This is part of our Decade Rewind, which runs throughout November. Keep up as we look back at the best, worst, and otherwise interesting movies and shows of the 2010s.
At the start of this decade, Alejandro Jodorowsky had not made a film in 20 years. Considered the Godfather of the Midnight Movie, he influenced everyone from John Lennon and Kanye West to David Lynch and Nicolas Winding Refn, but for a long time, we only had his prolific early work from which to find inspiration.
El Topo, The Holy Mountain, and Santa Sangre are piously avant-garde with splashes of Felliniesque surrealism, featuring bodily fluids that act as proxies for the essence of life. Jodorowsky considers these films to be living, breathing entities — his children.
In 2013 and 2016, respectively, Jodorowsky had two more kids. The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry marked the end of the longest static period in his film career. Jodorowsky considered his last film prior to this gap, the 1990 fable The Rainbow Thief, to be an artistic failure, in part because his creative control was restricted by the producers.
What did the enigmatic auteur do between then and now? Well, he wrote books on tarot and religion, pitched prescient video games, gave lectures on the transcendental therapeutic practice he devised called psychomagic, and most famously crafted intricate, sprawling graphic novels.
While he started writing comics such as Fabulas Panicas in the late 1960s, Jodorowsky wasn’t known for this medium until his serialized work, The Incal, in the early 1980s. Co-written with famed illustrator Jean Giraud (aka Moebius), the comic and its many sequels and spinoffs published through the 2000s cumulatively became known as the “Jodoverse.”
Jodorowsky’s voice is at full tilt in The Incal, which is filled with allegorical philosophy about a dystopian futuristic society and their pursuit of a powerful crystal. It’s a distilled version of his artistic sensibilities, unconstrained by budgets or nervous producers. He packs these graphic novels with his ideas that may have been too wild — or too expensive — for Hollywood. In a way, his comics give the concepts and images from his unproduced projects a second life.
The comics were a major creative outlet for Jodorowsky, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t trying to get a film produced. It just meant no producer wanted to fund him. Or, if they did, they would get cold feet and mysteriously disappear, like a pair of Russian investors did when he tried to finance his long-gestating El Topo sequel.
The story was to be set in an apocalyptic desert and follow El Topo’s sons Cain and Abel, who are separated at birth to protect them from their namesake. After their mother’s dead body is stolen, they must come together to bring her corpse back to be buried with their father, reuniting the family in an island paradise.
Sometimes known as The Sons Of El Topo and other times as Abel Cain, the effort began in the late 1990s when Jodorowsky wanted two of his famous friends, Marilyn Manson and Johnny Depp, to play the titular brothers. Despite the attachment of these two powerhouse celebrities, the project stalled when the money for the film fell through.
More than a decade later, the filmmaker started on a new venture called King Shot, which was to be produced by David Lynch. Described as a metaphysical gangster film, the intention was for Nick Nolte to star. Jodorowsky created stunning concept art that he used to market the film to potential investors, but despite those designs looking decidedly badass, they were not enough to secure the funds to fully realize the images he had in mind.
Flashforward to 2010 when documentarian Frank Pavich met with Jodorowsky to discuss making a film about his ill-fated vision of Dune, which he had intended to direct after The Holy Mountain. Part of the process of getting what would become Jodorowsky’s Dune off the ground was approaching Michel Seydoux, one of Dune’s original producers who still retained the rights over Jodorowsky’s fabled storyboards and concept art. To the filmmaker’s surprise, Seydoux still had immense respect for his work, adorning his own office with Jodorowsky’s art.
Needless to say, Seydoux jumped at the chance to reconnect with Jodorowsky, which led to them adapting his 2001 autobiography The Dance of Reality in 2013. With a budget of $1 million dollars, Jodorowsky was back on set for the first time in almost a quarter-century. He told his crew, “This is not a film. This is the healing of my soul.”
It’s evident that Jodorowsky used The Dance of Reality and its sequel, Endless Poetry, as a kind of big-budget art therapy. These are deeply personal films based on his own life that do not shy away from his years of abuse at the hands of a tyrannical father and a distant mother. Remembering that Jodorowsky thinks of his films as living beings, it makes sense that the story is presented like flashes of memory or wandering thoughts.
This creates a vibrant semi-traditional narrative that is not only reflective of his work from the ’70s and ’80s but also his riotous 1968 debut, Fando y Lis. That film follows two characters as they make their way to the city of Tar, a post-apocalyptic utopia that is to be their salvation. Their journey is presented as vignettes on an overarching theme, filling the screen with expressionistic dialogue and gonzo imagery composed from Jodorowsky’s theatre collective, Panic Movement. While Fando y Lis climaxes in an eruption of desperate violence, it ends on a positive note, albeit one that is a little dark. After failing to reach Tar, the souls of the two are spirited away as their bodies are reborn into the Earth.
This uncanny type of optimism is what bands all of Jodorowsky’s films together. El Topo is about a murderous, misogynistic gunslinger who is given a second chance at life so he becomes the leader for the less fortunate. The Holy Mountain shows how religion is always perverted by man, but who cares?! Enjoy life because nothing is real anyway!
With The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry, he presents his past as fraught, yet by casting himself as the present narrator, he foreshadows his own happy ending. It’s as if he is saying, “This was my life. See how awful it was. But look! I am ok! I can now make beautiful art from the ruins of my past!”
Jodorowsky doesn’t make films for everyone. There’s an argument to be made that he makes films for no one but himself. It may be one of the main reasons that it took him so long to get a new film financed. But from an artist’s perspective, it’s nothing short of admirable. Some of the best works of art come when you are creating solely for yourself, allowing your passions and emotions to flow freely into your book or graphic novel or movie.
Jodorowsky sews himself into the fabric of his living, breathing films — his children. And for a man of 90 who has declared he shall live to be 300, we can only hope to watch a new brood of Jodorowsky’s healing work through the coming decade.