interview by DONATIEN GRAU
chilean-born alejandro jodorowsky traveled to mexico in the 1960s with marcel marceau’s mime troupe and refused to leave. he found a land of surrealism and strangeness that fed his appetite for the bizarre. in mexico, he created 100 avant-garde plays in 10 years and moved into cinema.
in his underground cult classics, “el topo” (1970), “the holy mountain” (1973), and “santa sangre” (1989), he conjugated the libertarian spirit of the late 1960s with latin-american folklore and magical realism. these radical films embodied his quest for spiritual realization
DONATIEN GRAU — You were born in Tocopilla, Chile. As a young man, you traveled to France to become a poet, then you went to Mexico in the 1960s. Can you share your impressions of the place back then?
ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY — My image of Mexico dates from the early 1960s, when I arrived in Mexico City with Marcel Marceau’s mime company. We were playing at the Palacio de Bellas Artes… The atmosphere there was pure, unlike anything I’d seen in any of the countries where I’d lived for years. Both Chile and France are countries that you could describe as “conservative” because they are without excess. They have a moderate folklore, a relation to religion that is not omnipresent, a culture that seems to be generally accepted. When I was living in France, if I wanted to satisfy my taste for strangeness, I sought out what was unknown, magical, different — Japan, samurai stories, films, Zen Buddhism, kabuki theater. It was fascinating essentially because it was different. Most importantly, it wasn’t me. Marceau represented a style of theater that was very delicate, silent, poetic. As a member of his company, I was in Marceau’s world, a world that had its roots in silent movies, whose heroes were Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. When I came to Mexico and experienced this new country, I really can say that it blew my mind. It was a world that was 100% Mexican. The spirit of Mexico is excess. The flora, the fauna, the food, the social relations, the fashion, the songs, the music — there were no limits anywhere.
DONATIEN GRAU — Can you describe some of the different sensations you experienced?
ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY — It was fragrant. For me, it was like landing on another planet. I was 30 years old. It was completely different from my other experiences of living abroad. In Marceau’s troupe, there were only four of us. Marceau did all his shows alone, accompanied by an old mime artist, Pierre Verry, and my young self. We were there to hold up the placards introducing each pantomime… People looked at us like we were extraterrestrials. You may think I’m exaggerating. I’ll start with a little detail. Near the center of the city, there was a huge market selling products for sorcery. You could find everything for miraculous cures, love-philters, lucky charms, fortune-telling, tarot, etc. In every quarter of Mexico City, you could find people to tell your fortune, folk remedies, massages to get rid of possession problems, sorcerers to help you get revenge on someone. All the restaurants were Mexican. Massive crowds gathered for wrestling and boxing matches with all their masked heroes. You could eat ant eggs like it was caviar. Everything was new. The language was Spanish, but in that language, there was a secret strain called albur, a language of sexual mockery that only Mexicans understood. They could be laughing at you without you knowing it. And Mexico is where marijuana and magic mushrooms came from. With my friends, who were all artists, we used to stay up until four in the morning, cracking jokes. We went regularly to the markets with their street food. Utterly delicious. Walking around in Mexico can be dangerous, but it’s such a joy. Art is everywhere — on the walls, in publications, in the architecture, in the colors, in the sounds, in the noise. When you live in France, having known Mexico in the ’60s, it’s kind of dull. It’s very polite, France is. Mexico was wild.
DONATIEN GRAU — So, you fell in love with Mexico?
ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY — Yup, I fell in love with that country! I left Marceau’s mime troupe so I could stay there. I was open to its culture, and Mexico was open to new things from abroad. Putting on a show was easy there. It was like a dream: you agreed, you created your show, and soon it all vanished, as in a dream. You really lived in the present, for everything. There was the popular theater, where not only did the actresses dress in costumes, but they also challenged the audience, which was 100% male, inviting them to come up on stage and perform intercourse. The Bataclan theater took it all the way. There was always some brave guy — often drunk — to take up the challenge. The actress would lie down, the man would do it with her, and with her hands the woman motioned to the audience to applaud “the hero.” In Mexican wrestling, the masks are just pure surrealism, but there are also people with nonstandard bodies — giants and midgets. And amidst all the ferocity, there are people telling jokes. Everything was over the top, compared with what I’d seen in Chile and Paris. Even the crimes. My film Santa Sangre [Holy Blood] is based on the story of a serial killer of women, Gregorio “Goyo” Cárdenas. He used to bury them in his garden. He was put in an asylum for 10 years, and they said he was “cured.” He was praised by the Mexican president for having “beaten madness.” I saw things there that I’d never seen before, anywhere in the world. That exaggeration produces people who have an incredible culture: they are not afraid and follow their creative desire wherever it leads, beyond good or bad taste. They are passionate about their work. It’s just impossible to sum up the incredible creative world that you have in Mexico. For years, I used to see Pachita, an 80-year-old woman who claimed to have a surgical clinic, where she did operations with just a kitchen knife. No anesthetic. She cured all kinds of illnesses: tumors on the liver, replacing lungs. In her glory days, she was received by the president of Mexico in the presidential palace. Shamanism was respected as part of Mexican life, along with popular music, mural painting, and Mexican costumes.
DONATIEN GRAU — You transformed Mexican theater…
ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY — I put on some 100 avant-garde plays over 10 years. In Mexico, you won’t find a single Surrealist work — it’s the whole country that’s surreal! So, I had to offer something other than Surrealism, which is what I had gone to Paris for. There were plenty of obstacles to putting on plays by Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, August Strindberg — you were really risking your life. The mass papers cried scandal. The biggest audience I was able to find in Mexico was for avant-garde theater… I’d have to put on a play about a hundred times. I sowed the seeds of avant-garde theater. The conservative press was outraged. There would be eight columns insulting me, demanding that I be kicked out of the country. The youth group would come and tear up the seats in the theater if they thought you were insulting religion. But it was all very enthusiastic. If you are strong enough to hold your own in Mexico, Mexico will applaud. But for that, you really have to fight. When you’re a foreigner, Mexico treats you well, but if you stay, you risk being infected. So, you have to fight. But when you fight, you start to love life. It’s a permanent fiesta.
DONATIEN GRAU — In a sense, you did the opposite of what Luis Buñuel did: Buñuel was a Surrealist, then he went to Mexico, and, in his Mexican period, he made “Mexican” films.
ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY — I am an art extremist. I don’t do my work to make money. What’s more, I make several kinds of art, whereas Buñuel was essentially a filmmaker. I knew his son, who told me that there was a time in Buñuel’s life, when he was in New York, when he earned his living as a dishwasher, but he did no other creative work than cinema. He went to Mexico, and he made Mexican cinema. There was quite an industry at the time. It was a Mexican art form, for the Mexican market. It was his livelihood. Whereas in France, with the Surrealist movement, he made his Surrealist films. When I came to Mexico, the theater was in the style of Spanish classical theater. The cinema was folkloric cinema. I decided to do avant-garde theater and cinema. A work of art can’t be folkloric. Art means striving for spiritual realization, sublime beauty.
The most advanced things at the time were the American-inspired musicals. There was just one group worthy of respect: Poesía en Voz Alta. That says it all: “Poetry Spoken Aloud.” Avant-garde theater was about changing theatrical forms, sweeping away the sets; it meant performing in garages, on the pyramids, choosing the place where you performed. The first article I published about the theater was titled “Getting Theater out of the Theater.” It was fantastic because you could do what you wanted. The people who were doing avant-garde theater with me did it for the love of art. Once the play was finished, you moved on to something else. There was no future in what we were doing. We were also interested in Mexican comics, which were not art — the themes were vulgar — but a bit of fun that you threw away after you’d used it. For five years, we put out our Panic Fables, which were the opposite of what comics were about in Mexico at the time.
DONATIEN GRAU — Then you moved on to cinema…
ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY — At the time, I used to say, “Theater is a cry in the city; cinema is a cry in the world.” I wanted the world as my audience. My life is an experiment in liberation from all kinds of cultural prejudices. In Mexico,
I helped to let cinema out of all its technical cages. As an industry, the cinema has become saturated with technicians, laborers, producers, money. In industrial cinema, the most important person is not the director — it’s the producer. Everything is organized around making big bucks. But that is not the goal of art.
DONATIEN GRAU — El Topo [The Mole] opened up a new direction in cinema, and it’s a film you shot in Mexico. Like The Holy Mountain, El Topo seems to measure up to the model of the American Western, only to subvert it. Can you say something about that?
ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY — I put on a show based on a play by Fernando Arrabal, Fando y Lis. A very negative, dark play. And I made it into a film, based on my memory of the play. The script was just a page. When I made the movie, I thought it would be an instant hit in the US. Nobody in Mexico understood it, but they would understand it there. But the American distributor made a completely different edit, with the result that what started out as a poetic film lost all its meaning. It was a total failure. So, I said to myself: “I’m going to make a cowboy film. They’re gonna love it.” And I made El Topo. Without all the anger, I’d never have made that film.
DONATIEN GRAU — In fact, you seriously changed the classic Western model.
ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY — Yes, because it was a story of spiritual progress, which is not exactly what westerns are about. In fact, in El Topo, I didn’t really
make a Western, but an “Eastern,” a film informed by the East. I appropriated the John Wayne character and split it in two: a man with no legs and a man with no arms. El Topo is a rabbi, dressed in black, with a beard. When he punishes the general, and the general asks, “Who are you?”, he replies, “I am God.”
DONATIEN GRAU — In a very radical act, you yourself play El Topo, which plants the seed for a whole family tree of films.
ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY — When I founded the Panic Movement with Arrabal and Roland Topor, one of its principles was that the author should appear in the work. I have always talked about my life in my films, in a disguised kind of way. El Topo was a bandit who shaved his head and became a saint. No actor was prepared to let his hair grow and then shave his head. They made their living from telenovelas, so shaving their head was out of the question. I filmed a scene with me in it, and
I realized that I could play the role. Since El Topo is a bandit, I took a vulgar actor for the voice at the beginning. In the second part, it’s my voice, that of a person seeking a spiritual path. I didn’t use well-known movie industry locations or technicians. Most of my actors were people I’d found myself. In art cinema, there is a creator who must handle everything: costumes, editing, etc. I don’t have the power of the movie industry, but I like cinema to be free. The way I make it, it really is an artistic experience that must help to awaken consciousness.
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