Alejandro Jodorowsky Tells Us How to Heal the World With a Placebo

Alejandro Jodorowsky brings a healing art into the sunlight with Psychomagic, but can it heal the world?

Alejandro Jodorowsky
Photo: Photo by Laurent KOFFEL/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Alejandro Jodorowsky sees filmmaking as an art, not a business. He expands on this in the very title of his latest film: Psychomagic, A Healing Art. The film is a personal documentation of Jodorowsky’s theory of trauma therapy, called Psychomagic, in action. We can trust Jodorowsky when he calls action, though beware when he calls cut as his wife, artist Pascale Montandon, who has been his cinematographer on all his films, may keep the cameras rolling. Performance art is an effective placebo to confront psychic suffering and film does it in real time, breaking the wall between reality and performance. Those are real tears on the screen.

A son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, the “father of the midnight movie” was born in 1929 in Chile. His father was a staunch Stalinist who ran a dry-goods store called Casa Ukrania. His mother made him wear his hair long as part of a grieving process for her own father. Jodorowsky found his first therapeutic art in the surrealism of the theater, where he alternated between mainstream and underground works and mimed with Marcel Marceau. Jodorowsky’s first film was the 1957 short La Cravate (The Severed Heads). His 1967 film, Fando and Lis, adapted from a work by Spanish playwright Fernando Arrabal, was banned in Mexico after starting a riot at the 1968 Acapulco Film Festival.

Jodorowsky’s breakthrough came when his spiritually-inflected surrealist western movie El Topo began its midnight run at the Elgin Cinema in Manhattan’s Chelsea section on Dec. 18, 1970. John Lennon saw it several times there. But instead of jumping on stage like it was The Rocky Horror Show, he persuaded his manager, Allen Klein, to jump on the distribution rights. Lennon also funded Jodorowsky’s next work, Holy Mountain. “Maybe I am a prophet,” Jodorowsky said in 1973, the year it came out. “I really hope one day there will come Confucius, Muhammad, Buddha, and Christ to see me. And we will sit at a table, taking tea and eating some brownies.”

Jodorowsky is also known as the filmmaker behind one of the greatest films never made, his mid-70s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction novel Dune. His script, notes, storyboards, and concept art all made it to major film studios and influenced the works of Star Wars, Flash Gordon, the Terminator series, and The Fifth Element. The film’s entire production team, which Jodorowsky put together and included Swiss surrealist H. R. Giger, collaborated on Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien.

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Jodorowsky, and occasionally his wife and collaborator Pascale Montandon, spoke with Den of Geek about the business of mainstream movies, social ills in need of Psychomagic therapy, and the healing power of taboo.

Den of Geek: Were you inspired by the assault on the senses of Antonin Artaud’s surrealist Theatre of Cruelty?

Alejandro Jodorowsky: When I came to Paris, I was a young person, 24 years [old]. I went in the surrealist group. I knew André Breton and all that. I was a big, big admirer of surrealism. But with the time, surrealism became something a little bit bourgeois, a little political. It was not what I was expecting, and I made a movement I call a Panic movement in order to express ourselves artistically as a young person.

For my Psychomagic, maybe I have the experience I did in the time of surrealism. It’s possible, because surrealism broke with the logic, with the intellect, into the expression of the unconscious, and that is Psychomagic. Psychomagic is not a logical language, it’s to speak the language of the unconscious.

When you use the tarot, do you see cartomancy as an art or a science?

We need to be careful about the tarot because the tarot is not to read the future. This is not the real meaning of the tarot. And it’s an art, but it’s a kind of sacred art. The tarot is an anonymous art. It’s kind of like a human being, because I will not say their card is paper, it is drawings. You need to memorize all the cards. It will take some years to do that, in order to bring these cards into your unconscious. And when you do that, the tarot starts to speak.

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In the “Getting Out of the Closet” sequence, the cutting off of the clothes was very reminiscent of Yoko Ono’s early performance work. Was that an homage?

Well, you need to know who made this first. I did it a [long] time ago. But maybe it’s a causality. I didn’t know that about Yoko Ono. I did it as a creation of me. [In the film Psychomagic, the characters want] to destroy the image, the self-image, of this person, because they share the costume and then they take the old costume, when they were hiding, his homosexuality was hiding, and then they cut all the costume to show themselves as they are.

I know that Yoko and John Lennon were fans of your works. Did you and John Lennon connect on an artistic level?

John Lennon and Yoko Ono invited me to their house, and they showed me the little picture they were doing. They were doing short pictures in a kind of artistic expression. I was there, but my film El Topo they loved this. John Lennon [was introduced to] El Topo in the Elgin Theater where [it] showed at midnight. He was an admirer of my picture.

I was very interested in what Yoko Ono was doing, because it was a kind of new way of expression. But this was not my way, because Yoko Ono was in the way of painting, contemporary painting art. I was in the cinema.

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In much of your works, you celebrate things that society tries to suppress. Can you tell me about the healing power of exploring taboo?

Yes. Every person has this task because our society in this moment is completely corrupted. Everything. We cannot believe in politics. Religion, we cannot believe in priests. We cannot believe in laboratories. We cannot believe in vaccines. We have nothing to believe because everything seems now not real. It’s not real what is happening. We don’t know how to live now.

This pandemic we have there, it’s invented. One part of that is invented. It’s because we don’t trust anything now. We don’t trust the president of the countries. We don’t believe in wars. What we can believe? We need to start to find what is the real reality, how we feel ourselves, because the laws now of life, you’re not to be what you are. We are in a big, big crisis of existence. 

Then we need to find ways in order to stick together, to recover. Not everything is material, not everything is business, not everything is dollar. We need to have a spiritual way to act also. We have a soul. We have other values. Not only the money. We need to stop with that. We can heal. Every person needs to try to heal. His family, his society, his country, the world. We need to heed all that. First is the soul, and then the matter, the materiality.

Movies are not a business. Movies are not an industry. In reality, movies are an art. Movies are not Hollywood. Hollywood is a way to have fun, to breathe a little because we are so, so nervous with what’s happening. We need to distract ourselves. A show. Show must go on.

But art is not a show. Art is the awakening of consciousness. The awakening of sensibility, a spiritual sensibility. The goal of art is to heal. The present is ill. Artists can become doctors.

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Is there a Psychomagic action that can fix capitalism?

That is difficult. We need to do what we can do, but against the money. Money is nothing now. It’s a fake thing. There’s no gold in the money. It’s paper. It’s some kind of illusion, but it’s an incredible illusion because we are prisoners of that. And then capitalism and communism are the same thing now. The right and the left are the same.

Years ago, with charcoal all that, we needed workers. Now we have machines. Thinking machines. And then every day, we need less people to be working, less slaves, because the machine will do that. And then what will happen? What will happen? And then they really start to say, like some crazy new industrials: “We need to kill some millions and millions of people now, we need to clean the humanity of the poor because they have nothing to do.” 

We need now to take a humble vision of ourselves, to say we are not the master of the planet, because the planet is not only us. The planet is for animals; very important. The vegetables, very important. The minerals, very important. The air, very important. We don’t have pure air now because of all the pollution. We are poisoning the atmosphere. The ocean is poisoned now. Everything is poisoned for this conception of the kingdom of industry. We cannot continue to fabricate the atomic bombs. It’s crazy. It’s not necessary. We don’t need to do all that. We need to change our relationship.

In the film, you show the woman that kept cancer at bay. Is Psychomagic a multifaceted placebo that works?

Listen, Psychomagic is a placebo. Placebo heals. Placebo is necessary in medicine because placebo is the imagination, but the imagination gives us a lot of illness. When we feel anguish, when we have fear, the illness comes to, it knows the difference. But if you tell me, you can heal the cancer. I say I will not try to do that, that’s not Psychomagic. Psychomagic is an art. But I will, with Psychomagic, teach you how to live with the cancer. That is what to do with and how to live.

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I made a collective art of Psychomagic almost a year ago for a priest of the Amazons. They were killing the forest of the Amazons. This is the lung of the Earth. It was terrible, they were killing. And the person was desperate. I now can call 10 million people on the internet myself, and say every person needs to plant a tree. In their garden, any way he can, even in a public park, to make a tree. And then, if humanity does that, all of humanity will become a forest, and we don’t care if the Amazonas are burned or destroyed.

Okay. I’m thinking about the world without forests. Have you seen the trailer for Dune?

Yes, I saw the trailer for Dune. What do I think? In order to think, we need to know the situation of this thing. Movies, there is not one kind of movie. We have different kinds of cinema. One kind is industrial cinema, and the other is an artistic realization by a writer, by an auteur. Like the expression of one artist, cinema. Like poetry, like painting, movies. It’s another work.

Myself, I make an enormous project of a film that will not be a normal film. I think in 14, 16, maybe 19 hours, my film. Hollywood thought I was crazy. A picture, one hour and half or two hours, no more. How will you make the business? But now, with series television, you see eight chapters, it’s a very long picture. The short pictures are dying, it’s not anymore necessary. We need to make a serious chapter, you know? 10 hours.

The kind of Dune I did was completely an artistic product, whose finality was not the mandate. The finality was a marvelous work. Just understand that, and then I really didn’t take stars, I take incredible persons like Dali, Orson Welles, et cetera, no? I mean the personalities, they were identical to characters in the picture.

I was thinking in the art, not in the money, but in the urges, yes. Hollywood is the contrary. In Hollywood, first is the money, then the work. Then the work cannot be, in Hollywood, in the hands of one person. Impossible. Impossible. It needs to be in the hand of an army of artisan workers. The principal person is the producer. What does this mean, producer? And the director cannot realize the work as an artist who lives off the object he is doing. It’s everything, it’s his life, he can die if he doesn’t do his work, he can die. Van Gogh cut an ear. But I don’t see a director of Hollywood cutting an ear there because he cannot make his picture.

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The trailer for Dune is a good, good trailer of one industrial movie. It’s good, but is similar to other pictures. Nothing, nothing which can open your mind. But it’s fun, it’s fun, a lot of fun. Yeah, like the others. But the Dune I proposed was different. It was an opening of the consciousness.  When you work to do something with real value, you have less public. You only do it for the person who has the sensibility, artists.

This trailer shows me it is a good industrial picture, but it’s not art. It’s some kind of art. It’s industrial art. It’s possible, there are very marvelous industrial art pictures. Every day, less marvelous. Less marvelous every day, because it’s a big decadence with all the Superman for the child. [Everything is] for the child, Walt Disney, Walt Disney. I think the corpse of Walt Disney came out of some asylum and now he’s directing Superman pictures. Walt Disney, the king of the movies.

I think it’s a good trailer. I swear I hope he will have success, the director who is a nice person. But I think he will come out with a nervous illness because he will never be able to do as an artist what he really wants to do. Not possible. Dune is not a picture to make in industrial pictures. Spider-Man, yes. Spider-Man is possible. Superman, yes. Superman has no testicles, you know? Because a child needs to see Superman without testicles. 

Dune fans ripped apart the ending of David Lynch’s version, how would they have reacted to how you would have ended your film of Dune?

I knew David Lynch would make Dune. I was ill because at that moment, I really wanted to make Dune. It was my life. I really, really wanted it. And he will make it fantastic, and I lost it. And then I forget. I forget. My child came to see me, “We need to see. We need to go to see that.” I say, “No, no, child. I don’t want to suffer.” “No, no, you need to. We need to see that.” And then I went to the movies to see the movie, and it was thin like this, and step by step the colors came to me, and I started to breathe, I started to be happy. I was so happy because the picture was awful. I was so happy, but I realized that Lynch, who I admire, is a very good director, artistical. Admire. I’d say it’s Dino De Laurentiis, the producer, who is guilty. It was the daughter of Dino De Laurentiis, he imposed his awful, awful vision of the movies, Dino De Laurentiis, the producer. He killed David Lynch in that. And if you ask David Lynch, he will say the same as what I am saying. He was a victim.

But I say I hope this new director of Dune, who is a good director and honestly, I hope will not get destroyed by that, because I don’t believe he can do something like that. Not possible.

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How would fans of the book have reacted to how you would have ended it?

The fanatic of Dune, they are a different kind of fanatic. They are fanatics of the book. They are really fanatics of the book. He wrote, he didn’t make Dune, he made almost eight books. It’s a big, big saga, no? And they never will find this picture good because it’s impossible to make as good as his Dune. You need to make a transformed Dune which they will say is not Dune. Transformed.

There are the fanatics of Superman. Maybe they are not movie fans, but they want fun. Have no value, these people. They are a lot. Maybe they will like it, and Hollywood will be happy he will make the business. We are proudest, we say, “Dune made the first week $400 million.” A million million dollars, it’s a success, it’s a big masterpiece. Big master shit. This is a big, a big product, this quantity of money. It’s good for the industry. It’s good. Okay, okay. But that will be that.

But the real follower of Dune, no. A person who likes Jodorowsky’s Dune, who knows what I wanted to do, they will start to call me in order to make me speak bad of the picture Dune. “Hey Jodorowsky, what do you think about that? What do you think about that?” I will say I think he’s good in his area. In the industrial movies, he’s very good, he makes a lot of money, fantastic. If that doesn’t make money, they will reject the director, he will be made poor. Hollywood will reject a director who doesn’t make money for them. That is the real situation for me. What do you think?

I would have loved to have seen yours, I would have loved to have seen it on a platform that would have taken the entire 14 hours. I liked the longer version of Once Upon a Time in America. I like long movies. I enjoy when the art can spread out.

Sergio Leone, he went to see El Topo. He came to me to ask “How you did that? What kind of machine? A little machine? Wow.” And I cannot believe he appreciated it. I admired him a lot. He said to me I am making now a picture in Russia when militants will take a town there, set in a great battle. He wanted to replay in this picture, with an enormous enthusiasm. And they could not do it and he died. They could not do it, this picture. He died. But he was a real artist, but a real artist of industrial movies. He understood what’s in the industrial movie, he can do it. You need to be very intelligent to do that, and he did it. The picture, all of his pictures, I love these pictures.

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Do you know the picture of Buster Keaton?

Yes.

It’s art. Do you know the picture Freaks?

Todd Browning, yes, I love that movie.

It’s made with limits because the person who was crossed into the movies. He’s crossing the world across the movies. It was the movies. It was an industrial movie. But as I say, we need to try now to open this, not be inside the movies. Open the movies and go to the reality, the reality to go to other worlds. Not with the stars. It’s not necessary to use stars because there is a continuation of the search of money, the creation of stars like gods. You need to use real person in order to do the movies. Real person, real situation, but not realistic.

In Psychomagic, I use real people, but it’s completely artistic. You cannot direct actors in that kind of reality, you need to be searching the moment you will shoot the person in the reality.

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I want to ask about shooting someone in reality. I heard the story about Omar Sharif destroying a car during Rainbow Thief. Would you have preferred to have shot that than the movie?

Yes. Completely. I was so happy. I loved Sharif. When he destroyed the car twice, not one time. But I didn’t take pictures of it.  Now I re-edited Rainbow Thief with Omar Sharif a bit. I redo it because I was into the industry to see how the industry worked. This person, this writer, this woman, was taking makeup in the morning, and Omar Sharif needed to wait. The biggest star needed to wait. He was furious, and he said nothing, and he went to his car. And the executive producer, a friend of mine, went to Omar Sharif [and said] “I regret, I regret.” Omar Sharif asked [as Sharif] “Did I say something?” “No, man.” [as Sharif] “Did I say something?” “No-” [As Sharif screams] “Did I say something?” And he destroyed all the interior of the car. Rip! All the canvas, all the veneer. Omar Sharif, he was alive. He expressed himself.

He went to shoot. He comes back, and the car’s owner was there, and said “Man, but you destroyed the interior of my car.” [as Sharif] “Yes, I will pay that.” “But it’s my car.” [as Sharif] “Yes, I will pay that.” “Meh meh meh meh.” [As Sharif, screams] “I will pay that!” And he destroyed all the exterior of the car. He destroyed the rest of the car the second time.

Is that the movie that actually drove you to therapy?

I think that I prefer to shoot that. But now when I did, because I arranged myself to express myself like a movie maker. I am very happy with what he did. I take everything and I will show the picture now re-edited, re-colored. Will do the picture I wanted to do. We’re very near, not completely, but very near what is an artistic picture. Very near. It’s beautiful. Really beautiful.

When you shot the Psychomagic parachute scene, was someone else parachuting with a camera? And what would you have done if you didn’t get a good take?

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At the end of the day, how will you say what’s a good take? The woman jumped, we were in a plane, we don’t know why obviously the woman had a hysterical attack. Then we need to catch, to film that. But Cali filmed that. Cali was the photographer.

Pascale Montandon: I am the cinematographer of the film, and every film. The film was shot once, just once. One time, one shot. Because it was real life, real person, real situation, real suffering. And we are not able to repeat anything because it’s like a surgery, no? You can’t do the surgery again. We didn’t know how the person would react, so it was very intense, this shooting. And very special.

Alejandro Jodorowsky: She was excited, I think. This woman needs to burn the white wedding costume of her fiancé. And then I want her to burn that where the fiancé, the man who committed suicide. One day after the wedding, the guy jumps off the window and kills himself. And I wanted their help to burn that in the cemetery, in the real place where the coffins of the dead person are burned. But the cemetery said it’s some kind of sacrilege. We burned the costume in the machine which burns the coffins. I went there to shoot. It was real. Yes? And then the effect for the person was enormous.

In all of your films but especially in this one, you have a connection with color. You connect colors with actions. Do black and white movies drive you crazy?

Alejandro Jodorowsky: No, no, no, no. I use what I have. The last pictures, Dance Reality, Endless Poetry, and Psychomagic, Pascale, my wife, and I made the colors together, because she’s a painter and together we create the painter PascAlejandro.

Pascale Montandon: Because we didn’t have a biological child. We left the door open for a child, but the child did not come, so we created a symbolic child, a third artist named PascAlejandro. It’s a fusion of both of us. We work together. Alejandro draws and I create the colors. And PascAlejandro did the colors of the three last films, Dance of Reality, Endless Poetry and Psychomagic.

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Alejandro Jodorowsky: When I made El Topo and The Holy Mountain, Santa Sangre, you needed to shoot with the color you had. Now, the new technique, numeric technique, is something like clothes. And then when you shoot, you put the colors. And you put here, here, there. The sky goes in. It’s like making a painting. It’s not the real color, you make the choice. But all the colors are there and you make that stronger, that less. It’s more creative now, the new technique. It’s fantastic.

Pascale Montandon: And it’s so important, the color. It’s a recreation of a scene.

Also, in your films, you’ll set up a surrealistic background and have an objective camera that captures it. In this film, is the camera still objective or is it more of an active part of the process? The people are reacting to the camera as well.

Pascale Montandon: Yes, because, as it was a real person, we had to create a very intimate atmosphere, and we could not have a traditional condition of shooting with us. Three cameras, 20 lights, etc., etc. And in this case, as Alejandro had to make a film and also had to heal this person, so the camera was like an eye, a human eye. It didn’t need a technical look, but a human look. It was part of the healing, because when you look at this person, when the camera looks at them, it’s part of the healing, because they feel us look at them, we listen to them.

And the camera then becomes a character, but also is a therapist in the room.

Pascale Montandon: Yes. Yes, that’s it. It was like the eyes of Alejandro on them, on these people.

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Alejandro Jodorowsky: And you must not distract the person who is in his problem, completely his problem, because the person will come out of the dream. He needs to continue in his problem. And then no director present, no photographer present, no any person, no light, no nothing. No camera, no nothing.

When we started to shoot, I said to Pascale, “This is a rehearsal.” Now cut the camera. But she didn’t cut the camera, and then the person thinks the camera was cut, and then they were free and relaxed.

Pascale Montandon: For example, when the stuttering man was in the temple and Alejandro was going to take his testicle, he just said to me, “Just a few minutes after, I will start. Be ready.” That’s it. So yeah, it was an experience even for us.

Alejandro Jodorowsky: Because we don’t know how he would react. He could react by punching the nose. He will like that. We don’t know. That’s a risk, we don’t know.

I’m in America, I was wondering what kind of Psychomagic action you might give our president?

Alejandro Jodorowsky: In order to give a Psychomagic act, you need a conscious person. It is rare that I cannot do it. He doesn’t see he’s ill. He is the best person in the universe, so how will I come to him? God, I cannot.

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