Alejandro Jodorowsky is somewhat of a legendary figure in ‘cult’ cinema. His ‘acid-western’ El Topo is believed to be one of the first ‘midnight movies’, where unusual or exploitative titles played at special midnight screenings in cinemas. Like 2001 and the work of David Lynch, Jodorowsky’s work is hard to fully decipher, yet has a surreal, hallucinatory effect that appeals to those with a taste for the style, or those who like trippy movies to watch while doing a lot of drugs.

My own exposure to Jodorowsky’s work has been fairly minimal. I caught both Santa Sangre and The Dance of Reality at different Cannes film festivals, but his most famous work, El Topo and The Holy Mountain have been grail-like cult classics I’ve been meaning to watch for decades but never had the chance. Tartan released a DVD set back in the 00s, but I couldn’t afford it back then and it’s since become difficult to track down at a reasonable price. Thankfully, Arrow has become my saviour, releasing those two titles in a lavish Blu-ray set alongside the director’s debut feature, Fando y Lis, and a new film, Psychomagic, A Holy Art. I eagerly got my hands on a copy of the set to review it.

Fando y Lis

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Screenplay: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Fernando Arrabal
Based on a Play by: Fernando Arrabal
Starring: Tamara Garina, Sergio Kleiner, Diana Mariscal
Country: Mexico
Running Time: 93 min
Year: 1968

Jodorowsky is not and never was solely a filmmaker by trade. As a teenager, he wrote poetry and dropped out of college to work in the theatre, often as a mime and clown. He made a couple of short films in the late 50s and early 60s, as well as a comic strip in 1966, but these came between his performance art work. His debut feature film, Fando y Lis, was based on a play by Fernando Arrabal, who Jodorowsky had been collaborating with on some such performance art. It reflects this through its minimal plotting.

Basically, we follow Fando (Sergio Klainer) and his partially paralysed girlfriend Lis (Diana Mariscal) through a post-apocalyptic wasteland in search of the mythical city of Tar. They believe it will be their spiritual salvation, but their journey seems fruitless, instead causing them to cross paths with various disturbing characters, who often seem to take pleasure in harassing the pair. As they lose hope, Fando seems to torture and mistreat Lis too.

Although, as mentioned previously, I’ve wanted to cross off these Jodorowsky titles from my ‘list of shame’ for a long time, I’ve been a little apprehensive about watching them, as I’m not the biggest fan of surrealist films (though Jodorowsky wouldn’t like his work described as such). As much as I enjoy the weird and the wonderful side of cinema, I struggle to engage if the unusual side takes over to such a degree that you’re left with a confusing mess of imagery whose purpose isn’t clear. Fando y Lis somehow managed to both deliver what I feared and quell my apprehension at the same time.

The assortment of oddballs our titular characters meet make way for a series of ever more strange and baffling sequences, an early one being an evening of jazz and cocktails taking place in an open-air bombed-out wasteland, complete with a piano being played whilst on fire. Jodorowsky’s performance art experience certainly comes to play, with his actors going through some gruelling and often quite disgusting actions. The significance of these is rarely entirely clear and Fando and Lis seem to be walking around in circles on their journey, but there’s something strangely engrossing about it all. Thinking back to this after watching the rest of the films in the set, Fando y Lis seems to share the idea of its protagonists searching for a new, better life, a form of enlightenment, though it’s less clear here.

My engagement was further aided by the fact that the film is visually arresting. Jodorowsky’s imagery is regularly striking, making great use of the sharply contrasting black and white photography. There’s a particularly notable dream sequence (or possibly a flashback) where Fando and a now fully mobile Lis go wild with some black paint.

As this scene demonstrates, Jodorowsky never loses his sense of fun. Some abstract ‘Art’ films can be quite dry and tedious, but here there is humour to mine from the bizarre goings-on. The silly funeral song Fando and Lis sing at one point is another example of this playfulness.

Jodorowsky also has an uncanny ability to make scenes become deeply unsettling though, without resorting to overly graphic violence or gore (which do appear in later films). There is violence in the film, but it’s not particularly bloody. The disturbing nature often comes from the strange actions of characters or an overwhelming number of them getting too close and personal to our protagonists. Also aiding this sense of unease are some heightened sound effects, that act either to disgust (through noisy eating or squelching mud) or grate (such as the overbearing insect-like buzz in one particular scene).

I did feel the film outstayed its welcome a little towards the end, as there wasn’t much of a narrative to cling on to and its protagonists aren’t all that endearing (Fando can be very nasty and two-faced, and Lis is little more than the helpless victim).

However, despite struggling to make sense of much of the film, I did enjoy and appreciate it on the whole. It’s filled with bewitching imagery, so is easy to get lost in and is also helped by a certain playfulness that offsets the film’s more disturbing sequences.

El Topo

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Screenplay: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Starring: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Brontis Jodorowsky, José Legarreta
Country: Mexico
Running Time: 125 min
Year: 1970

According to his commentary on El Topo, Jodorowsky said he never meant to make something outrageous when developing the film. He wanted to make a western, a genre everyone would appreciate and understand, particularly after his previous film never found an audience in the US. But he himself states he was “unable to make a “normal” film”. Instead, he ended up with El Topo, a hallucinogenic acid-trip of a movie which would launch him as a cult icon.

The story goes that when Jodorowsky took the finished film to the major studios, they weren’t interested. It was too unusual for everyday audiences, so it looked like El Topo would swiftly disappear into obscurity like his last film. However, at a private screening in the Museum of Modern Art, Ben Barenholtz, owner of the Elgin Theater in New York, saw the film and was fascinated by it. He talked the film’s producer into letting him screen it at his venue.

This would have likely just been a one-off to make little difference to the film’s fortunes, but a stroke of luck came in the fact that John Lennon was hosting the cinema’s prior screening, of his own short films. Lennon had seen and loved El Topo, so he encouraged his audience to stay in the theatre to watch it after his films. Many did, and this hip, artistically-inclined crowd loved it. El Topo ended up screening at the Elgin regularly for a year, helping popularise the idea of the ‘midnight movie’ and became a much-loved cult classic.

The film stars Jodorowsky himself (purely because he couldn’t find a Mexican actor willing to do what was required for the role) as the titular black-clad gunfighter wandering the desert with his young son (played by his actual son, Brontis Jodorowsky). He comes across a village that has been massacred by bandits. He tracks down the bandits, led by an evil colonel (David Silva), and brings them to bloody justice at a monastery where they’re causing further chaos.

During this, he saves a beautiful woman, Marah (Mara Lorenzio), who wants to follow him. El Topo allows this but must abandon his son at the monastery. After heading off with Marah, she tells him she can only truly love him if he proves he is the greatest gunfighter in the land. To do this, he must defeat four great masters. These are markedly different, representing different spiritual philosophies, and El Topo is forced to use dirty tricks to defeat them.

However, he learns something from each of these masters and in the process of killing them, grows to hate himself. He lets himself be killed at the hands of Marah and her lesbian lover (a mysterious figure who is shown as an El Topo’s female alter ego) as he is disgusted with his life.

A group of deformed outcasts living in a nearby cave discover El Topo though and nurse him back to health. He is born again and changes his image to go along with this, becoming a man of peace whose new quest is to help the outcasts dig their way out of their cave and be reintroduced into society.

The closest semblance of society is, unfortunately, a town inhabited by cruel racists and run by a sadistic sheriff and a twisted cult. El Topo and his new companion, the dwarf Mujercita (Jacqueline Luis), travel into town to raise money to get dynamite to speed up the tunnel-digging and grow to wonder whether it’s worth introducing their friends to this place. During this time, an important part of El Topo’s past comes back to haunt him.

On the surface, El Topo is as bonkers as its ‘acid-western’ reputation suggests but, at a basic level, the film is simply about a man searching for himself. The lengthy mid-section consists of the four metaphysical gunfights that lead El Topo to enlightenment. Each master represents a different spiritual or philosophical belief and each gives El Topo a gift that will assist him later on in defeating the rest and finding himself. He evolves through these experiences, going from fighting for himself to helping a community through peaceful means. He believed he was fighting for justice to begin with but finally realises his actions were as violent and cruel as those he was against.

A lot more can be read into the film if you want though, on a scene-by-scene basis. There is a lot of religious symbolism and allegory, as well as comments on fatherhood and sexuality, to name but a few areas touched upon. Jodorowsky says he got inspiration from studying various philosophies and religions. Perhaps there are too many ideas thrown into the ring but it makes for a rich, thought-provoking experience and it never loses that central thematic drive of self-discovery.

Like Fando y Lis, El Topo is filled with striking imagery too. Taking inspiration from westerns and flipping them on their head with psychedelic fervour, Jodorowsky subverts the genre at every turn and fills the film with the spiritual and grotesque imagery he loves to explore in his work. It’s a real shock to the senses and it’s no wonder the film went down so well at midnight screenings back in the early 70s when psychotropic drugs were being experimented with by large portions of young people in the west.

There are some dated, budget-constrained elements that look a bit silly and the prevalence of homosexual villains as well as an ill-warranted rape scene are problematic in modern society. Jodorowsky, in his commentary, describes how his gay villains were an attempt to subvert expectations from the genre, which I can appreciate, though with several instances it seems more like he’s targeting homosexuals as being inherently evil. He’s more apologetic about the rape scene, claiming he has a very different attitude towards women now.

Dubious elements and rough edges aside, El Topo remains a visually stunning, trippily grotesque and utterly unique spin on the western genre. Delving into a wide variety of philosophies through its constant symbolism and allegory, it’s also a film that bears repeated viewings as you can find something different each time you see it.

The Holy Mountain

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Screenplay: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Starring: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Horacio Salinas, Zamira Saunders
Country: Mexico
Running Time: 114 min
Year: 1973

After El Topo became a worldwide cult success, Jodorowski was approached by various backers interested in supporting his work. He got $1 million (according to interviews on the disc, though IMDB says $750,000) to make his next feature, which was a lot for an independent production at the time, particularly one to be made in Mexico, where crew and other associated costs were reduced. This allowed the writer-director to make a film deeply personal to him without the usual constraints of money and studio interference. Jodorowsky’s ambitions were lofty too. As he describes in his commentary on this disc, he wanted to make a “sacred film” that would “change mankind”. The result was another psychedelic head**k, The Holy Mountain.

The film begins by following a man (later referred to as The Thief and played by Horacio Salinas) who is down and out in an unnamed city. Civil unrest rocks the populace but American tourists still flock to the area, oblivious to the problems. The Thief has the look of the stereotypical image of Jesus, so is exploited by some traders, who kidnap him and make a lifesize cast from his body so they can make figures of the crucified Christ. The Thief escapes and sees a chance to get some money when he sees gold come down from a hook in a giant tower. He climbs the tower to steal some gold for himself but finds a shamanic Alchemist (Jodorowsky himself), who swiftly disarms and disables The Thief before teaching him the secret of creating gold from his own excrement.

The Alchemist goes on to teach The Thief about enlightenment and introduces him to seven other disciples who wish to also reach this higher level. We are shown the sinful lives of these seven people, who each represent different personality traits and human flaws, based on the planets and their associated Gods.

The seven, along with The Thief, the Alchemist and his assistant (Zamira Saunders), then head on a quest to climb the titular Holy Mountain, where they hope to find a group of ageless masters from whom they can learn to true secrets of immortality. Beforehand and on the way, however, they must shed their earthly possessions, egos and other baggage to become enlightened.

So, like El Topo, the film is about enlightenment, but here this purpose is more direct. That’s not to say the film is any easier to understand though. Though the core thrust of the narrative explores the path to inner peace and greater spiritual understanding, Jodorowsky, as usual, throws in a vast number of symbols throughout the film, many of which are clear (possibly a little too clear in some blunt moments) but plenty of others can be perplexing. This is what we come for in Jodorowsky’s work though. If it all made sense, we probably wouldn’t be interested in watching.

Also drawing you in is the film’s style. El Topo had some striking visuals, but The Holy Mountain takes it to another level. Jodorowsky was in charge of costumes, production design and music, on top of his roles as writer, producer and director, so it’s truly his own vision and he lets his imagination run wild, with countless eye-popping sequences, filled with bold colour and unusual details. The stylistic touches are toned down in the final third when the group ascend the Holy Mountain, as Jodorowsky wanted to reflect the group’s offloading of material goods and ego in the filmmaking. This means the final act isn’t as stylish as the rest of the film, but some striking nightmare sequences are there to grab your attention and the spiritual training the group undergo is still unusual and compelling.

There are some dated elements to the film’s design, with some tacky-looking costumes and props in places, but much of the commentary on modern society still holds true, even if the presentation can be ‘of its time’. The grotesque nature of it all will, like in El Topo, be a turn off for many and his treatment of animals is troublesome, particularly in a scene featuring toads and chameleons recreating the history of Mexico, but if you can get past any issues of taste or the period in which the film was made, you’re in for a treat.

I won’t prattle on about the film any longer as I believe it’s simply something you need to experience for yourself. It won’t be for everyone, of course, but the film is truly unique and can be an enlightening experience if you’re in the right mindset. Jodorowsky has explored similar territory in many of his films, but never to this scale and ambition. It’s an astonishing cinematic achievement, no matter how you feel about the content. Being a Jodorowsky film, there’s a lot going on too and little is explained, so it will fill your mind with questions and ideas. So, in its own bizarre way, it’s a masterpiece.

Psychomagic, A Holy Art

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Screenplay: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Starring: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Country: France
Running Time: 100 min
Year: 2019

As I mentioned at the start of my Fando y Lis review, Jodorowsky is not purely a filmmaker. Over the past 25 years, in particular, he has been writing about and practising a form of therapy devised by himself called ‘psychomagic’, which Jodorowsky claims in Psychomagic, A Holy Art was first born to him around 50 years ago. It has become his key drive during this past quarter of a century, with his two films written and directed during this time, the autobiographical pair of The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry, both heavily influenced by his psychomagic teachings. He’s also written several books on the practice and has been running regular classes and lectures in Paris throughout this time, generally for free.

Jodorowsky describes psychomagic in simple terms in this documentary by saying “psychotherapy uses words. Psychomagic uses acts”. So rather than conduct discussions with a patient over several weeks, months or even years, a psychomagic practitioner would have a long initial conversation to discover what the problem was, then devise an act for the patient that would tap into their subconscious mind and help heal the wounds within it.

The documentary Psychomagic, A Holy Art takes quite a simple approach, with Jodorowsky himself introducing the idea of psychomagic, then showing a series of treatments to elaborate and attempt to prove the therapy’s effectiveness. We hear (or sometimes see in a caption) the patients’ problems and witness the acts they’ve been prescribed, often guided by Jodorowsky himself.

The acts are quite varied, though a ‘rebirthing’ experience is shown a couple of times, where the patient is stripped and acts out being born from an elderly woman with the support of a man too. Many of the acts share this very physical, metaphorical style with the guides often engaging in a very ‘hands-on’ control of it all, allowing the patients to drop into a kind of trance whilst they are pushed and moulded through their scenarios. There’s an element of massage in this regard.

At first glance, psychomagic can seem a bit ridiculous and a product of the new age/hippy movement, but I must admit, even in the very first treatment we see, I could appreciate how the practice works. Where psychoanalysis gets the patient to talk about their problems to get to the root of them, psychomagic has them physically face them through the relative safety of metaphor or symbolism.

However, the practice does seem a little simplistic at times and I imagine patients would need longer therapy to fully heal mental illness. The film shows some acts which seem to have a great impact, but there are a few that seem fairly basic. In particular, one sees a man place images of his family on pumpkins and proceeds to smash them with a sledgehammer. This seemed like the sort of thing a teenager does to release some aggression, rather than a revelatory mental health treatment. You could argue this type of venting is a known practice for a reason though. Another sequence has a musician play a song he wrote with his recently deceased father who he is grieving for. This is something you’d expect him to do anyway, though Jodorowsky also has him walk down the street in a flamboyant outfit, which personally I don’t think would have that massive an impact on anyone, particularly a musician who’s likely used to putting on a show.

Another issue I had with the film is in who made it. I think Jodorowsky is a great director, as my previous reviews attest. However, with psychomagic being devised by the man himself, the documentary smacks more than a little of self-promotion. I would have preferred to see an independent observer explore the therapy in a more probing way. With this view, the film’s inclusion in the set at first seemed like an anomaly and I thought perhaps Jodorowsky had insisted it be added to the set to spread his beliefs. However, psychomagic does tie into much of the content of the other films here and clips inserted into the documentary help reinforce that, so, in fact, it makes perfect sense to include it here.

So, it’s a fascinating film but some sections/therapies seem more effective than others. In this sense, I’m not sure I buy psychomagic as a cure-all but I can see the benefit in it. Despite the surface ‘wackiness’ of many of the treatments, how they affect the patient is clear and in essence none of it is that far-fetched. It’s like an extreme version of roleplay, mixed with a physicalised form of psychotherapy. Perhaps as a documentary, it would have benefited from an impartial eye, but it’s still a film that helps you appreciate alternate methods of treating mental health, so is quite a rewarding experience. The stories told and progress made can be powerful to watch too.

The Alejandro Jodorowsky Collection is out on 24th August in a Limited Edition 4-disc Blu-ray and 2-CD set, released by Arrow Video. The picture quality is largely fantastic, with sharp details, rich colours and a wide dynamic range. However, I did notice some troublesome patches in The Holy Mountain where the digitisation process seems to have struggled with the fairly heavy grain. It only stood out for me in one sequence though. When The Thief first enters the Alchemist’s rainbow room in his temple (?), there’s a dark area behind the camel that looks a bit rough. Otherwise, the film looks great. Audio is strong across the discs too.

There are plenty of special features included in the set too. Here’s the list:

LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS
– New 4K restorations of Fando y Lis, El Topo and The Holy Mountain approved by Alejandro Jodorowsky
– Blu-ray premiere of Jodorowsky’s new film Psychomagic
– High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentations
– Original 1.0 mono audio and optional 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio
– Newly translated English, Spanish and French subtitles
– Six collector’s postcards
– Double-sided fold-out poster
– Limited edition 80-page hardbound book featuring new writing on the films by Virginie Sélavy, Michael Atkinson, Bilge Ebiri, Mark Pilkington and archival articles
– Reversible sleeves featuring original and newly designed artwork by Matt Griffin

FANDO Y LIS
– Audio commentary by Alejandro Jodorowsky
– Jodorowsky Remembers Fando y Lis, new interview
– Newly filmed introduction with Richard Peña, Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University
– La Cravate, Jodorowsky’s compellingly surreal 1957 adaptation of Thomas Mann’s The Transposed Heads
– La Constellation Jodorowsky, Louis Mouchet’s feature-length documentary featuring interviews with Jean Mobieus Giraud and Peter Gabriel

EL TOPO
– Film presentation in both 1.85:1 and 1.33:1 original theatrical aspect ratios for the first time
– Audio commentary by Alejandro Jodorowsky
– Jodorowsky Remembers El Topo, new interview
– New introduction with Richard Peña
– A Conversation with The Son of El Topo, a newly filmed, extensive interview with Brontis Jodorowsky
– The Father of Midnight Movies, an archival interview filmed in 2007
– El Topo Original Motion Picture Soundtrack CD

THE HOLY MOUNTAIN
– Audio commentary by Alejandro Jodorowsky
– Jodorowsky Remembers The Holy Mountain, new interview
– New introduction with Richard Peña
– Pablo Leder: Jodorowsky’s Right Hand Man, Jodorowsky’s personal assistant remembers his time spent with the director
– The A to Z of The Holy Mountain, a new video essay by writer Ben Cobb
– Deleted scenes with director’s commentary
– The Tarot, a short film in which Jodorowsky explains the secrets of the cards
– The Holy Mountain Original Motion Picture Soundtrack CD

PSYCHOMAGIC, A HEALING ART
– Blu-ray premiere of Jodorowsky’s new film
– Original Trailer

La Constellation Jodorowsky is excellent. Jodorowsky is his usual passionate, outspoken self and we get to learn of his work outside films. The latter portion contains a lengthy recording of one of his early psychomagic sessions and is fascinating to watch.

I enjoyed La Cravate too, which is Jodorowsky’s witty and colourful debut short. It very much sees the director in his mime days and is rather theatrical, but it does have a few nice cinematic touches and simple but effective practical and in-camera effects.

Jodorowsky’s commentaries and interviews are a lot of fun, with the director on typically outspoken form, though I had a curious reaction to some moments. He explains many of the metaphors and symbols in his films, which you would think would enrich the experience, but I found it removed the air of mystery, occasionally cheapening the scene in question. I loved his honesty and eye-opening stories about the productions though. He’s particularly vocal against the actor who played Fando and also expresses a deep hatred for Peter O’Toole! He also discusses his ideas about producing electricity from long drop toilets and describes how he thinks architecture is a great evil of the world. This makes him sound a bit crazy, but he explains himself clearly and I found him fascinating to listen to.

Richard Peña’s introductions are great too. He concisely sets up the backgrounds behind the films and offers brief thoughts on their purposes and meaning.

The Brontis Jodorowsky and Pablo Leder interviews are a nice addition too, with both having a very personal slant. The latter sees Jodorowsky’s assistant becoming visually moved by his memories on a couple of occasions.

‘The A to Z of The Holy Mountain’ is strangely presented, with Ben Cobb’s narration directed as though he’s speaking to Jodorowsky himself, but it’s an excellent piece. He delves into what makes the film tick, as well as interesting facts about the production that help you better appreciate it.

The two CD soundtracks are wonderful to have too. Both are excellent, mixing some beautiful themes with varied and experimental passages. I thought they might be a tough listen, but actually they make great albums and I’ll certainly be keeping them in circulation on my stereo for a while.

I didn’t get the booklet to look at unfortunately, but I can still easily recommend this stunning set. It’s surely one of the finest Blu-ray releases of the year.

Alejandro Jodorowsky Collection - Arrow
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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