An Eagle Fighting with Flies: An Interview with Alejandro Jodorowsky
by Anthony Paletta
Alejandro Jodorowsky, best known in the U.S. as a director, particularly for his psychedelic films El Topo and The Holy Mountain, has pursued a sixty-year career of astonishing variety. Born in Tocopilla, Chile, the son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, his family moved to Santiago, Chile, where he met Pablo Neruda and Nicanor Parra and immersed himself in the city’s artistic community. In 1953, he moved to Paris, where he worked for Marcel Marceau and Maurice Chevalier, among others, before turning to filmmaking, a pursuit he continued in Mexico, where he attracted financial support from Allan Klein, John Lennon, and others. In the wake of Jodorowsky’s failed efforts to adapt Dune — the subject of a recent documentary — he took up writing comics and novels.
Most recently, Restless Books published Where the Bird Sings Best, a fantastical narrative of Jodorowsky’s ancestors, spanning from the expulsion of the Jews from Spain to his great-great-grandmother bedding Tsar Alexandar I of Russia; in June, it will publish Albina and the Dog-Men, in which an albino giantess with a taste for human flesh, a bearded lady, and a dwarf travel across rural Chile battling foes while searching for a magical cactus. Having turned eighty-seven in February, he’s currently at work on the second of a (hopeful) set of autobiographical films, Endless Poetry (following the first, The Dance of Reality, which was released in 2013). I recently spoke with him via Skype while he was at work editing Endless Poetry, which he filmed in Chile last summer and fall.
How is the movie coming along?
Well, it’s almost finished. The persons who see it, they’ve say it’s better than The Dance of Reality. They’ve say that and I am happy.
(I don’t speak English very well. I speak French, I speak Spanish, but I do what I can.)
This movie concerns the segment after The Dance of Reality — your time in Santiago, right?
Yes, I came to a street very far out of the city. It was a workers’ street, with thieves, criminals, drunkards, prostitutes. It was terrible! I discovered poetry there. I tell how I became poet and artist: That is history. How I fought with my father because my father believed only in business and I wanted to be an artist. My first love, my second love, and also the search for the meaning of life. Why do we live, no? Why do we need to die? Things like that.
Myself, I think movies are an art. I am not an industrial filmmaker. I understand a person’s needs to relax a little, have movies, have shows, have Superman. All those idiocies. But I believe in human beings — I really believe in that, after all these years. I think humanity is in danger now. The planet is in danger. We need to start to change the world. Not to change the world — it is impossible — but we need to start to change the world. To change the world we need to change ourselves. What will you do? I will give this richness, I will give everything I find to others — and that is art. Art is to show to others what they have, what they really have. Not to show to others, “You have an emotion, you drink something.” No.
The [film industry] created the star system, with a song to the ego. Myself, I think we have one ego, with an artificial pair of eyes created by the family, the culture, and the society. Then we have a real essence with a consciousness that is truly what we are. We need to go there to be what we really are. I don’t want to obey a lot of things. I want to be myself, like an artist. When I find this treasure inside of me I will show it to others. Everything I have others will have, that is what I am saying. I am searching for sublime. How you say in English, “sublime”?
That is what I am saying, sublime, sublimity — not about idiot feelings, ridiculous love. Love is something very important — it is not that that they are showing us. The stars are awful! Because it is the big ego exalted. We need to finish with that! It is not possible — it is an enormous industry that has made an invasion of all the world, the American movie industry. They are working for money, no? If a picture costs a lot of money, “Good!” If it makes a lot of money, then “it’s an Oscar!” All this history of price, you have a price and I fight for a price — why don’t I fight for the truth, why don’t I fight to make others better?
The fight in order to make a real art movie is enormous because everything is against that. It is an awakening of consciousness and all of the industry is against the awakening of consciousness. Then we are going to the end of the planet. We are going to the end of the world.
You returned to Tocopilla for the first time making The Dance of Reality. Had you been back to Santiago more recently? How was your experience there filming?
Santiago has changed because there is no poetry — every person is fighting to be a little United States, donc? They’re in business, and there is a big difference between rich and poor. Like all the world now. Poetry’s not there anymore. Only in young persons. The problem is the industry of books doesn’t want poetry because they don’t sell books — they are not a big success. Poetry is not a bestseller so then they cannot publish. A big bestseller of poetry is six hundred no more. But in my time to be poet was like being a doctor or being an architect. You were a professional. You were a poet!
Even drunks were reciting Neruda and Parra in Chile back then?
Neruda was very intelligent; he was a big poet, but he realized he could find an enormous public and he became a communist. He became a communist, and he lost his poetry but he became famous in the country and in the world. He did what he needed to do. But I say to you, an eagle doesn’t fight flies. When enormously famous, the eagle starts to dance with the flies, and then he became a clown. He became a big businessman like Spielberg! The cineaste Spielberg, he has a lot of talent, really, but what he did with that? A big, big business. Now he’s an eagle who dances with flies!
Now Parra was my master. When Neruda was a poet, a romantic Communist, he was the anti-poet. He made real poetry, he was very funny. He was my master. I love him like a poet. When I was shooting Poésie Sans Fin, he had a hundred years. I went to see him. He is a hundred and one, cien. He is alive and very intelligent as always — only working a little bit with difficulty. But he is a human being, and I was speaking with him. In my picture, I play myself sometimes as an old man of a hundred years. I went to see him and I said, “What can a man of a hundred years say to me?”
To get old is not a humiliation. You lose your money, your sexual glory. Your search for money, your search for sex. You lose everything and you become a butterfly of light.
I put that in my picture, his message.
After this you still have Paris and Mexico to cover — your next films?
I make a series of pictures. There was The Dance of Reality and this is Endless Poetry. I will make Poésie Sans Fin in Paris — all my relations with panic and surrealism and mime and things like that. I will make number four in Mexico. And if I am alive, number five will be my love history with my wife. Because I met her when I was seventy-four and now eleven years we are together. She has forty-five years less than me, and then I will die. She will be a widow for forty-five years and we want to tell that history — how you can love when you know you will die before?
You draw upon a number of traditions in your books, in your films, and in your graphic novels, like puppetry, and circuses from your own familial history. Do you feel that some of these traditions are more alive than others or have others sort of reached a limit?
Our civilization in the twentieth century would make only one thing. A telephone was a telephone. And now it is this [holds up iPhone]. What is this? it is a telephone, a television, a radio, everything. Calculation, numbers, messages, writing. Vibration, BZZZZZZ. If I get excited, I will masturbate with the telephone! You can do anything. Later, you have mobile telephone like a phallus, like a penis. Masturbate the telephone while you are speaking! It is a lot of things. In the twenty-first century, it is a lot of things together and the brain is that. The brain is not a telephone, the brain is an iPad. This is the brain [holds up iPhone].
For me, a comic is big art like a picture. A picture is big art like a painting, like a dance. It’s different. I do everything myself. Now I am making Endless Poetry like a picture. I am “shooting” Son of El Topo now, but drawing it in a comic! Then I work like a director. This year will come Son of El Topo in July, the picture I always wanted to do — the continuation of El Topo, but I do it now as a comic, because I don’t have the big money.
In an interview, you once said, “Movies are movement, a comic is immobility.” That might have been a translation of your comment, but did that make sense?
Mobility of the eyes — the eyes look, but not the mind. In a picture, they give you all of the movement they need to give to you, then you receive the movement, and you do nothing. But the mind goes with the picture. In the comic — immobile images — no? But you move the image, in your mind you move the image.
I guess my question is, is writing a graphic novel different from writing a novel or a movie?
It is different. Every time is different because you know I work alone. When I make a comic, I work with the artist who makes the drawings and the colors, and the editor who will pay us to do that. We are three persons only. We can be more. I made The Incal with three persons: myself, the big genius who was Moebuis, and… comme-ce? Humanoids. When I am making Son of El Topo, it is me and Jose Ladronn, a Mexican artist, who is a genius. We two are doing that with an editor.
When I make a picture, it’s an army: hundreds and hundreds of people who are working in a picture. When I am shooting, I am making the picture, the music, the decor, the costumes, the editing. It’s enormous. It’s like you make a child — it’s almost nine months working every day. When you are writing, you are working alone. Only you. Poetry is only you. When you are painting also. When I was directing theatre, it was the most difficult art because you work with actors. You create the show. When the show opens, you lose the play and the actors take the play and you don’t exist any more. And when the show is over you don’t exist any more!
Every art has another place, another forum. It’s not the same, but it’s a marvelous adventure. Every art develops another sense in you. The brain is enormous, you can do everything. Not only one thing. Also I make therapy. Psychomagic. Psychomagic is a new kind of therapy. I also do tarot, which is a kind of spiritual search. I make a lot of things. I work with the public to liberate the consciousness because the consciousness is perfect in every brain. Consciousness is the same. It is a fantastic brain with limits. The country makes limits, society makes limits, family makes limits, history make limits. You need to [explosion gesture] to take out the limits in order to get the freedom of your consciousness. That you need to do, to be free in the mind.
Americans are unfamiliar with psychomagic or psychoshamanism, particularly as an influence on your own work. Could you speak about that a bit?
Listen, how old you are?
I had a son of twenty-four who died of an overdose, who died at a party. They gave him, I don’t know what drug, but he died. It was a very big crisis for me. For ten years, I stopped making art because I said, “Why am I making art?” I would give all of my art for only one year of the life of my child. The life of a human being, of a child or your son, or of your father, or of the person you love is greater than anything you have. If life is bigger than art, why am I making art? Then I said, “I am not making art to give fun to people — I am not a clown, I am not a businessman making money. I am a human being. I am making art to heal myself; that is what i am doing and when I will heal myself, then I will start to heal others.”
For me art is to heal, to take out all the illness that you have because it’s impossible to get through. Truth is to be. The universe is so incredibly enormous. In the universe, there is a sun who is, I don’t know, ten million times bigger than our sun. How can you know the truth of the universe? But we can know what thing: what is beautiful. Beauty. We can come to it with a beautiful life. That is happiness. We can live and die with happiness. That is the mission of art. To teach to you how you can love yourself. That is art, and that is to heal.
The big illness of the world is ugliness. War is ugly. Political campaigns are ugly. Horrible. Awful campaigns. I am ashamed to see the politicians who fight like that, that horrible way. Like big clowns, horrible, imbecilic clowns fighting to be president. What will they do when this clown is president? Ugliness. The Hollywood pictures are ugly because they are not helping to heal the ugliness. They are helping to make idiot consumers, which is ugly.
Did you know I didn’t make a picture for twenty-two, twenty-three years because no producer wanted to give me money to make a picture? I economized for twenty-two years; I have two million dollars. I will take one million and make a picture. I will find two persons to give me one million dollars each to lose the money. I don’t want to make a picture to earn money, I will make a picture to lose money. I will lose the money! La Dansa de Realidad? I lose money because the cinema is full of thieves. Every person takes the money for themselves. The distributors, the owners of theaters. Every person is cheating you of the money. And then you, the artist, you make the product but you have nothing. That is the story.
Then I take the second million dollars I have and put in Endless Poetry. I will lose that money. I am happy to lose it, because I want to be the happiness — to help the world, to show the young person they can do whatever they want. It is a loss to want money for art. If God gives you sugar, you open the mouth — if my picture makes money, I will agree, because I will make more pictures. But I do not make pictures to make money. This is a creative position. Pictures are an art.
What do you want to know now?
Lately your work has been exploring your past, like in Where the Bird Sings Best…
I write it. It’s history. Metagenealogy. All my family. I discovered all this enormous adventure. It’s an enormous adventure. Enormous.
Like Tsar Alexander?
Yes, my name is Alexander, but Jewish. Not the Tsar Alexander, but from Alexander Magno, who was the old conqueror, who was very good with the Jews. They say in order to make you immortal, you will take your name and will give it to your descendant. They will call you Alejandro, the descendant. Alexander is a different sort of human being. Alejandro is andro — humanity. Ale is health — health to humanity, that is the meaning of Alejandro in Greek. I help the humanity. For that, I have this idea. Because my name is Alejandro. What can I do? A name is an influence on you.
So you’ve been turning your own past into myth. You seem to give your father a redemptive story that wasn’t in The Dance of Reality, I guess these more fantastical elements. The past — you can change this story in your head, if you could speak to that?
Listen, when you’re an artist, you do what you need to do and then you die. You go no farther. Maybe there is another life. Who knows? Maybe there is something. Who knows? When you are my age, because in three more years I will be ninety years old. When you are living for this space of time, you realize — the majority of my friends have died. Eighty, eighty-five, sixty. The person dies. And then you say, “Okay, what do you want? Why am I here? Why was I born with an artistic talent?” Because you can be a big footballer, you can be a genius businessman, be a big anything. All of us we have talent, but we are different. Myself, I have artistical talent. When I was four years old, I started with art. I am here in order to give to the world something, to help the world. To help to make the world spiritually more rich. That is my mission. I need to be here to help develop a spiritually liberative consciousness. If I have persons who follow that — good! But if nobody listens to me — good!
The triumph is not an Oscar — the goal is not a price. The goal is to do what you need to do and to die happy because you did what you needed to do. I am doing what I need to do. I am honest when I do an interview, because I say exactly what I think. I don’t say things in order to sell my books or to sell my pictures. Yes, I make promotions, but I make a good promotion because I am honest. I am not lying to you. I don’t know you. I don’t know where you will put that. How you will translate that, I don’t know. But I try to be honest. Not to be deceitful like the moviemakers. Not the artists, the producers — they are enemies of the art. They are terrible. We need the young persons to start to create their own way to make pictures, not to go to the theaters.
I was happy that they showed The Holy Mountain in the cemetery of Los Angeles at the grave of Rudolph Valentino. One thousand persons were there. That’s the thing. We need to escape the commercial ways in order to do something. Not for Oscars. Not for dollars. You need to do that in order to die happy. That idiocy.
That sounds great.
It’s true. I feel like that and I am doing that. With Endless Poetry, I will make another way to show the picture. I will not show the picture in the common way. If only ten persons see my picture, ten persons will see my picture. But if ten million see my picture, I will be happy also. It is the same. One person or ten million person is the same.
One more question. When is your next picture coming out?
Endless Poetry will go out in June. We will try to go out in the Cannes film festival. In Europe, in France, a picture can’t go into the world if they don’t show in Cannes. They show in Cannes! Then I have distribution with the best distributor, who loves my picture. And he’s very enthusiastic, he wants to show the picture. But I will open the picture the tenth of June in the Museo de Louvre.
I think that pictures are good for museums. That is the place I want to show my pictures. In the museum. Not because it’s serious, not because it’s famous, but because it’s art. And a good place for them is the museum. Why not! You show a painting, why not a picture? When you have a dream you need to dream something impossible — and then do it. You need to do what is impossible. I thought, “my next big picture I will show in the big museum of France,” and it happened. It was possible! You find where you want. And then you will open in a different way. We need to make things we never did. When you are depressed, change. Do something you never did, something new in another way. Yes?
I don’t know whether what I am saying is good. Maybe what I say when you write in your newspaper will make enemies.
Oh no I hope not.
I am happy you have my books and my comics. I am very happy because when I started to publish, I published in Spanish, but now they even publish me in Japanese, in a lot of languages. I had that dream when I was your age, and it took a long time. I needed to wait something like fifty years to make my dream, but I continue it. When I have a failure, I say, “Failure doesn’t exist.” You change the way, that is all. You cannot make a picture in the movies you make a comic. Then I started making comics, The Incal, all of that, what I cannot do in pictures.
Last question and we say goodbye.
Where you are? In New York?
I’m in New York. I… don’t have a last question.
Listen, what is your goal in life?
I haven’t quite figured that out yet.
But we are waiting!
I’m a writer right now? I think about this often, but I don’t quite know.
If you are a writer, what are you writing?
I write about culture some, I write about architecture often, I do a few different things. I’m …figuring out what I want to do most.
You know, in order to do something, you need to organize your time. It is very easy to do — you organize your time. You say, “One hour a day you will write. From this hour to this hour, I will write that. And even if I don’t have idea, one hour I write. Even a line. Even three words. But I write. Every day I write.” You organize your time and then you do whatever you want. You take your time like your friend and you don’t lose your friend. Because your time is your life and then you organize your life. I do that, everyday I do that.
When I finish with you now, I will start to write my new comic. It is a comic book about alchemy in the French Revolution. I will write that because I need to do that. Before I be with you, from 4PM to 8:30, I worked on the colors of my new picture. Post-production of the colors it is a big work, to pour the colors you want, like a painting. Then I run in a car, rented — very cheap because it is electrical — and I came to my house to make the interview with you. Then I will continue into the night to make comic. When I finish with my work, I will see a comic picture. You know what I will see?
You will not believe! Zoolander 2! I laugh a lot with these guys. It is so funny! I laugh and I contract myself. It is contrary to what I ever would do because it is big business! But is so fantastic!
Tomorrow morning, I wake at ten in the morning, not before, and I make fifteen tweets, because I have tweets, which is an art form for me. Every day I send fifteen tweets. I have a million and two hundred thousand followers now. Speaking about art, philosophy, therapy, only that. No personal issues. Only creation, poetical creation. It’s an art. I am giving an art. It’s a creation. Every day I do that. Why? Because I want to help humanity. Only for that. Nothing more. Organize your time and you are happy.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.