Alejandro Jodorowsky is a true treasure of the modern world—a master of both film and magick. Here’s how he progressed on the occult path.
The cinema of Alejandro Jodorowsky will change you forever—his films synthesize shamanism, mysticism and alchemy with uncanny storytelling, grotesque imagery and psychedelic style to produce a unique filmgoing experience. Even amongst the great surrealists of cinema—such as Jean Cocteau, Luis Buñuel and David Lynch—the films of Jodorowsky stand apart. Where Cocteau was a poet, Jodorowsky is a prophet; where Bunuel was a socialist blasphemer, Jodorowsky is an anarchist mystic; and where Lynch is a painter of light, Jodorowsky is a graffiti artist of the soul. He spray-paints the walls of the ego with subversive messages that reveal the cracks in the system where the soul leaks through. Watching a Jodorowsky film is to be initiated into a mystery greater than the viewer could have ever imagined.
The Dance of Reality: The Early Life of Alejandro Jodorowsky
Alejandro Jodorowsky was born to Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants in Tocopilla, Chile in 1929. His childhood was immensely unhappy, spent growing up as an outsider in a small Chilean town, with an abusive father and emotionally distant mother—events dramatized in his epic autobiographical novel and film The Dance of Reality. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s family later moved to Santiago, Chile, and during his teens he began to read voraciously and write poetry. He enrolled in college, studying psychology and philosophy, but dropped out after two years to join the circus and become a clown. He soon began a career as a theatre director, founding his own theatrical troupe in 1947—Teatro Mimico—where he was able to develop his interest in mime.
Learn to harness the power of mysticism and the unconscious mind to produce great art, just like Jodorowksy, in our free course on magick, mysticism and meditation.
By the early 1950s, Alejandro Jodorowsky had left for Paris to study mime under Étienne Decroux. He later joined the troupe of Decroux’s most famous student, Marcel Marceau, and toured the world. In 1957, Alejandro Jodorowsky made his first film, The Severed Heads, a short adaptation of a Thomas Mann novella shot in mime. Jean Cocteau admired the film so much that he wrote an introduction for it.
In 1960, Alejandro Jodorowsky moved to Mexico City. He maintained a presence in France, and in 1962 co-founded the surrealist/absurdist performance art troupe the Panic Movement, named after the Greek god Pan, “who manifests himself through three basic elements: terror, humor and simultaneity.” (via)
Entering the Path of Mysticism
In 1967, Jodorowsky became the disciple of Ejo Takata, a Zen Buddhist monk who was traveling North America to spread Zen. It was around this time that Jodorowsky wrote and directed his first feature-length film, Fando y Lis. Two years later, he made the legendary cult film El Topo.
The cinema is the perfect medium for a mystic like Jodorowsky, for film has long been associated with unconscious dream states and the borderlands of consciousness. The first motion picture cameras debuted in the 1890s, at the same time that Sigmund Freud was publishing his landmark studies on dreams and the unconscious. Long before Google Deep Dream, early films and cinema experiments were thought to be the closest that art and technology had come to replicating the dream experience.
Like dreams, cinema is a mirror that reflects its audience’s unconscious fears and desires. While marketers and propagandists have a long history of exploiting this aspect for insidious ends, the films of Jodorowsky transmute fear and desire from base elements into higher states of consciousness. We may glimpse nudity and gunfire in an Alejandro Jodorowsky film, but such imagery is displayed for the purpose of liberating the audience from the sex and death drives. While traditional cinema ensnares us in entertainment and illusion, Jodorowsky’s films open the gates to enlightenment and illumination.
It’s not only his inimitable filmmaking style that initiates the audience: Jodorowsky is quite forthright in his representation of mysticism, alchemy and the Tarot—the latter being particularly synergetic with a visual medium such as film. El Topo is a religious allegory masquerading as a psychedelic Western; Holy Mountain is a balls-out mystical experience captured on celluloid; and The Dance of Reality is Jodorowsky’s autobiographical psychomagical epic.
Psychomagic, of course, is Jodorowsky’s shamanic model of therapeutic self-healing, in which the client tricks the unconscious mind into healing the wounds of the past through dramatically miming a breakthrough scenario. In recent years, he has gone to great lengths to develop psychomagic, operating a clinical practice and writing a number of books and manuals on the subject.
Nearly all of Jodorowsky’s output—from film to comics to psychomagic to informal lectures at Parisian cafés—has the power to transmute and transcend the consciousness of his audience. Yet it is the power of his films for which he is most known.
In his hands, the visual aspect of film turns visionary.
Without further ado, we present the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, so that the reader may initiate themselves into their own visionary shamanic journey. (Note: Spoilers lie herein.)
1. Fando y Lis (1968)
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s black and white debut feature is an avant-garde fable that shows the influence that surrealists such as Andre Breton and Antonin Artaud had upon the filmmaker. The film follows a nonlinear narrative as two lovers, Fando and Lis, traverse a haunting wasteland on their search for the mythical city of Tar, where legend tells that all desire manifests into reality.
Like all of Jodorowsky’s films, Fando y Lis is dense with symbolism. As Fando drags the paraplegic Lis through apocalyptic landscapes, they are tormented by gangs of predatory party-goers, religious fanatics and drag queens, who all threaten to tear the lovers apart. What threatens their relationship most, however, is Fando’s abuse toward Lis, who treats her like a doll he can abandon at any moment. Jodorowsky addresses his own maternal neuroses in a scene in which Fando confronts his mother, portrayed as a drag queen diva rather than nurturing matriarch. In another important scene, Lis’ body is consumed by religious fanatics, parodying the ritual of the Catholic eucharist and drawing attention to the cannibalistic nature of holy union, as well as the ritualistic roots of the theatrical arts. At one point, Lis declares “If Tar doesn’t exist, we can invent,” recalling that spiritual utopias such as the Kingdom of Heaven or Shambhala are only maps to the true potential of human consciousness.
It was Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty that informed Jodorowsky’s approach to Fando y Lis. Artaud believed that theatre had lost its powerful transformative effect—that it had lost contact with its ritualistic pagan roots. He rejected reliance on the written text, and instead employed shamanic elements to produce an alchemical theater. Through the assault of shouts, gestures, movement and rhythmic pounding, both artist and audience were transformed. Together, they died and were reborn.
Fando y Lis debuted at the Acapulco Film Festival in 1968, shortly after the student massacre that took place in Mexico that year. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s vision proved too provocative for the tense political climate of the time, and a riot broke out at the premiere. Subsequently, the film was banned in Mexico.
Get Fando y Lis in the epic, definitive, extras-lush Fando y Lis / El Topo / Holy Mountain box set.
2. El Topo (1970)
El Topo put Alejandro Jodorowsky on the midnight movie map. Fashioning himself as the Shulgin of cinema, Alejandro Jodorowsky once famously remarked of this film, “I ask of film what most North Americans ask of psychedelic drugs. The difference being that when one creates a psychedelic film, he need not create a film that shows the visions of a person who has taken a pill; rather, he needs to manufacture the pill.”
El Topo is an acid western, following the titular gunslinger on his quest through the desert wilderness for spiritual enlightenment. “El topo” is Spanish for “the Mole.” As the film opens, we are told that the mole lives underground, searching for the sun its entire life; sometimes it makes its way to the surface, where it is blinded by the light of the sun. The film then follows this allegory, with El Topo (portrayed by Alejandro Jodorowsky himself) searching the desert for enlightenment, all the way to his tragic awakening. After defeating a gang of sadistic bandits that have massacred an entire town, El Topo is led on a quest to defeat the four masters of the desert in order to become the best gunslinger in the land. Each master that El Topo defeats is a chipping away of his own ego. At one point, one of the masters tells El Topo that he is full of self-righteous hate rather than self-effacing love; that he should be trying to disappear rather than find himself. Taking an even more bizarre turn, the second half of the film finds El Topo resurrected as savior to a camp of deformed and amputated refugees hiding in the mountains, whom he promises to liberate from the margins and lead into a better life amongst the elite townspeople.
The influence of Zen Buddhism and other schools of mysticism on Alejandro Jodorowsky is more than apparent in El Topo. It’s not as much a film as it is a quest for enlightenment. It plays out like a contemporary Hieronymous Bosch triptych, hiding an otherworldly gnosis within a conventional form.
Due to its surreal style and mystical themes, the film was cult sensation amongst the drugged-out youth of the era, and an immediate midnight movie classic. “Midnight movie” is an apt classification for El Topo. A label typically reserved for cult fare like Freaks or The Rocky Horror Picture Show that screen in theaters or air on television late at night, in the case of El Topo, “midnight movie” holds a double meaning: “midnight” also refers to the witching hour, the time of night when, according to lore, the veil between worlds diminishes and magic is at its most powerful.
John Lennon was one person who was certainly bewitched by El Topo: after he saw it he gave Jodorowsky $1 million to make his next film, the alchemical masterpiece The Holy Mountain.
Get El Topo in the epic, definitive, extras-lush Fando y Lis / El Topo / Holy Mountain box set.
3. The Holy Mountain (1973)
The Holy Mountain finds Jodorowsky taking the foundation he laid with Fando y Lis and El Topo and building upon it a great Inner Temple. The film demonstrates Jodorowsky’s accelerated spiritual growth during the period, which translates to a deeper spiritual connection to his audience. In Fando y Lis, we faced the shadow side of love and desire in the neediness and despair of the lead characters; in El Topo we went on a journey to conquer the delusions of the ego; in The Holy Mountain we transmute the base elements of our lower nature into higher spiritual consciousness.
Whatever narrative structure that Jodorowsky’s first two films upheld is completely abandoned in The Holy Mountain. Loosely based on surrealist René Daumal’s novel Mount Analogue and The Ascent of Mt. Carmel by St. John of the Cross, the film begins in a temple chamber with an alchemist ritualistically shaving two blonde devotees while the ominous sounds of chanting Tibetan monks plays on the soundtrack. We then follow the misadventures of a Jesus-resembling thief (representing the Fool of the Tarot) and his quadriplegic travel companion as they traverse a grotesque and perverse landscape. Tourists stand by taking photos as students are executed by a police death squad (recalling the 1968 Mexico student massacre), men waltz with soldiers in gas masks, and a parade of storm troopers goosestep through town carrying skinned and crucified dogs. After the conquest of Mexico is portrayed on miniature scale with frogs and lizards, the thief finds himself drinking himself into oblivion and waking up to find that his resemblance to Jesus has been exploited and turned into a commodity. This leads the thief to his confrontation with the alchemist (again portrayed by Alejandro Jodorowsky), who lures him into a mysterious tower in the center of town with the promise of gold. At this point, Jodorowsky starts to lay on the Hermeticism pretty thick.
“You are excrement. You can make yourself into gold,” the alchemist tells the thief, later declaring, “The Tarot will teach you how to create a soul.” The thief is initiated into an order of adepts on a search for the mythical Holy Mountain, where they will discover the secret of everlasting life. The thief’s travel companions all represent the shadow side of the astrological planets, and their backstories satirize both mainstream consumer society and the counterculture. As the narrative progresses and they reach their destination, the film begins to shed its extravagant and opulent excesses for a grittier and stripped-down feel. When the group reaches the Holy Mountain, Jodorowsky breaks the fourth wall, revealing the film crew and declaring, “We are images, dreams, photographs… We shall break the illusion. This is magic! Goodbye to the Holy Mountain. Real life awaits us.”
It is ironic that a countercultural icon such as Lennon financed The Holy Mountain, for the film holds the spiritual materialism of the counterculture in the same contempt as the consumer materialism of mainstream society. It is Jodorowsky’s most spiritually potent film, and reflects his tutelage under Oscar Ichazo at the Arica School, a Sufi-derived mystery school based on the teachings of Russian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff. Like El Topo, The Holy Mountain works like a psychedelic drug, initiating the user into unseen unconscious depths and spiritual heights. But be careful, this one is particularly strong.
Get The Holy Mountain in the Fando y Lis / El Topo / Holy Mountain box set.
4. Santa Sangre (1989)
After a failed production to adapt Frank Herbert’s SF classic Dune and the disappointing family film Tusk (which he later disowned), Jodorowsky returned to form with Santa Sangre. An ostensibly more accessible film than El Topo or Holy Mountain, Santa Sangre demonstrates Jodorowsky’s development of the psychotherapeutic, occult process he came to dub “psychomagic.” While the film maintains much of the surrealist hallmarks of his earlier films (clowns, circus performers, religious cults), at its core it is a reworking of the Freudian matriarchal psychodrama of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Santa Sangre follows Fenix (played as a child and an adult by two of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s sons, Axel and Adan), the troubled son of two circus performers, who is locked away in an insane asylum at the beginning of the film. Through flashbacks, we discover that his father, Orgo, was a knife thrower and his mother, Concha, a trapeze artist. Orgo’s philandering with his assistant results in a bloody debacle in which Concha castrates him, and he cuts off her arms before slitting his own throat. Years later, Fenix breaks out of the insane asylum and reunites with his mother. They perform an act in which Fenix stands behind Concha and acts as her arms. Soon, however, Concha becomes jealous of the affection that Fenix receives from other women and inspires him to murder his admirers. Like Psycho before it, Santa Sangre concludes with a twist ending about the true nature of Fenix’s murders and Concha’s real fate.
Psycho isn’t the only classic horror film referenced in Santa Sangre. While not overtly as alchemical as his previous work, Jodorowsky nonetheless synthesizes classic films and subgenres of horror: Robert Wiene’s The Hands of Orlac (1924), James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933), and the Italian giallo film popularized by Dario Argento. The latter’s brother, Claudio Argento, produced Sante Sangre, and described the film as “a reflection of the roots of social crime. According to Jodorowsky and myself, there is no such thing as a ‘criminal’; evil is always instigated by a corrupt society and the family, which influence an individual throughout his entire life.”
In Santa Sangre, Alejandro Jodorowsky sets out to heal the criminal within through healing his relationship with his own mother (Concha is slang for “vagina”). It was his first on-film demonstration of psychomagic: “If I want to understand myself,” Jodorowsky says, “I have to understand my family tree, because I am permanently possessed… Even when we cut ties with our family, we carry it. In our unconscious, the persons are always alive. The dead live with us. […] Exploring the family tree means engaging in a fierce battle with the monster, like a nightmare.”
Get the best version of Santa Sangre in the 2-DVD Special Edition.
5. The Dance of Reality (2014)
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 2014 magical realist autobiographical film The Dance of Reality was his first in 23 years (his 1991 effort The Rainbow Thief was a director-for-hire job that he also disassociated himself from). In this film, Jodorowsky takes the psychomagic schlock of Santa Sangre and expands it into a magnificent and lyrical coming-of-age epic. Whereas in Santa Sangre Jodorowsky worked to heal his matriarchal horror, in The Dance of Reality he heals the wounds of patriarchal terror.
The film takes place in Tocopilla, Chile, a copper-mining village resting between a desolate mountain range and the Pacific Ocean—Jodorowsky grew up an outsider in Tocopilla as the child of Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants. The film dramatizes the difficult relationship he had with both of his parents. His father Jaime (played by Alejandro’s own son, Brontis Jodorowsky) is portrayed as an abusive and insecure tyrant obsessed with Joseph Stalin, and his mother Sara as an emotionally hysterical woman (her lines are only sung in grandiose operatic style). The film contrasts moments of pain and humiliation with moments of lyrical beauty and metaphysical transcendence. In the film’s chaotic cavalcade, we see the young Alejandro face domestic abuse at home and mockery by boys his age for his circumcised penis alongside scenes of astonishing beauty where the real life Jodorowsky appears as a guide to his younger self or the young Alejandro learns metaphysics from a vagrant guru that lives on the pier. The story culminates with Jaime following a failed mission to assassinate Chilean president Carlos Ibáñez del Campo and later being captured by Nazis. When finally reunited with his family, he experiences a healing catharsis as his wife explains to him that Stalin and Ibáñez are the same man in his mind, and both represent different aspects of his own father. The film ends with a precession of cardboard cut-outs of all of the film’s characters following the Jodorowsky family as they leave Tocopilla by sea.
In the film, Jodorowsky settles a number of karmic debts that he has been working out over his entire career. In Santa Sangre Jodorowsky healed his matriarchal horror for exposing it as a delusion and effectively burying it, but in The Dance of Reality he resurrects his mother as healer and savior. His mother Sara becomes the vehicle through which he heals his patriarchal terror. At one point, she disinfects Jaime, who has been attacked by lepers through the most visceral means available. During another important scene, she dances naked with young Alejandro after painting his entire body black with shoe polish. The incestual neuroses of Santa Sangre are transmuted into a tender union with the source: finally, Jodorowsky has disappeared into the void from which he came, rather than laboriously finding himself, as the desert master instructed him to do all the way back in El Topo.
In The Dance of Reality, Jodorowsky does not hide the profound influence that Italian auteur Federico Fellini has had upon his cinematic output—especially Fellini’s own autobiographical film Amarcord. Without a doubt, The Dance of Reality is Jodorowsky’s most personal film (painfully so, in some parts)—but it is also his most exhilarating. While it’s more tender than the psychospiritual scandal of his earlier films, Jodorowsky doesn’t betray an ounce of his artistic integrity in The Dance of Reality. What he has lost in trickster antagonism he has gained in compassionate wisdom. With this film Alejandro Jodorowsky demonstrates a passage attributed to Rumi: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”
The influence of Alejandro Jodorowsky upon culture is immeasurable. His influence has been profound on great auteurs such as David Lynch and Dennis Hopper, as well next-generation filmmakers like Nicolas Winding Refn, and even in the world of popular music: Marilyn Manson has cited Jodorowsky as a major influence on his music and career (Jodorowsky officiated Manson’s 2005 wedding to Dita Von Teese).In many circles, he is known foremost for his works in scifi comics in works such as The Incal which he collaborated with French comics legend Moebius. Jodorowsky has even gone stellar: in 2013, the filmmaker had asteroid 261690 Jodorowsky named after him.
(Jodorowsky and Moebius met while working on the failed Dune adaptation. For a glimpse at the Alejandro Jodorowsky movie that could have been, check out the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune [on Blu-Ray here].)
Jodorowsky’s autobiographical film The Dance of Reality is possibly his greatest cinematic achievement, perhaps only to be surpassed by its crowd-funded sequel Endless Poetry, which is currently in production. We can only wait in anticipation to marvel at the great psychological and spiritual illumination awaits us with his next feature.
(Featured image via.)
Learn to harness the power of mysticism and the unconscious mind to produce great art, just like Jodorowksy, in our free course on magick, mysticism and meditation.