that will happen will happen!
MP: Are you optimistic about humankind’s future?
AJ: Civilization can come to an end. But I believe that if man was created, it’s not because man wanted to exist, it’s because the universe wants consciousness. And there are all these threads of the universe working for us in order to make a new mutation. We are creating a new brain. Because we have three brains, no? The Reptilian, the mammalian and the cerebral cortex. We will make a fourth brain.
We are monkeys now, but this will be rearranged. If we don’t do that, our children will do it. Without a revolution, without anything. The next generation will change everything…
The Jodorowsky Collection is available now from Tartan DVD. It contains beautifully remastered editions of Fando y Lis, El Topo and The Holy Mountain, the three films that cemented Jodorowsky’s reputation as one of cinema’s great iconoclasts. A wealth of extras includes short films, documentaries, symbolic commentaries and, the icing on the cake, complete soundtracks to both El Topo and The Holy Mountain – the latter a collaboration between Jodorowsky and jazz trumpeter Don Cherry. Bravo!
With thanks to Alyssa Joye.