Crackpot, visionary, madman, sage: 82-year-old Chilean film director Alejandro Jodorowsky is all of these. His films, including El Topo, The Holy Mountain and Santa Sangre (all three of which were released recently on Blu-ray by ABKCO), have provoked howls of outrage for their violent and repulsive scenarios — and curried perfervid praise for their stunningly original imagery and brazen disregard for standard filmmaking contrivance. The mystical Jodorowsky was, you might say, the first filmmaker to unite Eastern with Western, a much-imitated aesthetic for which he's rarely been given his due. He discussed his art via phone from his home in Paris.
L.A. WEEKLY: You address so much in your films — spirituality, society, war, sexuality, art — primarily with the visual and sonic. The explosion of imagery is a demonstration of film's possibilities. Any "message" contained within can be a bit unclear.
ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY: But do you know, I never "get" music, for example. In order really to know a song, you need to listen to it a lot of times, it's not enough one time. And with patience, you start to listen to the song, you know? So I think: Why show a picture you can see only one time? I will make pictures you cannot understand only one time. You will understand the pictures you see a lot of times, like a song.
Your films have been called many things — psychedelic spaghetti Westerns, head trips, horror films — but maybe the best way to describe them is as odes to the power of imagination.
It was my goal. I want to liberate my imagination and my mind with every kind of movie. That is what I wanted to do all my life.
In your work there is much to not understand, or to misunderstand.
The first thing I didn't understand was my life. It's a mystery. And today I don't understand economy or politics. I don't know why politics or economy are destroying the world, but I will understand after understanding. [Laughs]
Do you understand what is a dollar? It's a mysterious thing. What is the value of that paper? It's a symbol. We need to discover what it is that moves our life. For me, movies are not to make money. I make movies because I want to express myself, to be honest, to make art — but not business.
The mind's use of symbology plays an important role in The Holy Mountain, Santa Sangre and El Topo.
When I was a young person I went to the university and I learned a rational language, to think with the left side of the brain. But in the right side of the brain you have intuition and imagination. Words are not the truth; they indicate the way to go, but you need to go alone, in silence. Symbols have a language that kills the words.
The unconscious is not a language we speak like the conscious; we speak the unconscious with actors, with image, with sounds, with colors. This is the language of tarot, and the movies.
Your films strip away normal meaning, like a cleansing in preparation for the end of the world.
Not the end of the world we think the world is, because the world we are living in is not the real world — it's under construction, made by our limited mind. But the world does not have these limits that we are giving to it. We are not living in reality; we are living in a kind of dream, and this dream needs to be finished because we are coming to the end of one way to think.
In your films there is much monstrosity and cruelty, excreting, vomiting, castration, amputation. Yet they're funny and sensual and quite tenderhearted in turn. The "electric love machine" scene in The Holy Mountain, and the scene at the Companion's factory that makes prosthetic butts, boobs and calves, are just ludicrous; even the Alchemist's process of turning shit into gold is the blackest kind of humor.
[Laughs] I was laughing at art, making it like a show. But all the philosophy and humor go together, because if you don't laugh, you are terrified. In The Holy Mountain, when you go to the meeting of the Masters, there are two colors, one black, one white; the symbol of the yin and yang.
As an artist who grew up in South America, you must find it hard even now to escape a saturating Catholicism.
Yes, because the religion is now mixed with politics. I believe in mysticism, with an interior goal, and you are your own temple and your own priest. I don't believe anymore in religions, because you see today there are religious wars, prejudice, false morals, and the woman is despised. Religion is too old now, it's from another century, it's not for today.
The Holy Mountain and El Topo offer a Buddhist-like message of self-sacrifice and suffering.
It's a sacrifice of the ego. I don't have a negative vision of the world and for the human being; to the contrary, I believe completely in the destiny of humanity, and in our world. But what I don't love is the ego vision and the ego actions. For me, for example, all the movie industry of Hollywood is pure ego. There is nothing that is spiritual there.
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We are living in a time when artists give the people what the people demand, maybe not so much what artists believe the people need. When I see your films, I'm thinking you did only what you wanted to do.
[Laughs] At that time, industry was industry, and they fought us. It was a war, a real war. In Mexico they wanted to kill me. But today the young people are changing. I went to Turkey, Belgrade, Chile, in Europe, and the theaters are full of young persons seeing The Holy Mountain, El Topo and Santa Sangre, and I am astonished and happy.
Will you make another film?
Sure, I will make one other. For 20 years I put money in the bank to have the picture made and produced by me. And you know what? I will make a picture to lose money!