Mondo Jodo: Anarchy and Alchemy: The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky

By Ben Cobb


Alejandro Jodorowsky remains one of cinema’s most controversial and influential filmmakers. Until recently, though, he was also one of its best-kept secrets. But thanks to the re-release of his mystical western El Topo and its psychedelic follow-up The Holy Mountain, Jodorowsky is no longer just a relic of the heady ’70s, cherished only by film obscurists. He is finally getting the widespread respect and overdue praise he deserves. “I am like a vampire,” laughs the Chilean-born director, “climbing out of my coffin.”

Charlatan or genius? Egotist or ascetic? Shock-tactician or visionary?... The best thing about Jodorowsky is that at various points in his 78 years he has been all of the above. In a single sentence, a single frame of film, he can be at once both profound and silly; gentle and vicious; selfless and vain. Like anyone with an original, confrontational, loud voice, Jodorowsky vehemently divides critical opinion, and has done since his 1960s experiments with the Parisian terror-theatre outfit Panic, in which he dressed in a beef-steak suit and slapped naked women with headless geese.

In an industry where ‘independent’ has become a meaningless brand, Jodorowsky was out there by himself. He is a true maverick: working, talking and thinking outside the system. Forget the ’90s crop of Sundance Kids (Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh et al); their forerunners, Hollywood bad-boys Hopper, Nicholson and Fonda; and even ‘indie’ giants Coppola or Scorsese. They label themselves independent. Jodorowsky lives it. The sheer exuberance of his work makes today’s cinema feel processed, bland and over-packaged.


Jodorowsky first crashed onto movie screens in 1968 with Fando y Lis, a poetic black-and-white fable about a young couple crossing a post-apocalyptic wasteland in search of the mythical city of Tar. Denounced as ‘corrosive and corrupting’ by the Mexican government, its premiere at the Acapulco Film Festival caused a riot, earned its fledgling director a string of death threats and forced him into exile. Two years later Jodorowsky appeared in New York City with El Topo, in which he also stars as a black-clad gunslinger whose desert journey towards enlightenment involves killing four holy ‘masters’ and liberating a subterranean community of freaks.

El Topo bagged the late-night slot at a downtown fleapit called The Elgin. It became an underground smash hit and single-handedly changed how films were marketed forever by inventing the ‘Midnight Movie’, a phenomenon that spawned Pink Flamingos (1972), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and Eraserhead (1977). John Lennon saw El Topo and got his manager Allen Klein, of Abkco Films, to bankroll Jodorowsky’s next project.

The result was The Holy Mountain (1973), an epic mind-melter about seven industrialists and a thief chosen by the Alchemist (Jodorowsky) to embark on an expedition to Lotus Island where they must climb to the summit of a sacred mountain and learn the secret of immortality. This radical mix of Eastern enlightenment and pop culture, while not as well received as El Topo, cemented the director’s position as a counterculture icon. But Jodorowsky’s inability to conform, obey or compromise quickly stalled his ascendancy to big-name status.


“I am like a criminal, fighting all the persons, in order to do whatever I want,” he explains in his Speedy Gonzalez English. “The producer comes... is awful.” The flipside of his free spirit has always been a wayward disregard for industry ambition. Jodorowsky is, at heart, an anarchist. “The slogan of anarchy is ‘neither God nor Master’ but I only apply this to the external world. In the depths of my spirit, I have made anarchy my ‘Internal God and Master’.”

At times, he was not above sabotaging his own career. After the commercial success of Gerard Damiano’s porn-chic films Deep Throat (1972) and The Devil in Miss Jones (1973), producer Allen Klein saw massive potential in adapting the sado-erotic bestseller The Story of O. But Jodorowsky walked out on the multimillion-dollar deal, a decision that cost him and two of his greatest films dearly. An incensed Klein retaliated by banishing The Holy Mountain and El Topo to a vault for 30 years, effectively relegating their director to cinematic obscurity – the two sworn enemies finally made up in 2004 and the films were given their first official release on DVD.


To make matters worse, Jodorowsky then lost control over pre-production on his magisterial Dune project (the film later took David Lynch into the Hollywood big league), depriving the world of a movie that would have combined the talents of Orson Welles, Pink Floyd and Dali. However, the talent Jodorowsky assembled for this project would later inject American sci-fi with a revolutionary new aesthetic: he discovered Swiss artist H. R. Giger and talented young writer Dan O’Bannon. Without this pairing, Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) is unthinkable.

After the aborted Dune and misguided Tusk, a French-language kids’ film in India with Robert Mitchum’s son and ‘a normal elephant’, Jodorowsky returned in 1989 with his most highly acclaimed work. Santa Sangre is an erotic, gory, complex Psycho from South of the Border, starring Jodorowsky’s sons Axel and Adan as Fenix, a magician who is institutionalised after witnessing the brutal dismembering of his mother by his circus-owner father. Its artful combination of outrageous violence, cultural depth and tenderness make it Jodorowksy’s most mature film.


Perhaps predictably, Jodorowsky’s next – and to date, last – movie, The Rainbow Thief, which boasted Omar Sharif, Peter O’ Toole and Christopher Lee in the cast, was a nightmare. Reined in to the point of total drabness by the draconian producer-writer team, Jodorowsky delivered an all-star misfire. It stands as an unfitting finale for the renegade filmmaker. But that could be about to change. Jodorowsky has written, storyboarded and signed up Marilyn Manson (“as a beautiful woman”) and Nick Nolte to star in a new project called King Shot. Set to feature blank-firing gangsters, enormous prehistoric bones and a beetle with prophetic powers, it doesn’t sound like a bid for the mainstream. “It is very difficult to produce because it is so weird,” Jodorowsky explains. “Producers are scared of it because it is an artistic picture.”

With El Topo and The Holy Mountain playing the festival circuit again and looking better than ever, thanks to $500,000 worth of digital restoration, perhaps a brave producer somewhere will find the funds that will enable this living legend to make one last movie. “I am still searching for the money,” he sighs. “I need $5 million and I have $1m. But I have $1m! That’s something… one million dollars! I am happy because, if I don’t do King Shot, then I will do something else.”


Jodorowsky is a man of great passions. He thrives on change, on new challenges, new ideas and new possibilities. However, all his films, with the possible exception of The Rainbow Thief, possess a distinctive ‘Jodorowskian’ quality. This is in part due to key obsessions that have weaved through his work over the decades. The most important of these is spirituality.

Although his interest in enlightenment peaked in the ’70s, when he was on a one-man mission to illuminate the world, Jodorowsky has always been attracted to the spiritual path. The Holy Mountain makes explicit Jodorowsky’s profound fascination with alchemy, which for him is a search for the soul’s pure essence. His other adventures in this area include training for two years with a Zen monk, dropping acid with a New Age guru and consuming endless philosophical and spiritual texts. Many of his leading characters are on an equivalent quest for knowledge. From the title character of El Topo and the young lovers in Fando y Lis to elephant rancher Morrison’s more personal path in Tusk and Fenix’s violent rebirth in Santa Sangre, they are all compelled to search for their own redemption. Jodorowsky also has a lifelong love affair with the Tarot: its codes, symbols and meanings inform all of his films, particularly The Holy Mountain.


For Jodorowsky, a corollary of this restlessness is that he has always felt like an outsider. His enthusiasm for the theatricality of performance, his compassion for circus freaks, his dysfunctional onscreen families and his affection for the disenfranchised all have biographical roots. This sense of estrangement has helped keep him outside the mainstream. But it has not kept him from a massive cult following. Jodorowsky has been hip Hollywood’s inspiration for decades. Dennis Hopper, while struggling in the cutting room with his troubled Easy Rider follow-up The Last Movie, called Jodorowsky in to re-edit. Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda got high to El Topo. John Lennon crusaded for him. Tim Burton loves him and Johnny Depp signed up to star in his abandoned El Topo sequel. He even officiated at the wedding of close friend Marilyn Manson and Dita Von Teese dressed as the Alchemist from The Holy Mountain.

Jodorowsky is a hard man to pigeonhole. As well as the director of seven movies, he is a graphic novelist, mime artist, psychologist, Tarot reader, author, philosopher, composer, actor, mystic and theatre impresario… His many selves inform and cross-pollinate each other, finding anarchic, extraordinary expression on film. Jodorowsky is a showman, a clown, a self-proclaimed prophet. Inevitably, then, his movies flip between sublime beauty, throwaway slapstick and earnest histrionics. Some things work. Others do not. But it is raw vision. And it is his. To paraphrase the man himself, his films are as limited, or as great, as his audience’s imagination. And in today’s film world of endless remakes, pseudo auteurs and corporate marketing, we need Jodorowsky more than ever. Sadly for us, the multi-media madman doesn’t need cinema.

This is an adapted extract from Anarchy and Alchemy: The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky (Creation Books). The magnificent multi-disc dvd Jodorowsky box set, with three features, two soundtracks and extensive notes by Ben Cobb, is available now from Tartan Video.

Many thanks to Ben Cobb, James Williamson, Stephen Barber and Paul Smith.

Ben Cobb is a writer. He lives in London.