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6 Filmmaking Tips from Alejandro Jodorowsky

We compiled advice from the surrealist filmmaker behind ‘El Topo’ and ‘The Holy Mountain’ (and almost ‘Dune’).
Alejandro Jodorowsky filmmaking
By  · Published on June 12th, 2013

Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of Alejandro Jodorowsky.

Alejandro Jodorowsky is, perhaps more than any other living filmmaker that comes to mind, a visionary who stands entirely alone. His influences come from multiple sources — surrealism, the spaghetti western, theater, etc. — but he is loyal to no particular artistic movement or historical moment. He’s a brazenly original, playfully anarchistic, uncalculating provocateur and walking anachronism whose work speaks to and across various artistic traditions, belonging exclusively to none.

Born to Jewish Ukrainian parents in Tocopilla, Chile, in 1929, Jodorowsky grew to acquire such a dedicated interest in arts and theater that he moved to France in the 1950s to study mime with Etienne Decroux before starting a career in cinema with his short La Cravate in 1957. Since then, Jodorowsky became the helmer of midnight classics like the acid western El Topo and his psychedelic John-and-Yoko-funded Brechtian epic The Holy Mountain (The IFC Center puts both these films on midnight rotation at least once a month). Jodorowsky also famously attempted an ambitious but never-realized adaptation of Dune and recently completed his seventh feature film, The Dance of Reality.

Both The Dance of Reality and the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune premiered at this year’s Cannes film festival, so the esoteric filmmaking veteran (at age 84) is suddenly experiencing a peak in the spotlight. Here’s some free film school wisdom we can learn from the man who officiated Marilyn Manson’s most recent wedding.

The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Alejandro Jodorowsky

1. “Failure doesn’t mean anything; it just means changing paths.”

Jodorowsky made this statement in a 1990 interview with Jonathan Ross. It’s fitting for a director who is notably unprolific, and whose most famous works remain two midnight movies he made in the 1970s. While I’ve yet to see the new documentary, it’s probably safe to say that Jodorowsky doesn’t lose sleep at night thinking about his failed Dune project. He attempted to make his Dune, complete with a cast that reportedly included Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, and Salvador Dali, but it never came into fruition. But this is not to suggest that he would have sought to make Dune otherwise, or that he felt an incredible artistic vision was snatched away from him by the constraints of production in the traditional hero/villain filmmaker v. money terms.

Jodorowsky is, as all evidence suggests, an uncompromising filmmaker who won’t stop short of making a proper “Jodorowsky film,” but that isn’t the same thing as seeing oneself as, say, Welles as studio martyr in compromising The Magnificent Ambersons or Don Quixote. Despite Jodorowsky’s markedly bizarre aesthetic, he’s a surprisingly pragmatically-minded and level-headed filmmaker who understands that there are forces at play outside himself and beyond his control. He thus chooses not to see failure as “failure” but as a pathway to the next opportunity.

This isn’t only Jodorowsky’s filmmaking philosophy, but part of his philosophy of living. In his Psychomagic: The Transformative Power of Shamanic Psychotherapy, Jodorowsky states, “We only have problems we really want to have” and “When we do something we have never done, we are already on the road to healing. We must break the routines.” These are the words of an artist who chooses optimistic stoicism over the illusion of total control, and sees opportunity in the lack of control rather than attending to conventional assumptions associated with “failure.”

2. “I think real life is weird.”

This was Jodorowsky’s response when asked by a BBC interviewer whether or not his films are “weird.” As you can see in the video below, the director continues on, saying: “To have hands, to have fingers, is weird. Real-life is weird, to have fingers? To have a dick, bones, an asshole, to eat and to shit, is weird.” He brings this point to issues of identity: “Inside that, I have no nationality, I have no age, I have no name. I am not a man. I am not a human being inside. I am not that. I don’t know what I am, but I am not that. It’s weird.”

This is an important line of thought to consider when approaching Jodorowsky’s films. Their strangeness comes not from creating a fantasy, but from exploring the weirdness embedded in everyday life, the arbitrarity by which we constitute, identify, and understand ourselves as human beings and as citizens. Jodorowsky’s movies have become so resilient not only because they are strange and unique, but because they articulate a vision that doesn’t take conventional assumptions of meaning for granted. Once we’re able to look past the façade and see the essential weirdness that informs so much of our knowledge, what new, unexplored visions are possible?

3. “We have to be very conscious of the fact that beneath every illness is a prohibition. A prohibition that comes from a superstition.”

Another choice quote from Jodorowsky’s Psychomagic. This isn’t the same thing as the prior quote, but it emerges from a similar philosophical outlook. Instead of talking about the weird, arbitrary assumptions that construct what we take for granted as normal, Jodorowsky is talking about how “normal” society deflects and stigmatizes aspects of life that don’t fit in, that aren’t convenient to the presumed normal state of being. Of course, Jodorowsky is talking about a general philosophy of life here, not filmmaking specifically, but one can easily see this perspective informing his work. Jodorowsky often fills out much of his cast, for instance, with persons with disabilities, confronting his audience with states of abnormality and aberration that society might systemically choose to ignore or render invisible – this, in effect, interrogates the very assumptions of what is worth seeing, acknowledging, knowing.

In this way, Jodorowsky’s work resides somewhere in a tradition between Tod Browning, Luis Bunuel, Frederico Fellini, and Crispin Glover – he finds the social demands of normalcy to be an ethical issue that creates limiting regimes of social acceptability. So Jodorowsky’s work and philosophy begs the question: what can cinema force us to see that the “normal” life often prevents us from seeing?

4. “Poetry is violence.”

Enough said.

5. Filmmaking is the priesthood. Film or die!

Reflecting on the making of Santa Sangre in an interview with Mark Pilkington in 2007, Jodorowsky said, “I didn’t see a single person. Not one friend, no women, no nothing. I slept five or six hours a day because I worked until midnight and woke at 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning. I ate very little. I didn’t speak with anyone from the outside world. I just made my film. For me to make a picture is a kind of vital thing – you do it or you die.”

This perhaps both explains Jodorowsky’s unconventional style and his pragmatic approach with respect to the limited opportunities he may have to exercise it: whether or not he finishes a film, he continues to make art because he has to, because it’s a life force. For Jodorowsky, neither artistic integrity nor the possibility that audiences will even see his films are the issue – he knows he is dedicated to the realization of a vision in some form or another because of deep spiritual and carnal demands to make art. This type of drive certainly makes for a necessary resilience in the face of the potential problems of filmmaking.

6. Embrace psychomagic, improvise your life, and metaphorically commit murder and/or incest

There’s a lot going on here in Jodorowsky’s answer to an audience member’s question about the filmmaker’s philosophy of psychomagic and its role in his films. In this interview after a screening of El Topo at the film society of Lincoln Center, Jodorowsky discusses how the most aberrant and subliminal and repressed feelings can (and should) be exercised metaphorically. To perhaps attempt to complete the connection for Jodorowsky himself, one can see filmmaking (especially Jodorowsky’s films) as a metaphorical exercise in exploring, exercising, realizing, and intellectualizing the most subjective of our hidden desires. Films offer the possibility of getting away with activities that are forbidden in daily life. It’s Freud’s chair made into gloriously irreverent and unconventional filmmaking, and a magical celebration of the impossible. You simply have to see this incredible stream of thought for yourself:

What we’ve learned about filmmaking

Jodorowsky’s films are unmistakable. They’re one-of-a-kind works made by a one-of-a-kind filmmaker. After surveying his filmmaking techniques and his life philosophy, it’s clear that Jodorowsky’s films are what they are not because he sees himself as a provocateur, or sees himself as doing something calculatedly unconventional (he’s not Tom Six). Jodorowsky’s films are the works of an artist who is committed to being honest to himself, who is interested in using film not for self-reflection and theory, but for realizing his own subjectivity and relinquishing the determinations of how the rest of the world sees itself. He’s practical yet uncompromising, esoteric yet frank. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s profound sense of himself allows us to immerse ourselves in his bizarre, terrifying, wonderful world.

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