Blu-Ray Review – The Alejandro Jodorowsky Collection

The Alejandro Jodorowsky Collection marks the first time these films have been made available on Blu-Ray in the UK. They have all been remastered. It’s great to see them get the attention they deserve, and hopefully it will lead to people discovering his movies, because they are fantastic. The films included are Fando y Lis, El Topo, The Holy Mountain and Psychomagic, A Healing Art.

Fando y Lis is based on a play by Fernando Arrabal, an anarchist playwright who co-founded the Panic Movement, a theatre and performance art collective that also involved Jodorowsky. The group was known for doing and saying outrageous things to get a reaction, a tradition that Jodorowsky continued when he jokingly claimed that the rape scene in El Topo was real. This remark has hounded him in recent years, including a retrospective of his work being cancelled because of a 50-year-old joke. Looking at the history of the Panic Movement is a good idea if you want to evaluate his statement.

Fando y Lis is more of a Panic Movement outgrowth than the other two features. Jodorowsky didn’t actually reread the play when making the film, he just used his memories of having performed in it as a jumping-off point for the film rather than using Arrabal’s text. As much as it has any kind of story, it’s about Fando and his paraplegic girlfriend Lis as they go on a journey through a post-apocalyptic landscape to find the mythical city of Tar. They find themselves in increasingly surreal situations with various odd characters. The film was shown at the Acapulco Film Festival in Mexico, where it caused a full-scale riot, and was banned. One of the few to come to its defense was director Roman Polanski.

Jodorowsky was obviously a fan of Fellini and Buñuel, and those influences are certainly visible in Fando y Lis, along with those of other surrealists. It’s not as good as his later movies, but still has its merits. When it was released in the US, it was unfavourably compared to Satyricon, even though it is actually a better film.

El Topo is probably Jodorowsky’s best-known film, although The Holy Mountain gives it a run for its money. It was what would be be called an “acid western,” a genre that really starts with two films made by Monte Hellman with Jack Nicholson in the mid-60s, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind. The term itself was coined by Pauline Kael in her review of El Topo. Other films of that ilk include The Hired Hand, Zachariah, and to some extent Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid and The Last Movie, They are all revisionist westerns that were obviously inspired by the counterculture of the 760s. There are a few later ones, most notably Walker and Dead Man. The American films were often written by Rudy Wurlitzer.

El Topo is a deliberately shocking western with lots of sex and violence, as well as philosophical nonsense thrown in. From the start you know it isn’t going to be a typical western: they’ve got to kill these five gunmen, but it becomes increasingly surreal as El Topo (Jodorowsky) becomes a godlike figure. The mystical side of it is interesting but not as much so as in The Holy Mountain. Because of the Fando y Lis fiasco, El Topo was never intended to play in Mexico despite being shot there.

It somehow found its way to New York’s Elgin Theatre, where it basically became the first midnight movie. The theatre owner, Ben Barenholtz, saw it abroad, thought stoned hippies would like it, and they did. He wasn’t able to buy the rights, but it became a huge sensation, even attracting some of the Beatles. Barenholtz basically started the whole midnight movie trend, discovering filmmakers like John Sayles and David Lynch, and was even a presenter of the first Coen Brothers’ film, Blood Simple. One of his last big acts was bringing John Woo’s The Killer to the US, and he was a co-executive producer of Requiem for a Dream. He was a very influential distributor in independent cinema.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono flipped for it, and one of the most infamous managers on the planet, Alan Klein (who had managed both the Stones and the Beatles) bought the film outright based on their recommendation. Klein then distributed the film across the United States. He was notorious difficult to work with and very protective of whatever he owned, which is one of the reasons these films have been so hard to get for years, as he would not license them. His company, ABKCO, gained control of all three of the early films, and funded The Holy Mountain, a deal where George Harrison played a part. Until 2007, it was only possible to get any of these films on censored Japanese laser discs or bootleg editions.

The Holy Mountain is probably Jodorowsky’s masterpiece. It marked one of the few times that Jodorowksy, who was now hip, had a relatively big budget. The film was made by ABKCO with some money from Lennon and Ono, so there was some anticipation around the film. At one point the main character, The Thief, who is a Jesus-like figure, was supposed to be played by Harrison. He was willing to do it, but did not want to do the nudity in the film, and especially the scene where his anus is bathed. They should have just asked Lennon, who didn’t have a big problem with nudity…

The film is loosely about The Thief and seven people who each represent a part of the solar system. They are heading for the Holy Mountain, where they think they will find enlightenment. Supposedly there are gods there, and if they reach it they will become immortal. It is famously a very psychedelic movie, and many of the people involved were definitely on psychedelics when they made it. It is one of the most visually rich films you will ever see, and very much a satire with lots of funny bits about violence and consumerism. It is definitely deeply confrontational—my ex-girlfriend was truly disgusted by the movie when I tried to show it to her once, and made me take it off after five minutes…

Jodorowsky plays The Alchemist in the film. He draws from various religions, religious figures, mystical ideas, and tarot cards come into play. It’s a film you experience more than watch. The first time I saw it, I really disliked the ending because it breaks the fourth wall in a really annoying fashion, a bit like Monty Python and the Holy Grail. On subsequent viewings, it’s less annoying.

The set does not include Tusk, Jodorowsky’s film about a young English girl and an Indian elephant, which remains incredibly hard to find. The director has essentially disowned the film as a complete mess. Also absent is Santo Sangre, a horror film that is one of his very best, or The Rainbow Thief, which plays very much like a Gilliam movie. He has disowned this one as well, as the editing was taken away from him, but it’s a kid’s movie that reunited Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif. His most recent autobiographical films, The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry, have been released by a different company.

The set is rounded out by Psychomagic, A Healing Art, which is a documentary about Jodorowsky’s therapeutic Tarot-reading/art therapy practices. If you’re interested in that side of the director, it’s an insightful introduction.

The set includes a ton of extras, including postcards and a fantastic double-sided poster for The Holy Mountain and El Topo. The feature films all have a Jodorowsky commentaryand an introduction by Richard Peña. There is also his short La Cravate, new interviews filmed with Jodorowksy at his house in Paris, an interview with his son Brontis Jodorowksi (who played the boy in El Topo); more interviews, deleted scenes, trailers, an image gallery and the very memorable scores of El Topo and The Holy Mountain.

★★★★★

Ian Schultz

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