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Old 05-11-2007, 07:37 AM
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Default Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, The




Reviewer: Rhett
Review Date: May 10, 2007

Released by: Anchor Bay
Release date: 5/1/2007
MSRP: $49.98
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 2.35:1 | 16x9: Yes (The Holy Mountain)
Widescreen 1.66:1 | 16x9: No (Fando y Lis)
Full frame 1.33:1 (El Topo, La Cravate)



"I ask of cinema what most North Americans ask of psychedelic drugs." – Alejandro Jodorowsky

inline ImageThere are few figures in cult cinema as enigmatic as Alejandro Jodorowsky. He quickly and unexpectedly shot to the top of the global arthouse movement after his low-budget El Topo became an artistic cause celebre by Beatles John Lennon and George Harrison. Yoko Ono was an avant garde artist herself, so she and Lennon bankrolled his other cult followup, 1973’s The Holy Mountain. At the height of his popularity he disappeared from the map, making a virtually unseen children’s picture in 1980, and then not another film until 1989’s Santa Sangre. What was he doing throughout the rest of the seventies? By his own admission, “having sex”. Those two films alone made him forever a cult icon, and he was reaping the rewards with posh women, indulging in the pleasures of the body that he would so characteristically denounce in all his films.

El Topo was not Jodorowsky’s first film, it was his third, with his previous two works as equally interested in deconstructing the divisions between spirit and body. His short debut, 1957’s La Cravate, is a mimed short about body switching, done with a French quirk that would later be embraced by the similar works of Michel Gondry. Fando y Lis followed eleven years later in 1968, inciting riots in many of the festivals in which it was released. Other than a conventional per-hire job with The Rainbow Thief, that’s Jodorowsky’s canon. Seven films over fifty years.

His films are elusive to begin with, rife with surrealism, and the fact they came out at such distanced intervals makes him even less accessible. Thankfully, Anchor Bay has done nearly the impossible in releasing The Holy Mountain and El Topo onto DVD for the first time in North America (the rights disputes between Jodorowsky and Beatles producer Allen Klein were notorious). They come with their respective soundtracks and his two previous films, making for a wonderful in for Jodorowsky newcomers. Open your mind, because we are about to drop the acid that is Jodorowsky’s filmography.

The Story

inline ImageWe’ll buck chronology and start here with El Topo, Jodorowsky’s first real blip on the cinematic map. The film is more or less the bible as if filtered through the surrealism of Luis Bunuel and the ultra-gore of Lucio Fulci. On the surface it is a western too, so we’ll throw in Sergio Leone for good measure. So what is it about? Well, uh, the film starts with a gunfighter (Jodorowsky) and his naked son riding on horseback. The sun is asked to burry a mirror to forget his mother. A little weird, but okay. Then they stumble into a town where everyone has been massacred. Man, woman and animal all lie flaccid, their blood mixed in with the desert sand. After rescuing a woman, the gunfighter learns that there were four gunmen responsible for the massacre, and therefore makes it his mission to slay each and every one of them.

inline ImageThat sounds like your conventional western, but the way the story unfolds is as far as you can get from clichéd. Each gunman represents a different spiritual form of thought, and Jodorowsky’s journey ends up being a meditation on spirituality and the irrelevance of the human body. At one point, one of the gunman, with two dead birds in hand (one shot in the heart, the other the head) asks Jodorowsky to imagine replacing his heart with his head. Think what you feel, feel what you think. If that’s not metaphysical enough, then Jodorowsky also features a parade of deformed cave dwellers who seek Jodorowsky to dig (like the mole of the title) out of the cave for freedom. The dig is more than just through rock though, with Jodorowsky prodding much deeper into the spirit of man.

inline ImageWhile Jodorowksy no doubt transplanted the spaghetti western aesthetic and narrative onto El Topo to make it marketable to investors, the resulting film is as much a western as Child’s Play is a children’s film. It’s horror, in the way thousands of bodies are massacred in ultra violence, including colonies of rabbits blown up in gory excess. It’s philosophical, in the way the lead character passes through a number of mind tests on par with 2001. It’s depraved, too, that’s for sure, with an endless display of the perverse, from sexualized dwarfs to a Siamese fusing of an armless man tied onto a man without legs. With all these crazy genres coexisting at once, what initially comes across as vigorous and random begins to frustrate as Jodorowsky strays further and further from plot in his visual journey through the realms of spirituality.

inline ImageThere is a point though, in El Topo, where suddenly the anarchic madness suddenly comes into perfect clarity. Like a mirage in the desert, the film’s theme just sort of manifests itself along the horizons of time, and once it clicks, it registers with an impact that no conventional film can emulate. At the core of the film, and Jodorowsky’s canon in general, is the analysis of the human body. Jodorowsky argues that the body is nothing and the spirit is everything. It’s Cartesian dualism made film, and Jodorowsky makes his point by featuring a never-ending display of death and carnage, bodies eviscerated, deformed and killed in every which way. He shows how easy death can occur (and how it occurs even easier in the art of film) and displays the pratfalls of human physicality by displaying black men branded like cattle, limbless men floundering helplessly, and dwarf women raped and turned into a physical joke. The body is a cruel thing, and in constantly outlining death and mistreatment, Jodorowsky eventually desensitizes the audience. Death loses it’s sacredness amidst all the bloodshed, like the term “nigger” did in its overuse in Pulp Fiction. El Topo is an archeological dig through modern spirituality, and when Jodorowsky’s themes finally surface, rather than blinding light we are greeted with esteemed revelation.


inline ImageWhere El Topo demystified the ties of man to his body, The Holy Mountain shatters the ties between man, body, history, film, religion, and any other value pertinent of the time. With the full confidence of John and Yoko behind his budget, Jodorowsky didn’t have to comply with the western formalities that allowed his El Topo to be made. No, instead The Holy Mountain is an almost purely random critique of all the world’s Idols. We have Vietnemese prisoners of war, executed not by gunfire, but by the flash bulbs of exploitive war journalism. Jesus, in the midst of being hung and stoned, spontaneously jumps from the cross and scares away his accusers. The conquest of Mexico is reenacted by frogs, outfitted in full headgear and weaponry. The occurrences are almost completely without connection, other than as a mocking of the beliefs that presided over the very political early-seventies.

inline ImageThere is a mild plot though, and in many ways it is a naked version of El Topo’s western. Instead we follow Jesus as he walks the streets of modern times, observing the death and decay present all around him. Instead of having to meet four gunmen, he instead undergoes a Buddhist journey with ten figureheads, each representing a planet in the solar system. Each one, in explaining their job, further mocks the foundations of American capitalist culture and religious discourse, ultimately culminating in an empty pursuit for the place of the title. The characters all head for this “Holy Mountain”, where divine revelation will finally make itself visible to the world. Instead of finding revelation though, the group finds themselves in the midst of yet another demystification. Broke down powerfully in the final moments of the film, is cinema itself.

inline ImageIf ever Jodorowsky’s comparison of his films to psychedelic drugs had merit, this is it. The Holy Mountain is an amazing achievement, a one of a kind work of spiritual exploration that marks one of the purest examples of an auteur film imaginable. Jodorowsky was given everything he wanted to make this film, and what he created was a film with a scope and skill as bountiful as the resources available to him. This is one of the only films truly about life itself, about everything that man faces, both in and out of death. Jodorowsky has an amazingly expansive conception of reality, and every image here, over half of them against abstract backdrops, are themselves individual crystals of imaginary splendor. While El Topo had some shocking images inside an otherwise inexpressive camera, The Holy Mountain finds each shot so painstakingly manicured and chosen for supreme artistic worth.

inline ImageThe narrative is so piecemeal, and the visuals and sound so overpowering in their beauty, that this is a film, much like Koyaaniqatsi, where each and every sense becomes part of the process of understanding. Jodorowsky doesn’t just work your mind with his film, but he floods your subconscious, enticing a higher level of thought. You don’t follow this film, you feel it, and every spiritual interjection only heightens the resulting power. If this description seems all to broad, it has to be. The Holy Mountain is one of those pictures that cannot be explained by a single scene or moment. It is a controlled collection of madness, surrealism so confident and masterful that it stands up along the equally free-form The Phantom of Liberty as one of cinema’s transcendental moments. It’s a journey where you see Jodorowsky reach for the heavens, and just before grabbing them, he turns his back, revealing the artifice of cinema and the world. It is no wonder it took him so many years to make another film after this, for like he did all the millions of victims of El Topo, he effectively killed the body of cinema in 1973. With Jaws and the onslaught of commercial cinema shortly after, many would say it hasn’t lived since.


inline ImageAfter the seeing the two films that would define Jodorowsky as an artist, we see how he got there with his quirky little body switching short, La Cravate. Freaky Friday, it’s not! We follow around a flamboyant and jovial man (again Jodorowsky) as he tries to pickup women. They all reject his advances, which leads him to question his physical appearance. Hoping to increase his success rate on the dating scene, he walks into a barber-esque shop, but instead of cutting hair they cut heads. Yes, they transplant a head of the buyers’ choice onto their body.



inline ImageThe man accidentally picks the head of a woman, and after the head transplant, his body begins to change with the face. His yellow shirt fills out, and he walks with a more womanly stride. Still, he cannot pick up the shrink he’s trying to woo, so back he goes to the shop. He picks the head of a jock, which predictably changes his body once again. The shrink still is not convinced by his charms, while his real head sits on a mantle above the shop owner’s fireplace. It is there where he finds true love though, wooing the shop owner, literally, with his mind.



inline ImageLa Cravate is a deceptively simple little short, made even simpler by a lack of dialogue and an emphasis on cute camera trickery. The effects are obvious but impassioned, where the head sitting on the table fireplace is clearly backed by a body just below the frame, but through film magic a discombobulated head all the same. Lurking behind this magic show trickery though, is a pretty deep questioning of where the body begins and where it ends. In transplanting the heads, the body seems to take the characteristics of its new owner, yet at the same time it still moves with the mindful intention of courting the psychiatrist. It is as if Jodorowsky is questioning whether we think with our head, or a more abstract spirit that resides in and around our body whole.

inline ImageEven with his first film, Jodorowsky demonstrates an interest in metaphysics that would come to define his searches in El Topo and The Holy Mountain. Man does not start and end with the body, there is a life force greater than anything physical, and one of the many ways of tapping this spirituality is through the magic of the cinema. His other films would expand this concept to include Buddhism, but here is Jodorowsky lite, parlaying the Melies Brothers sense of cinematic discovery with more metaphysical questioning.


inline ImageThe last, and least, of this box set is his first feature length film, Fando y Lis. If Waiting for Godot featured a paraplegic and were filmed in Mexico, it would probably be this. The film begins amiably enough with a provocative image of a scantly clad woman eating a flower. We are then told in voice over about a mystical city called Tar, where the plant eating girl and her boyfriend journey towards. She cannot walk, so he must pull her in a cart. Like something out of The Odyssey, they come across many weird sights, like a harem of mud-covered nymphs, a combustible piano, a tribe of transvestites, and other such oddities.

inline ImageLike Waiting for Godot though, their little excursion seems pointless, the absurdities of life showcasing themselves in ill fashion. Eventually the two quarrel, mostly out of frustration on what seems an endless journey. Fando (Sergio Kleiner) drags the paraplegic Lis (Diana Mariscal) across the ground, desecrating her body in the process. He eventually carries her, his burden, on his back, as their journey comes to a fateful end. As plants grow around them, they literally become one with the earth.



inline ImageA film shot on weekends, Fando y Lis looks it, with its shaky camera work and improvised compositions. This seems less the calculated surrealism of his seventies masterworks, and more just sloppiness disguised as surreal. The themes on life and body manifest themselves here, but this is clearly Jodorowsky trying to gain his footing in the world of feature film. La Cravate was small and simple, the scope here for Fando y Lis clearly overwhelmed the director, and what we have here is a vague string of affairs liked mostly by the films Jodorowsky tries to emulate.

inline ImageThe most obvious influence here is Federico Fellini, with the male-female journey playing itself out in a fantastical fashion similar to La Strada. Diana Mariscal is no Giulietta Masina, and her death registers with only a shred of the impact found in Masina’s tragic demise in Fellini’s classic. Jodorowsky works best as an abstract thinker, and here the film flounders most because it presents itself in a linear, melodramatic story. The only character in any of Jodorowsky’s films to generate pathos is the director himself, whether in front of the camera in La Cravate, or in his sincere philosophic questioning behind the camera in El Topo and The Holy Mountain. Here the film is without Jodorowsky the actor, and for the most part Jodorowsky the thinker, too. Even the potent opening image, where in her consumption of the flower, Lis suggests a shared commonality between the senses, much like the shared relationship between body and earth, Jodorowsky is treading too closely behind the path Bunuel left with his iconic image in Un Chien Andalou. Fando y Lis is a valiant but tedious effort by a great schizophrenic, unable to sort out the impulses that would come clearer to him later on in life.

Image Quality

inline ImageAll four films are presented in their original aspect ratios, which vary as much from film to film as the quality of the transfers. El Topo comes in a 1.33:1 full frame transfer, and looks cleaned up a great deal. The colors are punchy, and certainly less faded than one would expect from such a poorly kept midnight movie. There are some recurring shots that feature a brown scratch line down the center, but this happens only intermittently. There are specs to be seen, but there’s no doubt it has been cleaned out considerably.



inline ImageThe Holy Mountain, presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, certainly looks best, which is a fitting since it is by far Jodorowsky’s most visual work. The psychedelic colors come through so incredibly rich, from that incredibly red Babel-esque building in the center of the city to all those colors set backdrops. The print is in remarkable shape, with no scratches to be found. There are some blemishes here and there, but for the most part it is incredibly clean. As sharp as a mountain’s peak the visuals are, with even the tiny scales of a lizard in close-up registered in perfect detail. Near perfect.

inline ImageLa Cravate is a much more battered 1.33:1 print, and in that respect looks its fifty year old age. There is some frame jittering and a whole lot of dust and debris on the frame. It definitely could have used a good cleaning, but thankfully the colors have held up, with the bright colors on display here still retaining their luster. Jodorowsky might even win the award for yellowest shirt ever documented on celluloid. There are some film scratches too, and the print is far from perfect, but considering the fact that the film was only just recently found in an attic, it is a miracle it still holds up as well as it does.


inline ImageFando y Lis looks pretty bad. It is in a letterboxed 1.66:1 transfer, which already gets the visuals off on a bad foot (ask Criterion how do to 1.66:1 justice on DVD), and it gets worse from there. Many times during the film there is some weird digital clipping of sorts in the visual, where fast movements seem unnatural. There is some artifacting visible too, which doesn’t aid matters. There’s a feature length documentary tacked onto the disc too, which bumps the running-time for the disc to just north of three hours, so it is understandable why the bandwidth allotted to the video would take a quality hit. The print isn’t too dirty, but is often soft (both because of the transfer and the shoddy filmmaking before it) and overall just unappealing. Considering it is the worst of the bunch and more a curiosity than anything, the poor transfer here shouldn’t matter much.


Sound

inline ImageBoth El Topo and The Holy Mountain are presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, with El Topo in Spanish and The Holy Mountain in its original English. Both films are largely without dialogue though, so the prospect of an opened soundscape to make way for Jodorowsky’s mystical soundtracks would sound the perfect proposition. However, the result is pretty lackluster, with the rears rarely being used at all, not even with music cues. Most everything remains upfront and without any directionality whatsoever. The only benefit is that the three speakers up front seem to split the load, so it at the very least sounds strong.

La Cravate is music only, and Fando y Lis is a subtitled Spanish, and both come in with unrefined mono tracks. Everything there is a slight hiss to both, but the dialogue in Fando y Lis is always audible, and the music in La Cravate never shrill or muffled. They sound as they should, and revel in the mediocrity of their transfers. The sound mixes for El Topo and The Holy Mountain, however, fall short of the splendor of their visual transfers.


Supplemental Material

inline ImageAlthough the bland, indecisive back covers of each release wouldn’t let you know it, there is actually quite a bit of meat to this release. The big extras are three feature length commentaries by Alejandro Jodorowsky, which he provides for El Topo, The Holy Mountain and Fando y Lis. His films are so dense, and so packed with symbolic imagery, that they make the tell all commentary a perfect venue for the man to crystallize his ideas. He talks fast and perceptively about all the abstraction on screen, adding further layers to already layered films. Whether he is talking about his love of Tarot cards, or the quality of going back in time with his commentaries to meet the Jodorowsky of the past, it is fascinating stuff, and must sees for anyone impressed with his work. The commentaries are all subtitled in a variety of languages too, so not a beat gets missed.

inline ImageGoing disc by disc, El Topo has a short interview with Jodorowsky, where he basically explains how the film caught on, how he started the midnight movie phenomena, and how it got him into the pants of a lot of women. There’s a trailer too, which is nearly as surreal as the movie, especially with that robotic narration. The disc is rounded off with some stills and scanned pages from the script.




inline ImageThe Holy Mountain is the densest of all discs, and all the extras are first rate. The aforementioned commentary really helps demystify the film, but then the two other short Jodorowsky commentaries take it a step further. First is a six minute montage of deleted scenes with commentary by J.D., and in the commentary he explains some intriguing things, like his intended ending, and what these excised wonders all mean. His other little commentary, a Tarot documentary of similar length, has Jodorowsky explain his fascination in cards (he’s owned over 1,500 different ones) and how all card games have spawned from the symbolic game. His explanation of poker must be heard. Even the restoration demo, another six minutes, is filled with perception, as one of the leading restoration engineers explains how they improved The Holy Mountain as eye opening comparisons play on screen. The disc is rounded off with a trailer and another gallery.

inline ImageFando y Lis, although the back would lead you to think otherwise, has a 90-minute documentary on Jodorowsky entitled “La Constellation”. This was featured on the previous release of Fando y Lis on DVD, and contains interviews with Peter Gabriel, Mcarcel Marceau and Jean Giraud. Gabriel mentions on how El Topo horrified him so much, that the images in the film really helped shape his course in music. Jodorowsky is of course as outspoken as ever here too, and speaks at length about his films, offering even more perception to that esoteric body of work. The whole thing is shot on some cheap cameras and with weak sound, but still is an informative enough look at the surrealist superstar.

inline ImageThere are no extras, unfortunately, on La Cravate, which is a shame since a commentary could have really benefited this small little film. The final two extras are found on two separate discs, and they are soundtracks for both The Holy Mountain and El Topo. Both feature recordings predominately done by Jodorowsky, and like the films span several different styles and limits of expression. Some tracks are abrasive, shocking and tough to sit with, while others contain guitar strings so delicate they draw you in. Listening to them as a whole is a real schizophrenic experience, but picking a track to match the mood can serve a far greater function. Like they did with their Bava set, Anchor Bay has done justice once again to a great, underrated auteur.


Final Thoughts

inline ImageAlthough he has done films in each decade for the last 50 years, Alejandro Jodorowsky still stands predominately as that iconic seventies flash in the pan. His two films, El Topo and The Holy Mountain, struck such a bizarre, surreal chord, that watching them you get the impression that he was almost able to change the nature of film and the world all at once. Those two films are incredibly violent, iconoclastic, scandalous and rebellious, yet at the same time touch with the delicate sincerity of a man who wanted to change the way humanity thinks.

Those two films alone make for an amazing film experience, and the addition of his two lesser films to show his beginnings, make this all the more imperative to pickup for fans of cult cinema. The extras are incredibly personal, with Jodorowsky himself anchoring hours worth of commentaries and extras, and the fine restorations for his two big films make this an essential upgrade for any owners of his previous releases. Casual fans, or those new to the man, could just spring for the standalone releases for El Topo and The Holy Mountain. If you want the full experience though, there is little better than this set. While Jodorowsky may never have achieved the immortality he sought in The Holy Mountain, it is restorations and compilations like this Anchor Bay set that show us that the man is still a long way from death.


Rating

El Topo
Movie - A-
Image Quality - A-
Sound - B+

The Holy Mountain
Movie - A
Image Quality - A
Sound - B+

La Cravate
Movie - B
Image Quality - B-
Sound - B-

Fando y Lis
Movie - C-
Image Quality - C-
Sound - B-

Supplements - A-

Technical Info.
  • Color/Black & White
  • Running Time - 4 hours 40 minutes
  • Not Rated
  • 6 discs
  • Chapter Stops
  • English Dolby Digital 5.1 (The Holy Mountain)
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 (El Topo)
  • Spanish Mono (Fando y Lis)
  • Silent Mono (La Cravate)
  • English subtitles
  • Spanish subtitles
  • Brazilian subtitles
  • Portuguese subtitles
  • French subtitles

Supplements
  • Commentaries by Alejandro Jodorowsky on El Topo, The Holy Mountain, and Fando y Lis
  • Deleted scenes with Jodorowsky commentary (The Holy Mountain)
  • Trailers (El Topo, The Holy Mountain)
  • Tarot cards featurette
  • "La Constellation" documentary
  • Soundtracks for El Topo and The Holy Mountain
  • Photo galleries

Other Pictures



 

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