I had a list of questions scribbled into my notebook and my voice recorder ready as I waited to be let into Alejandro Jodorowsky’s suite in a midtown hotel in march. Knowing how the legendary filmmaker can talk at length, delving deeply into subjects that interest him, my interview was, not surprisingly, off schedule. I was ushered quietly into his room while he finished a phone interview. My first in-person experience of seeing this iconic film figure was of him seated at a desk in an all black suit, his back toward me, talking very loudly into the phone. “How I want people to remember me? I will tell you. I want them to say, ‘He was free to do whatever he wanted.’”
Here in New York to promote the release of his newest film, The Dance of Reality, Jodorowsky and his return mark the end of a 23-year lull in his filmmaking career. He kept busy during those 23 years, however, writing books, graphic novels, and birthing new film project ideas: The Dance of Reality is based on the first chapter of a book he wrote on his South American childhood. The film was shot in Tocopilla, the coastal town on the edge of the Chilean desert where he was born in 1929; Jodorowsky returned to it for the first time since the age of 10 to produce the film, which I saw at the Museum of Modern Art the day after our interview. But towards the end of our discussion I did ask him if he planned to make more chapters of the book. “I don’t know,” he replied. “It depends. If this film makes money then I’ll put that money into making more of the film. But I need to wait two or three years. And until then, I will make something different. I will make a project I’m already working on that is not personal.” The Dance of Reality, therefore, may be our only filmic journey into his autobiography. Although it is more of a traditional narrative and very different than any of his past films, this film still has the mix of absurd, beautiful, beastly, and sublime that I love in all of his works.
Once he hung up the phone and we were seated, I quickly understood I could have list of questions but Jodorowsky was going to talk about, well, whatever Jodorowksy wanted to talk about. “How to think about my new picture … ” he began. “To make a picture is to change my life. I need to change everything. I need to stop doing all other things. I travel to the end of the world, to the Chilean desert to make the picture. Then I stop everything to make the post-production. Then I make the promotion. I come to here. It takes me all of my activity and it is not an economical picture in a way. My goal was not to make money. My goal is to realize myself like an artist. And more, to realize movies as an art. My fight is to show movies are the greatest art on earth. More than everything, that I believe really. Because it is poetry, literature, painting, sculpture, music. It is everything. The Dance of Reality is the book of my life.”
I asked him when he began writing his memories. “I was always writing poems, all my life. But I was ashamed of them. I was ashamed to show my poems. Then I went to a convention, a poetic union with Ferlinghetti. I was there, and finally I say, ‘I want to read a poem!’ I take out my poem. I read the poem and immediately — ‘ah fantastic!’ And they published my poems! I started to be published with my poems. It was like to be naked, no? Then I started to write my memories. If you want to be well known you need to tell who you are. And then I write for me. Now I have 85 years lived. For 25 of these years I am writing books. I was born an artist. Some people are born businessman, lawyer, athlete. Every person has a talent. My talent is imagination, artist imagination. Then I don’t have problem with anything — I do whatever I want without a problem. When I make a film — I never went to a school of cinema. When I need to draw, I draw. When I need to make a poem I make a poem. It is like that.”
* * *
Sarah Walko: I wanted to ask you about the role of ritual in your films. Where do they come from? How are they structured and researched?
Alejandro Jodorowsky: I am a person who studies a lot. I live in a library. I study all the rituals. If you ask that I speak of magic, I’ll speak of magic. If you ask I speak of Kabbalah, I speak of Kabbalah. Alchemy, I’ll speak of alchemy. Religion, what religion? Sufi? yes. Zen? yes. Tibetan? yes. Tibetan tantra? yes. Chinese philosophy? yes. Neoplatonic? yes. Before Plato? yes. Everything. I am multicultural completely myself — like a monster. I know the symbols. Everything for me is a symbol. Look at this lamp (pointing to the lamp in the hotel room at the table with us). You have a circle with a point in the center. For the alchemist it is the symbol of gold, spiritual gold. I can see all the religions with this lamp. Everything is a symbol, do you understand that? Everything in your life is a ritual. I see how my child, one of my children, Adam, was born. I was there. The way the doctor works with the woman to make the child, the whole thing is a ritual. You see a person sitting with his finger like he was caressing a clitoris, counting his money, eh? This is a ritual. The money is a ritual. Everything!”
SW: I agree. But do you think that a lot of times in modern culture ritual is marginalized?
AJ: Yes, marginalized. Not by the church. The pope, look how the pope is dressed, like what? Like a transvestite! You see the father, you laugh when you see the father. You laugh when you see the Dalai Lama, you laugh no? You laugh, he is dressed like a monk. Ritual! I believe in the father, I believe in the Dalai Lama because they do what I did. Myself — I put myself naked on the internet. I put myself naked on the internet and that was the ritual. They are sons of ritual.
SW: Since we often don’t watch films as a group in the theatre anymore, instead watching them on our laptops, etc. the experience is more like reading a book. Does this change anything about how you think about making your work as far as the audience not having this experience — a group together going through different levels of consciousness together as was always the experience when you first began making films decades ago?
AJ: I don’t live in the past. I am going with the time. Today is like this. Why to think in the past? You need to allow yourself in today, not before, not tomorrow. I am living today. Today is like that — then I agree. Theatrical picture of Hollywood is ending. Why I show my picture in MoMA? Because I think the museum for right picture, for the artistic picture, is the place you need to show films. From one museum to another. This will be the future. Because the distribution of movies is a monstrosity because the distributors are idiots. They only produce pictures of action. Industrial pictures, poisonous pictures, sexual pictures. They make pictures that devalue us as human beings. So we need to go to the museum.
SW: How do you structure your films, for example, what was the structure you followed/wrote for Holy Mountain? Was it like an archetypal hero’s journey — with thresholds, allies, and enemies, atonement, apotheosis?
AJ: For Holy Mountain I use the symbol of the enneagram. An enneagram is the sacred symbol of the Sufi’s. Then I make a character of the enneagram, who was the search of consciousness. Then I take the worst person in the world and start to change into wise person as they came to reality. This is how I wanted to do it and I did it. That was my structure.
SW: How long do you think you will live?
AJ: Myself? Forever. But in this body I will try to live to 120. At 85 I feel very young. Why not? We are something more. We have life energy. We have immortal energy. Maybe we will be another thing. Sarah, you and me — the energy will be there, always.
SW: I wanted to ask you about the role of alchemy in your work, as an aspect of your work, the material transformation and simultaneously personal transmutation.
AJ: The alchemy has two or three principal goals. First principal goal is to change matter into gold. Perfection of matter. This is one. And then to create the powder that changes the matter. The powder is an illuminated soul. This is a description of Christ, they say, when he came to you, he changed you. Second goal is to find the dissolvent — do you know what is a dissolvent? You make everything like water. Universal dissolvent. You put a drop here and it makes everything dissolve. And that is love. Love will open all the doors. That is number two. And number three is the elixir of long life. You will be young for a long time. The alchemist. Look at myself. I see my self, I could be a very old man, 85 years is long for the culture no? Is an old man. For myself, I feel in myself, I don’t think that. Interiorly I feel completely awake. Do you understand that? And then maybe a drop of the long life is creativity.
SW: You said you were born an artist. Does this mean you were born awake?
AJ: No, but I start to learn very well at four years old. I read. Why? I don’t know. But I read. Maybe I was prepared form another life — what do I know? No? And then immediately because I read and all the boys were not reading, I was out of society. I was an enemy. When you are different you are rejected. I was rejected. But that was also what made me the person to fought to do his work as he believed the work needed to be doing. I never in my life sell my art. Never.
SW: Do you approach making work specifically for catharsis or healing?
AJ: Yes, yes, yes. I want to create in the person who is seeing the picture something like that. The industrial picture gives you two hours in order to forget yourself, forget your problems. You relax. You eat popcorns. And you are happy. For two hours. And when you walk out you are the same, you have the same problems. Nothing changes. Myself I want that in these two hours you remember yourself. Not you remember your problems. You remember your values. What do you have that is of value to yourself. When you come out you are different. Art is this. When you see a master work of art you are changed because you learned something about your sensibility, something about your self. You have new possibilities! No?
SW: I think a lot of your earlier films have been described as a sort of exorcism for the culture, a cultural exorcism. Can you talk about that a bit?
AJ: Listen, when we are born, we are born a Buddha, a genius. Every one of us. In the belly of the mother, the family start to change you. The family. The family gives all the psychological limits they have to you. Then you go to school, society will limit you. Then you are in a country, culture will limit you. Family, social, culture. And there is historical limits. But they are limits. You are living in limits. In reality we are infinite, we don’t have limits. And ALL the fight of life, the opening of consciousness, is to open the limits of your family, of your society and your history cultural. In order to realize yourself what you are, who you are, you need to decide to be what you are and not what the others want you to be. They want you to be something. And you want to be yourself. But you may not be what the other want you to be.
SW: Do you feel like you are free?
AJ: Well, I am mortal; I cannot be free. One. Two, always there is somebody stronger than me. I am not free. Richer than me, more beautiful than me, younger than me. I am not free. Three, I don’t have the space completely. I have just a little piece. An apartment. I don’t have all the town for me. I am not free. Because I don’t have all the planet for me. I am not free no? But, but, but — inside my body I am free. Inside my mind I am free. First, in my thought. Inside my heart I am free to love whatever I want. I am free. If today I fall in love with a dog, I will marry the dog. I am free. Sexually I am free. In my work I am free. I am free to do the picture I want. I never do a picture I don’t want. I write what I want. Interior I am free. Exterior no because I need a passport, I need money. I need a lot of things. no? Everyone of us is a slave in society because we need to pay. From the moment we are born we need to pay money. They are using that. They make you work and you need to die defending businessman who want the oil. Man, we are slaves. We need to work. Interior yes I am very free and at peace. I am at peace with myself. Everything I say I say the truth. I don’t need to lie. You can be free interiorly if you work and do the work you need to do. To be free of all the prejudice, you need to be free of that. No?
SW: I wanted to ask you about your book Psychomagic.
AJ: I make Psychomagic in order to help people be free of all the ideas, all the crazyiness. A lot of persons are doing this but they make a business. They make book in order to help yourself but they make a business. It’s not true. No? You need to work for interior peace. Are you in peace?
SW: I think I’m working on it.
AJ: Everyone’s needs are different. In mine — I need to be in peace. My mind needs to be empty. My heart needs to be full! In sex, I need to be satisfied. In body, I need to be healthy.
SW: Agreed. I’ve listened to you talk about the role of ego and ego as illusion. But what about ego’s role for artists?
AJ: You have in art — a personal art and a sacred art. In the sacred art, the ego needs to be anonymous. Sacred art. How? For example, the great works of art like the Tarot, like the solar calendar, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, they are anonymous. Egyptian sculptures, anonymous. But when you are not making sacred art, you are making human art. You have the essential being with no limits and you have the ego. The difficult you. And this difficult you need to learn how to obey to the essential person. That is good because the ego is necessary. But if he obey. If he doesn’t obey and guides you, you are lost. You are lost because he is directing and the ego is always a little child. This is the ego. Like child, you learn with your family and in school. Thinks he needs to be polite. The essential self thinks in the sublime. You need to do that. A lot of persons do not believe that. Person do not believe that love exists, you can love with all your being. You can exist to love humanity, exist to love the planet. Exist to love art! All that exists. The ego will say no no no. The goal is to be integrated.
Movies are the same. Not integrated. The person that makes the movies say what kind of public should we do? 50 idiots will say to us what they understand and they will make picture for idiots. And then, the young person needs this. And they make this. And they consume it. They give them what they want. I say to myself why would I give people what they want? Why would I not show them something they don’t want? But in looking at it, they will want!
SW: I was most familiar with your film work and then recently became familiar with your graphic novels. Do you feel like those two processes have the same power of transformation?
AJ: My comics have limited public. Before comic books were for children. And still here in the United States comic books are Superman for children. In Europe comics now is like an art. In Japan and in France. This is the center. In France and in Japan you read comics and it’s important. But the public, every day is less because the child starts to play games and there are other things and the comic was a language for children as they grow. That’s what they were for thirty, forty, fifty years. Now, they are for adults now. The young are into movies. Movies is a very strong language. Well — was movies. Now series — television are the master. What to think of this? Because when you see any television series even if they are fantastic, when the series finishes, you have nothing. Really, you have nothing. How long it was, one year, two year, five years you watched it? And they never end! And then you have nothing. They are finished like that. And then the only thing you have is you memorize actors. But directors, no. Because every chapter is made by another director. A writer, a poet, you have not because it’s a group of writers who are searching everyday for what surprises can they give to you. And then, it’s nothing. You will NOT change. You will have fun. Like a cigarette, like alcohol, like drugs. It’s a very fun to take a drug but what happens to you? You smoke marijuana all the time and then you become lazy — what are you doing half of the time? When I make El Topo, I wanted to sell El Topo in the United States. I need to disguise myself and then I have long hair, long like this, if I don’t smoke marijuana I don’t sell the picture so I need to start to smoke the marijuana like all the persons. Two years that I lost! I lost two years smoking marijuana! Why? I sell El Topo. But later I need to stop because I will be a lazy guy, eating sugar, laughing. And I have paranoia.
SW: A lot of people smoke or take drugs in order to get into the kind of states that your films are in or you are naturally in.
AJ: No, you can do it. That is the thing, you can do it whenever. And how, you will understand the limits and wipe them away. In the city, there is so much energy but to do what? Because we don’t have nature here. What is the north, what is the east? We are lost. In cities we are lost no? The relationship with nature is lost. We have a fantastic relationship with the city but the city is not reality. It’s a dream. No? It’s a dream. What a fantastic dream. I am happy to be here no? It’s fantastic but what? Where do we go? It’s not reality. And that I will tell you, I will tell you what will be the end of the city, of a town like New York. It will finish when we discover anti-gravity energy. Antigravity — whhhhwwwwzt!! Everything will stop to be on the earth and will leave the earth and everything will travel on the planet. And we will not anymore have cities because we will be communicating with all these things and we will be floating — wee! Perfect. Antigravity socks! And also the orgies will be fantastic in the air! Oh la la la la! Eveything will be changed, antigravity will happen and we will be happy.
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Dance of Reality launches May 23 in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles. A screening was held at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) on March 14 at 7pm.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.