The Endless Poetry of Alejandro Jodorowsky
While trying to summarize Alejandro Jodorowsky's latest film, I found myself thinking of a quote from 1972's The Ruling Class: "I stand outside of myself, watching myself. I smile, I smile, I smile." It's a line spoken by a paranoid schizophrenic who believes he's the messiah and yet, for a surrealist masterpiece such as Poesia Sin Fin / Endless Poetry (2016), it's surprisingly apt.
Ever since 2013's documentary Jodorowsky's Dune put the cult film director back in touch with his old producer Michel Seydoux, the 88 year old Jodorowsky has had a resurgence. His 22 year hiatus from filmmaking ended with the release of The Dance of Reality (2013), a fantastical retelling of Jodorowsky's troubled childhood as the son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants in Tocopillo, Chile. His latest film picks up right where Dance left off, with young Alejandro (Jeremias Herskovits, later real-life youngest son Adan Jodorowsky) having now moved to Santiago, and struggling to find out who he is independent of his parents' control.
The movie itself is shot beautifully on location, and bursting with colorful characters, costumes and sets. Jodorowsky recreates his childhood memories by dressing up actual Santiago streets with massive sepia printouts of photos showing how things used to be. It's a brilliant and effective strategy that strangely helps to temper the fantastical and surrealist elements within the film. Between the obvious set building, and the occasional unacknowledged figure in a black bodysuit handing props to the main characters, Jodorowsky infuses his film with a type of theatrical magic that helps to set the tone. It's the type of filmmaking Michel Gondry's been chasing for years, but without the multimillion dollar budget.
Young Alejandro decides that he wants to be a poet, much to the chagrin of his aggressively masculine father Jaime (played by Jodorowsky's eldest son, Brontis Jodorowsky) and operatically-voiced mother Sara (Pamela Flores). Thus, young Alejandro rebels by symbolically chopping down a beloved tree in his grandmother's home, and running away to an artist collective in the city. Haunted by his father's insistence that all poets are "maricón," he decides to share a same-sex kiss as his first foray into self-discovery. Once he realizes the kiss did nothing for him, Alejandro becomes a man; the young Herskovits is swapped out for grown Adan in the role, and all insecurities melt away revealing a newfound confidence.
Adan's Alejandro embodies pure enthusiasm and passion. When not drinking and merrymaking, he lives and breathes art. He begins a passionate affair with fellow poet Stella Díaz Varín (played by Pamela Flores, in a real Freudian field day of a choice), who is depicted as a domineering rainbow-painted beauty, with bright red hair and gold painted breasts. He befriends fellow poet and lookalike Enrique Lihn (Leandro Taub), and the two of them create their own surrealist poetry happenings – such as walking in a straight line through town, which takes them through homes, beds, windows, and parking lots. Yet, Alejandro still feels conflicted between knowing that it's near impossible to be a full-time career artist, and refusing to give up his dream to return to the life his parents want from him.
Endless Poetry is most definitely a coming of age film, not just for the 20-year-old Alejandro on screen, but also for the 88-year-old Alejandro who appears sporadically as a specter of the future. By including his present day self, Alejandro is able to both therapeutically dissect and muse on his own past, while also acting as a soothing and guiding voice to his younger self. The true climax of the film is in the last scene where Alejandro, about to move from Chile to France, is confronted by his father Jaime. Their frustrations boil over into a fist fight as Alejandro quite literally asserts his independence by beating his father the way his father used to beat him. The scene is then paused by the older Alejandro as he attempts to rewrite it – he asks his younger self to turn his fist into a caress, reflecting that not only would be the last time he saw his father alive, but also in acknowledgement that his father, for all of his flaws, was only trying his best. It's bittersweet and all the more powerful seeing the elder Jodorowsky standing there hugging both of his own sons, who in the scene represent both his father and himself. ("I smile, I smile, I smile.")
It's that level of empathy and self reflection that truly makes the film shine. Endless Poetry is a pure embodiment of Jodorowsky's being; absolutely everything in this film serves as an extension of and a lesson to himself. Through his father's violence and hyper masculinity, he learns absurdism – laughing at fear, and blindly storming through all obstacles. Through the flaws and self-desctrutive behavior of his beloved artist friends, he learns that true self-definition come from your own hard work and passions, nobody can do it for you. Through his own disillusionment and desire for direction, he learns the importance of acceptance; self-acceptance and acceptance of all that life has to offer. Preaching acceptance becomes his battlecry, his answer to the void that is the universe. It defines his brand of surrealism and leads him to seek beauty and meaning where others look away – whether it's in genitalia, amputees, defecation, menstruation ("Blood is sacred!" he happily exclaims before having sex with a menstruating little person, to my amusement and to the horror of the men next to me in the theater), you name it. His positivity and drive are infectious, even when the focus is perhaps, uh, a bit eccentric.
This emphasis on self-acceptance and inner peace has always been Jodorowsky's raison d'être, but never before has he been this straight-forward about it. Endless Poetry is still full of classic Jodorowsky themes and icons – such as overt symbolism, religious iconography, amputees, dwarfs, equal opportunity nudity, spirituality, humor – but this time his storytelling is not only grounded but also surprisingly personal. While the film obviously plays fast and loose with facts about his life, it seemingly delivers an emotional truth that most filmmakers, surrealist or not, wouldn't dare to reveal about themselves.
Personally, I adored it. I love that he's still enthusiastic about making art and movies, I love that he involves his entire family in his productions, I love that his family wants to be involved in such a revealing (sometimes literally) film, and I love that through sheer force of will, at age 88, he still manages to get his vision out there. In Jodorowsky's Dune they mention that his script for Dune was the size of a phonebook, and had the movie been made, it would have been a 14-hour film. It sounds ridiculous in theory, yet here we are decades later, two films into a projected series of films based on his life. If he manages it then the jokes on us, because he would indeed be actualizing his vision of a 14-hour film (albeit broken up into pieces) in the end. I, for one, would happily sit through it.