Photo by Richard Pleuger
In 1970, Alexandro Jodorowsky was launched into the counterculture consciousness via an utterly outré film called El Topo, which screened for seven months straight at a theater in New York City. Violent, mystical and more outrageous than Buñuel or Fellini’s surrealist dreamaramas, El Topo was the first midnight movie, a Western that divided critics even as it gained a rabid cult following of turned-on heads including John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Dennis Hopper. Without the benefit of advertising, the film showed seven nights a week to packed audiences. “Within two months,” said the theater’s visionary manager, Ben Barenholtz, who booked the film, “the limos lined up every night. It became a must-see item.”
Allen Klein, infamous manager of the Beatles and Rolling Stones, signed Jodorowsky to a film deal. An El Topo paperback book was published by Miles Davis associate Alan Douglas — its first half was the film’s nominal screenplay; the second half was a lengthy, startling interview with the auteur.
Born in 1929 and raised in a Chilean seaside town by Jewish-Russian immigrants, Jodorowsky had early ambitions as a poet. Dropping out of university, he formed a puppet company that toured Chile. He left for France in 1953 to find the Surrealists. With Artaud’s The Theatre and Its Double as his bible, Jodorowsky worked in film, theater and with mime Marcel Marceau — for whom Jodorowsky wrote various ingenious scenarios. He spent the ’60s bouncing back and forth between France and Mexico — in France, he co-founded the post-Surrealist Panic Movement with Spanish playwright Fernando Arrabal, and in Mexico he drew a weekly comic strip, wrote books, staged plays and finally directed his first real feature-length film, a Dalíesque version of Arrabal’s play Fando y Lis. The film was scandalous and barely screened, but it allowed Jodorowsky to raise the money to make El Topo, the film that would bring him into the English-language world.
By summer 1972, anticipation for Jodorowsky’s next film was high enough for Rolling Stone to send a correspondent to Mexico for a visit to the set of his new film, The Holy Mountain. The resulting article, which was second-billed on the magazine’s cover to a piece on Van Morrison, described scenes, props and conversations that bordered between sensational and plain mad. Participants in the film seemed to be in awe of what they were doing: One P.A. said, “You know, I think this is the most important thing going on in the world today. At the very least, it’s the most far-out.” The finished film may be just that — if you can find it. At some point around the film’s release, Jodorowsky and Klein had a serious falling out that continues to this day, which means The Holy Mountain has never received a legitimate release on videotape or DVD (bootlegs are, of course, available).
In the following years, Jodorowsky attempted to adapt Frank Herbert’s Dune to film. The project ultimately failed, but it drew Jodorowsky into contact with French comics artist Moebius, who, along with Swiss artist H.R. Giger, had contributed design and storyboarding work to the film. Jodorowsky began to collaborate with Moebius on comics, and a new career was born.
Indeed, when I sat down with Jodorowsky this past summer for an hourlong conversation, the extent of that career was obvious: He was hard at work on scripts for six different comics projects. Collaborating with a host of the world’s finest talents during the last 25 years, Jodorowsky has found in comics an art form that can accommodate his seemingly boundless imagination. And what comics they are: the Philip K. Dick– gone–cosmic series The Incal, the Homeric space opera The Metabarons, the revenge/ redemption series Son of the Gun, the strange Western Bouncer. With the opening of Humanoids Publishing’s North American branch in 1999, most of Jodorowsky’s comic work is finally available in English.
In conversation, the almost 75-year-old Jodorowsky remains dazzling. Speaking in broken English (which has been slightly cleaned up in the following excerpts from our conversation), his tone is generous, self-deprecating, inquisitive and almost childlike in its sense of wonder. He has made only three films since 1972’s The Holy Mountain — the lost-children’s fable Tusk (1980), the gonzo Grand Guignol Santa Sangre (1989), and the make-work The Rainbow Thief (1990) — and although he has often spoken of an imminent return to the form, one guesses that in the business climate of 2003 this has got to be a long shot. He has, however, recently finished a number of substantial projects: a book-length commentary on the Bible, a lengthy restoration of what he considers to be the original tarot deck, a collection of short stories and a book of poems. And in February, his decades-in-the-making, 400-page guide to the tarot will be published in Europe.
L.A. WEEKLY: You are at work on an alarming number of projects for someone of any age. Where is all the energy coming from?
ALEXANDRO JODOROWSKY: Energy is coming because I will die very soon. I am old. I have so many things to do, so every day I get quicker, in order to do them! I don’t want to die without doing everything I wanted to do.
You are known as a filmmaker, but for the last 25 years you have been writing comics, not making films . . .
Everything I could not do in movies, I make in comics and writing. I do comics because I think it’s an art form as big as movies or painting or poetry. The graphic novel is a fantastic thing for me. For four or five years every Sunday I drew a comics page, a complete story. But it was very basic. When I saw Moebius making the drawings, I stopped. And I never make any more. Moebius, Boucq, Bess, Juan Gimenez, Beltran — they’re geniuses. How can they draw like that? It is a miracle. When you see a painting by Travis Charest? He’s incredible . . . some kind of a monster!
When you make films, you are present at every stage: scripting, designing, directing, editing and so on. But with comics, you write a script and give it to someone else.
No, it’s not like that. First, before I work with an artist on a series, I see his drawings. If I like his drawings, I can write for him. Because I admire this person! Then, I have a long conversation with him, to learn what he likes drawing, what he actually wants to do [in the series]. While he is speaking with me, I start to see him, his psychological profile . . . I make an invasion of his soul. An exploration. I go inside to find out who he is. What he is like. Then I discuss with him an idea for a story. He gives me a lot of ideas, and I say yes. Then I go up to the house and I write my story and then I convince him that I used everything he said to me. And he is happy because I am working with him. Not with his idea — I work with his feelings.
So there is a constant collaboration with the artist?
Yes. Constant. With Boucq, for example, on Bouncer, I call him by telephone at the end of every day. I say, “What have you been drawing today? How did you feel doing that?” Sometimes he says, “In this scene, I feel this character cannot do that,” and we discuss. If he doesn’t like that, or he cannot do it, I make another scene, similar, where he feels good. I am fascinated with these stories. For me it is not a work to earn money only. It’s a creative thing, you know?
Do you take risks in your work?
Yes . . . In The Metabarons, I always finish each book with an impossible crisis. They have a problem. The person has no testicle; he needs to make a son. How? Impossible. I wait . . . I wait . . . And then, slowly — thank you! — the solution came. It’s kind of a “mediumity,” a kind of inspiration. In one moment I have the idea. Then, when I start to write, everything comes! It’s like when you are a photographer, and you put the paper in the acid and slowly the photograph starts to develop. It’s exactly like that.
Can you know that it’s going to happen?
I don’t suffer to write it. But when I need to write a new series, a new album, for three days I do nothing. The only thing I can do is to see movies, see television, read . . . Because I am as if paralyzed! Suddenly, [with relief] the idea comes. I say thank you, because I am grateful. I am really grateful because I received the idea. But I don’t construct the idea. I am not a constructor. I receive the idea.
Where do you think it comes from?
The unconscious. It comes directly from the unconscious. I think the unconscious is a very, very enormous universe, no? And when you open the doors to the unconscious, you start to receive. Sometimes you see a terrible vision of yourself: desires you don’t want to have, ideas you detest, feelings that hurt you. When you open the door, you can see yourself in a very weird way, like a bad trip on LSD. You can have that. You have all the hell, and paradise, no? You need to have the courage to open the doors.
And then you need to use what comes through the door, no matter how terrible or strange . . .
Yes! When I wrote Son of the Gun, I was writing very comfortable, then suddenly I said, “He has a tail like a cat. Impossible! That will change all my story, all my characters. What I can do!” And [my intuition says] “Trust me, he needs to be like that.” ‰
You are a tarot expert. Do you see a connection between comics and the tarot?
Sure, because the tarot is the language of the German, or of the American, or of the Spanish. It is an optical language. A person might not be a magician, but you can still read the tarot, and you can learn to develop your gaze. With the tarot, you have drawings and words together, and you can read it. You know, some people like to play chess; others play cards. I myself like to read the tarot. It’s fun for me to do. Every Wednesday I do the tarot for something like 20 to 30 people. I only answer to present problems. I don’t see the future. I don’t believe in the future! It’s an exercise for my mind, because it’s the furthest from rationality. It awakens the intuition.
And, when you work years to develop your gaze, then you can create all these things. It makes it easy to imagine the pages, a story, art, comics. Look at what I am writing in The Metabarons: a whole, enormous story! It’s unique. It surprises even me.
In the late ’60s and ’70s, especially in the period around the release of The Holy Mountain, you spoke often in interviews about trying to lose your ego.
Yes. In the beginning, I hoped to lose my ego. But this is impossible. You cannot lose your ego. But you can tame your ego. But to lose your ego is a legend — it’s not true. Even Buddha had an ego!
How did you go about taming it?
By suffering. Life is full of suffering. And joy. But when you take the lessons of the suffering, you start to realize that you are not the center of the world. You are one center, but not the center. Every one of us is a center of the universe. But the mistake is to think “I am the only center.” And not the person around me. Also, you need to learn you have value. Not to be a person who says, “I am not the center, I am nothing. Nothing at all.” You need to diminish on one side, and on the other side you need to grow. That is the Work.
Then, you need to learn to see yourself with objectivity: As you see a tree, and you see a cat, you see yourself. Every night I caress my wife before sleeping. And then, I try to see myself. [Acting as if he is looking in a mirror] I say, “What is that? Who am I? Am I a body who has a spirit, or I am a spirit who has a body?” And then slowly I find myself saying, “I am a spirit who has a body.” And then I say, “What am I saying? I am the product of this body. I don’t love this body. I don’t like my belly, I don’t like my white hair.” But this awful thing, this old man, is creating so beautiful a spirit! This body is creating that! I need to honor this body.
Listen, for a lot of years I made a mistake. I thought to be humble was to hide yourself, to not show you have a value. But, to be humble is to recognize yourself. I am speaking as I am, in reality.
I am a national legend in Chile. I left before Allende; I returned after Pinochet. They published my books and invited me to the book convention. Because Chile is very closed — it’s like an island — when a Chilean goes out in the world and makes things, other Chileans are astonished; you become a legend. They lined the streets . . . little boys, they speak to me and demanded advice . . . and I gave them answers. In that moment, it is very difficult to not have an ego, you know?
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From The Metabarons: Path of the Warrior (Humanoids Publishing). Artwork by Juan Gimenez.