In September, on the day of the Paris premiere of “The Dance of Reality,” his first movie in 23 years, Alejandro Jodorowsky, the Chilean-born filmmaker, learned that he was now an asteroid — 261690 Jodorowsky — as the International Astronomical Union had named a three-mile-wide chunk of rock orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. For a man whose life has been defined by cosmic ambitions, the honor seemed almost expected.
Jodorowsky is now 85, but he remains spry and intense. I visited him two days after the premiere in his professorial apartment near the Place de la Bastille, a book-and-plant-filled domain he shares with his third wife, Pascale Montandon-Jodorowsky, who is 43 years his junior. He’d spent the day writing poetry and, in his role as a spiritual guru, tweeting tarot-card readings and “psychomagical” advice to his nearly one million followers. “My son Adan told me: ‘Look, this is the literature of the future. They answer you, they argue. If they’re not interested, they delete you. They steal from you, it’s something alive!’ ”
Jodorowsky was already thinking about his next film project. “When I’m not creating something, I get bored, I despair,” he said. From a poster on the wall behind his desk stared a younger, wild-eyed and frizzy-haired version of Jodorowsky as the black-leather-clad gunfighter with no name who is reborn as a kind of avenging Buddha in his 1970 cult classic, “El Topo.”
Written, directed, scored by and starring Jodorowsky, “El Topo” was an ultraviolent Western with a potent mix of Eastern spirituality and European art house surrealism. For six months, beginning on Dec. 18, 1970, it played once a day at the Elgin Cinema in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, at midnight (1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday) — selling out virtually all its screenings and attracting a heady crowd of hippie-intellectual royalty. Dennis Hopper saw “El Topo,” loved it and recruited Jodorowsky to recut his next film. John Lennon saw it, returned several times and persuaded his manager, Allen Klein, to buy the distribution rights. Reviewers squabbled. The New York Times’s chief film critic, Vincent Canby, dismissed “El Topo” as a garish con, calling it a “rather grotesque, ego-salving San Simeon.” Another Times critic, Peter Schjeldahl, celebrated the film as “a vastly complex, genuinely profound comic allegory — a sort of bloody Latin American ‘Peer Gynt.’ ” Ken Rudolph from The Los Angeles Free Press was more to the point, calling “El Topo” “the greatest film ever made.” Jodorowsky had his own take: “If you are great, ‘El Topo’ is a great picture. If you are limited, ‘El Topo’ is limited.”
In the decades after the fabled run of “El Topo,” for which Jodorowsky was christened the “father of the midnight movie,” he faded in and out of the American cultural consciousness. After making his even more surreal follow-up, “The Holy Mountain” (with gender-bending actors he found at Max’s Kansas City in New York), Jodorowsky had a falling out with his backer, Klein, leading to a three-decade embargo on his two most famous films. During those years, he completed only three more movies: two less personal features that he disowned and one masterful Mexican horror parable, “Santa Sangre.”
“ ‘El Topo’ and ‘Holy Mountain’ were just legends and myths,” Nicolas Winding Refn, the director of “Drive,” told me. “You could read about Jodorowsky through a few books and magazines, but his films were basically inaccessible.”
In the last decade, as Jodorowsky’s early movies re-entered circulation, rumors occasionally surfaced about soon-to-be-produced projects — the goth rocker Marilyn Manson was set to star in an “El Topo” sequel; the actor Nick Nolte was circling a “metaphysical gangster movie” called “King Shot” — but nothing ever came to be. Jodorowsky’s sometimes shady moneymen always backed out. He once told The Wall Street Journal: “I found Russian producers. I don’t want to say their names . . . [but they] disappeared after three months, and I didn’t have an explanation.”
But now Jodorowsky the filmmaker is legitimately back. “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” a documentary by the American director Frank Pavich about Jodorowsky’s two-year quest to adapt the Frank Herbert science-fiction novel, and “The Dance of Reality,” a trippy but big-hearted reimagining of the young Alejandro’s unhappy childhood in a Chilean town, will each make its stateside debut this spring (on March 21 and May 23). As the rapper Kanye West, whose “Yeezus” tour was inspired by “The Holy Mountain,” put it last November to a packed (and very likely perplexed) house at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center: “I don’t know if . . . y’all ever heard about Jodorowsky, the director. . . . Y’all don’t know who the [expletive] he is. . . . Everybody copied off him. . . . And there’s gonna be [expletives] in this arena in a few months dancing all sloppy off him.”
Anyone wondering what Jodorowsky has been doing since his previous movie, “The Rainbow Thief” — a bust of a Peter O’Toole-Omar Sharif vehicle from 1990 — would find the answer in his overstuffed apartment. Shelves of “The Incal,” “The Metabarons” and other comics he wrote line the entryway. Books on tarot, philosophy and religion are stacked eight rows high in his study. Posters of his films and portraits of his family decorate many of his walls.
“I waited 22 years to make a film, but not sitting here in this seat,” he said to me in his baritone Spanish. “I did 40 books, 80 comics, theater performances, exhibitions of my drawings, tarot courses — ”
“Did you wonder whether you’d make another movie?” I asked.
“No, no. It was: ‘I’m going to make another movie. There’s time. I’m going to live long enough, and it doesn’t matter if I wait 20 years. I can wait.’ ”
Jodorowsky’s work has always focused on transformations, and as we sat in his study, he began to tell me why. “I’ve seen ‘Hamlet’ many times, and Hamlet, he was just a hideous neurotic, he never changes. He doubts — all the way to the end, all the way until when he dies, he doubts. Don Quixote, in Cervantes, is Don Quixote. He never changes. These heroes are identical, and they don’t change. And to me it seemed that it shouldn’t be that way. If you want to make a work, you need to have heroes like the universe that go on exploding and growing.” He made clear that he saw himself on a similar trajectory. “Between who I was and who I am now, there’s 1,000 years,” he said. “One thousand years!”
During his “El Topo” days, Jodorowsky was, he would later say, a “psychological killer” who “was not able to love.” He was tough, unsparing and prone to visions of grandeur. “Maybe I am a prophet,” he said in 1973. “I really hope one day there will come Confucius, Muhammad, Buddha and Christ to see me. And we will sit at a table, taking tea and eating some brownies.”
Wondering how much he has really changed, I asked Montandon-Jodorowsky, who designed the costumes for “The Dance of Reality,” what he was like on the set. “With me in the private life, I know the very delicate person that he is, but in shooting, he’s terrible!” she said. “Terrible! Everybody scares. He knows what he wants and says it very clearly, so people who are not secure take this like an aggression. For doing so strong a piece of art, you have to be strong.”
Jodorowsky grew up in Tocopilla, Chile, a copper-mining town wedged on a barren mountainside above the Pacific, 900 miles north of Santiago. The son of Russian-Jewish parents — his father was a Stalin-loving disciplinarian who ran a general store called Casa Ukrania, and his mother was a distant woman who forced her son to wear his hair long in memory of her deceased father — Jodorowsky sought escape in the theater from a young age. By his early 20s, he was leading a 30-person avant-garde performance troupe. At 23, decamping South America for Paris, he fell in with the mime Marcel Marceau (Jodorowsky conceived “The Cage”) and co-founded a new performance collective, the Panic Movement. (Among their Grand Guignol-esque works was the four-hour “Sacramental Melodrama,” which called for Jodorowsky to slit the throats of two live geese, manipulate a dismembered cow’s head and symbolically castrate a rabbi.) In 1960, he moved to Mexico, where he spent a wildly prolific decade directing more than 100 plays, writing a controversial comic strip, training with a Zen monk and directing his riot-inducing first feature, “Fando y Lis.” (The film was banned in Mexico.)
Soon to follow were “El Topo,” and “The Holy Mountain,” which was a smash hit in Europe. By that point, Jodorowsky was swimming in offers, and he found his next project in a cinematic version of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel “Dune.” (Jodorowsky hadn’t read the book, but a friend had told him it was great.) With the backing of a young French oil heir named Michel Seydoux, Jodorowsky worked feverishly for two years, creating storyboards with a team of artists and assembling a cast that included David Carradine, Mick Jagger, Orson Welles and Salvador Dalí (who insisted on a salary of $100,000 per minute of screen time). Pink Floyd and the French prog-rock band Magma signed on to provide scores for two of the warring planets.
After burning through more than $2 million of Seydoux’s money and never shooting a frame, Jodorowsky could not find additional backing. While he believed his “Dune” would mark the arrival of an “artistical, cinematographical god,” Hollywood saw a money pit.
“Is his ‘Dune’ a failure?” Frank Pavich, the director of the new film, says. “I don’t think it is. Everything is there, everything is in the storyboard book Jodo made — the artwork, every scene, every bit of dialogue, every camera move, everything. Was his goal to make a film, or was his goal to change the world? Well, if his goal was to change the world, then mission accomplished.” Pavich makes that case in the final section of his documentary, comparing the French comic-book artist Moebius’s sketches for “Dune” with uncannily similar clips from “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “The Terminator.” Did George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron take ideas from the storyboards of “Dune,” copies of which, we’re told in the documentary, were left with every major studio? “Jodorowsky’s Dune” argues that there was at least a subconscious influence. Of no dispute, though, is that the movie sired Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” which was co-written by Dan O’Bannon, the special effects creator of “Dune,” and given its Oscar-winning visual effects by another “Dune” artist, the Swiss surrealist H. R. Giger. Moebius and the British painter Chris Foss, who dreamed up the interstellar spaceships of “Dune,” were consultants on that film.
In “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” Jodorowsky tells Pavich: “I have the ambition to live 300 years. I will not live 300 years. Maybe I will live one year more. But I have the ambition.”
As Jodorowsky and I talked in his study, he returned to the theme of mortality. “Accepting death is a massive problem for everybody,” he said. “I still fear dying, the physical suffering, but spiritually not anymore. I already accepted it. I had a son who died. That’s where the fall of my ego started. That’s when I had the terrible encounter with reality.”
Jodorowsky’s third son, Teo, had a memorable part in “Santa Sangre” as a mambo-dancing bandit, a role that, according to Jodorowsky’s youngest son, Adan, was not a far stretch from reality. Teo died in 1995, six years after the premiere of that film, at the age of 24.
“Teo wasn’t a drug addict, it was an accident,” Adan told me. “My father doesn’t like to say that he overdosed, but it is reality. [Teo] used to hate people who take drugs, but one night some stupid friend give him something to sniff. He went to the gym, and it was like that. He was a clever boy, and he died in a stupid way. My father changed a lot. He started to do art to heal people. My brother died to heal our family. I see it this way. We would have never been like this today without his death. It’s strange to say, but it’s true.”
After Teo’s death, Jodorowsky developed his own form of tarot-derived therapy, psychomagic. The method has earned a wide following in Europe and South America, and he still delivers regular lectures on his theories, which emphasize the psychological wounds that fester within families and the ability of symbolic, often absurd, theatrical displays to heal them.
“I’ve cured many people,” he told me. “I’ve managed to get people who couldn’t have children to have children. I’ve cured stutterers. Oedipal complexes. And to see all of those things, that enriches your spirit.”
Adan, who wrote the score to “The Dance of Reality,” told me about growing up as a “child of psychomagic.” His mother, Valerie, Jodorowsky’s first wife, used to weep while playing her piano. “I asked her, ‘Why are you crying?’ ” Adan recalled, “and she said, ‘It doesn’t matter, don’t worry.’ And I realized that her father left her when she was 3, and he was playing music, so every time when she was playing music, she was in contact with him. So when she left the house, I said, ‘I have to do something, I want to be a pianist [too], but I feel bad.’ So I buried the piano in a big hole and put a cherry tree on top of it.”
In making “The Dance of Reality,” Jodorowsky set out to perform a considerably more elaborate psychomagical treatment. “This is not a film,” he announced to his crew. “This is the healing of my soul.” For parts of the film, Jodorowsky’s parents are more or less as he remembers them. His mother, Sara, is cold and rejects the young Alejandro after he cuts off his golden locks. His father, Jaime, is almost psychopathically stern. But Jodorowsky reimagines them. Sara dreamed of a life in the opera, so Jodorowsky cast a Chilean soprano, Pamela Flores, to sing all of her character’s lines. Jaime (played by the oldest of the director’s five children, Brontis) was a committed Communist who dreamed of killing Chile’s right-wing dictator, Carlos Ibáñez del Campo. In the film, Jaime is sent on a winding odyssey to consummate this fantasy, only to find himself reborn, like El Topo.
“My father was inhuman, I give humanity,” Jodorowsky told me. “To my mother I give dignity. Everything I gave to the characters of my genealogical tree, I give to myself. And then you have a past where all the characters are realized.”
‘The Dance of Reality” might never have been realized had Frank Pavich not approached Jodorowsky back in 2010, with an idea to retell the almost-making of “Dune.” When the two met for the first time in Paris, Jodorowsky was intrigued, but he told Pavich that the rights to the concept art and storyboards belonged to the producer of “Dune,” Michel Seydoux. The two men hadn’t spoken since the crackup of the movie 35 years before. “It was not a crisis, but it was very strong for us,” Seydoux told me. Pavich didn’t know what kind of reception to expect when he went to Seydoux’s office, but he found the place lined with “Dune” images and Seydoux to be an enthusiastic supporter of the project (eventually he became a producer).
“So then I went back to Jodo to fill him in,” Pavich said. “Now, you could tell that Jodo was nervous: ‘What’d he say?’ I said: ‘He loves you, he misses you. There are posters everywhere. He could not help thinking about you every single day for the last 30 years.’ ”
Pavich persuaded Jodorowsky and Seydoux to reunite, and after filming of the documentary wrapped, they quickly got back to business. Over a lunch in February 2011, Jodorowsky proposed that Seydoux give him a million dollars to make his own film. Seydoux immediately agreed. The next year, Jodorowsky was filming in Tocopilla, the town he left as a boy and to which he had never returned.
“It was a necessity to him to do it,” Seydoux told me last year. “It was something in his heart, so I said, yes, without any information, any script, any paper, nothing. . . . To help him to repair, to give him another chance — it’s important in life. Even if you are 84, you must have a second chance.”