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DVD SAVANT

The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky
La Cravatte, Fando y Lis,
El Topo, The Holy Mountain


The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky
Abkco / Anchor Bay
Street Date May 1, 2007
49.98; El Topo, The Holy Mountain available separately at 24.98

Directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky is a gift from heaven to cult film fans, the ones that have been wincing at hideous pirated tapes for the last 30 years. Now that a dispute between the fiery filmmaker Jodorowsky and his Abcko producer has been amicably settled, their undeniably wild filmography can finally see the light of day in quality versions: The super-cult pictures El Topo and The Holy Mountain are here, along with a slightly improved offering of the older Fando y Lis. Jodorowsky's newly rediscovered 1957 film La Cravatte is here as well, and holds up as an avant-garde flight of fancy.

Jodorowsky's films are in general not for the faint of heart or anyone unprepared for extreme imagery and content that consistently goes beyond conventional politeness. Those conservatives not shocked entirely speechless have verbally condemned the filmmaker; he's been the target of death threats more than once. His pictures are provocative political art in the tradition and sometimes the style of the Iberian tricksters Luis Buñuel and Fernando Arrabal. Cinematically speaking, Jodorowsky doesn't hold a candle to the master Buñuel, who can suggest any number of obscene or subversive ideas with a simple inspired image. When Jodorowsky's strains to provoke, he can be a mud and feces-smeared bore. When he expands his wild ideas about Tarot cards and mysticism into grandiose visual tapestries, our interest level rises accordingly.

Synopses:

La Cravatte: A man switches his head at a special shoppe, in an attempt to charm a disinterested woman. When he returns to reclaim his original head, the shoppe has disappeared.
Fando y Lis: A restless young man rolls his crippled girlfriend on a cart through a primitive landscape, meeting various grotesque characters. Fando keeps mistreating Lis, but returns to her every time.
El Topo: Goaded by a mysterious woman, a black-suited gunfighter defeats a series of strange opponents, each with a unique philosophical stance. Enlightened, the gunfighter tries to save a group of outcast freaks but is stymied by the corrupt citizens of an evil town.
The Holy Mountain: A Christ-like thief is only one of a series of 'immortal' humans, each seen developing personal empires around their different planetary symbols. Then an alchemist trains them to become special 'spiritual commandos', with the object of climbing the Holy Mountain to steal the secret of existence hidden by the monks at its summit.

Alejandro Jodorowsky definitely received a classic education in avant-garde film, as his La Cravatte is a brightly colored fantasy that might have been done by a Dadaist in the 1920s, or by Jacques Tati if he wanted to be artsy and profound instead of simply funny. Mime-like characters inhabit painted cardboard scenery, including an odd store with various disembodied heads sitting on shelves. Our hero regrets abandoning his original identity and must search to get it back again. The 35-minute film is really no great shakes in any particular department but it hangs together quite well; the mimetic acting is consistently effective. The flat color transfer is excellent; restoration notes tell us that La Cravatte was considered lost and was only rediscovered in 2006.

Fando y Lis was Jodorowsky's first calling-card film and the one that established his reputation as a magnet for scandal. Mexican newspapers happily displayed the film's nudity, crudity and blasphemous imagery; one article glimpsed in the image gallery implies that the famous filmmaker and power broker Emilio "El Indio" Fernandez threatened Jodorowsky's life. The publicity gave Alejandro the notoriety he so deeply sought, just as Buñuel and Salvador Dali had purposely pursued media attention. In stark B&W, the cast-off pilgrims Fando & Lis are set upon by ruffians and charlatans of all persuasions. One troupe of female impersonators reverses Fando and Lis's sexual identities. The pair perpetually struggles through rocky ravines, only to find yet another bizarre mountebank or joker in their way. They watch as various 'lovers' writhe and couple in the mud. At one point they completely cover each other in dark paint. Things turn unpleasant when the resentful Fando abuses the whining Lis.

At 96 minutes Fando y Lis eventually becomes tiresome. Semi-abstract absurdist shows usually rise or fall on the basis of their visuals, and what we see here is drab and repetitive. The print on view is given a non-enhanced 1:66 transfer with poor contrast and washed-out blacks.

El Topo was Jodorowsky's breakout film and one of the earlier cult pictures to receive substantial initial distribution via weekend midnight shows. This time around the director definitely has his act together, shooting in brilliant 35mm color with a highly professional crew. Sandy locations near Mexico City create a world 'borrowed' from the spaghetti western, with special emphasis given plenty gore effects a la Sam Peckinpah. El Topo is a rather sloppy jumble of cruelty and ugliness, sort of a Buñuellian Land Without Bread inhabited by hateful symbolic characters. Jodorowski plays the black-clad gunfighter who defeats one guru-like opponent after another. After killing them all and absorbing their wisdom, he becomes a bald monk in the most evil town imaginable.

Jodorowsky manages some arresting visuals. The opening vision of the gunfighter giving his naked son a ride through the desert is better than anything in Fernando Arrabal's picture Viva la Muerte!, a title that would be a good fit for this film. The killings and gore quickly go over the top, with animal carcasses crowding the frame and people shot down by the dozens. Despite the attempts at spiritual messages, El Topo comes off as a nihilistic and unpleasant freak show.

With The Holy Mountain Jodorowski takes a giant leap forward, staging a production on a scale to match his grand ideas. Luis Buñuel once claimed that he wanted to put a full orchestra into one shot in Los Olvidados, just to achieve a weird effect. Buñuel may have been kidding but Jodorowsky isn't; he treats us to 1001 visual splendors in 35mm and Panavision. Some are easily described, and others are not. An opening section finds dozens of offensive ways to use Christian symbols yet ends up telling a rather interesting tale of a thief who is sort of a Jesus stand-in. We then go through six or seven elaborate 'planetary' worlds, each relating to a new form of human corruption. Potent visuals and elaborate set pieces keep our interest high, even though we haven't the slightest idea where The Holy Mountain is heading.

The production sweeps through dozens of impressively designed sets and settings mounted on an epic scale. The sadomasochistic leather costumes in the 'Neptune' sequence predate the same look in The Road Warrior. One brilliant scene shows a mass slaughter, highlighting the obvious special effect hardware used to fake the killing. Weirdly, the scene is profoundly disturbing anyway. Jodorowski doesn't flinch at killing animals. A gargantuan re-enactment of La Conquista shows Spaniard lizards slaughtering Aztec toads on a giant pyramid miniature. It ends with slow-motion shots of the entire construction -- animals included -- being blown up with pyrotechnics.

After a complicated explanation of the Tarot ("It will help you create a soul"), the second half of the film gathers a group of special people to do the impossible: raid a secret mountain where a group of monks guards the secrets of existence. The guru-like alchemist (Jodorowsky) submits his apprentices to all manner of physical and psychic tests. Jodorowsky apparently had his actors psyched up to climb real mountains, anticipating the same glorious revelation as the audience. Jodorowski's magician's act is so good that we're profoundly disappointed when the big finale turns out to be a hollow riddle ... not even Orson Welles in his F for Fake dashed our expectations this completely. Reality is the ultimate trip, man ... like, far out.


The best thing in The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky disc set are the subtitled commentaries on El Topo and The Holy Mountain. The director's comments are entertaining simply because he's so frank about his demented intentions. Jodorowski claims to have invented 'ear cocaine' and also assures us that he was 'the first actor to have his fingernails painted black.' --? When a producer absconded with $300,000.00, a new investor with more money simply "appeared." Wild stories circulated about Black Masses being conducted on The Holy Mountain, and he director claims he fled to New York to avoid being assassinated. Every time a new actress appears on-screen, Jodorowski describes her as a completely zonked acid head who wasn't acting and just wandered into the film. Somebody on these pictures had to stay sober, as they're too carefully filmed!

Jodorowski fills in details for every scene, admitting that he cut some material down for fear that he'd be accused of making child pornography. Yet one wild scene has a dozen small boys running around with their genitals painted bright green! Jodorowsky's 'inspirations' for visual ideas are quite often lame, especially in El Topo where he has a crazy cowboy embrace ladies' shoes because "Buñuel liked that." But elsewhere we cannot imagine where his extravagant ideas are coming from. To say that The Holy Mountain isn't for every taste is a wild understatement, but the movie satisfies in its own weird way. Jodorowski even resolves his thief/Jesus parable in a likeable manner, sending the thief off to live a happy, 'normal' life with a woman from an earlier episode.

Fando y Lis has a commentary as well, but it's in English and Jodorowsky expresses himself better in Spanish. A feature-length documentary called La Constellation - Jodorowski reviews his career, including his long efforts to film Frank Herbert's Dune. Marcel Marceau, Jean Giraud and Peter Gabriel are interviewed. Trailers and still & clipping sections are appended to several of the features; we wish we could read some of the articles in their entirety. Finally, a pair of bonus CDs contain the entire soundtrack scores for El Topo and The Holy Mountain.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky rates:
Movie: LC: Good / F&L : Fair ++ / ET: Good - / THM: Excellent
Video: : LC: Good / F&L : Fair / ET: Excellent / THM: Excellent
Sound: : LC: Good / F&L : Good / ET: Excellent / THM: Excellent
Supplements: Feature length documentary; commentaries on three features with Alejandro Jodorowsky; trailers, still galleries, CD soundtracks for El Topo and The Holy Mountain.
Packaging: Six slim cases in card sleeve
Reviewed: April 22, 2007

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.




DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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