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Onscreen psychedelics

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s films offer a high without the drugs (though drugs help too)

“I ask of film what most North Americans ask of psychedelic drugs” says filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky in El Topo: The Book of the Film . “The difference being that when one creates a psychedelic film he need not create a film that shows the visions of a person who has taken a pill; rather he needs to manufacture the pill.”

From a rather cruel and alienating childhood in Chile Jodorowsky studied mime in Paris before moving to film near the end of the 1960s. In his formative years Jodorowsky was a disciple of André Breton father of Surrealism. Jodorowsky saw filmmaking as Surrealism’s ultimate form of expression; a bombardment of images meant to stir and overwhelm merging the magic of dreaming with wakefulness. Jodorowsky’s films offer the viewer that very experience but with a wry sense of humour. Two of these El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973) will screen as a double feature at CUFF on Saturday April 12.

If I try to remember the first time I saw one of Jodorowsky’s films my brain seems to place it sometime in high school — likely the 11th or 12th grade a bootlegged copy of The Holy Mountain playing on my desktop computer. Sitting in an uncomfortable wicker chair eyes glued three-quarters shut from smoking marijuana in an attempt to “enhance” my viewing experience of the psychedelic feature that was now flickering in front of my eyes. It was a struggle.

I’m pretty sure I watched it just to say that I did. Just a little notch on my belt to make me appear smart and cool the next time I was drinking illegally in Fish Creek Park with a bunch of headbangers. Ah what youthful folly. I took in El Topo sometime shortly after. Same thing just faking the funk trying to pretend to understand art.

Years have passed and in that time I have smoked a lot more pot taken introspective mind-plumbing psychedelic “trips” read about the occult and lived with actual art students. Not only that — one of them was a real-life honest-to-god film major.

Oh the shit I have watched in these past years. Great films glorious films. Obscure Soviet propaganda reels culled from unknown corners of the Internet strange transgressive pornography and art-house films about what I really could not say. But of all the more “classic” films my cinephile friend introduced me to it has always been those which one might call surreal that have been my favourites — Jan Švankmajer’s absurd stop-motion nightmares often involving food in some strange capacity; the stunningly beautiful visuals of Kenneth Anger and Derek Jarman’s work homoerotic Crowley-ite sorcerers of the screen; and of course Jodorowsky.

As an acid-eater and dabbler in the esoteric himself Jodorowsky’s films are rife with the appropriate cultural symbolism. The Holy Mountain is a delightful exploration of things such as alchemy the Kabbalah astrology deconstruction of the ego and other Zen-type techniques as well as the shamanistic use of LSD and other substances.

His attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s sci-fi masterpiece Dune has recently been chronicled in the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune (also screening at CUFF). If Jodorowsky had succeeded in said task I’m sure it would have been magnificent and definitely miles above Lynch’s abomination (which I still sort of think is a good movie).

Jodorowsky is certainly a crown prince among a pantheon of filmmakers with whom I have become obsessed. Do as the Zen masters do as the Dadaists and the Surrealists after them did and do not try too hard. Simply receive.

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