Friday, September 19, 2014

'The Dance of Reality' (2013) directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky

Alejandro Jodorowsky is one of the most fascinating cultural figures of the last hundred years.  Equal measures director, actor, artist, philosopher, author and magician he's produced works of genius across a many media, developed his own religion and travelled the globe giving giving philosophical lectures on his philosophy. Like most people I became a fan through his films; the first time I saw The Holy Mountain knocked the stuffing out of me, instantly becoming my favourite film of all time.

Rabid for more I hunted down everything I could find that he'd touched (though I never got my hands on his poorly received 1980 film Tusk).  Once I'd exhausted his cinematic works I moved onto his writings.  As the years passed I resigned myself to never seeing a new film from him, you'd hear odd whisper about phantom projects like Son of El Topo or King Shot, but the financing always fell though and the hype amounted to nothing.

But here we are.  After 23 years a new Jodorowsky film: The Dance of Reality. Virgin mental soil to be ploughed. Has the master lost his touch? What fantastic images lie within?   Can this possibly live up to expectations?  Five minutes in a feminine, blue clad boy had killed every sardine in the ocean.  Later I would see a busty opera singer urinate on her plague-stricken husband.  Soon after there'd be a dog dressed as a kangaroo, graphic genital torture and a man inflicting brutal psychic kung-fu on parading Nazis.  He's BACK, baby!

All of Jodorowsky's major films are autobiographical to some extent, though previously confined to his philosophical and symbological development.  The Dance of Reality, adapted from his own autobiography, skews closer to history than any of his previous films in depicting Jodorowsky's actual childhood.  Shot through with a procession of indelible imagery, the film is a perfect realisation of the director's philosophy that "reality is not objective but rather a “dance” created by our own imaginations."

Born to Jewish-Ukrainian parents in the Chilean city of Tocopilla, Jodorowsky puts his younger self and father Jaime (played by his son, Brontis Jodorowsky) through a series of allegorical trials.  Childhood is presented as a world of strict binary divisions; the young Alejandro forced to choose between masculine and feminine, faith and atheism, fascism and communism, charity and selfishness and so on.  

Jodorowsky paints his upbringing in broad, traumatic strokes.  Most notably his mother and father physical manifestations of their traditional gender roles.  His mother (who only communicates through opera) is caring, artistic, soft, healing and erotic, while his father is uniformed, angry, disciplined and physically strong.  This will change.

One of Jodorowsky's trademark philosophical flourishes is the disintegration of boundaries. These can be physical, historical, ideological or psychological, but by the end of the film the walls are comin' down.  There's a but of beautifully straightforward philosophy early on when Alejandro encounters the 'Theosophist' (played by Cristobal Jodorowsky, the director's son).  He hands Alejandro three medals, the Christian cross, the Jewish star of David and the star and crescent of Islam, saying "They think they're separate, but melt them down in an oven and they will turn into a single drop."

Alejandro's father undergoes this process, going into the oven a hard-nosed ideologue and coming out as some kind of ruined saint unwilling to accept enlightenment.  Late in the film, with wild and hair and thick beard, Brontis Jodorowsky begins to bear an eerie resemblance to the younger Jodorowsky we know from El Topo and The Holy Mountain. A hall of mirrors effect quickly develops among the three central characters: the director as a boy, the director's father (also a symbol of Jodorowsky himself) and the director himself as ghostly presence.

This tangle is a cinematic realisation of Jodorowsky's self-devised psychomagic therapy. The method works as an exploration of the unconscious mind and to relieve repressed trauma. This trauma can be accumulated over the course of a lifetime and unconsciously passed through generations.  This dovetails with his theory of the unconscious as "over-self", and the collective weight of history pressing down upon individuals.  A human being thus becomes like a flower pressed in the pages of a book, locked in place with invisible psychological pressures acting on them from all sides.  

The key to relieving that pressure is the transmutation of psychology, history and compulsion into imaginative, artistic acts.  So, The Dance of Reality is a performance; the creation of the film a psychomagical exorcism of the director and a nudging of his audience towards an artistic reimagining of their own lives.

Still with me?  That all sounds a bit high-falutin I know, but Jodorowsky's work invites this kind of analysis. Anyway, even if you're not on board with esoteric mysticism this is still an incredibly beautiful and imaginative piece of cinema.  Jodorowsky scatters indelible images through his films like confetti, occupying a unique territory somewhere between the circus and the psychologist's sofa. It's nearly always surreal (and often disturbing), but it's a rarely sincere brand of surreal, images chosen because of their precise meaning rather than for shock value.

At 84 Jodorowsky shows no signs of slowing down, though this could very well be his last film.  It would be one hell of a cinematic swansong if it were, the elderly artist reflecting on his distant, dreamlike childhood and turning that fertile clay into art.  The film ends with the young Alejandro purposely marching through a sea of photographs of those left in the past; the ghosts of memory.  We cut a boat, and the director protectively embracing his younger self.  The captain is Death, and Jodorowsky slips away across the white void of a Styx, reciting his own eulogy:
"I soar away from the past, land in the body present, bear the painful burden of years, yet in the heart keep the child. As the bread of life. As a white canary. As a worthy diamond. As a lucidity without walls. Wide open doors and windows through which blows the wind. Only the wind. Just the wind."


The Dance of Reality is available on VOD now.

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