The Jodorowsky Collection Review
Seriously I ask you, who hasn't always wanted to start their own cult? Just imagine how amazing it must be to be listened to with complete attention regardless of the quality of what you are saying or the sense behind it. Then there's the power that having followers gives you as their guru, power that allows you to affect what people think, say, or do. Power that extends to how people live their lives, vote, eat, sleep, or drink. Who hasn't, in an egomaniacal moment, thought what fun it would be to invent a religion which has stupid rules that govern where people shit, who they sleep with, and who they give their money to. You might recognise in this reverie some of the surrealist critique of religion - that ceremony and tradition can be reduced to meaningless eccentricity and empty faith. Surrealists have acutely lampooned religion and made it absurd through cinema and all manner of arts, so it comes as somewhat of an irony that an absurdist like Alejandro Jodorowsky has ended up as something of a religious figure himself. Jodorowsky's cracked earnestness is lapped up by those craving some kind of counter cultural belief and it seems to me that Jodorowsky fails to see that he has for some of his fans become the new faith.
Tartan have put together the first four films of Jodorowsky's career into this new six disc set. The films cover mystical journeys, gender typing, alchemy and the misuse of religion, but mostly the set is a testament to the extraordinary ego of an extraordinary man, the seventy five year old Jodorowsky. The pieces cover his first mime influenced short in 1957 through to his grand production of Holy Mountain in 1973.
La Cravate is a short 20 minute, dialogue-free, piece which is pleasantly naive compared to the later films in this set. The director himself stars as a young man set on romancing a voluptuous woman. He discovers that his face is not to her liking and consequently goes to a shop to have his head swapped for a more pleasing one. His heart's desire continues to resist his charms and he comes to dislike his new look and returns to the shop for his previous visage, only to find that the shop owner has sold up and took his head with her. He must search for his former noodle.
There is a sweetness to La Cravate and a lack of grandeur that I rather admired. The 28 year old Jodorowsky cuts a cute figure in his exaggerated adolescent costume and he is in turn presented with the curvy voracious woman, the idiot muscle man, and the demure shopkeeper. This simplicity with archetypes and the wordless action creates an endearing impression and a consistent one in this rather playful tale. The lack of a larger canvas to play with keeps the film focused and the story direct. There are some striking moments such as the selection of real heads in the shop, some warm humour, and some clever if lo-fi effects that keep the strange edge to the story without going in the darker directions of the director's later work. Even for 1957, La Cravate is a piece out of time - more like a silent film than anything else and showing more influence from non-cinematic sources than filmic ones.
Fando and Lis
After performing Arrabal's play to great effect in the theatre, Jodorowsky chose to use it for his début feature film but, rather than a simple adaptation, he chose to do the adaptation from memory and with some changes he thought best. Fando and Lis begins properly the theme of quests in Jodorowsky's work with two lovers, a man and a woman - Fando and Lis, searching for the land of Tar to escape the crumbling world around them. The geographical journey is rather spurious as the real point is the interchange of feminine and masculine in this piece and the film uses flashbacks and scenarios where the questions of gender and identity are explored. Fando is carrying the paralysed Lis on a trolley throughout but finds himself seduced from Lis by rich women who play a game of Blind Man's Bluff which ends with him kissing a man. We see Lis's memories/dreams of being seduced as a young girl by a puppeteer, we see the abandoned Lis being sexually assaulted whilst Fando is pilloried by women of various archetypes including the whip cracking dominatrix. Whether all of these scenes are meant to be read in terms of the two characters being a single whole and the fight between the masculine or feminine within that whole, or, whether these are scenes from a man's perspective of how he comes to terms with the demands of the feminine, is not made clear.
Fando and Lis is a little too spontaneous and obscure in its imagery to be coherent or properly understood. It is a late 60's curio where the personal universe of the film's language occasionally throws up the novel and the effective to the sober viewer, but this is not really the intended audience as the film is best enjoyed on a level where narrative is forgotten and the mind is cut off from it's normal critical faculties. In short, it makes a lot more sense if you are pissed or stoned. It is definitely skilful and the impact of some seemingly structureless moments is powerful but there is simply rather too much happening on a symbolic level and not enough on the narrative level for the film to not end up seeming obscure or dull. Fando and Lis is brave, unusual and not without merit, but it is undisciplined and wilfully indulgent.
Now this is far more successful, El Topo is much more effective because it spends some time defining the world of the film and offering a loose narrative to give the images within better definition. This is partly due to the fact that the film is situated in a recognisable genre, that of the Spaghetti Western, even if the film disappears from the remarkably loose environs of that type of film. Again, the film is a quest and this time on two levels. There is the narrative level, and decidedly genre based, of being the best gunfighter and then the character's repentance from his folly, and the more symbolic level of the absorption of differing philosophies and the eventual fight against the mainstream and the conservative. Jodorowsky stars as the gopher/mole of the title, a father who forsakes his son for a woman who eggs him on to beat the other spiritual gunslingers in the surrounding world. These characters unite virtues of wisdom, forbearance, and tolerance as well as representing the beliefs of native Americans, Buddhism, and Eurocentricism. The gunfighter kills them all through fair means after enduring an initial defeat and taking something from them that aids his next victory. His successes prove empty as his women turn on him and the gunfighter is saved by an underworld tribe of the malformed and disfigured who come to venerate him. Some time later he awakes and wishes to help them escape to the world above. With the help of a woman from the tribe he tries to dig a hole into the earth so that they can be free, and, to do this, he and her must win over the world above.
El Topo works as the images and ideas it renders are recognisable to a broader audience. Jodorowsky's compositions are clearer here and his use of archetypes in the gunslingers and his central character, who travels from father to fighter to guru, is very effective. His ideas are a giant melting pot of anathemas and he has a magpie approach to his beliefs, but in this film, at least, this works more coherently and quite powerfully with an ending that merges images of protests from the headlines - the burning self sacrifice - with cinematic slaughter more usually represented with Redford and Newman than an army of outsiders. These big themes of the tyranny of the white and the wealthy are perfectly situated in the genre of the western, and, again, Jodorowsky touches more personal themes of gender and indeed parenthood - his own son stars as his son. El Topo is consequently more successful and much easier to connect to for the viewer than his previous works and the overall message that those seeking for the light risk being blinded is a thoroughly intriguing one.
After the success of El Topo, Jodorowsky took advantage of a larger budget and a wider palate than he had used before to make Holy Mountain. Finding inspiration this time from the Tarot and from the idea of pilgrimage, Holy Mountain follows the adventures of the Thief, a Christ like figure, who we first discover lying in his own urine before he travels to town where he finds his likeness being appropriated to mass produce crucifixes. Along with a dwarf he watches a demonstration entitled "the conquest of Mexico" with frogs which takes place in front of a large tower. He climbs the tower, entering inside to meet an alchemist, Jodorowsky again, whom he at first fights but who then shows him how to make gold from his excrement(really). He is introduced to eight fellow pilgrims with whom he goes on a quest to the Holy Mountain learning lessons en route.
One of the problems with using cinema as a largely symbolic art form is the danger of not getting through to the audience what you meant to say and Jodorowsky's films with their love for the unexplained and the mystical run this risk the whole time. Some of the symbols which Jodorowsky employs are easily decoded as they refer to common ideas we all understand, but a great deal of them do exist in a world that is his own. In El Topo, he was very successful at giving these latter set of symbols some sense of definition either through the mode of the Spaghetti Western or in echoing symbols previously set up in the film. Holy Mountain delights in not attempting to explain itself and makes a virtue in its rather pat ending of destroying any conclusion of its message. So for a lot of the film some thumpingly obvious metaphors are used - guns shaped like crosses, crucifixes being eaten by the Thief - and we then are treated to the vacuous shit being turned into gold sequence, and finally we have the downright obtuse sight of exploding frogs. This lack of consistency in imagery is part of Jodorowsky's charm and some excuse it on the grounds of eccentricity, but for those who listen to the commentaries on these discs they will understand that the director himself sees great meaning in some of this nonsense and obtuseness. I do realise that not everything needs explaining but film is a medium for communication and, even if the ideas it transmits are half formed or obscure, the viewer will need to decide how successfully this is done. For me, Holy Mountain squanders the progress made by El Topo by being rather too pleased with itself and overlaid with meaning. Worse still for those getting through the turgid and lumpy exposition, all that symbolism is thrown back in the viewer's face by being reminded that this is a film and that "real life awaits you" at the conclusion. This kind of conclusion comes on as a little po-faced and humourless for a film with exploding frogs and Christ eating his own face.
Aside from the success of its message, this is a bigger, glossier production with beautiful set design and photography, and the director uses the occasion to take on huge issues like the commercialism of war, the brainwashing of children, crypto-fascism, and the auto-cannibalism of modern religion. It is the grandness of these themes and the crassness of the imagery which causes this bigger film to fail, it does come on as a bit like a lecture at times and lacks some of the humanism that redeemed his previous film. For someone whose big theme is the absurdity of the world, the director does become a little pompous himself as the guru/alchemist. Holy Mountain is ambitious, full of amazing ideas, but too dense and self-involved to be truly successful.
At the time of writing, we were reviewing a review set and consequently can not comment on the final retail packaging. The set consists of four dual layer DVDs containing the features and extras, and two CDs containing the soundtracks for El Topo and Holy Mountain and is the same in terms of content as the recently released R1 set. Included in the set is a 16 page booklet and some art cards displaying art from the film and poster images. The booklet includes a typed autobiography on one sheet, script notes and excerpts, listings for the soundtrack cds, and pieces on sources for the films. The soundtrack discs mirror the films in some ways as at times the music is sublime and well crafted before becoming cacophonous and even somewhat derivative. There are moments in the soundtrack where you would be convinced that Nino Rota needed a better lawyer so that he could get his share of the royalties from the Felliniesque tunes on show. Overall, the soundtracks are intriguing if not entirely successful but they are prized by cult fans so their inclusion here will be welcome.
As for the A/V quality of the discs, this is more of a moot point. The Fando and Lis transfer is a standards conversion whilst the other films on the set are all given proper PAL transfers. Fando and Lis is the worst transfer here - dark, soft, lacking detail, non anamorphic and not in OAR. The best is undoubtedly Holy Mountain which is clear, bright, sharp, anamorphic and in OAR. El Topo has been restored like the other films contained here and it looks better than it has before but there is still grain and print damage. The two later films have had remixed surround tracks and the audio for the films is relatively imperfection free bar some distortion in moments of crescendos in Fando and Lis. The surround track on El Topo is one which offers coverage for the speakers with music and effects at the front and back but with dialogue always at the front of the mix, and the 5.1 on Holy Mountain is similarly about coverage rather than three dimensional sound with the dialogue again in the centre regardless of where anyone is speaking from. The English subtitles which are provided for both the soundtracks and the commentaries are removable, free from typing errors and solidly grammatical.
In terms of the extras here, we get a few small pieces including the director speaking over the top of images from Holy Mountain about “The Tarot” and what it means to him, a short interview on El Topo where Jodorowsky claims he is the father of the Midnite Movie, and some restoration comparisons (these are split-screen affairs running approx 5 minutes each showing before and after footage from the films). Also present are Deleted Scenes for Holy Mountain with Jodorowsky commentary and original theatrical trailers for Holy Mountain and El Topo.
The more substantial disc based extras are the Jodorowsky commentaries on Fando and Lis, El Topo and Holy Mountain and the inclusion of a feature-length documentary on Jodorowsky which has previously been included in the Santa Sangre release. The commentaries are full of explanation by Jodorowsky on the meaning of his images and he does seem remarkably sincere when he says things like "the dwarf represents his ego" and for fans of the director it will be nice to end some of the head scratching caused by his films by having his definitive say-so on the exploding frogs for instance. As a non-fan I have to say he does come over as more than a little eccentric and whether it is consistent for him to demystify his films as entirely as he does here, I am not sure. Still there is plenty of autobiographical detail which allows some of the more personal images to make sense and this I did welcome. “The Jodorowsky Constellation” documentary (86mins) shows the director talking about his films and giving one of his Paris Lectures which involves the documentary maker perhaps more than he had hoped. The documentary gives the impression of a man who has read lots and appropriated a fair deal during that reading from Freud which he uses in his lectures - his audience look impressed with him but this felt a bit like the tricks of bad mediums and TV priests. Peter Gabriel, in a time where he had hair, and Marcel Marceau contribute their thoughts and there is a lot of information on the Panic and Absurdist movements as well as failed projects of Jodorowsky such as Dune. I would say that the documentary is a little soft visually and the video quality is not exceptional.
Fans will be very happy that this has come out but for those with multi region players I think they will seek out the R1 set for its lack of conversions issues on Fando and Lis. The films are an acquired taste and for less interested viewers I would advise that they seek out the new single disc release of El Topo also from Tartan rather than going the whole hog. There is a very thin line between genius and indulgence and I think this set confirms that the director has known both sides of that divide.
Last updated: 11/05/2018 11:27:53