As the audience filed into New York City's Museum of Modern Art last Wednesday for a sold-out "Evening with Alejandro Jodorowsky," the psychomagical auteur and Tarot master sat in the front row, his back to the public. Projected on the screen above the stage was a montage of scenes from his films, along with messages and quotes from those films in stark, bold lettering: "SOMETHING IS DREAMING US." Next to me, a man snapped a photograph, the shutter clicking loudly as "ZOOM BACK CAMERA" flashed on the screen.
While graphic images from Jodorowsky's infamous 1970 surrealist Western El Topo filled the screen, a young woman behind me groaned, "What is this?" A lack of familiarity with the Chilean-born author, artist, and director's dreamlike cinema, however, was otherwise uncommon, as the theater teemed with devotion—or, at least, devoted curiosity. MoMA curator and PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach then took the stage with Jodorowsky for a conversation that almost immediately showcased Jodorowsky's tendency to speak in symbols, or to assert—as he calls it—"Poetic truth."
Biesenbach attempted to start at the beginning of Jodorowsky's biography: "You grew up in Chile, then you moved to Paris for a while, then you moved to Mexico—" "Wait a second, wait a second," interrupted Jodorowsky, who then went on to describe a man in his childhood town whose name resembled the word "Tarot." He went on to say that the name of the town, Tocopilla, could be taken to mean "rectangle" and "diablo," and the town itself is located on the 22nd parallel—significant, because there are 22 cards in the Tarot's major arcana. "The Tarot was there."
I met Jodorowsky the next day in a conference room at the offices of US film distributor ABKCO Productions. I ask him if he reads on the plane, and he interprets my question as about the Tarot instead of books, telling me that he doesn't read the Tarot on planes. "But I think in the Tarot," he says, "because I've memorized the Tarot. Seventy-eight cards, I can see them. Tell me a number between one and 22. Now." He asks for two more numbers and eventually another, effortlessly recalling the corresponding cards and, over the course of a few minutes, offering an interpretation as incisive as any 45-minute Tarot reading or therapy session.
Jodorowsky isn't a fortune teller. He doesn't believe that the Tarot is divinatory, but that it's a means of accessing present truths. "It's a lecture," he tells me. I tell him that I find his pragmatism about the Tarot so interesting, since he attributes magical acts to friend and surrealist painter Leonora Carrington, his relationship with whom is detailed in his book The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky. "Is that magic real?" I ask.
"Everything is real that I write!" he responds. "She was a big, surrealistic woman because she was crazy. She got crazy in Spain because she was with Max Ernst, and [the Franco regime] put him in jail—and all her life she was crazy. But [hers was] fantastic craziness. She was a poet."
I ask him if he thinks that the other magical people he's associated with in his life were also crazy. "I think you are crazy," he says. "You are making a crazy interview in this moment because you are speaking of yourself, your problems. Myself, I am a person who came here to make the promotion of his picture, and you are not making an interview about that—you are making an interview about your doubts, your feelings, what you think, like a philosopher, no?"
Jodorowsky tells me that I am trapped in my ego (my "self-concept"), but he's still good-natured when saying this to me—bemused but not angry. I say that I'm interested in teasing out where his work ends and his person begins. "That I can answer. Make the question directly: 'Where does my work end, and where do I begin?' There is not work and myself. There is only work. Only work. I am a consciousness. I am doing myself as I do the picture or as I write. I am creating my version of life, myself. I create myself in the best way possible."
"I am trying three things, now, if you want to know," he continues. "I am searching for the truth, and then I found the lie. When I search the truth, millions of lies appear," his voice becomes musical. "I search the beauty, the ugliness there, millions of uglinesses there. To be kind, the good and evil… If there is not truth, there is not beauty, there is not kindness. If there is not kindness, there is not beauty, there is not truth. If there is not beauty, there is not truth, there is not kindness. The three go together. That is what I am trying to do."
Jodorowsky's latest film, Endless Poetry, is the second in a series that began with 2013's The Dance of Reality—which was his first film following a 23-year hiatus. He's currently writing the third film in that series, which will detail his time in Mexico and Paris, as well as the start of his film career and his friendships with Carrington, Marcel Marceau, and Andre Breton. He's developing plans to make a documentary about psychomagic, a type of shamanistic practice Jodorowsky invented that he calls a very artistic and modern take on psychoanalysis.
"The only enemy I have is age. I can die from one day to the other," he says, laughing. "Every morning I say, 'Huh! What's happening? Why one day more?' I cannot lose time now. There is no time to lose."
When I was 18 years old, my brother and sister-in-law took me to a screening of El Topo. The film's severity and juxtaposition of spirituality and violence was as shocking as it was appealing, and when Jodorowsky took the stage for a post-screening Q&A, his manner provided a reasonable counterpoint to the film's nightmare-as-enlightenment style. He had the audience in stitches, and he was no less funny on Wednesday night at the MoMA. During a long and circuitous story about the filming of Endless Poetry, he said meekly, "I'm talking too much, no?" As the peals of laughter quieted, Biesenbach said the discussion should "loop around to your other outlet for discovering images"—the Tarot—and Jodorowsky looked blankly at him before retorting, "But I didn't finish my story."
I ask if he delights in making people laugh. "Yes!" he says. "Wittgenstein said, 'The wisdom and the laugh are the same.' Yes, because in the laugh, you have real communion." I ask if his films are funny. "That's an interesting question," he says. Making a film is to suffer, he explains—sleeping only a few hours a night, being uncomfortable, working long hours in post-production and editing. It's hard to be funny when suffering so much, he says. "But it's a big, big pleasure, too."
The MoMA event ended with several Tarot readings of audience members chosen at random, including visual artist Laurie Simmons. Jodorowsky gave a brief introduction to his practice, saying that "synchronicity is a mysterious thing," an example of "reality working with you, acting with you. And the Tarot," he said, "is an example of that."
One random audience member enthusiastically bounded onstage when his name was called. He said he was a frustrated actor and wanted to know how he could find success. "I can't tell you you don't have the talent because it will ruin your life," Jodorowsky told him. The audience erupted in laughter. "But I can't say you have the talent because maybe you don't. I can't tell you. So we do Tarot." Jodorowsky's interpretation of the cards in this case led him to advise the actor to write down his experiences, to publish a book.
When Laurie Simmons sat down, Jodorowsky said, "Oh I know you, you're an artist, right?" Biesenbach replied for her, "Of course she is. Half of the people in this room are artists, maybe more." Looking at her cards, Jodorowsky told her she was coming to the end of a cycle and needed to let go. "That is very accurate," Simmons said, explaining that she had put a lot of time and energy into a particular project and that moving on from it was proving to be a problem for her. They drew a few more cards, and Jodorowsky looked at them, concluding that the best thing for her to do to deal with the conflict was to write about it.
"So the guy before me and I both need to write a book?" Simmons asked, skeptically. Jodorowsky was unfazed, saying that "these things happen in twos, always in twos!" But sensing her skepticism he said, "One last card then." Simmons drew a card and turned it up: The Hermit. Jodorowsky tapped the card emphatically: "The wise man! This means, 'Listen to Jodorowsky!'"