Underwhelming “Psycho-Magic”: Jodorowsky’s Dance of Reality

Publicity photo of director Alejandro Jodoworsky with Jeremias Herskovits, who plays his doppelgänger as a young boy. Actress Pamela Flores, who plays Jodowrsky's mother, is obscured behind them.

Publicity photo of director Alejandro Jodoworsky with Jeremias Herskovits, who plays his doppelgänger as a young boy. Actress Pamela Flores, who plays Jodowrsky’s mother, is obscured behind them.

Trinity College’s Cinestudio tonight showed Alejandro Jodorowsky’s latest film La danza de la realidad (“Dance of Reality”). This film. made last year, is the 83-year-old director’s first film in 23 years. (The Rainbow Thief (1990), which was only theatrically released in France (in 1994) was the last previous.) The current film is based on (the first part of) his self-described “psycho-magical” autobiography of the same name. With all of this going for it, it is no wonder that critics hailed its emergence. After all, who wouldn’t want a triumphant Schwanengesang?

After 2 hours and 10 minutes of running time, my two physical states were exhaustion and astonishment. The astonishment was that the film so under-delivered on the considerable hype that I wondered whether I missed some (very) secret hidden message or technique. The exhaustion resulted from watching a series of scenes, painfully drawn out, that seemed to have no other purpose than to demonstrate so sort of cinematic magic, without the foundation necessary for successful magic—offering a reason that the audience wants to believe.

The family reunited: Herskovits, Flores, Brontis Jodorowsky. Still from the film.

The family reunited: Herskovits, Flores, Brontis Jodorowsky. Still from the film.

The movie is such a self-indulgent chaos that the charitable thing to do would be to pass over it in silence. Of course all attempts at autobiography is self-indulgence as a matter of definition. To sell an autobiographical project, it is necessary to offer the audience a reason to forgive the self-indulgence—for example, to gain an insight into the mind of a thinker, to find a new way of thinking, to understand the historical context of the author, for examples. None of these are readily evident here, particularly because this autobiography is “magical” rather than factual. It’s not that it takes liberties with past events; it is a wholesale invention of the past. Jodorowsky has said in connection with this film that the past can be changed. And indeed it can. If it is drastically changed, it is not normally packaged as autobiography, however magical.

They came as though it were the "Night of the Living Dead" except there was no explanation, except later. Why the umbrellas? It's all a magical mystery.

They came as though it were the “Night of the Living Dead” except there was no explanation, except later. Why the umbrellas? It’s all a magical mystery.

All of this would be a mere quibble if the film (I have not read the book) made some sort of point, whether moral, historical, aesthetic or otherwise. As far as I can tell (and I watched it a second time to make sure), it does not. In fact, it seems to supply the definition of something I have long tried to understand: post-modernism, which seems to be unstructured rejection of modernist (or any other movement’s) principles, without supplying anything in return other than self-promotion (where the “genius” really centers). Indeed, this film offers bits of modernism without any sort of unifying theme or vision. It seems nothing more than a pastiche, or perhaps a series of pastiches not connected even by an underlying motif. Narrator Jodoworsky tells us early on his relationship with his younger (movie) self: “All you are going to be, you already are. What you are looking for, is already in you.” This would be a more compelling philosophy if there were more devotion to literal truth to prove it. Instead Jodoworsky uses clichés and references (visual and musical) to other film makers and artists to make a point that he himself doesn’t even attempt to make in this film. I’ll return to the derivative nature of the parts in a moment. But I’ve put off explaining what the film does do long enough.

Fellini anyone? Except in pastel and never part of the fabric of the film.

Fellini anyone? Except in pastel and never part of the fabric of the film.

The film is evidently the current Jodowrsky’s vision of what his childhood would have been like, if he could have devised it himself right now. Not to make it better, certainly. But to explain his current philosophy, which is a jumble of mysticism, judgmental apolitical jargons and above all the belief that his creation of “magic” can cover the t deficiencies. He tells of is coming of age in the small coastal town of Tocopilla, Chile, the son of Ukrainian Jewish emigrants. His father (played by Jodorowsky’s son, Brontis Jodorowsky) is an authoritarian Communist, who runs a small dry goods store, Casa Ukraine. He has no sympathy for the proletarian rejects of the copper mines, the men who owing to mining accidents lose their limbs and their livelihood. He is, really, a petit bourgeoise, who looks to Stalin as a model, not so much for his desire to advance the dictatorship of the proletariat, but simply for his status qua dictator. Unless we miss this point, at the end of the film his wife (played by Pamela Flores) shows him blown up pictures of Stalin, Carlos Ibáñez del Campo (Chile’s fascist dictator) and Jaime Jodowrsky. Jaime shoots his own portrait and all three pictures catch fire. This is not a “spoiler.” Did anyone not see this ending coming?

The movie begins as a coming of age story, where Jodoworsky must endure the abusive rearing of a father, who believes he must make a man of his son. I am not trying to shoehorn this part of the movie into some “genre.” The film itself does the shoehorning. It is so filled with cliches in this regard that it could have been made in Hollywood. But then it veers off into a spiritual/political journey of Jaime himself. That journey is remarkably unconvincing. He begins as a brutal husband, with a Fellini-esque prostitute/mistress. Meanwhile the wife/mother has spent (and will continue throughout the film) singing her part. This is inexplicable, unless we have seen some of the commercial material that comes with the movie. It turns out that Jodoworsky’s mother was a frustrated opera singer. So maybe reality is supposed to supplement this magical autobiography? And maybe postmodern art is not self-contained; it requires the commercial apparatus to explain it. But the father’s quest continues. For reasons that are not explained, Jaime decides to aid a group of poverty-stricken plague victims by providing them water. (We know only of this group because them come en masse from the desert. When he delivers the water they demand (his firefighters are too cowardly to do so), the victims rip his donkeys apart for meat. When all of this is over, Jaime contracts the plague. On his return home, everyone shuns him, except his (abused) wife, who cures him, by (I kid you not) urinating on him and invoking God in the process.

Now cured, Jaime decides to assassinate fascist Ibáñez. I won’t go into this. If you are still paying attention at this point, you will see an unbelievable story about a partisan’s dedication to deliver his country from fascism. It doesn’t work, of course. For reasons that are equally unbelievable. And so Jaime must bear the burden of being a Stalinist unable to pull the trigger on a fascist. But after a religious pilgrimage (of sorts) Jaime gets to make atonement by being tortured by the fascists. And we get to see it: Jaime has his testicles shocked (with a close-up) until the partisans release him as a hero and take him home.

In any Christian parable there must be a widow figure who just needs a good man, no matter how deformed.

In any Christian parable there must be a widow figure who just needs a good man, no matter how deformed.

While Jaime is having his adventure, little Jodorowsky actually worries that his father has forgotten him. There is no psychological reality in this film, perhaps because it is “magical.” But that’s a hard debate to undertake on the basis of a movie. What is not disputable is that this film is made up of derivative parts of other movies. The early scene with the seagulls attacking young Jodorowsky is only one example. The music is an easier example (for me).

The film opens with Louis Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing.” (It sounds to me like Benny Goodman’s Carnegie Hall version.) The auteur equates money with life, then with Christ, then with Buddha. And then Jodoworsky himself (as narrator) equates money with conscience and conscience with death. And so you would be excused for thinking that there would be some point about money that might be made in this movie. You would be wrong.

It's hard to understand how this happened. But the petit bourgeoise Stalinist was  circus performer in the past.  When, where, why? It is a metaphor I guess.

It’s hard to understand how this happened. But the petit bourgeoise Stalinist was a circus performer in the past. When, where, why? It is a metaphor I guess.

But the big problem of the movie is that it looks like a bad copy of Fellini. The music, the tropes (massed groups, parades, the “freaks”). You would be excused for wondering why the amputees had a brawl, if you never saw a Fellini movie. But the difference is that Fellini had a consistent point of view in each movie. Plus Fellini had a joie de vivre that Jodorowsky eschews for other music: Bach, Strauss, even Irving Berlin. It’s all a big pastiche, governed by promotion.

See it for yourself. You might lose patience (around the one hour mark). But however much you want it to be a good movie (and I did), it won’t happen. It is all self-promotion. Maybe that is all art is in our time. I am still optimistic that that is not the case. But this is not evidence in my favor.

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