Nothing can be more terrifying, or exhilarating, than absolute candor. And Alejandro Jodorowsky, the Chilean-Mexican-Parisian director who made the '70s cult hits "El Topo" and "The Holy Mountain" is nothing if not candid. When describing the generation of the eerie imagery in these movies, and in his latest, "Santa Sangre," he explains: "Everything came from me. I am a very weird person."
"Santa Sangre" is a very weird movie. Shot in a voluptuous style that suggests Federico Fellini fused with modern slasher movies, it's an unnervingly tender, magical portrayal of a mass murderer, Fenix, and his childhood traumas.
Its imagery blends circus fantasy and horrific carnage. A huge elephant dies of a nosebleed, receives a loving funeral procession and is devoured by peasants. A gigantic super-woman mangles masked wrestlers. A cultish temple, torn down by wreckers, has a pool filled with blood. An amputee mother forces her own son to be her "arms": Their joint mime routine suggests Jodorowsky's stint as assistant to mime artist Marcel Marceau.
From where do these bizarre notions emerge? "From my liver," insists Jodorowsky. "My ideas come like dreams . . . suddenly. And when it happens, I say 'Thank you!' to my unconscious."
This interview is a little weird too. Connections were missed with Jodorowsky when he was in Los Angeles, so we're catching up by phone. It's morning in L.A., evening in Paris where he lives. He apologizes, in a charmingly fractured accent that suggest equal parts of Mel Blanc and Ricardo Montalban: "This is my English; I have not another English. If you can understand me, is good."
"El Topo" and "The Holy Mountain" probably sum up the fantasies of the period--the fascination with outlaw culture, sexuality and primitive myth--as much as the novels of Tom Robbins or Kurt Vonnegut, the comics of R. Crumb, or, earlier, the music of the Beatles and The Who. They're quintessential, if slightly cracked, period artifacts.
"When I made 'El Topo,' " Jodorowsky says, "I didn't know what I was doing. I made it because I needed to."
But he had made no movies at all in the 10 years between "Tusk" and "Santa Sangre."
"Santa Sangre" was inspired by the actual story of the Mexican serial killer, Goio Cardenas, who murdered women and buried them in his garden. He was eventually arrested and sent to an asylum. Emerging a decade later with no apparent memory of his crime, Cardenas married and became a lawyer and writer.
Jodorowsky, hired by a producer who wanted a crime quickie, studied the case. He interviewed Cardenas, went to his house, visited the "garden"--and had his script rejected as too bizarre. It was finally rescued by Claudio Argento, younger brother of Italian horror specialist Dario Argento. Along the way, the personalities of Cardenas and Jodorowsky began to fuse.
Part of this identification stems from Jodorowsky's own tormented home life: an absent father, a dominating mother. "Now my mother's dead. But even now I realize how much I hated her, and how much I loved her. What I thought was hate was love.
"I tell in the picture only the essential thing: A person who kills women, who repents, who tries to buy his soul and get enlightenment . . . . I asked myself: 'Why am I so interested in this?' And then I realized I was a psychological murderer. I was, all my life, in my unconscious, killing women."
Is he talking here, by extension, about the way most men treat women? "Sure. I believe the power of the men in our society is getting worse and worse. We are afraid of women's equality. I believe the woman's revolution is only superficial . . . The day I see the Pope, the Papa, with a woman Papa near him, then I will believe this society is androgynous."
As a youngster himself, Jodorowsky experienced three artistic shocks. First, there was German Expressionist dance; then pantomime; then the surrealists. When he finally got to Paris, he called up writer Andre Breton, a patriarch of the last group, at one in the morning and demanded to speak to him, saying: "I am the biggest surrealist you will ever know!"
He also had a memorable encounter with the late Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett. "He was drinking Irish beer in a very white little apartment, and all the window looked out on a jail. From his window, all you could see was the hundred little windows of the prison."
Over and above these influences however, there was always the movies.
"All my life . . . movies was the most important thing. I was very solitary boy: immigrant, white, with a big nose. They called me 'Pinocchio.' The movies were the only friend I could have. I loved Erich Von Stroheim, 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,' 'Frankenstein' and Charles Laughton in 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame.' I get crazy!"
His philosophical teachers, he says, were the Marx Brothers. "For me, there are not three, but four: Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo. If you look closely, they are all in 'Santa Sangre.' Axel (Jodorowsky's eldest son), who plays the criminal, is Groucho. The little boy, the child, is Chico. My son who plays the dealer of cocaine is Harpo. My son who plays the assistant of the doctor, we called Zeppo--because he's not comic."
Jodorowsky is sanguine again about the future, which will probably include a sequel to his most famous film, called "Sons of El Topo" and starring his four sons. "I am a surrealistic optimist. I think we can get out of this madness. Myself from the '80s, I am saying: 'I am optimist, I am optimist.' All the persons laugh at me. But look at today: Berlin, Pinochet, democracy in Chile, Bucharest. It's very weird in the world now. For the first time in years: optimistical visions.
"I don't believe in the repetitions of history. I believe we will forget this century as my character forgets everyone he kills. Humanity will forget us, all our works. The 20th Century will be forgotten. All our civilization will be like Goio Cardenas. We killed millions of persons, but we'll not remember anymore. Because we'll get cured."