Dir: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Starr: Adan Jodorowsky, Brontis Jodorowsky, Leandro Taub, Pamela Flores
Viewed: Filmhouse, Edinburgh (Screen 3)
“Another dead man among the dead. I will grow old… and rot.”
(Alejandro speaking to the younger Alejandro, as if a prophetic voice inside his own head)
“Old age is not a humiliation, you detach yourself from everything.”
(Alejandro addressing Alejandro, and the audience, a form of pervasive solipsism in need of attention to justify it)
A strong part of me wishes that this octogenarian burst of creative activity from Jodorowsky had simply never occurred. It would make any chronicling of his career that much easier, as The Rainbow Thief (1990) would then stand as the tired epitaph to an exhausted imagination. Alas, Jodorowsky wants to take a proper account of his career before he slopes off into the sunset. That accounting demands that the director’s overbearing ego act as arbiter in a re-evaluation of Jodorowsky’s formative years in Chile as the emergence of a poetic consciousness which places him at the centre of a 20th century surrealist lineage (preferably Artaud and Breton). Yup, Jod really is that pompous, but he’s also a clown, and an angel, so we will forgive him his extravagances, even though he clearly does not forgive us. In 2013’s The Dance of Reality, Jodorowsky sought to make a demon of his ideologically Stalinist father, whilst simultaneously seeking to build a bridge of understanding between them. In his peculiarly perverse way, which is neither truly insightful or shocking, Jodorowsky chose to cast his eldest son Brontis, in the role of his own father Jaime. Endless Poetry makes things a truly family affair, by casting Alejandro’s younger son Adan as a twentysomething incarnation of his father in early 1950s Chile, on the eve of Carlos Ibáñez del Campo’s re-election as Chilean President.
The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry are, in effect, Jodorowsky’s cinematic version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), replete with escape into cosmopolitan exile at the close. The first film trod a fine line between Alejandro’s youthful and passionate desire for rebellion and the aggressively enforced, and wholly reductive, ideological worldview of his father. It was a film about giving shape to the conflict that gave birth to the artist, and made that conflict a crudely oedipal sex game between father and son for the attention of Pamela Flores’ Sara, Alejandro’s mother. With Endless Poetry, Alejandro has now struck out on his own, moving away from the family home, and entering the bohemian milieu of Santiago’s poets, painters, musicians and philosophers. The conflict between father and son is now writ large as a conflict between Alejandro’s creative individualism and Chilean society’s embrace of warring political ideologies. The egocentrism of the artist refuses to concede any ground to the potential politics of the creative act, making the film a laboured attempt to paint the creative life as removed from any sense of societal politics. Alejandro is already seeing himself as belonging beyond Chile, as part of the international poetic landscape of Breton, rather than the provincial nationalism of Neruda.
Working with the exceptionally gifted Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle, rather than Patrice Leconte’s regular DOP Jean-Marie Dreujou (who lensed the first instalment), it should be expected that Jodorowsky’s much heralded ‘visionary’ aesthetic would come to the fore in a way that it never quite did in The Dance of the Reality. Yet aside from an initially engaging opening section in which, in a piece of genuinely Brechtian theatre, Jodorowsky reveals the poetic artifice of this autobiography, by pulling up a series of black and white theatrical flats to take us back to an older Santiago (or is it still Iquique?), there is little beyond the trite, mundane and sentimentally excessive. The latter was an increasing problem in Jodorowsky’s work up until 1990, often drowning out and undermining the more radical elements of his films. Whereas genre grounded much of Jodorowsky’s early film excesses, in Endless Poetry the director seems to be most fascinated with the ridiculous bathos effect created by his deployment of a TV soap aesthetic, particularly in those moments of dramatic exposition that punctuate his surrealist whimsy. The banality of this image making is undoubtedly supposed to make the surrealist flights of fancy more evocative and seductive, but to these eyes it merely creates an unceasing flow of garishly coloured tableaux that amount to a depressing evocation of Alejandro’s expanding consciousness as a creative artist. Frequently the director gives us a dully realised visual metaphor and then further diminishes any power that it may have had by drawing attention to the construction of the visual metaphor (witness the family dinner party in which Alejandro seeks to chop down the family tree, yawn).
The one light amidst the monotony is the voluptuous excessiveness of Pamela Flores, who plays both Alejandro’s mother and later his first lover, the Chilean poet Stella Diaz Varin (he just cannot resist tired provocations like this). If there was any reason to justify Jodorowsky’s return to filmmaking the gift of Flores is surely it. The Dance of Reality showed her to be a bold performer and I am still haunted by that film’s night-time sequence (a moment of old Jodorowsky) in which she chases her son around the house, whilst naked and coated in black paint. Donning a scarlet wig and rainbow paints, Flores plays Diaz Varin as a force of nature dominatrix, brawling, beer-swilling and waspishly belittling anyone who has the temerity to bore her. Compared with the sentimental rendering of Enrique Lihn, as played by the irritatingly impish first-time performer Leandro Taub, Flores breathes something approaching an independent life into Jod’s caricature of his contemporary.
The repetitious return to sites from the first film point to more than just the budgetary constraints of a crowdsourced film production (lest we forget Michel Seydoux’s key role in developing both films). These are the markers of a moviemaking imagination whose poetic vocabulary has long ago been exhausted. Dancers, dwarves, body artists, faceless masses, broken piers, circus rings, political demonstrations, cafes, these are all elements that echo through both films, but not in any way that suggests even an associative control of their iconography. I am very much with J. Hoberman’s assessment of Jodorowsky, in his seminal film text Midnight Movies (1983), as closely resembling Dali in his “literal-minded, self-parodic and commercial” image-making. There is always a sense with Jodorowsky that behind the symbol there is nothing more than a caption description of that symbol. The true laziness of this late-period work is in the way it coolly rehashes earlier works, looking to make a grand gesture toward art as life, life as art, and sounding as hollow and empty as that suggests. Long before this Endless Poetry had reached an end, I was longing for less.