A Hundred Years Is Nothing: The VICE Interview with Alejandro Jodorowsky
We Skyped with the legendary Chilean filmmaker to ask about his life and work, from his days as a young poet in Chile to his new Kickstarter, along with discussions of psychomagic, George Harrison's anus, and a Tarot reading with Yeezus.
Illustration by Daniela Carvalho
Alejandro Jodorowsky wrote and directed classic surrealist films like The Holy Mountain and Santa Sangre. He also starred in Jodorowsky's Dune, a documentary about the best science-fiction film never made. He is a tarot specialist, a psychomagician, and a mime. He's written plays, comics, and musicals. He was born to Jewish Ukrainian parents in northern Chile but soon after moved to the country's capital, Santiago, and at age 24 left for France in search of the creators of surrealism. A little later he went to Mexico, where he wrote and directed films like the two titles mentioned above, along with El Topo, Tusk, and The Rainbow Thief—35mm equivalents to an acid trip.
Jodorowsky is a modern prophet. Even now, at 86 years old, he makes films as disruptive as those from the 70s. His most recent, The Dance of Reality (2013), tells the story of his life as a child in northern Chile, with a father obsessed with killing the president and a mother who sings like a soprano when she speaks. Dwarves, disfigured folks, and spiritual guides live along the banks of the sea.
These days Jodorowsky is working on something less magical than modern: He's seeking out donations on Kickstarter for a new movie, the second part of The Dance of Reality, which will be called Endless Poetry and is based on the period of his life when he arrived in Santiago until he moved to France when he was 24. During that time he discovered sex, poetry, adolescence, society, and the Second World War.
Because Jodorowsky is Jodorowsky, for every dollar you give him he'll give you "poetic money" that he guarantees will soon be worth much more than it is now (which is nothing). At the time of writing, he has reached his original goal of $350,000, around 10 percent of the film's projected cost. His Kickstarter, he says, is a fight against the film industry.
Jodorowsky spoke with me over Skype from a Paris apartment loaded with books and mystical figures.
VICE: How has Paris treated you?
Alejandro Jodorowsky: Well, Paris doesn't treat anyone; you live in it. Paris is very calm in the sense that it lets you live calmly. They're not bothering you all the time. You're calm. At the same time, you live in the world—you don't live in Paris—you live in the world. More than in the world, you live in the cosmos.
How was it during the Charlie Hebdo killings?
Well, it's an idiocy. A stupid thing that doesn't have a reason for being. It's stupid because it's not useful for anyone, not even Islam. They're furious about that pair of idiots. It's a fanatical act that doesn't serve anyone, neither Islam nor the West. It's an imbecilic act of intolerance—that's what I think and everyone else, too. I was friends with Wolinski. He was a very good person. He was assassinated. He didn't deserve to be killed like that. He was a good human being. He was an intellectual, with a very good sense of humor. It's idiotic to kill him like that. Very dumb.
Let's talk about the new film, Endless Poetry.
I arrived at it after 22 years of struggle trying to make anti-industry films, because the industry is an economic industry. Before anything else, films are made to make money. It's an economic industry, not an artistic one, and also they're made to publicize cigarettes, wine, political ideas, different objects. It's a necessary industry, like a show is necessary to unload energies. When you're worried, you go see a movie: You enter an idiot, you rest your idiocy for two hours, and you leave an idiot. This is the cinema.
I see it another way. To make an experimental film, like poetry, like a work of art, first off, get rid of the industry—that is, make it disappear. I intend to lose money—to make art in order to lose money, since it's a shame that art is considered good if it makes money. Painting is the same: If you make money, it's good; if it doesn't make money, it's bad. I'm tired of idiotic wars. It's as idiotic as killing cartoonists who draw caricatures.
The art industry is killing the human spirit. We're not about that. So over 22 years I gathered what I was making—very little thanks to the economic crisis. All I managed to raise was a million dollars, I didn't waste it, and I put half into The Dance of Reality and lost it. It was a success all over the world with the best critics, but I didn't make a dime. Experimental film doesn't make a dime. The distributors made some money, the theater owners, that's all, but the creator makes nothing—and then after that experience I decided I had to make a second film, the continuation, with the remaining $500,000, and I looked for partners, telling them, "We're going to make a new film so we can start losing money again," and then it occurred to us to make a Kickstarter. On Kickstarter, we're asking for 10 percent of what it will take to make the film, but also to show that people—above all, the young—are tired of what the art and commercial world is putting out. I think they want to show that they want another cinema, something else, and say, "I'm going to see it if I give money," because on Twitter I have 1,060,000 followers. So if a million followers each give me two dollars, I would have two million dollars, but no, I ask for $350,000 to try and see what happens. It's only been a few days, and we already have about $330,000 donated.
It's proof that the industry loves neither the culture nor the human being, and if the people unite they can transform into collective producers and make great films. I'm demonstrating this, what a collective can do. We're going to achieve it—now it's nearly definite that we'll achieve it. It's good that we all unite to make art we want, culture we want, so the industry doesn't impose a life on us we don't want.
I am very old—I'm already 86—so what interests me? Fame no longer interests me. I'm interested in creating honest art work, and I'm interested in demonstrating that you can do it, that David can fight against the industrial Goliath.
And then one day I became a poet and changed my life.
What period of your life will we see in Endless Poetry? It's when you leave Tocopilla and arrive in Santiago, right?
I was ten years old when I arrived in Santiago, and it was a ferocious change. It was absolute suffering. My father opened a store in the Matucana neighborhood, a working-class neighborhood through which a train passed. Once a week the train ran over a drunk worker, which was terrible. I started my life there. I went to school and was in this neighborhood where every night there were knife fights. Things like that. It was terrible in Matucana. And in this neighborhood I suddenly discovered a typewriter and started to write poems when I was 17. And then one day I became a poet and changed my life.
It was the Second World War at the time, but Chile wouldn't suffer because it's between the mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Without television, far from the world, with lots of copper and saltpeter money, Chile was a continuous party every day. Wine was cheaper than milk; everyone was drunk by six in the evening. Collective drunkenness. And above all, the best poets were there. There were two Nobel Prizes, those of Neruda and Mistral. Many poets. So in Chile there had been a strange miracle: the presence of poetry. Drunks formed choruses and recited Neruda. Poetry was respected. In Chile, to be a poet was to have a profession: You were a poet. You didn't need to do anything else. It was a life in which we discovered freedom. So much intellectual, emotional, and sexual activity. We were young, in the middle of paradise—this is what I want to show.
You're not going to cover when you go to Paris and later to Mexico?
It's up until I go to Paris. At 24, I went to France. That's the third part.
Will you make a third part?
The third part will be in Paris. The fourth—if I'm still alive because one dies at my age—will be in Mexico.
As you live you find yourself caught in life, which is why you dream, invent, all these things. But little by little, your teeth start falling out, hemorrhoids appear, your skin itches, and you start to say, 'Well, on this side I have old age, and on this side I have death.'
How do these films relate to your filmmaking career? Do they interact with the earlier ones?
Yes, because these films explain everything I did before. The reason why there are dwarves, the reason why there are disfigured people, because there were disfigured people in town. In my films I relay more or less what I lived.
These new films are the key to what I did before. But I didn't make them for this. I make them as a continuation of my expression. Interior age doesn't exist. Exterior age can exist. You see dumb old people because they were dumb kids, and I was an intelligent boy, so I'm an intelligent old man—and I can create.
The last film and the new one are personal; you unite the young Alejandro with the older one in these. Did something similar occur to you?
As you live you find yourself caught in life, which is why you dream, invent, all these things, but little by little your teeth start falling out, your hair, hemorrhoids appear, your skin itches, and you start to say, "Well, on this side I have old age, and on this side I have death" [ places each hand on either side of head]. I have these two ladies [indicating his hands]. You have one foot in the abyss, so the art you're doing becomes much more personal, deeper. Let's talk about things how they are this time without disguising them.
There's a scene in The Holy Mountain in which the hero transforms his excrement into gold, a type of analogy for money. How important is money?
It's just as important for you as it is for me, as it is for everyone. Money isn't happiness, but in 200 more years or 100 more years, without money there will be no happiness, because it's like the blood of life. On one hand, it's a pest, it's a horror because it causes wars—oil, banks, politics, scam religions. We're in a mess. There are industries that destroy the planet to make money, which infantilizes us. All that. On the other hand, money helps you develop your spirit, have experiences, live how you ought to live. It's like everything: Atomic energy is deadly, or it gives you the energy to illuminate cities. It depends on how you use things.
Money is nothing more than energy that one must know how to use. And we're using it badly. Two percent of the people have almost everything, and 98 percent have very little. This cannot be. Further, there are many moral prejudices. We have to get rid of all this little by little. And that's the work of the artist.
Why did you create poetic money, part of the rewards you give out on your Kickstarter for the new movie?
First of all, poetic money gives you something. For many years I have given to you: I've written tweets, I've made art, I've fought. You've said it's served you well. Psychomagic has healed you. Now give something. Respond. I don't ask for you to give everything. I only ask for 10 percent. Respond. Learn to give because giving is surrendering and not giving is quitting. Let's do something collective. People spend five dollars on a pack of cigarettes, but when I ask for two dollars to make a film, they cry out. People can't give. They can buy. People think money is for buying. Money is also for giving. One must learn to give.
So I created poetic money. If you give me $20, I'll give you a $20 bill invented by me. Poetic money. But if my film is brilliant, these fake $20 dollars I give you are going to be worth $2,000, because they'll be a work of art that will enter into the culture. Picasso said, "I make money." How? "Give me a dollar bill," he said, and he signed it and said: "Now it's worth ten." With poetic money, I'm showing that it's not worthless money, it's creative intention, and if I make a film that breaks boundaries and is worthwhile, those taking the risk will make a lot because it will take on value.
Will one be able to acquire things with poetic money?
Later on you will be able to. You will sell it like a famous painting. You have to first trust that I'm not crazy, that the film I'm going to make will be better than the last one I made and everything I've ever done, and if that's so, if you pray for it to be this way, that money— your poetic money—goes up 100 percent in value.
Art enters art history when it's imperishable, when it's honest, when it's really healthy.
I was reading your book on which your last film and this one are based. In the book you talk a lot about the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra and the profound impact he had on you. Parra recently turned 100 years old. Would you like to reach this age and continue making films, comics, books?
A hundred years is nothing. I want to reach 120.
Parra, look... I had a dominating, competitive, young father, so I had to search for paternal archetypes to fill that gap in me, because if you don't have a father, you don't know yourself, you don't meet yourself. You have to find the archetypical father, and the one we found at that time was Parra, because we were with Neruda who was ace, but very political, about communism and ego and murky feelings and so many things. We were tired, and then Parra arrived, who was intelligent, a poet with a sense of humor, a formidable comic. He became a guru, our guide at the time, and we also collaborated with him. We made a diary. For me, Parra was very important. Neruda, also. Gabriela Mistral, too. Altazor [by Vicente Huidobro]. All these poets were teachers for me.
We heard a project is underway to make an animated version of Dune.
Yes, many people, Ari Folman [director of Waltz with Bashir], a number of people are interested, so we're looking into the rights. It will be made but one must see about rights for the novel. I'm deep into the film we're going to make, Endless Poetry. After that's over, I have a plan to make The Children of El Topo that I've wanted to do for years. Since I haven't been able to make it, I'm doing it as a comic because I found a brilliant Mexican artist named Ladrönn. With him I'm drawing the first volume, which will come out this year. I'll do it first as a comic. I say that failure doesn't exist, only changing paths. What you can't do in one art, you do in others. This is what happened for me with Dune: I couldn't make the movie, but I made the comic The Metabarons and The Incal. They're still publishing these comics now in America.
They're cult comics.
Just imagine. You're young. How old are you? 30?
You're young and talk to me about The Holy Mountain, you're talking to me now, in 2015. What film that cost 400 million dollars— Avatar, etc.—can you talk about? I made it 40 years ago, and you talk to me about the film as though it were new. My film has lasted nearly half a century. Industry films last three months, have their audience, make their money, and then what? They don't give you anything. Art enters art history when it's imperishable, when it's honest, when it's really healthy.
How did the documentary Jodorowsky's Dune happen? In some ways it was a reappreciation of your work.
Yes. I didn't seek this out. A young guy showed up who wanted to film me. I said, "OK, but I say what I want." "Yes," he said. I thought he was crazy because he was obsessed with Dune. I spoke to him calmly. I had no idea everyone would see it, and I would talk with people like you about it. I really said what I was thinking. It seems like it reached many people because I've received many reactions on Twitter. They talk about Dune. You reach them. They give you a desire to create. You're truly happy with a work of art when people not only applaud but give you a desire to make something else.
Are these new movies acts of personal psychomagic?
Totally. It's nothing more than psychomagic. I say to all technicians: "You're going to think I know nothing about cinema. Fine, but I know what I want, and what I want is to heal my soul." For this, I went to film in Tocopilla, because the streets where I walked are there, my father's store, the plaza where I was as a boy, so it's going to heal me, and it's going to cure my children, because my son will play the role of my father, and this will be an enormous psychological shock between us two. I'm going to make my mother sing, I'm going to humanize my father, I'm going to correct my family tree. It's therapeutic work for me and everyone.
You're still performing psychomagic acts?
Yes, but since I'm dedicated to working on the film script I don't do it now, but generally and for 30 years in a café down here, every Wednesday it was free—because it should be free—to read tarot for whoever came. I performed acts of psychomagic. Now I continue with it on Twitter. I have seen the birth of many children to people who could not have children. Things like that. Psychological illnesses. People who have fulfilled themselves. It's art.
For me, the main art is poetry. I was born into a group of poets. When I was young I was a poet, and I continue writing. Before talking with you, I was finishing some 500 short poems that I've been making. I work in poetry, and this gives me strength for other things. For me, Kickstarter is poetry, because I work with the spirit of people and teach them to give. I'm performing an act of psychomagic on everyone. It's art. Psychomagic is art.
I photocopied hands and then I said, 'What if I photocopied anuses?'
Is anomancia real?
It's a joke! A joke people like very much. It occurred to me because when I was making Dune, I had a photocopy machine and people came to photocopy their hands, and so I was left with the hands of the actors, Dalí and others. I photocopied hands and then I said, "What if I photocopied anuses? What would happen?" People always think that tarot is about seeing the future, but tarot is a psychological test in the present, and so to make fun of the maniacs who study the future, I said, "I'm going to do anomancia," which is to see someone's future in their anus. You sit there, I photocopy your anus, and there's a circle with branches in the shape of a star. The deepest lines are the past, the shallower ones are going to be the future, and if there are spots you have to wash your anus. It was a joke, but you have no idea how famous anomancia has become.
I have a copy of the Pope's anus, Obama's, huge personalities, Obama's wife, etc. Why not? I always tell the anecdote about [George] Harrison of the Beatles, who wanted to be the thief in The Holy Mountain , and he really wanted to do it. We met at the Plaza Hotel, but he said, "There's a scene I don't want to do, it's that scene where the Alchemist cleans my anus in a fountain, and there's a hippopotamus next to me. I don't want to show my anus to everyone next to a hippopotamus... like, that's not for me." I said, "With the success you have, showing your anus will show the youth that you don't have to have such a strong ego—do it." "I can't do it," he said, and I responded, "I can't stop making this scene. It hurts me, considering that if you work on this film it will make me a millionaire, but I can't because it's essential for me." So I made the essential scene, and it didn't make me a millionaire, but I made a work of art that still persists.
I don't know what happens to people with the anus. They show their mouths and not their anuses. I imagine there will soon be aesthetic operations to make photogenic anuses. It'll happen very soon.
Anuses worthy of being photographed.
[ Laughs] I also invented an industry that hasn't become very famous: small rings for the clitoris. The moment you marry a woman she puts a ring on your finger and you put a tiny ring on her clitoris, in front of the priest. This hasn't had much success.
Musicians always meet with you. You influence them. The last we know you met with was Kanye West. Do you remember that day?
I was in Nice, and he came to see me with four assistants and we talked. Very interesting. First off, he said he admired my work, especially The Holy Mountain, and this moved me—a person like him interested in that. He seemed magical. Then we started talking. I read his tarot and he asked advice about his next work. It's very different from the image people have of him. I've seen people say he seems very arrogant, but no, he's very human, very understanding. I had a good time with him.
The live show he has now is based on The Holy Mountain...
That's what he told me.
Have you seen him live?
I've seen him. It's what I've always loved: My work gives something to someone, and if it works for them, it's worth the trouble to make it.
Is it a very different thing to make films now than in the 60s and 70s?
It's the same, because no one wanted to do what I did in the 70s. For the first, El Topo, I almost became a swindler who signed dated checks. We were selling it to the United States, and I lost a kilo a day because they weren't buying it. In Mexico, we almost had to ransom hostages. It was difficult to make it. I've now lost a million dollars on this adventure. I'm willing. One must be brave. It's like gambling on your life—you must do it.
Translated from the Spanish by Lee Klein.
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