Alejandro Jodorowsky was active as a film director in the 60s and 70s, following a career as an actor and director of experimental theatre and happenings.
Jodorowsky’s 1970 film El Topo was a surreal blend of the Wild West and eastern philosophy. Sort of Luis Bunuel meets Sergio Leone with a touch of Kenneth Anger and performance art thrown in: nudity, amputees, dead animals, lots of blood, spiritual philosophy and psychedelia. It was packaged and promoted as “midnight movie cult cinema” in the Elgin Cinema, New York, relying on word-of-mouth recommendation among Chelsea hipsters. And so, they say, it helped establish an “outsider” genre of films based on a culture of late-night screenings, reviving interest in neglected filmmakers like Tod Browning and Ed Wood, and providing an audience for new film makers like David Lynch and John Waters. Critic Ben Cobb writes that after enthusiastic recommendation by John Lennon , “El Topo screenings took the form of a drug-fuelled happening. People went to be mentally altered by the film, spiritually enriched or, at the very least, have an experience.”
John Lennon’s manager Allen Klein saw potential in Jodorowksy’s brand of druggy-exploitation cinema, bought the rights to El Topo and put the money up for his next film The Holy Mountain (picture below). Klein screened El Topo in a Broadway cinema, which immediately blew its credibility as far as its cultish audience was concerned. Having learned a marketing lesson, screenings of The Holy Mountain were limited to midnight slots on Fridays and Saturdays where they attracted a sizeable cult following for a remarkable 16 months.
Jodorowsky and Klein fell out over a new exploitation film project they were discussing. According to Jodorowsky “I weighed up my artistic integrity against fame and wealth. After a torturous half-hour, I reached my decision.” Allan Klein was furious and did his best to make sure that El Topo and The Holy Mountain were never screened, while Jodorowsky did his best to encourage the spread of bootlegs of the two films. There were legal battles until 2004 when some sort of reconciliation was reached and the films are now widely available on DVD.
Jodorowsky went on to make the exploitation film “Santa Sangre”, but seems to have been mostly occupied with a writing career, books on psychology and the tarot as well as the sort of adult graphic novels that are popular in France.
Jodorosky’s films El Topo and The Holy Mountain contain some of the most striking and strange sequences in modern cinema. They are masterpieces of grandiose self-indulgence, and have been a big influence on the likes of Matthew Barney. Their bizarre scenes and ritualized narrative structures are the sort of thing you grow accustomed to if you’re familiar with avant-garde and outsider art, but never with this kind of budget.
What is puzzling, then, is how these films ever got made. The extras on Jodorowsky's DVD collections show him at work doing tarot readings and conducting seminars on “Psychomagic: The Transformative Power of Shamanic Psychotherapy” (the title of his latest book). What becomes clear is that the guy is very persuasive and has great manipulative skills. The people with the money must have been suckers for that kind of scam back in the day...
Alejandro Jodorowsky's 'Dune: An Exhibition of a Film of a Book That Never Was was at Plymouth Arts Centre 2 April – 16 May 2010. Curated by Tom Morton. See review by Nigel Ayers.
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