An Interview with Alejandro Jodorowsky
Amidst a surge of fresh interest, the midnight movie maven takes a head trip down memory laneby Margaret Barton-Fumo
Written by Margaret Barton-Fumo
It’s been 22 years since Alejandro Jodorowsky directed his last film and now, at 82, his popularity appears to be on the rise. A progenitor of the midnight movie, Jodorowsky continues to be a cult figure at a time when the Internet has leveled the roadblocks to fame and countercultural mouthpieces can happily bottom-feed under the current of the mainstream. Hence Jodo’s growing fan base on Twitter. For him, Twitter signifies the next wave in art, and the 140-character limit an incentive to write what he calls “the haikus of our century.” A stretch, perhaps, but some big fish are biting. An exhibition in Mexico united more than 20 artists to address the influence of Jodorowsky and his self-proclaimed “psychomagic,” and showcased 400 of his tweets on a wall. At the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, a sister exhibit featured a running projection of 6,000 more.
Until now Jodorowsky has enjoyed most of his acclaim in Mexico, South America, and Europe, where he has published a slew of novels, memoirs, and nonfiction books on the tarot and psychomagic. Over the past decade he made peace with the family of his former producer (Beatles manager Allen Klein), which led to a drastic revival of his career in America. His two signature films, El Topo (70) and The Holy Mountain (73), were released via ABKCO on DVD in 2007, followed by Severin’s two-disc edition of his best work, Santa Sangre (89), at the start of last year.
Last fall, a Halloween Q&A with Jodorowsky at the Museum of Modern Art drew a sold-out crowd that included Yoko Ono, Willem Dafoe, Courtney Love… and Martha Stewart. The following evening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the twenty-something girl seated next to me greatly anticipated Jodorowsky’s introduction to El Topo, talking excitedly to her boyfriend about the possibility of getting the geriatric director to “sign her boobs.” Jodorowsky’s platform of expression may have evolved, but even his youngest fans are clinging to the past with the fervor of a Seventies tailgater.
So is Twitter a new form of expression for you?
Yes. Artistic. Because I don’t speak about me. The expression is limited, and they’ve become the haikus of our century. I use it to share ideas—poetical, philosophical ideas. I seem to help, I answer questions. I give consultations, things like that. When I started, people laughed at me because they said it’s just for idiots, who write what they eat, what they do. It’s a tool for the politicians, celebrities, athletes, to make poems, or to make philosophy. They called me crazy. I said no, no! It is an art. I will make it an art, and I did.
You said once in an interview that movies are the highest art.
I think that. But it’s like Twitter. It’s the way you use it. Movies are a big industry and everyone wants money. And they do that for money. When you do these things for money, you don’t have an art, you have an industry. It’s a funny thing, an amusing thing. But you take heroin, you have fun, and you die. You have fun with the business picture, you have fun but you are an idiot. It’s a world of idiots. The big philosopher in industrial art is the person who kicks somebody in the head with his film or has a revolver. That is the hero. I think it’s an art when it’s not a commercial art. It’s very difficult to understand that in America because for Americans God is in the dollar. They cannot understand me when I say that. But anyway I say it.
Do you require complete control when you make films?
Yes. No director in Hollywood has any control. They are diplomatic. They are companies. They need a bathroom. The company makes a bathroom. The director is an employee of the stars. I think that stars for me are the cancer of the art. That will be finished one day. Also theater owners are cancer because they want to make the world their business. That exists like an amusing fantasy but the art of movie is very difficult to find.
Soon we won’t need theaters any more.
Yes, I don’t want them. I’m finished with movie theaters. I have two projects. One project is with someone who wants to make money, is putting in some money, but I will do it my way as I did with El Topo. The other I will produce myself.
Can you tell me more about the second project?
Yes. I will do it next year but with my money. I’ve saved this money for 30 years, and I am doing this in order to lose it. I want to lose the money! It’s a picture I’m doing to lose money, not to gain money. And I will try to give it away for free. I wrote a book called The Dance of Reality [La danza de la realidad]. I will be shooting the first and second chapter from when I was a child. That is the thing I want to do the most. Plus another chapter from another book. I will do it. That is in order to lose money.
Good. I hope that you will lose a lot of money on that one.
Let’s go back in pursuit of a chronology. You were born in Chile, but then you moved to Paris in the Fifties.
1953. I went to Paris for three things. I was 23 years old. I wanted to work with Marcel Marceau because I loved mime. I wanted to study with the philosophers in the Sorbonne. And I wanted to go to the Surrealist movement of André Breton. I did these three things. I worked with Marcel for years, I wrote pantomimes for him—the best pantomime I wrote myself called “The Cage” [the iconic routine in which the mime positions his hands on an invisible wall in front of him]. Then I spent two years with Breton during the last moments of the Surrealist group, and I studied philosophy in the Sorbonne. Then I did what I wanted, and I started to make my own life.
What led you to make your first short film, La Cravate ?
In reality I didn’t want to make a picture but to film a pantomime. And then I shot a pantomime. That was the idea. With very little money. I didn’t even have money. I made it in my room.
You seemed to have directed it with ease and yet some of the technique was very innovative for its time. Did this come to you naturally?
Yes. I never wanted to study art. And I don’t think you need to study art if you are an artist. It’s even dangerous to go to school. You need to do whatever you want, as you want. School is for people who want to make business, who want to go to Hollywood to do this kind of picture. You know? Who is industry. It’s terrible, the industry of movies. I’d rather speak about the art of movies. The art, no?
I spent too much time in school myself.
It’s not good. You know you’ve studied for many years when you do something and the experience makes you forget everything you’ve studied. You have your diploma, and then you need to learn.
I’m also interested in your move to Mexico. I’m a fan of Leonora Carrington, and you worked with her for a long time on theatrical productions in Mexico.
Yes! I wrote a book, what is the name of it? The Master and the Magicians [El maestro y las magas]. And I wrote about what I learned from Leonora. I made a play with her called Penelope. In reality it was important for me because I asked her to teach me the tarot. And then she give me a tarot reading and asked “What do you see?” and she was right about what I was seeing. People say to me, “Tell me, what is the tarot?” Well, the tarot is what you see. It is a mirror. You look at it and you see what it is that you are. And then I learned. I was a very good friend of hers. I admire her. She’s a surrealistic fantasist. A real surrealistic person.
Can you talk about your working relationship with Rafael Corkidi, the cinematographer on Fando and Lis, El Topo, and The Holy Mountain? I read that you instructed him to make his camerawork “objective” and “clinical.” That command really comes across in your films.
The mystery is in complete light. I don’t want night. I don’t want shadows. And this I argued with him. In the beginning he was fantastic. When I made Fando and Lis [in 1968], I attached myself to him with a rope and I worked with him. And on El Topo he was fantastic but there was a moment when he started to be in conflict with me because he wanted to be a movie director. On The Holy Mountain he was impossible. He made three shots a day. He was a fantastic photographer, but he was a bad director.
The camera movement in your films from that time period, especially El Topo and The Holy Mountain, is very reserved. The cinematography is calm, but everything in front of the camera, all of the images are so vibrant.
I have some ethics of shooting. Not this [mimes framing a close-up] because that is television. Not when you have the camera here, I put an object here [between the subject and the camera]. An aesthetic effort, never. Only you. No shadow. Natural. Things like that. Every movement for me has a meaning, with a moral meaning for the camera, no? A moral meaning. No use of the subjective camera. I’m speaking with you, I’m showing what I see, things like that.
The camera remains objective while the visual content speaks for itself.
When there is an accident, the news camera films it from the point of view that it can, and it’s always good because the accident is terrible! I say, let’s construct an accident and shoot it from any side that’s good. The important thing is not the camera. The student of movies, the young person today—in order to make a picture, he starts to think about how he will move the camera, because he has nothing to say. The only world that they have is in other pictures. They are not alimentado [nourished]; they are not filled.
That’s the academic way.
For me, the way to make a picture is to control the accident. The content. You don’t think about the way you shoot. And another thing—I don’t move the camera, I move actors. And I never make a camera movement only to show something. The camera doesn’t exist.
The lack of garish camerawork prevents your films from looking completely outdated today—at least from a formalist standpoint.
They’re still here! I never would have expected that they’d still be here 30 or 40 years later.
Many other artists and filmmakers sought you out after the underground success of El Topo. A famous example would be Dennis Hopper asking you to help him edit The Last Movie.
I went to edit The Last Movie. I did it, but after a while, we didn’t speak anymore. I regret it because I did very good work, but he had four machines and four people working, a lot of people just to edit. I use only one machine and one person, and I edit the entire picture in three days. An excess of means, an excess of things, makes your work without soul. Too much technical. Too much money. There is no soul.
And less control for you.
Critics rarely take notice of your sense of humor as a director. Your films are funny enough that they should be taken more seriously! Most films from the Sixties and Seventies that address the spiritual and esoteric are far too sanctimonious. They come across as bogged down, lost in a hippie earnestness.
Yes, yes. Hitchcock, when he makes a picture, he thinks, “I will do this so that the public will have fear. I will direct the emotion of the audience.” And the cinema is ill with that. You make a comedy, you make a tragedy… you have a style. But life does not have a style. Life can be comic, can be sexy, can be everything at the same time. So I will make a picture but I will not say what you need to feel. You will feel whatever you’re feeling. And then you will get someone who is choleric, another in love, the other will cry, and the other will laugh at the same thing.
It’s truly open-minded to have a sense of humor.
Do you find yourself drawn to the abnormal, to the strange?
No, no, no, I am completely normal! Yes, yes, yes, but normality is not being like everyone else. Normality is to be different. Every person is a different person. And one day you need to be aware of your difference. Aware that you are not the same as the others. That is to be normal.
Your audience keeps changing over the decades, especially since 2007 when your films were finally released on DVD.
Yes. I have a story about my public. I was in Turkey, and everywhere I went, the movies were full of young people. The majority—80 percent, 90 percent—were young. They are seeing my pictures. Well, I am happy.
Do you have any interest in reviving Tusk  and The Rainbow Thief ? They never made it to VHS or DVD.
Yes. When I finished Tusk, the producer was a thief. He said he was broke, and the picture I made was only the first edit but it should have had half an hour more. And I could never cut the picture and take out what I didn’t like. If I take out what I don’t like, it will be a very nice film for children. But I cannot. The Rainbow Thief was a fight with the person who wrote the script [screenwriter Berta Dominguez] that inspired my picture and her husband, Alex Salkind. He produced Superman, something like that. She wanted an action picture and she wanted an intellectual picture, and then when I made the picture, she took it and cut every action scene and every intellectual scene. And now I am waiting for somebody to show my version. Maybe one day they will find my version and they will say it’s a good picture.
But currently there are no plans to reissue them?
I don’t know. Maybe, because now my pictures are selling and I became some kind of business. I hope they will do it. But when I was shooting, I wanted to know how a big picture was made. The photographer with a big staff. I wanted to learn about the industry, you know? And it was terrible for me.
And now you know.
And now I know never more! But I was fighting, fighting, in order to do whatever I want. Every day was a real fight. And then I signed a contract that said no violence. No violence, what a crazy thing! How can you make something with no violence? Life, there. You look through the window and you see violence. And then it wasn’t 100 percent my picture. I was tired. But there are some things that I like in the film. You need to see it. It’s not so bad.
There’s also your version of Frank Herbert’s Dune that never made it to the big screen. Did you ever shoot any footage for that project?
No, but they are making a documentary with all of the material. I made 3,000 drawings for the script. In the documentary you will see all of that.
The popularity of your films has changed with their availability on what used to be known as the “home video” circuit. For a long time The Holy Mountain was a remote bootleg, but there was still a buzz surrounding El Topo. Now even Santa Sangre is on a beautiful DVD and you have new fans that are conversant with all three, as well as Fando and Lis, your first feature.
I remastered my pictures myself here in New York. For the first time, I had the pictures I wanted. I had a lot of problems I could not solve before, but with the remasterization I solved all of the colors and now they’re exactly as I wanted. I am very happy to have a new version. El Topo doesn’t get old. Santa Sangre no, because it’s folkloric, and The Holy Mountain—they are out of time. Because I never follow the fashion. It’s out of time, no? Out of time.
Yes, but people love The Holy Mountain today.
Yes, but I invented this thing for you, I invented the shoes that are like this [mimes a large block]. All the people have those shoes now.
Yes, and the guy with that, on the head...
I made a lot of things that are normal today.
I think it was in the Eighties, you started your weekly psychomagic lectures in Paris...
Do you still do this?
Yes. When I have time, every Wednesday I go to a cafe outside of my apartment, 100 meters away. I advise the first 20 people who come for free. I am not a professor of the tarot, I do what I like. Not for publicity or anything, and they come. It’s full of people who come—150, 200 people but I can only read for 25. There’s a lottery, they choose 25, and I read every Wednesday when I am in Paris.
Tell me about psychomagic.
I do consultations. You do psychoanalysis and you realize that you are in love with your father and you want to have sex with him. And that is your problem. Then psychoanalysis says you have an Electra complex and you say, “Yes, and now what do I do?” With psychoanalysis you talk, but what will you do? Sublimate? Make art? There is no solution. Psychomagic gives a solution in which you realize your desire in a metaphorical way. You make love with your father, you have a child with your father, but as in a dream. You do it. Without judging yourself. You want to kill somebody? Okay. You kill the person, but metaphorically.
You use objects, right?
Yeah. They ask me impossible things, like a woman says, “I am with my husband but I want to make love with a lot of people but without cheating. What do I do?” A lot of men, but without cheating. And I give this solution. She did it and she was happy. It was her husband disguised as other persons. You give a solution. They tried to translate psychomagic, it’s in English now. Inner Traditions is the editor, I think [for The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky]. I have three books in English now. Also The Way of the Tarot where I explain all of the tarot. It’s a very good book. I have a good imagination. Incredible imagination I have.
You’re quite a prolific author.
Yes. On Twitter I write 50 each day. All of them are different. I already have 20,000 twitters.
There’s a website too. Are you associated with it?
No. Somebody else did it. I think ABKCO did it. I am on Facebook but it’s not me. The blog Plano Creativo [planocreativo.wordpress.com] is inspired by me. I collaborate, I’m on there every day. It’s with another person but it’s inspired by my work in psychomagic. Five million or six million people visiting in the last year.
Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?
No. How is your emotional life?
© 2012 by Margaret Barton-Fumo