Alejandro Jodorowsky 4K Restoration Collection Brings Clarity to Underground Film

The Alejandro Jodorowsky 4K Restoration Collection shows via several classics how the director became the father of midnight movies.

The Alejandro Jodorowsky 4K Restoration
Photo: ABKCO Films

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s films are confounding, grotesque, beautiful and healing, often within the same frame. The post-violence images of the opening sequence of El Tropo are made more horrific as they are reflected through the eyes of a seven-year-old boy, still naked from a rite of passage. Jodorowky’s films are a gateway drug. The Alejandro Jodorowsky 4K Restoration Collection of his cult classics Fando y Lis, El Topo, and The Holy Mountain, as well as his new Psychomagic, A Healing Art, are a first taste. The most surrealistic of the psychedelic filmmakers had no special effects, or even fancy cameras in his earliest days. He had visions, and meticulously created a physical world to capture those visions–and then he stuck an objective camera in front of it.

No stranger to psychedelics, it was John Lennon who first brought Jodorowsky out of the after-hours circuit and into the daylight, which colored the films. Jodorowsky became the “father of midnight movies” because his 1970 spiritual western epic, El Topo, played at midnight or 1 am every night at the Elgin Theater in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. Lennon and Yoko Ono caught it a few times and advised their advisor, manager Alan Klein, to buy it. The ex-Beatle went on to fund The Holy Mountain, and ABKCO Films went on to have as problematic a relationship with Jodorowsky as the British quartet had with Klein. It was patched up, of course, by evidence of this brilliantly restored set of films.

The Holy Mountain was deemed controversial at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival because of its sacrilegious imagery but Fando y Lis, Jodorowsky’s first feature, caused a riot when it premiered in Acapulco, Mexico in 1968. Jodorowsky escaped hidden in a limousine as he was chased out of town by an angry mob, but the film established the Chilean-born son of Russian immigrants as an auteur of surrealist cinema. He became one of the most influential and creative forces on mainstream science fiction when the script, notes, storyboards, and concept art to his mid-70s would-be adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel, Dune, made it to major film studios. You can see their shadows over Star Wars, Flash Gordon, the Terminator series, The Fifth Element, and 1979’s Alien.

You can feel shadows in this collection as well. You don’t need to look in Dune notes to find as diverse a gathering as the bar scene in Star Wars. There are enough varied character looks in the black and white film Fando y Lis, which has cannibals, zombies, vampires, freaks, horny old ladies, an army of transvestites, a man playing a burning piano, and a degenerate Pope played by Tamara Garina.

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Jodorowsky made the film on weekends with nothing but a one-page outline. The film, which is an adaptation of the absurdist play by Spanish-born French author Fernando Arrabal, is Jodorowsky’s transition from live theater. Jodorowsky created a theater company while still at the University of Santiago. Alternating between Paris and Mexico City, he collaborated with Marcel Marceau for his mimeograms like “The Cage,” directed Maurice Chevalier’s comeback, and directed staged works of surrealistic and absurdist playwrights like Eugene Ionesco and  Samuel Beckett, launching the Panic Movement, which staged shocking theatrical events.

Jodorowsky had staged Fando y Lis, a story about young Fando (Sergio Klainer) and his paraplegic lover Lis (Diana Mariscal) as they quarrel their way to the magical city of Tar. But on film, the sparse natural landscapes and its vibrant and varied population take on surrealistic qualities by the very grain of the filmstock.

The real-life mime, which is being rehearsed at one point, is a microcosm of the varied worlds and the boxes they come in. Set in some post-apocalyptic rubble, the film travels through a world of perversions, murders, pedophilia, and sadomasochistic narcissism to make the viewer conclude the real world is an illusion.

El Topo is a Robin Hood western and Jodorowsky’s band of thieves are very merry men. They laugh at death. They also laugh at pain, suffering and any number of weapons. The film is  told in the mixed styles of Federico Fellini, Luis Buñuel, and Spaghetti Western auteur Sergio Leone, who found himself impressed by the work. “Sergio Leone, he went to see El Topo,” Jodorowsky told Den of Geek while promoting Psychomagic, a Healing Art. “And I cannot believe he appreciated it. I admired him a lot. He was a real artist of industrial movies. He understood what’s in industrial movies. You need to be very intelligent to do that, and he did it. The picture, all of his pictures, I love these pictures.”

Jodorowsky plays the enigmatic master-gunfighter whose nickname, “The Mole,” supplies the title for the film. His son is played by the director’s real life twelve-year-old son Brontis Jodorowsky, who spends the entire film nude and half of it either on a horse or collecting arms. It is the boy’s seventh birthday. His first day as a man, and he has to bury his first toy and a photograph of his mother, then he has the entire world washed away as The Mole goes off to duel only to be left to die in the sun. El Topo doesn’t die though, he wakes up 20 years later to find himself worshipped by a cult of dwarves in a subterranean community. They raise the cash to tunnel out of the cave only to find the world a vastly different and darker place.

The Holy Mountain (1973) opens with the fly-covered Thief (Horacio Salinas) who is hung on a cross by a gang of young, naked boys and a deformed man who lights cigarettes with his elbows. Jodorowsky plays the Alchemist, who transmutes the Thief’s shit into gold. The film is a satire of capitalism, consumerism, and militarism. Tourists pour into the central town to film public executions while chameleons and toads reenacts the Spanish conquest of Mexico. There are “Christs for sale” signs on display throughout the streets. Jodorowsky’s work is about transformation, and the Alchemist, the Thief, and seven wealthy thieves from seven different planets go on a metamorphic pilgrimage to kill the Nine Masters of the Summit in exchange for eternal life.

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Producer Allen Klein wanted Jodorowsky to follow The Holy Mountain with an adaptation of Pauline Réage’s S&M classic novel Story of O, but Jodorowsky threw himself into the Dune adaptation. For the comic allegory The Holy Mountain, Jodorowsky cast transvestite actors he found at Max’s Kansas City in New York. He famously avoids working with stars, but for the science fiction adaptation, he assembled a cast which included Salvador Dalí, Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson, Mick Jagger, and David Carradine; he brought in Pink Floyd and the prog band Magma to do the score; and Swiss artist H.R. Giger and French comic book artist Moebius for design. He would try his hand at a mainstream film, with mainstream stars with his 1990’s The Rainbow Thief, which starred Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif. But his greatest works are his most intimate.

Jodorowsky developed a form of personal therapy he called “psychomagic” in the 1980s. The practice combined Jungian psychology, the tarot and confrontational art. In 1965, Jodorowsky’s avant-garde “Movement Panique” gave a four-hour long performance called “Sacramental Melodrama,” in which he got whipped, symbolically castrated a rabbi, slit the throats of two geese, and nailed a cow’s heart to a cross. He is no less confrontational when faced with trauma. For Psychomagic, A Healing Art, the director escaped his emotion prison to enter the pain of the world.

The film contemporaneously breaks the wall between reality and performance. The documentary is intercut with scenes from some of Jodorowsky’s films. In a revealing clip from his movie The Dance of Reality, a mother teaches her son not to be afraid of the dark by having him strip nude and be painted black to match the hue of darkness. The healing concepts of Psychomagic are personal yet universal, and the film continues themes Jodorowsky has explored since he began making movies.

Jodorowsky supervised the color correction of the restorations. The Alejandro Jodorowsky 4K Restoration Collection also contains the 1957 short film Le Cravate, a mime adaptation of a Thomas Mann story about a young man, played by Jodorowsky, who falls in love with a French woman who owns a shop where you can buy human heads. In all these films, you see why he has been cited by everyone from Steven Spielberg to Marilyn Manson, to Kanye West, whose “Yeezus” tour was inspired by The Holy Mountain.

The Alejandro Jodorowsky 4K Restoration Collection is essential viewing for visual artists and fans of the visual arts. The images may have lost the full power of their brutality because of the subsequent works they inspired, but the messages are all applicable today, and will be tomorrow. Art can heal or destroy, Jodorowsky shows how it can do both and still be a work in progress.

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The Alejandro Jodorowsky 4K Restoration Collection is available on Blu-Ray now. Psychomagic, A Healing Art is also available on Alamo on Demand.