Monday, March 13, 2017

Review: Endless Poetry / Poesia Sin Fin (2016) directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky

Every new Alejandro Jodorowsky film feels like a gift. Despite making two of the greatest countercultural films of all time in El Topo and The Holy Mountain, his directorial career appeared to suffer an untimely death after the 1989 release of Santa Sangre (we will ignore the 1990 director-for-hire work on The Rainbow Thief). 23 years passed, during which his most famous works were locked in legal disputes and went unseen.

It was only the long-delayed and highly praised 2007 re-release of El Topo/The Holy Mountain that made him return to the medium. After a handful of abortive projects, 2013 saw the release of The Dance of Reality, chronicling Jodorowsky's early years in Tocopilla, Chile. Endless Poetry continues the story, showing the director's emergence from adolescence to young adulthood, along with his formative artistic experiences.

Though Jodorowsky is now 88 years old, Endless Poetry shows an artist continuing to evolve. It's a film brimming over with creativity: every rigorous shot pregnant with symbolism, humanity and an abundance of imagination. It's also a neatly touching family affair: Adan Jodorowsky, his youngest son, plays his father as a young man, and Brontis Jodorowsky plays Alejandro's tyrannical father. 

Key to understanding The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry (and to some extent all of Jodorowsky's work ) is to understand cinema not as a simulation of reality, but as a translation of the director's psychology. This is literalised in the opening moments when we return to the neighbourhood Jodorowsky grew up, now a dowdy, boarded up no man's land. With the click of a finger period photographs are placed over the buildings and a steam train chugs down the street, showing us how he sees the world.

This heightened style gives us access to the emotional truth of his memories. His shopkeeper father humiliating a thief becomes him stripping her naked in front of a baying crow, while a miniature Hitler barks orders at them. His kind mother communicates only via opera. Unpleasant relatives become Hogarthian caricatures, culminating in the young Alejandro hacking at his family tree in a crazed frenzy.

The style is best exemplified by how Jodorowsky treats his first romantic encounters. Advised by fellow artists to visit a bar to find a muse, he heads to Cafe Iris. The place is a lifeless grey mausoleum, populated by droopy headed old men served beer by ancient waiters - it looks like something out of Gilliam's Brazil. Then, bursting into the room with a swell of primary coloured exuberance, comes Stella.

Stella is a condensed ideal of Freudian desire - most strikingly because she's played by Pamela Flores who also plays Jodorowsky's Mum. She's also a chaotic feminine mystery, simultaneously sexually liberated (repeatedly tearing her blouse open as a prelude to violence) and virginal (explaining that they're to have a non-penetrative relationship). She's a hurricane of every feminine ideal - looking like the Venus of Willendorf at a rave - and works as a magnetic centre of the film. Her presence piques in an impossibly erotic scene where the two caress each other - and she reveals she has a string of skull tattoos along her spine.

Other than some loose connection between sex and death, I have absolutely no idea what the skull tattoos signify - but, crucially, not understanding something doesn't diminish its potency. This stuff is the foundation of Jodorowsky's self-developed psychomagic therapy, in which is that the unconscious mind treats symbolism as fact, leading to the conclusion that behaving in an abstract, symbolic manner can solve psychological conflicts. 

Thus the film becomes a sort of a self-induced therapy for the director - working from his own theory that one must ritually enact ones own unconscious desires in order to unclog your inhibitions and shed your unwanted mental baggage. Or, in Jodorowsky's own words (from his Manual of Psychomagic):
Punching a cushion produces relief from anger toward an abuser. But to achieve good results, the person who punches the cushion must, in a way, free herself from any morality imposed by the family, society, and culture. If the consultant does this, she can, without far of punishment, accept her (always amoral) inner urges. For example, if someone wants to eliminate his little sister, because she attracts the mother’s attention, and pins a photograph of the little one onto a melon and busts the fruit apart with a hammer, his unconscious assumes the crime is done. This way, the consultant feels liberated." 
Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry are this process writ large - the attempt of an old man to purge the last of his demons. It makes the occasional appearance of the director in the film incredibly moving - offering advice, comfort and perspective to his younger self. This reaches a zenith in the extraordinary final scenes, in which Jodorowsky and his sons come together in a collective exorcism of their petty fascist father/grandfather - finding an honest way for him to be a positive presence in their minds

Ordinarily, I'd be sceptical of a director creating a film purely as therapy - but when the end result is as compelling as Endless Poetry it's difficult to argue. As we watch the aged Jodorowsky playing puppeteer with his past via his sons, we sense the through-line of history - people, locations and culture colliding into a prickly, chaotic and often indecipherable ball of conflicting symbols. 

There aren't any other directors like Jodorowsky. There aren't very many people like Jodorowsky. I desperately hope he gets to make the final part of this trilogy. After his lengthy and knotty career, this autobiographical trilogy may well be what he's remembered for.

Endless Poetry is on DVD/Blu-ray/streaming now.

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