On April 13th the BFI Southbank in London was packed with a motley crowd of Jodorowsky enthusiasts, from old-timers to young hipsters, from red-haired eccentrics to scruffy types in seventies cords. The Chilean-born director had travelled from Paris, where he now lives, on the occasion of the re-release of his legendary seventies films El Topo and The Holy Mountain and his first feature Fando y Lis. A long-running feud with former Beatles manager and film producer Allen Klein meant that for years they could only be seen on poor quality pirate copies – circulated with the help of Jodorowsky himself. The three films are now finally being made available in their fully restored splendour and the BFI season will be followed on May 14th by the DVD releases of El Topo and The Holy Mountain as well as a six-disc box set containing both films plus Fando y Lis and a ton of extras.
At the on-stage interview that followed the screening of El Topo the BFI audience were lapping up every heavily-accented word of the charismatic director. At 78, Jodorowsky bristles with youthful energy and playful humour. A wonderful storyteller, he regaled us with fantastic stories drawn from his colourful life as a filmmaker, comic book writer, Tarot reader and practitioner of psicomagia, swearing on his five cats that it was all true. We heard how he drank blood on stage during a happening in the sixties, how he secured Salvador Dalí and Orson Welles for his ill-fated Dune project by promising money to one and food to the other, and how he made a neurotic woman carry boules on her back for a week as psycho-magic treatment. A former mime artist, he even got up from his chair for a spot of moon-walking! This was a memorable evening, not just because Jodorowsky is an artist of such colossal stature but also because his joyfully anarchic attitude to life is so incredibly infectious.
Earlier that day I caught up with him and quizzed him about eerie sound effects, Sam Peckinpah and the ‘Conquest of Mexico’.
Virginie Sélavy: In a previous interview you said that when you’re making a film you’re in a state of ‘criminal ferocity’. I love this quote but what do you actually mean by that?
Alejandro Jodorowsky: One day I shouted so hard at a young woman photographer who was there for an interview that she started screaming and ran out. She was interrupting the creation. When you’re receiving something from your unconscious and other people try to tell you that they understand, that they can do it, that they can do it faster than you, you can’t receive the message from your unconscious. You need to stop the person because otherwise they will stop you. You need to be a criminal because you’re making your picture and you want to do what you want to do. Every time a person comes from the superficial world and they say, ‘I have an idea, why don’t we do that?’ I say, ‘shut your mouth, asshole!’ That’s why I say I’m a criminal there.
Your films have been described as ‘psychedelic head trips’, which I’ve always found rather lazy and reductive. What do you think of that description?
I make pictures for myself, I am not influenced by anybody. But in order to understand, some people need to put what they don’t know into something that they know. They know ‘psychedelic’ so that’s the definition they give. But when the year is over they will say other things because the mentality will change and they will see it in another way. For the moment they’re saying that it’s psychedelic because they were showing it at a time in the seventies when all the Americans were taking drugs. But I didn’t make my pictures under the influence of drugs. I made them because I have an imagination, that’s all.
One of the things that your films do best is to convey the strangeness of life – in the dysfunctional relationships, the deformed bodies, the violence – and the strangeness of death – in the surreal scenes where birds, flowers or ribbons come out of corpses. Is this what your films represent, this strangeness of human life?
I think life has two movements. One is the enormous desire of materiality to go to the spirit. And the other is the enormous desire of the spirit to go to materiality, to incarnation. In my pictures you have both: there are things that are dying and there are things that are born at the same time. It’s what I wanted to do at that time. But that was thirty years ago. They are not my pictures anymore. They were my pictures but now it’s a very difficult situation because I am doing promotion for something I did thirty years ago, you realise my situation, no?
Yes, I can imagine it’s quite strange… You have created extraordinary images so reviews of your films tend to usually concentrate on the visuals but it seems to me that the soundtrack is also very important.
Yes, the soundtrack is very important! I always think that I’m making musical pictures. But not musicals as you see here in the theatre. They call them musicals but they’re not, they’re just stories in which they put songs and dance. For me a musical is a construction in which images and music go together. The music is always sacrificed in movies; it just accompanies the story in order to produce subliminal sensations in the audience. You need to forget the music. Every time a man and a woman look into each other’s eyes you have the music, na na na, or they’re killing someone, boom boom boom, you have a strong rhythm. But that is not a musical. What I do is different. The music speaks as much as the image. It doesn’t accompany it; they’re both part of the creation together.
How did you create those soundtracks?
In El Topo I had a person who played the flute. I took a piece by Bach for instance and I took scissors and cut it and re-arranged the pieces in another order and then I made the guy play it on the flute. That was one musical idea. There was another idea that I called ’21 Friends’. I gave a musical note to my friends, do re mi fa sol la si, and then I asked them to come to my house and I was noting the order they were coming and I made music from that. Et cetera, et cetera… I was inventing ways to make music.
What about all the animal noises that you use?
In El Topo, when the second master is killed I wanted the mother to scream, and I wanted the sound of a bird, aah aah aah, but I couldn’t find a really dramatic bird sound. But I found a rat that sounded like a bird. It goes aah, aah, aah, but it’s a rat. When you make a picture there’s a person who sells you sounds. So you buy a sound, ‘which ones do you have?’ ‘I have an elephant, a butterfly, a rat…’ ‘How much for the elephant?’ ‘Ah, no, too expensive. What about this one?’ And you haggle and then you buy the sound. (laughter)
So it also depended on how much the animal noises cost?
Yes. Some noises I had to make myself. Nobody knows that but I made a lot of sounds. When the thieves attack the masters in The Holy Mountain I had a piano and I took a chamber pot and I started to hit the piano with the chamber pot. It was fantastic, the chamber pot made a fantastic sound! (laughter) No one has asked me about the sound until today, but I made a lot of sounds. And I worked with a fantastic jazz musician called Don Cherry. He was a hippy musician, he was always doing drugs, and he brought lots of musicians. One time I had 100 guys! I showed them The Holy Mountain and he made the music as he was watching the picture. Every time I discovered ways to make the music I needed.
One of the most remarkable things about your films is the fact that they go beyond any simplistic oppositions. For instance El Topo is neither a hero nor an anti-hero.
The good and the bad is the illness of movies. In 300 you have the heroes, the 300 kamikaze rugby men who are prepared to lose their lives and the thousands and thousands of monsters attacking them. It’s idiotic. It’s stupid. In all the American pictures you need to have the bad guy after ten minutes. In my comics I have heroes and heroines. In Meta-Barons and Incal I have a fantastic heroine. For the male society a hero is a man, not a woman. A man can be a hero, a genius, a champion or a saint. A woman can be a prostitute, a mother, a virgin or an idiot. These are the four options for a woman. It’s craziness. When you see an American romantic picture you always have a rich man who falls in love with a prostitute. It’s terrible. The industry has a poisonous mind. I think that now because I have nothing to lose. My pictures are there now so I can say everything I think! (laughter)
There is a brilliant scene in El Topo that seems to me to perfectly represent your approach: it’s the duel with the bandits. El Topo is facing the bandits in what looks like a classic Western scene. There should be a sense of high dramatic tension as they’re waiting for the signal to start shooting, except that the signal is given by a deflating red balloon, which totally undercuts the drama of the scene.
And they start to die slowly! Because I was against Peckinpah, because of the violence, and all the people dying slowly, so I wanted to make the bandits die really really slowly, without any movement. (laughter) I liked doing that!
So you were aware of Peckinpah’s work?
Oh yes, I was aware of him because I had no money, I had no equipment, I had no nothing but Peckinpah had a lot of money and he came to North Mexico to film in a village. He built roads to get to the mountain, created techniques for explosions, imported horses… And then he left and I used everything he threw away, the equipment, the horses, everything. I used it all so I was aware of Peckinpah! (laughter)
You shot El Topo…
…where Peckinpah made his film. In order to go to a mountain, you need to climb the mountain. But when an American comes, he doesn’t climb, he says, ‘open a way for me’. They opened the way, it cost thousands of dollars, he shot the film and I found the way ready so I used it!
There is a fascination for spirituality in your films, but also at the same time a critique of spirituality, at least in its organised and dogmatic forms. The spiritual quest in The Holy Mountain ends with the revelation that the masters who preside over the world are in fact dummies. You seem to communicate the idea that there is no absolute wisdom, no ultimate answer, and that all masters and organised systems of thought should be rejected, is that right?
What I want to say is this. Humans have essentially four languages: intellectual language, emotional language, spiritual, creative language and material, body language. They are the four worlds. And the solution is not intellectual, it’s something you feel. The problem is that we’re in a society that poses problems to you, metaphysical problems, and there are no solutions to those problems. The solution is to be found in action. In The Holy Mountain, they need to go from the symbols to reality, from the fairy tale to reality. And from there you need to go to the heart, to creativity and to action.
In The Holy Mountain there is an amazing scene in which toads and chameleons dressed up as Conquistadors and Aztecs re-enact the conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards. It’s a brilliantly irreverent, hilarious scene and a ferocious critique of colonisation. Was this scene inspired by Antonin Artaud’s ‘The Conquest of Mexico’?
Yes, exactly. Artaud wrote a book called ‘The Theatre of Cruelty’ and he wanted to stage the conquest of Mexico. And I said yes, we can do it, but not in two hours, we can do it in two minutes. I will use toads and chameleons and I will make ‘The Conquest of Mexico’. I knew Artaud very well and I was inspired by him there. I wanted to realise his dream.
It seems to fit in quite well with your own ideas because for Artaud it was also a way of showing that Europeans and Christians were not superior to indigenous people and their ancient religions.
When the toads arrive you hear a choir of men who sing ‘Ein Zwei Drei’ in German: it was a Nazi invasion. In that scene I criticise the Spaniards who destroyed the beautiful Maya civilisation. And then I show the American tourists buying and today it’s an invasion of American tourists. It’s always about the invasion of poor countries by powerful countries. It’s the same in Santa Sangre and in El Topo. In South America you have rich people and the Church. The Church was a very big weight, it’s terrible the way they have influenced Mexico.
Interview published in Electric Sheep Magazine, 16 April 2007.
Picture credit: El Topo (Dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1970).