You expect a new Jodorowsky movie to be bonkers, and I was skeptical because movies this bonkers are usually wannabe-cult empty-headed nonsense. Text descriptions of a boy with a huge-breasted mom whose dialogue is all sung opera-style and a dad who gets surrounded by miners missing limbs all singing their woes would raise a few red flags, but AJ makes it all seem rich and wonderful, then tones down the circus act and pulls off a surprisingly emotional second half.

Explores AJ’s own childhood in 1930’s Chile, the same way Guy Maddin explored his childhood in Brand Upon The Brain and My Winnipeg, keeping emotional truths and memorable details and poetically inventing the rest. Young AJ is followed around by wise old AJ (playing himself as a phantom narrator), and as usual it’s a family affair, with AJ’s son Brontis (the little kid from El Topo!) playing the father (and I’m guessing a real opera singer as the mom).

Jaime is an ex-circus performer (see also: Santa Sangre), volunteer fireman and passionate communist ashamed of his timid, long-haired art-loving son Alejandro. Jaime’s wife (they run a shop together) is obsessed with her dead father, thinks he is reincarnated in her son because of the long hair, which Jaime finally has cut off, causing family disharmony. Jaime tries to man-up his son, giving him painful challenges, while young Alejandro’s other influences are the colorful characters around town.

After the death of his fire chief and a failed attempt to help plague-afflicted slum-dwellers, Jaime regroups and decides to journey to the capital and assassinate tyrant president Ibáñez. First Jaime protects the president from a fellow communist in order to earn a position as the president’s personal horse groom, planning a more insidious revenge. But after poisoning the president’s prize horse according to plan, Jaime can’t murder the man, his hands becoming useless claws, then loses his memory and disappears into the slums, while back home Alejandro’s mom teaches her son a different way to disappear, showing him how not to be noticed to avoid antisemitic discrimination from the locals. Jaime regains his self-worth only to be captured and tortured by nazis on the way home – but he does get home, and the family flees their fucked-up town.

Colorful, beautiful movie that can’t go five minutes without doing something different and amazing, also with judicious use of digital effects. I love a good imaginary history, and after all the family affection (and pain, let’s face it) in this movie, I was shocked to read wikipedia’s cold version of AJ’s childhood. AJ: “My father had no humanity. So here, look, I am making him human.”

P. Bradshaw:

For the first time, Jodorowsky is coming close to telling us how personal evasiveness has governed his film-making style; his flights of fancy are flights of pain, flights from childhood and flights from reality. And now he is using his transformative style to come to terms with and change the past and to confer on his father some of the heroism that he never attained in real life.

Quintin in Cinema Scope:

The Dance of Reality works as an exorcism of an era where false and destructive dreams were also the hope for mankind, and when children were educated through abuse by their parents and by society. But Jodorowsky, one of these abused children, finally became as brave as young Alex is told to be in the film: he dares in his film to take on all of those issues, to speak freely about love and sex, fascism and communism and sorrow and pain and happiness, and to make his personal circus travel the world with brilliance.

My 2000th blog post!

This was pretty incredible. Nude man in asylum thinks he’s a monkey. Flashback to when he was a young boy in a false mustache in the circus, watching a tattooed hottie force a deaf-mute girl to walk a burning tightrope. The boy’s mom is chief priestess at the santa sangre temple, which is torn down after being disavowed by the church, claiming the armless woman they worship is not a saint. Later she catches her awful drunken husband with the tattooed lady, and he cuts off her arms then kills himself, and the young mime tightrope walker is driven away from the traumatized boy.

Then after that first 45 minutes, the unthinkable happens: the movie got boring. Later I changed my mind about this, figure it just changed mood and speed and I wasn’t able to follow along, because retracing the story through the million screenshots I took, it sure doesn’t look boring. Anyway, now the boy and his armless mom have a stage act where he hides behind her, being her arms, imagining himself invisible. A bunch of people, including the tattooed woman and a cross-dressing wrestler, get brutally murdered – mother commanding son to kill with his/her hands. He hooks up with his midget best friend from the circus, who may have never existed. Only when he finds the mime girl does he stand up to his mother (and stab her to death), then he and the girl walk outside to start a new life together. No just kidding – they walk outside to find themselves surrounded by police.

Too old to play the young lead himself, Alejandro has his son Axel play the lead, with younger son Adan as young Axel, Blanca Guerra (also in Walker) as his mother and Guy “Dean’s brother” Stockwell as his father. It’s possibly the most coherent Jodorowsky movie I’ve seen, a true horror bursting with ideas and excellently filmed. I hope all the dead or dying animals were just special-effects this time.

D. Lim (who also makes a howler mistake, calling La Cravate a lost film years after it was rediscovered and issued on DVD):

Psycho is hardly the only cinematic influence on Santa Sangre. The circus grotesquerie suggests Fellini, though Tod Browning’s big-top movies Freaks and The Unknown are perhaps even more relevant. James Whale’s The Invisible Man is glimpsed on the television at one point. Also apparent is the lurid imprint of the film’s producer and co-writer Claudio Argento, brother of schlock-horror maestro Dario. But for all its sundry inspirations, Santa Sangre never seems derivative. Jodorowsky’s anything-goes alchemy has a cumulative power, as does the documentary energy of his location photography. It’s a movie bursting with life — interrupted frequently by processions and pageants, shot in actual slums and red-light districts.

You can’t tell from the dim screenshot that this is a white bird rising from an open grave:

Even in a year of crazy films like The Wicker Man and Touki Bouki, ain’t nothing crazy enough to sit with The Holy Mountain. This was the last of Jodorowsky’s fully-realized features until Santa Sangre (nobody, AJ included, seems to like The Rainbow Thief or Tusk).

Third shot of movie: Director/Alchemist with women who will soon be shaved:
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First half-hour is free-flowing. A Thief (who I didn’t realize never speaks) wanders with a deformed dwarf, getting beaten up and attending a toad-and-chameleon circus, while around them dissidents are executed, riot police hold a dead-animal parade, and priests pick up underage prostitutes. Finally the thief breaks into a mighty tower occupied by The Alchemist (Jodorowsky himself) who cleanses him, turns his shit into gold, and then introduces our other characters and their corresponding planets:
– Fon/Venus – narcissist who runs fashion & cosmetic companies, slave to his dad
– Isla/Mars – major arms manufacturer
– Klen/Jupiter – sex-obsessed artist
– Sel/Saturn – makes war toys to prejudice kids vs. countries we plan to invade
– Berg/Uranus – murderous bureaucrat
– Axon/Neptune – ruthless mohawked police chief with testicle collection
– Lut/Pluto – futuristic architect, designing sleep-chamber apartments
(I had to look some of those up – movie is sensory overload, I forgot stuff)

Three chameleons prepare to defend Mexico from the toad invasion:
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Kind of a Jesus/disciples thing, but is the Thief Jesus or is the Alchemist? They go through intensive spiritual training, then Alchemist leads them to the Holy Mountain atop which nine ancient immortals control our planet, with the goal of deposing them and becoming immortal themselves. Each traveler has a dream of their own bizarre death, but they continue to the table at the summit, where they find dolls in the seats. Sitting down, camera pulls back to reveal Jodorowsky’s lighting and sound crew, and he proclaims the truth: “We are images, dreams, photographs,” freeing them from the film itself.

Atop The Holy Mountain:
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Haven’t checked out the commentary yet (tried to listen at work, but of course it’s in Spanish), but in a modern interview online, Jodorowsky says he never killed animals for his movies – not even the rabbits in El Topo. That’s surprising, but I’ll take the guy at his word. He also says he became a feminist during the making of Holy Mountain, and indeed it’s hard to think of movies less feminist than his previous two. He’s a fan of Lynch, Cronenberg and Starship Troopers, and I wish him luck with his long-delayed Lynch-produced next movie.

Alchemist & Thief in chamber of mirrors:
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Cinematographer Rafael Corkidi shot The Mansion of Madness the same year. A few of the actors have popped up elsewhere… Lut/Pluto had a small part in The Exterminating Angel, Axon/Neptune was an Oliver Stone collaborator throughout the 90’s, and Fon/Venus plays the lead girl’s dad on the show Rebelde.

Our director:
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After Calvaire and Frontier(s), it’s the third movie this week with a hair-shaving scene.

Allures (1961, Jordan Belson)
I don’t know Belson very well, but this reminds me of my favorite parts of Norman McLaren and Len Lye, abstract animation set to music. Not frenetic, slow swirls and twirls, overlapped colored light patterns set to sparse music with dark electronic manipulation (composed by Belson and Oscar-nom musician/humorist Henry Jacobs). Must see again.
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Allures (c) Jordan Belson

Finger-Fan (1982, Linda Christanell)
Austrian title is FINGERFÄCHER so I thought I’d get something racy for my lunch hour, but no, we’ve got some hands fanning out some fabric on a table… a finger-fan. Synopsis says “objects tell a random story – objects are bearers of obsessions-issuing energy as fetishes,” which might be badly translated or it might not… with the avant-garde it is hard to tell. Camera shoots some objects and photographs, a mirror re-directs part of the frame, there are some basic stop-motion and optical effects, and I remain unimpressed but lightly amused.
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La Cravate (1957, Alejandro Jodorowsky)
Glad it was short, I couldn’t have taken much more of that accordian score. Goofy mimes swap heads at the head-swap shop while a guy with a silly tie tries to land a girl. Strong, bright colors. I guess the concept of swapping heads can be kind of dark, but otherwise this is like a kid’s fairytale compared to El Topo. Fun movie.
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The House With Closed Shutters (1910, DW Griffith)
A Dixie-loyal young girl runs a message to the confederate front lines after her supposed-to-be-messenger brother comes home drunk and afraid. When she’s killed (because she was playing like a kid in no man’s land), their mother covers it up by acting like her son was killed and forbidding her “daughter” to ever leave the house or open the shutters. Decades later his old friends walk by the house, he swings the shutters open and dies from the shock.

Dead guy on chair (left) while his mother orders the friends to leave
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Suspense. (1913, Lois Weber & Philips Smalley)
After the servant quits and leaves the key under the mat, a vagabond takes the opportunity to enter the house, eat a sandwich and stab the woman and her baby to death with a knife. Or he would – but she calls her husband who races home from work in a stolen car followed closely by the cops (who, as cops do in silent movies, shoot their guns constantly not worrying about the casual damage they might cause – not to mention that it hardly seems fair to shoot a guy dead for stealing a car). Worth watching for the titular suspense, and the reaction of the guy whose car the husband stole when he finally catches up and sees the wife & baby safe: a big “well whattaya know” shrug to camera and a pat on the husband’s back. Co-director Weber played the wife.

Sweet split-screen:
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Return of Reason (1923, Man Ray)
Whirling carnival lights at night, nails and tiny beads exposed directly on the film, a tic-tac-toe structure twirling on a string, all in stark black and white. Ends with negative image of a topless woman with psychedelic light patterns on her body.
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The Starfish (1928, Man Ray)
A reputedly beautiful woman is shown behind distorting glass. A man holds a starfish in a jar. Terrifying close-up of starfish. Mirrors, split-screens and superimpositions. This is nice – how come poets don’t make movies anymore? Adaptation of a poem by Robert Desnos.

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Emak-Bakia / Leave Me Alone (1926, Man Ray)
Twirling, swirling light patterns, spinning prisms, a girl with painted eyelids (paging Mr. Cocteau), broken dice, a tad of stop motion. The notes say Ray uses ‘all the tricks that might annoy certain spectators,’ and eighty years later he has annoyed me. Or maybe I’ve just watched too many of his movies in a row. I’d seen no films by Man Ray, then poof, I’ve seen half of them. Good stuff.

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Oooh look, her painted lids are half-closed so you can see all four eyes:
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The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra (1928, Robert Florey & Slavko Vorkapich)
Far and away the greatest of these shorts. Intense shadowy miniatures interspersed with close-up photography of actors tells the story of a young hopeful actor defeated by the ruthless Hollywood star system. After he dies, he rises to heaven, where there is always open casting. A predecessor to Mulholland Dr.? Incredible-looking homemade film, very expressionist-influenced. Florey went on to direct 60+ features before moving to television, Vorkapich edited montage sequences for Hollywood films in the 30’s, and assistant cinematographer Gregg Toland shot Citizen Kane.

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Rhythmus 21 (1921, Hans Richter)
“generally regarded as the first abstract animated film”, wow! Squares of light and dark get bigger/smaller, more complex patterns start to appear, pretty slow movement, never gets outrageously intricate, but if it’s the first film of its kind, it’s a great start.
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Feels appropriate that I watched this over the course of a week, since it’s pretty episodic. Apparently (according to scraps of the commentary track that I checked out) it’s about the gradual enlightenment of Jodorowsky’s title character. The dude could use some enlightenment, too, what with his woman issues, his murderous obsessions, his strange attraction to people with deformities, and his tendency to kill animals on-camera.

El Topo, riding across the desert dressed in black, abandons his son in favor of some woman. The woman demands he prove himself by defeating the four gun masters of the desert. Somewhere along the way they pick up an evil hot woman who talks like a man and I don’t know what that’s about. Anyway, Topo tricks and murders all four masters: blind guy; digs a hole in front of him, fall, fire… guy who always hits heart; ash tray in front of heart… guy who lives for love; distract him by crippling his wife… and crazy guy with no possessions, no gun, nothing; shoots himself to prove he has left no material desires!

Okay, but woman leaves him for the other woman, and they shoot him all up on a rickety bridge (give him the five wounds of christ, as a.j. immodestly explains on the commentary), then some mutants drag him into a hole, the end.

No! He wakes up 30 years later all white-bearded. The cripples and deformed have kept him alive as a god, and now he must leave the cave, go to the town and get help so they can all be free. Of course he does this by bringing a short woman with him and performing awful vaudeville routines for money to afford dynamite. Long story short, they free the cripples, the townsfolk mow them all down, and Topo duels his now grown son.

I had not-great memories of this one… remember most of it taking place inside the mountain (hardly any of it does!) and the picture and sound being bad, bad bad. New DVD looks miraculous… the desert sky so bright and blue. Movie not nearly as dull and drab as I remember it (and as recent restoration reviews have been saying), it’s totally watchable, and its horrible weirdness makes it worth watching.

Is it a GOOD movie then? Well it’s got some style (love the bridge scene, the rides through the desert) and it’s weird enough to recommend (most movies could stand to be weirder). I liked it more than I didn’t, so yeah, why not?