The Dance of Reality, the first film in 23 years by the iconic director Alejandro Jodorowsky ( El Topo, The Holy Mountain, Santa Sangre), was a family affair. In the film, an autobiographical fantasy about his childhood in Tocopilla, Chile, Jodorowsky’s son Brontis plays his father. Another son, Adan, scored the film and has a small role. His wife Pascale designed the costumes. And Jodorowsky, 85, appears in the movie as himself, directly addressing the viewer by doling out advice such as “Bear the painful burden of years, yet in the heart keep the child.”
The movie, which opens Friday at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, is relatively tame compared to his previous films, which were often awash in blood and grotesqueries, wild religious allegories and symbolism, incomprehensible plots and surreal, disturbing imagery. His first film, 1967’s Fando and Lis, an intentionally provocative, ultra-violent tale of a couple trying to find a mythical city, caused a riot at the 1968 Acapulco Film Festival and was later banned in Mexico. When it was released in the United States as a midnight movie (the first of its kind), El Topo earned Jodorowsky legions of fans, including John Lennon and Mick Jagger. The extreme nature of his films, combined with their trippy visuals and unconventional narratives, have influenced two generations of filmmakers, from David Lynch and Oliver Stone to Drive’s Nicolas Winding Refn — who dedicated his most recent film, Only God Forgives, to Jodorowsky.
Even if old age has cooled Jodorowsky’s desire to rile and shock, The Dance of Reality still carries his trademark vibe of a waking, philosophical dream, and it, too, contains torture, nightmarish imagery and sexual violence. But the film also has an undertone of compassion and kindness — a wistful love of the eccentricities of life, both light and dark, and a hopeful outlook. The picture feels like the work of a man who has made peace with a world often filled with tragedy and despair.
“I turned 85 this year,” the lucid, chatty Jodorowsky says via telephone from his home in Paris. “At this age, people die. You become extremely conscious that time is running out. It’s not the same thing to make a work — a film, a book, a play — about youth as it is to make one about old age. I know I’m near the end. I wanted this movie to be a testament of my life, in case I die. But I’m also hoping it can be a comeback for my career, because I still have a lot left to say.”
Jodorowsky hadn’t made a film since 1990’s little-seen The Rainbow Thief, which marked his first time working with famous actors (including Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif and Christopher Lee). Unlike his counter-culture hits of the 1970s, the movie was a critical and commercial disaster, but that wasn’t what soured Jodorowsky on filmmaking.
“I had a big problem working with stars, because they are too expensive and have too many demands,” he says. “Their names help you raise the money to make the movie, but then they demand close-ups. They change things. You end up doing things at their service instead of servicing the film. A poet can’t work with them. The Rainbow Thief is not a bad picture, but after that experience, I realized you can’t really be an artist in Hollywood. You’re not free to do what you want. You’re an employee. There is a total loss of dignity. I feel terrible for directors of TV, because all the episodes have to look the same. They make a great series for five or six years, and then when it’s canceled, they can’t break out on their own.
“Hollywood annihilated [the Austrian actor/director] Erich von Stroheim. They killed him. Tod Browning and David Lynch, too. It’s just too big of a battle. That’s why I hired so many members of my family for Dance. When there was a problem, we would get together and talk it out. We’re very communicative, and we believe in the art we are making. A butcher has a son who grows up to become a butcher. I have a family of artists.”
During his two decades away from films, Jodorowsky kept busy. He directed stage plays, painted, wrote novels, poems, comic books and several nonfiction books about “psychomagic,” a kind of therapy he invented to help people overcome psychological traumas from their past. The Dance of Reality is adapted from his own autobiography, which was published in Spanish.
“I think of those 23 years as my time in exile,” Jodorowsky says. “I was always able to find creative outlets outside of film. But every night I would watch a movie at home at 11 p.m. with great pain, because that’s what I really wanted to be doing. After Santa Sangre [in which an armless circus performer goes on a murder spree using her son’s arms as her weapons], I was offered a lot of serial killer movies. But I didn’t want to do that. I had already made Santa Sangre. I would have preferred to make a movie about an ostrich that was a serial killer. I suffered a lot during those years. But I also had patience.”
While the making of the recent documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which recounted his failed attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s novel into a mammoth film, the director rekindled his friendship with his former producer and partner Michel Seydoux, who helped him raise The Dance of Reality’s $3 million budget. The movie, which recounts Alejandro’s tumultuous childhood (played as a boy by Jeremias Herskovits) with his tyrannical Stalinist father and his loving but somewhat ineffectual mother (Pamela Flores), was shot on location in the neighborhood where Jodorowsky grew up. A former clown and mime, the director makes room for such fantastical detours as an encounter with a group of amputees and his mom’s unusual home remedy when he gets sick.
The movie’s depiction of Alejandro’s hometown isn’t as otherworldy as the landscapes of El Topo and The Holy Mountain. But the overall setting fits in with what film critic Michael Atkinson described in an essay for The Village Voice titled How to Watch and Think about Jodorowsky. “[His] world is all of a piece, and it has always seemed to me to be a hellish place to visit, a nightmare vision of Mexico (and by extension all of the Third World) as a post-civilized wasteland of cripples, corpses, fruitless rituals, and primal ruin.
“When we got to my city to start filming, I realized it hadn’t changed a bit,” he says. “The street you see in the movie was my whole universe. I was surprised how small it was. How did I see such strong colors and spaces? Everything was gray and dry. It was very important to recreate all the details. And also to forgive my parents. I had the actress playing my mother sing all her dialogue because my mother — she always wanted to be an opera singer — but she was forced to be a shopkeeper. My father was a communist who wanted to kill the Chilean dictators. His brother was gay, and that was a great shame to him, so he was very machista. He always said men don’t touch each other and that they’re strong and fearless. He also hid the fact that he was Jewish. He passed himself off as Russian. He used a fake name. I didn’t know I was different, so when I realized I was circumcised, I felt like a monster. I couldn’t have friends. So I learned to read when I was 4 and read all day and then went to the movies on Saturdays and Sundays. I started to develop my imagination, which helped me deal with my reality.”
Making The Dance of Reality helped Jodorowsky exorcise a lot of the demons that had haunted him since childhood. Casting his eldest son to play his father made the experience even more cathartic.
“When he proposed I play the role of his grandfather, I said no, because I knew the resentment my father had for him,” says Brontis, 51. “I told him I was just going to play the character in the script. We didn’t think about all the subconscious stuff. I had acted for him before. I was in El Topo and The Holy Mountain and Santa Sangre, and we staged seven plays together, so we already had a good working relationship. But making this movie felt different. He’s the same person, but he’s not the same man. A lot of time has passed. His earlier movies were about opening your mind. This movie is about opening your heart.”
And despite the film’s outlandish flourishes and its depiction of a ruinous fantasy land, The Dance of Reality is one of Jodorowsky’s most accessible films to date — second only perhaps to Santa Sangre in terms of its mainstream-audience friendliness.
“ The Dance of Reality is very much a personal statement — perhaps one of the most personal statements ever turned into a movie,” says Eric Kohn, chief film critic and senior editor of the movie website indiewire.com. “It captures Jodorowsky's relationship to his childhood even as it embellishes on it with his trademark eccentricities. Fans of his trippy midnight movies will certainly find much to appreciate, but the director has never presented his surreal visions in such a sympathetic context, which is what makes the story universally accessible in spite of its subversive ingredients.”
Despite his age, the sprightly, eloquent Jodorowsky has no plans of retiring. Depending on how The Dance of Reality fares, he even hopes to make another movie soon.
“I tweet 15 times a day to keep my brain stimulated,” he says. “My wife is 40 years younger than me: Just touching her keeps me young. Through her I discovered love really existed. I thought marriage was like the Vietnam War, but it’s not. Marriage is magical. I never took drugs other than a few times when I first came to the U.S. and smoked pot. I couldn’t drink because of my live. I don’t drink coffee. I don’t eat red meat. Age is not a hindrance. It opens your mind and brings you experience and teaches you not to worry about things that don’t matter. I make movies not to be famous or to make money, but to express my artistic vision. That’s the only thing I know how to do.”