In honor of the release of a new film by (and yet another on) Alejandro Jodorwsky, here's some refigured thoughts on the few films he made that didn't become cult successes:
Of Chilean madman Alejandro Jodorowsky's two final films before his twenty year hiatus, Santa Sangre is more obviously the work of its director. The Rainbow Thief, its comparatively mawkish companion piece, represents a very different side of the master I can't resist. Back in the 70s and between pre-production phases of his failed Dune adaptation (a documentary on which is just hitting theatres), Jodorowsky directed Tusk, a heartfelt and completely forgotten adventure film that played like Au Hazard Balthasar by way of Alexander Korda. It had nothing of its auteur's caustic surrealism, which probably killed it. In point of fact, it's downright sentimental. Before Tusk, the only clue that Jodorowsky had time for heart-string tugging was in a half-second's aside in El Topo when the gunslinger cheers up his dwarf lover after they're forced to make love for some gunslingers' entertainment. Tusk could have played to kids if it weren't shot entirely in extreme wide angles that destroy any sense of its human characters (The film's refusal to shoot close-ups or low-angles, coupled with the fact that it's only ever been on blurry VHS means that for money I couldn't tell you what the lead actress looks like). They're tiny figures in a huge landscape, the titular elephant the film's only real hero. Tusk tells the story of a strong-willed French girl born and raised in India. To her controlling father's chagrin, she falls in love with Indian culture, spends time talking to and even touching the Indian serving staff on their huge estate, and befriends an elephant who shares her birthday. When her father has to let a charismatic hunter claim the elephant for the maharaja, she and her father have a falling out and she sets off in search of her companion. The story isn’t revolutionary and it was the first of Jodorowsky’s features to be based on someone else’s writing which made him kill all his darlings and for once deliver something resembling a conventional narrative. Like late Kurosawa and some of Sidney Lumet’s commercial work, Jodorowsky spends a lot of time admiring the scenery from the cheap seats. Perhaps it was his way of not fully surrendering to so touching a narrative. Whatever his reasoning, it became quite clear that there were two Jodorowskys, and they were at war. And from the sounds of things, with La Danza de la Realidad, his return to cinema after all these years, he's only just gotten them to inhabit the same body.
Santa Sangre returned to the well that he dug for Fando Y Lis, El Topo and The Holy Mountain, but with a different, furious rhythm to guide it. If El Topo is a waltz with a host of lunatics, Santa Sangre is an eye-scorching samba, painted bodies writhing satanically under the light of a moon (or a whorehouse). The Rainbow Thief by contrast is an unabashed heart-string tugger, even if its filtered through a little abstraction (long sections pass without dialogue, the side characters never get names or functions beyond providing bite-sized whimsy, character motivations are hardly worthy of the name) and perhaps that's why its maker disowned it. But I give him more credit than he gives himself. The Rainbow Thief follows an eccentric aristocrat who decides to retreat into the sewers instead of collect his inheritance. A crafty crook is his only contact with the world above. It may have little of El Topo's cult love but how could your heart not melt for The Rainbow Thief? How can you not love a film that allows Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif to share the screen for only the third time after Lawrence of Arabia and Night of the Generals? How can you not love a film that worships the maligned and forgotten in ways that anticipate The Fisher King and doesn't make you suffer Robin Williams? How can you not love a film in which Christopher Lee plays not only a sympathetic character for once, but a lovable, billionaire whore monger on his death bed? How can you not a love a film that brings a dog back from the dead? Answered my own question, haven't I? It does rather overflow with good cheer (Jodorowsky never half-asses anything) and its saccharine myth-making could sweeten espresso. As with all of his films, it's an all-or-nothing proposition, but if you're in the mood to be enchanted, there are few films that feel quite so splendidly like live-action cartoons. Jodorowsky might not want to own up to having a heart, but the evidence is overwhelming and I respect the man all the more for taking a chance on showing it to us. For a long time it looked like he wasn't ever going to get to make another film (any director whose stylistic sensibility closely resembles a peyote hallucination is no friend to producers) and I'm glad as anything that I get to go to a movie theatre and buy a ticket for the new film by Alejandro Jodorowsky. All the same, if he'd gone out on The Rainbow Thief, I think I could have lived with that.