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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

SXSW: Free hugs from Alejandro Jodorowsky

Posted By on Tue, Mar 11, 2014 at 11:57 AM

Alejandro Jodorowsky embraces a younger version of himself, played by Jeremías Herskovits, in The Dance of Reality
  • Alejandro Jodorwsky embraces a younger version of himself, played by Jeremías Herskovits, in The Dance of Reality

It's a truism that any Q&A dedicated to deeply and intelligently understanding an artist's work tends to break down when audience questioners ask said artist for a hug - or a Tarot reading or an impromptu therapy session. Except when the guest is Oprah or filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky (whom I'm not going to describe as "Chilean-French" because he pointedly emphasizes that he has no homeland, and further, films are not like flags and need not be identified by their country of origin).

So when some dude with a British accent got up to the mic and wasted some of our valuable Alejandro time with his tale of getting hit by an SUV and spending all of last year's SXSW in the hospital - an all-too-common occurrence given how some streets are totally roped off and others coursing with jerks driving at typical speeds; there but for the grace, you know - well, I was waiting for the next person with some meat to his question.

But Jodorowsky was into it, and invited the accident victim to the stage for his psychomagical "action" - psychomagic being Jodorowsky's own brand of psychotherapeutic and spiritual healing. His prescription: rubbing down the guy's leg while intoning "poor baby" and other such Mom-like phrases. There is room in psychomagic for plenty of humor - just as Jodorowsky's films try to heal the world while, say, deploying little people for comic relief. (A later questioner had his Tarot read just by calling out the card numbers; he has woman problems, said Jodorowsky.)

Jodorowsky was at SXSW Monday afternoon for a Q&A followed by the U.S. premiere of his 2013 film The Dance of Reality, his first movie in almost 23 years, following 1989's Santa Sangre (and 1990's The Rainbow Thief, which bore less of his stamp), both of which came years after the "midnight movies" avant la lettre that made his name (El Topo, The Holy Mountain).

Why the wait, another impertinent British dude asked after the screening? He just didn't have anything to say, and he's not trying to make movies one after the other like the factory that is Hollywood (you'd be unsurprised to learn that Jodorowsky is not a fan of mainstream escapist filmmaking, and while he liked Gravity, he wondered what the hell George Clooney was doing up in space).

Of course, all the British-sounding dudes have their heart in the right place - the same place mine is, I think - because we all missed Jodorowsky, whose films have, if nothing else, the virtue of being largely and genuinely unpredictable, perhaps surrealist, though I'm not always sure what people mean by that word. But unpredictable, sure; I didn't know mom was going to cover her 10-year-old son in black paint, then disrobe and dance with him in a sort of pas de deux into the dark side, nor that she would sing all of her dialogue in a sort of operatic recitative, while all other characters are deprived of the benefit of song.

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The Dance of Reality, based on Jodorowsky's autobiography of the same name and premiered last year at Cannes, tells of Jodorowsky's childhood in a Chilean town, where he felt an outcast because he was Jewish, with artistic inclinations and (initially) long hair, and because he was starting to get into mysticism and religion, but his father, an atheist and capital-C Communist who dressed like and worshipped Stalin, would have none of his timid explorations of self and the outside world. Dad gets just as much if not more screen time than his son; he goes out on a hunt for Chile's fascist president Ibanez, a journey that will involve personal transformation and the loving care of the president's horse, appropriately named Bucephalus.

Jodorowsky is himself an actor in the film, appearing during pauses in the action to embrace his younger self and urge him to see the oneness of things and know that he'll eventually get to leave behind the jerks in his backwater hometown. In one striking moment, he pulls back a young Alejandro as he teeters over an ocean cliff (he had had just suffered a bout of vicious teasing because his equipment was not quite like the other boys').

"I do what I can with my English," said Jodorowsky shortly after his Q&A began, which was quite a bit, although some stories got a little lost as they made their way from Spanish or French to English. And so I plucked out some phrases for the notebook that bear passing along.

He was "broken in 1000 pieces" after the 1995 death of his son Teo, which prompted him to examine why he was making art, which certainly wasn't to give people a reason to "relax for two hours." And one of his conclusions is that he thinks the "value of art is to heal," and his goal to create something that enables the viewer not to escape, but to discover himself. That said, all his films are autobiographical - "I never speak of a thing I haven't lived" - especially his latest, in which his son Brontis plays his father ("I started to hate him because he was my father," Jodorowsky said of the shooting). And he noted all his films are a "family affair," arguing that he ought to use family members to play key roles and write the score because they are talented and appropriate for the job.

Jodorowsky was good for some bon mots about pop culture, like "I don't want to rape any person with three dimension," or, in talking about the way he uses Twitter, "I am not using it to speak about egos; I am not Lady Gaga; I am not a tiny person with a lot of feathers." Jodorowsky puts out 15 Tweets per day (a key number in the Tarot) and thinks it's the "only literature of the 21st century because you get an immediate reaction" and is "completely alive" in the way it encourages immediate feedback and interaction. And here's another good one: "Only God can create; we are transformers...but not the Hollywood Transformers."

The director also pointed out that he still hates Peter O'Toole, even if he happens to be dead (Jodorowsky worked with him on 1990's The Rainbow Thief), and that he doesn't like working with established actors or producers. And the Dalai Lama naturally came in for criticism: "If I was the 14th recreation [meaning the 14th incarnation of the bodhisattva of compassion], I wouldn't say some of the things the Dalai Lama said; I would be floating in the air."

Talked turned to Jodorowsky's failed but influential attempt to film Dune; he thinks that movies - and that movie in particular - need to be longer (14 to 16 hours), and that such a world has come into being with the Hobbit trilogy, a similarly ambitious fantasy novel adaptation.

I don't know if I walked out of The Dance of Reality having been healed in any way, but there's something inspiring and freeing about Jodorowsky's storytelling. His films incorporate brutal violence, perverse (or maybe just straightforwardly presented) sexuality, a rather bizarre sense of humor and an openly pantheistic theology, all playing off of each other in a sometimes discordant, sometimes incoherent, but always thoughtful way; as he put it during the Q&A, films must be "comedy, tragedy, everything."

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