In 1990, the Sunday Correspondent sent me to interview Alejandro Jodorowsky and his son Axel, to tie in with the UK release of Santa Sangre. I took rather a nice photograph of them too, but damn me if I can’t find the negative in the gazillion boxes of ineptly filed negs and prints stashed away in my attic. Maybe one day… Meanwhile, here’s a grungy reproduction taken directly from the newsprint.
In the years since I wrote this, of course, El Topo and The Holy Mountain have been distributed on DVD and found a whole new generation of fans. At the time of our meeting, I didn’t realise (there being no internet or Wikipedia in those days, and this being a decade before I moved to France) just how much of a Big Cheese Jodorowsky Père was in the field of BD (Bande Dessinée, French for graphic novel, an artform the French have always taken very seriously). In fact he has authored at least two stone-cold classics of the genre – L’incal noir (artwork by the legendary Moebius) and La caste des Méta-Barons (artwork by Juan Giménez). He and Moebius unsuccessfully sued Luc Besson, claiming Besson’s 1997 film The Fifth Element (to which Moebius himself contributed, making the case rather a murky one) borrowed graphic and story elements from L’incal noir.
In the strange twilight world of Seventies culture, two words burn with a mystical light: El Topo. Many have heard the words, but not so many have seen the film, for it has long been out of circulation. Ancient buffs dredge up memories of weird doings in the desert, of the Four Sharpshooter Masters and the Woman in Black, but their recollections of the story are hazy, perhaps because the film’s hardcore following seems to have consisted of hopheads, kung-fu fans and Jesus freaks. These were the chosen few; these were the only ones who understood what the hell was going on.
Alejandro Jodorowsky, esteemed El Topo auteur, has just made his first film in 16 years. It is called Santa Sangre (Holy Blood) and it is best described as an artistic slasher movie incorporating Fellini’s Roma meets The World According to Garp plus The Hands of Orlac. Its director is a magpie who stockpiles other people’s ideas, adds his own, and spins everything into a tale that is like nothing else you have ever seen, except perhaps in your sleep. It’s a dark film, full of death, mutilation and revenge, but Jodorowsky adds a last-minute twist that renders the entire story optimistic, non-misogynistic and morally sound. This is a magician’s trick; the film-maker has studied legerdemain, and it shows.
“I was born completely naked of ideas,” he says, but he seems to have been clothing himself in them ever since. His style of movie-making belongs to no recognisable country or school; it’s more like a personal sketchpad on which images are twisted together with an illogic that makes sense on a dream level. “I write my dreams down,” he says. “I have a big book with my dreams. I can direct my dreams also. But not all the time.”
Jodorowsky was born in Chile of Russian parentage, and now lives in Paris with his wife and five children; his four sons appear in Santa Sangre, but his daughter refused to play. He once prepared a treatment of Dune for Dino De Laurentiis, then turned the results into a bande dessinée and now he runs a school of psychoanalysis based on the Tarot. He feels rootless.
“Is a little sad not to have a country or people who are proud about what you do,” he says, recalling wistfully that there was no one to send him a congratulatory telegram when Santa Sangre won a prize at a fantasy film festival. “That is bad. That is good also, because I feel good anywhere.” He peps up, warming to his theme. “I have no nationality, but I am movie-maker, that is my nationality. I am from Cineland!”
Nevertheless, his personal charm is definitely of the magical realist Latin American variety, and he is far too chivalrous to say to me, as he once said to a (male) friend of mine: “I kill lots of women and bury them in my subconscious.” And Alejandro’s 23-year-old son Axel, who plays Santa Sangre‘s mixed-up, mother-fixated anti-hero, is every bit as courteous as his father – pouring the tea solicitously and encouraging me to eat all the chocolate éclairs as though he finds nothing in the world more pleasurable than to watch a grown woman stuffing herself with cream cakes.
It was more than 20 years ago that Alejandro met a man who had murdered 30 women and buried them, not in his subconscious but in his backyard. “But he was now a normal person, and he don’t remember what he did. And that gave me an idea. If this sample human being after killing 30 women is able to get cured and make a life, marry the woman, have two children – so many wars, so many destruction, maybe we can get cured.” It’s a nice notion. In theory. I personally would not wish to swap places with the woman who marries the man who cannot remember having killed 30 women. Or, for that matter, with the woman who marries the man who can remember.
Alejandro chose to film in Mexico “because I can do miracles there. I can put an enormous coffin in the street and the people say nothing, they say is normal, a big coffin. And I can hire the school of retard children, make a party with them and shoot it – and all the person is happy. If I say here that I want to use a school of mental retarded in a picture, they will say I am profiting off them, laughing at them. In Mexico they don’t think like that.”
The sequence in question is one of the most extraordinary in a film brimful of extraordinary things, and it invites a mixed response from the audience; some may consider it exploitative, while others will maintain that Jodorowsky negotiates a knife-edge of taste and emerges with his feet unscathed. The sole requirement of the Mexican authorities was that their national flag should nowhere be visible on the screen. Not even Mexicans want their territory associated with scenes of naked zombie brides on the rampage, or of jealous wives pouring sulphuric acid over their husbands’ crotches.
As preparation for his role, Alejandro made Axel live for a week with the Mexican actress (Jodorowsky spotted her in a local production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses) who would be playing his mother. Since, for most of the film, Axel’s mother has no arms and her son must fill the gap by standing behind her and putting his own arms down her sleeves in order for her to play the piano and put on her make-up, a close rapport was necessary. “I said to her you need to use Axel as a slave,” says Alejandro.
“I enjoyed,” says Axel, “but it was to rehearse a character. So I had to sleep with her…” The father chuckles indulgently. The son looks confused; that wasn’t what he meant at all. “I don’t say we were lovers,” he protests. “She was my mother. But I had in the morning to wake her, and she told me to make the breakfast and get the orange juice.”
And all of a sudden, the chocolate éclairs take on a new significance. Even as I write this, my fingers are twitching, seemingly of their own accord, dying to eat more. Could it be that… my hands belong to someone else?