Friday, May 31, 2013

The Dance of Reality

The Dance of Reality (Spanish: La danza de la realidad) is a 2013 independent autobiographical film written, produced and directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky, and based on his autobiography of the same name. The film blends Jodorowsky’s personal history with metaphor, mythology and poetry, reflecting the director’s view that reality is not objective but rather a “dance” created by our imaginations: “The story of my life is a constant effort to expand the imagination and its limitations, to capture its therapeutic and transformative potential... An active imagination is the key to such a wide vision: it looks at life from angles that are not our own, imagining other levels of consciousness superior to our own.” The film has been described as "surrealistic".

Jodorowsky has expressed his ambivalence towards the film industry and its focus on making money and claimed he did not want to “make money but rather lose money" in the making of this film, asking for it to be funded purely through donations.

In one of the biggest surprises of the festival so far, the new film from Alejandro Jodorowsky can be watched and enjoyed without the influence of recreational drugs.

That may seem odd considering the source, the Chilean-born director of such hallucinatory cult classics as "El Topo" and "The Holy Mountain." But the filmmaker's first feature in 23 years — an autobiographical fantasia based on his own memories and books — plays less like his midnight staples than an unhinged variation on Fellini's "Amarcord," down the big-breasted women and son Adan Jodorowsky's jaunty score.

Set in the author's hometown of Tocopilla, Chile, the movie follows both the androgynous, initially golden-locked young Alejandro (Jeremias Herskovits) and his Communist father (played by another of El Maestro's sons, his now-grown "El Topo" costar, Brontis Jodorowsky). Jews of Russian extraction in a remote community, the family stands out. The older man dresses like Stalin and obsesses over toughening up his son, even urging his kid to undergo dental surgery without anesthetic. ("You are a Jodorowsky!" he crows when the boy succeeds.)

It's the kind of film in which men who've lost limbs in the mines populate the periphery to provide comic relief and the filmmaker intermittently turns up in an ice-cream suit to serve as an onscreen guide. Jordorowky's mother (Pamela Flores) sings every line, and at one point urinates on her convulsing husband in order to heal him. (Between this and last year's "The Paperboy," the restorative piss is becoming an annual Cannes motif.) The father wanders off on a half-baked quest to assassinate the wealthy Chilean president, eventually discovering that he identifies more with tyrants than with the common man.

Despite a sometimes slapdash look — the low-fi seagull effects are just this side of "Birdemic" — it's hard not to find this sort of controlled chaos endearing, certainly not when it's peppered with as much affection and warmth as it is here. At the Q&A, one fan actually asked to kiss the director, ascending the stage to embrace him. For his part, the 84-year-old filmmaker, speaking in French, seemed less mad than modest. "I did not create it," he said of his new film. "I received it."

Life goes by like a dream — and sometimes a nightmare — in “The Dance of Reality,” an “imaginary autobiography” by legendary cult filmmaker (and self-proclaimed “psychomagician”) Alejandro Jodorowsky that marks the octogenarian Chilean helmer’s first feature in the 23 years since the barely released job-for-hire “The Rainbow Thief.” As purely personal a film as Jodorowsky has ever made, “Dance” features no shortage of the bizarro imagery and willful atonalities that have long been his stock-in-trade, but it all seems to stem from a more sincere, coherent place this time than in the flamboyant head movies (“El Topo,” “The Holy Mountain”) that made him a star of the 1970s midnight movie scene. By turns playful, tragic and surprisingly light on its feet, this welcome comeback — “rebirth” might be more in keeping with pic’s own spirit — should keep its maker fully booked on the fest circuit, with arthouse theatrical play also likely in key territories.

Jodorowsky, who has chalked up his long hiatus to the difficulty in securing financing for his unconventional projects (several of which were announced, then canceled, in recent years), begins “The Dance of Reality” with an ode to money. Gold pieces rain down in slow motion onscreen while the director himself delivers a monologue comparing money to “blood, Christ, Buddha” and pretty much everything else. From there, this carnivalesque memory film (with particular echoes of Fellini’s “8 1/2” and “Amarcord”) transports us to the director’s childhood hometown of Tocopilla, on Chile’s northern coast, where we first meet young Alejandro (Jeremias Herskovits), along with his father, Jaime (very well played by Jodorwosky’s real-life son Brontis), and mother, Sara (Pamela Flores), whose enormous bosom could serve as a storm shelter and who sings all her dialogue in a trilling soprano.

Resembling a cross between Little Lord Fauntleroy and Goldilocks in his blue overcoat and flowing flaxen mane, the preteen Alejandro finds himself simultaneously smothered by Mom’s affection (and belief that he is the reincarnation of her own late father) and bullied by Dad — a former circus performer — into becoming a “real man.” Among the latter’s tactics: a gleefully macabre visit to the dentist’s office, sans anesthetic. Escaping the family nest whenever he can, Alejandro explores the seemingly enchanted landscape of Tocopilla, his impressionable mind shaped by encounters with dwarfs, maimed mine workers, a pierced and tattooed Theosophist (who teaches him the tenets of meditation) and a mysterious drunk who cautions against throwing stones into the sea. This leads to an enormous wave crashing thousands of dead sardines on to the beach — a scene, like many in the film, rendered lyrical and haunting despite (or perhaps because of) its unapologetically lo-fi CGI.

“All things are connected in a web of suffering and pleasure,” narrates the director, who sometimes appears onscreen beside his youthful avatar like an unseen spirit guide. Juxtaposing his own coming-of-age against the social and political landscape of Chile in those same years, Jodorowsky openly addresses the era’s virulent anti-Semitism (classmates tease Alejandro for his prominent nose and circumcised penis). In its considerably darker second half, the pic emerges as a son’s pained attempt to reconcile his complicated relationship with his father, here depicted as a card-carrying communist who evolves into an unlikely radical, abandoning his family on a quixotic quest to assassinate the fascist military Gen. Carlos Ibanez. That part of the narrative is, per the director, completely invented, but the mixture of love and resentment he feels towards his parents is very real indeed.

In the opening minutes of "The Dance of Reality," cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky's first movie in 23 years, he appears onscreen reciting a poem that compares money to blood, Christ and Buddha, then equates death to consciousness and wealth. It's that combination of evocative prose and bizarre associations that define the director's appeal, which stretches back to the glory days of his midnight movie stardom with "El Topo" and "The Holy Mountain." While lacking their polished lunacy, "The Dance of Reality" maintains the gonzo spirit of its creator, virtually emerging directly from his psyche.

The movie finds Jodorowsky reteaming with French producer Michel Seydoux, with whom the director collaborated on a famously ambitious, uncompleted adaptation of "Dune" (a story told in the documentary "Jodorowsky's Dune," premiering at Cannes' Directors Fortnight section alongside the new work). In contrast to that costly endeavor, "The Dance of Reality" is a noticeably small, unapologetically messy, diary-like ode to his upbringing. Jodorowsky adapts his memoir of the same name in addition to elements of another book, "The Boy of Black Wednesday," in which he imagined a scenario that found his father scheming to kill Chilean president Carlos IbaƱez del Campo as part of a communist plot.

Those ingredients remain intact against a landscape of visually audacious eccentricities: mean-spirited clowns, a gang of wily amputees, and a beggar clad in face paint populate the impoverished village where the young Jodorowsky (Jeremias Herskovits) lives a frantic life under the strict guidance of his father, Jaime (Brontis Jodorowsky, Alejandro's son). Jaime's parenting skills are enacted with cartoonish extremes, including a scene in which he slaps his son repeatedly to force the scrawny boy to man up, eventually knocking out one of his teeth. But while Jaime's own journey toward improving his behavior lies ahead, Alejandro's mother casts the boy a sympathetic eye -- and exclusively sings her lines in operatic verse.

A roaring ovation greeted the Cannes premiere of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first feature in 23 years. But this highly stylized magic-realist memoir of the Chilean-born director’s early life will test the patience of viewers outside the festival bubble.

Best known for his psychedelic 1970s cult movies El Topo and The Magic Mountain, the 84-year-old Jodorowsky pulls out all the stops here – full frontal nudity, sexualized violence, characters urinating on each other, Nazi uniforms and drag queens and dwarves in fancy dress. And while these are all crucial ingredients for a fantastic party, they do not add up to a great film. Box office interest is likely to be spotty, relying on the curiosity value of Jodorowsky’s reputation as a psycho-magical surrealist from a more indulgent era in art-house cinema.

The Dance of Reality is a rich pageant of nostalgic narcissism laced with New Age mysticism and fortune-cookie wisdom: “someone is dreaming us, embrace the illusion.” At its most inspired, Jodorowsky’s episodic jumble of restaged childhood memories conjurs up a movingly biographical effect akin to Fellini, Bergman, Peter Greenaway or even Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But such moments are few and far between. The film is also numbingly overlong, dramatically shapeless and fatally lacking in humility. The uncharitable may well dismiss it as it an ageing auteur’s latest and probably last act of masturbatory egotism.

Jodorowsky mostly shot the film in his childhood home of Tocopilla in Chile, where his family of bourgeois Ukrainian-Jewish exiles were victims of casual – and occasionally violent - anti-Semitism. His merchant father Jaime was an ultra-macho Stalinist disciplinarian who, according to the director’s previous accounts, beat and raped his wife. These events are only hinted at in The Dance of Reality, in which Jaime is portrayed by Jodorowsky’s middle-aged son Brontis, adding an oddly Freudian frisson to scenes of genital-burning torture that occur in the film’s latter half. His mother, played by Pamela Flores, is a busty Wagnerian hausfrau who speaks only in operatic musical phrases, an amusing conceit that soon becomes tiresome.

LA DANZA DE LA REALIDAD (THE DANCE OF REALITY) is Alejandro Jodorowsky’s latest film after a break of twenty-three years. As with most of his films, Jodorowsky does not rely on drama or straightforward storytelling, but instead uses philosophical ideas to tell his stories. His latest work is an autobiographical film that delves into childhood issues, religion and politics. Jamie, the father character, played by Alejandro Jodorowsky’s elder son (Brontis Jodorowsky) is an alpha-male that encourages his own son to withstand pain while he aspires to be like Stalin. The mother (Pamela Flores) is a nurturing woman who only delivers her dialog in an opera, while Alejandro himself plays the son’s inner voice or guiding soul.

The extinct volcano of underground cinema has burst into life once again — with a bizarre, chaotic and startling film; there are some longueurs and gimmicks, but The Dance of Reality is an unexpectedly touching and personal work. At the age of 84, and over 20 years since his last movie, Alejandro Jodorowsky has returned to his hometown of Tocopilla in the Chilean desert to create a kind of magic-realist memoir of his father, Jaime Jodorowsky, a fierce Communist whose anger at the world — at his son — was redoubled by the anti-Semitism the family faced.

Of course, the entire story is swathed in surreal mythology, dream logic and instant day-glo legend, resmembling Fellini, Tod Browning, Emir Kusturica, and many more. You can't be sure how to extract conventional autobiography from this. Despite the title, there is more "dance" than "reality" — and that is the point. Or part of the point. For the first time, Jodorowsky is coming close to telling us how personal evasiveness has governed his film-making style; his flights of fancy are flights of pain, flights from childhood and flights from reality. And now he is using his transformative style to come to terms with and change the past and to confer on his father some of the heroism that he never attained in real life.

As a child, young Alejandro is played by Jeremias Herskowits, and as an old man by the director himself, who cuts a distinguished, Haneke-like figure with his white hair and trimmed beard. His father Jaime is played by the director's son Brontis Jodorowsky, which lends the project an intriguingly Freudian flavour. (Until this moment, I thought the scene in Michael Powell's Peeping Tom in which the director dropped creepy-crawlies on his son's pillow was the roughest father-son moment in cinema. But here Jodorowsky films a scene in which Jaime is tortured by the state police, and a naked Brontis Jodorowsky has electrodes attached to his testicles in full camera view. Ouch.)

Alejandro's mother Sara (Pamela Flores) is a buxom woman of great emotional yearning who sings her lines like opera. She mollycoddles and indulges her boy, to the fury of Jaime, paterfamilias and tyrant, who wants him to be a real man and an indestructible warrior of the international Stalinist Left. So he toughens the boy by tickling him with a feather and demanding that he doesn't laugh — and also insisting he has no anaesthetic at the dentist. Jaime is deeply ashamed when young Alejandro faints with horror at the funeral parade of a fireman who has been burned to death — Jodorowsky brilliantly imagines a macabre fantasy of Alejandro lying next to the charred corpse. Finally Jaime leaves, on a mission to assassinate the hated Chilean general Ibanez, a mission which ends in grotesque failure, but leads to an epiphany.

It is all intensely weird but The Dance Of Reality did make me laugh out loud at many moments, especially when Ibanez comes to inspect a novelty dog competition: "I don't want to live in a world of dressed-up dogs," moans one dissident.

Missing, believed lost, Alejandro Jodorowsky rolls into Cannes like a conquering hero. He has a room at the Croisette and a film in the directors' fortnight – a rambunctious sidebar away from the Palais. "I am like the rain, I go where I'm needed," the director explains. "If I were in the big house, with the red carpet and photographers and all the fancy women, I would be ashamed." He has always been happier way out on the fringes.

Jodorowsky turned 84 last birthday. He has white hair, bright eyes and a crocodile smile. It is now more than four decades since he thrilled the faithful as El Topo, a mysterious gunslinger in rabbinical black, and 23 years since he last sat behind a movie camera. We thought he was a goner, that it was all over bar the obit. Instead, it transpires, the man is barely getting started.

"Look at this, I show you something," he says, leafing through the pages of the magazine at his elbow. His tour leads us through a world of glossy advertisements. "Beautiful woman – selling things. Beautiful woman – selling things. The Great Gatsby – selling watches." It is the picture of Leonardo DiCaprio that really gets his goat. "Prostitution!" he roars. "He should be ashamed."

Jodorowsky's latest film, La Danza de la Realidad, also feels like the first in that it unfolds as an exuberant magic-realist memoir of the director's own childhood, replete with iguanas, circus clowns and amputees. He shot most of the action in his hometown of Tocopilla, a dirt-poor Chilean village that he found had barely changed in the intervening decades. In a neat generational twist, the director's eldest son, Brontis, plays Jodorowsky's brutish Stalinist dad.

The whole thing was undertaken in a spirit of healing. "My father was a monster," he recalls. "A monster! I cut with my family when I was 23 and I never see them again. Oh yes, it was a terrible thing that I did. But what I am doing here is recovering them and giving them what they never had. My father had no humanity. So here, look, I am making him human."

As a boy, Jodorowsky was bullied for being Jewish and bullied for being bookish. Flight, he decided, was his only option. In Paris, he studied mime with Marcel Marceau and directed Maurice Chevalier in music-hall. In Mexico he outraged the authorities with an avant-garde theatre group. "In Mexico they want to kill me!" he marvels. "A soldier held a gun to my chest."

By the early 70s he was a star of American counter-culture. El Topo, a demented peyote western, won an ardent fan in John Lennon and it was Lennon who helped secure the funds for 1973's The Holy Mountain, in which the conquest of Mexico is re-enacted with chameleons dressed as Aztecs and toads playing conquistadors. And yet The Holy Mountain would prove too rich and wild a brew and, since then, Jodorowsky's career has been an infuriatingly stop-start affair. Here at Cannes, another festival picture (Jodorowsky's Dune) charts his endless, agonised attempts to spin a film out of the Frank Herbert fantasy tome. The film was eventually directed by David Lynch, while many of its visual ideas filtered through to Ridley Scott's Alien. Jodorowsky, for his part, was left out in the cold.

Such indignities might have undone a lesser man. Yet Jodorowsky claims to be altogether untroubled. The ticking clock means nothing to him. "Anyone who thinks they will get older and die has a big problem," he says. "Tarantino says that he will stop when he gets old because the pictures are for young people, I don't believe it. I am going to live 120 years."

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