Last Saturday, Savannah had the good fortune of being one of 10 cities in the United States to screen Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Dance of Reality. The film (which showed at Muse Arts Warehouse courtesy of the Psychotronic Film Society of Savannah) has been given a limited release. The next screening will take place in Austin, TX on June 6.
It’s been twenty-three years since Alejandro Jodorowsky, best known as the surrealist auteur responsible for the 1970’s cult classics El Topo and The Holy Mountain, released a film. If you haven’t seen either of those, it’s probably not your fault since the negatives were hidden in an act of petty revenge in 1975 by Jodorowsky’s distributor, Allen Klien (you might know him as John Lennon’s manager). Fortunately they were released in 2007, have gone on to find huge success on DVD, and live on to melt another generation’s brain into a soup of shamanic ritualism and kaleidoscopic deism.
Too long has the world been without a window into the incredible imagination of Jodorowsky, an artist who first unleashed his vision in the mid 1960’s by staging Samuel Beckett for Mexican peasants, enacting performance art pieces like “Sacramental Melodrama” during which he stood inside a giant plastic vagina and shot live turtles at his audience, and creating mime routines for Marcel Marceau — he claims he invented “trapped in a glass box.” His first film, Fando y Lis, incited a riot at its premiere, he spent a decade trying to adapt Frank Herbert’s Dune for film (thank Jodorowsky’s concept art from this film for the alien in Alien, no shit), and famously blew off Andre Breton for being “too conservative” in his old age.
Knowing all of this and having spent considerable time digesting (or arguing over) El Topo & The Holy Mountain’s subterranean symbolism/non-symbolic aesthetic references (depending on which one of us you ask), we went into The Dance of Reality expecting the typical Jodorowsky fare: astoundingly beautiful weirdness beneath an umbrella of metaphysical monologuing, with a healthy dash of violence and wicked humor. It’s all there — but with The Dance of Reality Jodorowsky has finally managed to achieve the sort of lyrically poetic tableaux he’s spent his life trying to create.
Reality is both the autobiography and the collected mythology of Jodorowsky. As usual, he reprises his role as a spiritual leader (as with Holy Mountain’s alchemist and El Topo’s gunslinger) — though this time he speaks directly to himself, played by his real life son Brontis. What unfolds is the 85 year old’s effort to come to terms with his father Jaime’s (Brontis) abuse, his mother’s neglect, his fear of his own body and, ultimately, his mortality. The film is an exercise in what Jodorowsky calls “psychomagic”, a form of therapy he invented which aims to heal psychological wounds through the performance of rituals. In this case, filming The Dance of Reality was the ritual Jodorowsky hoped would cure the psychological wounds incurred during his childhood. (He was born the product of rape and his father was horrifically abusive to his mother.) This is done through humor (for the first half of the film Brontis’ Jaime is a caricature of a bumbling, impotent dictator that would fit right into a performance of Springtime for Hitler) and the requisite metaphysical monologuing — though Reality manages to be touching and sweet, rather than overwrought.
“Everything you are going to be, you already are. What you are looking for is already within you. Rejoice in your sufferings. Thanks to them, you will reach me,” present-day Jodorowsky whispers into his younger self’s ear as they embrace. The film is peppered with these tender moments of reassurance balanced by Jodorowsky’s talent for levity via hyperbole. Cartoonish fight scenes complete with Tom & Jerry sound effects, a costumed dog show judged by a Catholic priest, song-and-dance numbers by a troupe of amputees and a mother (Pamela Flores) who sings everything in a high operatic falsetto, remind us that we’re viewing the story through the eyes of Jodorowsky as a child and help steer Reality away from pretension.
As much as present-day Jodorowsky is guiding his younger self towards self-actualization, he is also clearly grappling with the inevitability of his death. After all, he just turned 85 this year. Dying characters throughout speak the same line: “You die. You rot. There is nothing beyond,” and other characters (a paralyzed Jaime, the amputees) must cope as their bodies become cages for their souls. We are acutely aware of the fact that Jodorowsky is entertaining us and working through something seriously personal at the same time. This is, after all, his therapy; we’re just along for the ride.
The ritual ends with the director disappearing into the sea fog on a tugboat, standing behind a skeleton as his younger self watches from the pier. Young Alejandrito stands alone, surrounded by cutout figures representing everyone important to him during those formative years. This moment, clearly an homage to the final scene of Fellini’s 8 1/2, is Jodorowsky’s grand farewell. Surrounded by his own beautiful imagination, we see that our hero’s ritual transformation is complete: ever the alchemist, Jodorowsky transfigures his pain into his most captivating work yet.