FILMMAKER, POET, NOVELIST, comics writer, mime, actor, theater director, soundtrack composer, “psychomagician,” Tarot reader: Alejandro Jodorowsky needs no introduction.
In this interview conducted via Skype, the 87-year-old creative polymath reflected from his home in Paris upon a multiplicity of topics, ranging from the esoteric library in his childhood home of Tocopilla in Chile, to his latest (characteristically indescribable) novel Albina and the Dog-Men, to the purpose of art, to why he is planting “seeds of consciousness” via Twitter.
DANIEL KALDER: What was the first book that you remember reading by yourself?
ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY: Well, I started to read when I was five years old. I read everything. I read a collection of classics for children. Shakespeare for Children — something like that. And then I read The Hunchback (El Jorobado) about Enrique de Lagardere. It’s a French book about a beautiful man, but he pretends to be a hunchback. That brought me to see the picture The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with Charles Laughton. It was an idea of my life: to be a prince, but pretend I was a monster.
I read everything, because I was in a little town. I was white, and my father was a Jew hiding as a Russian. But I knew what I was. The children there were Chilean, with dark skin. I had no friends. And there was a library in this little town, because all kinds of people from different countries came there. English people came to the factory of electricity and they made a library — an esoteric library, a Masonic library.
Yes. And then I started to read Masonic books. At seven years old! I found everything, no?
This was in Tocopilla?
They had a Masonic library?
Yes, right there!
So in this little town in Chile, you were reading books containing secrets of the universe and mysteries?
Yes, exactly! It’s incredible, no? I read everything. And also I read books that they published in the United States, before there were comics. Doc Savage, and The Shadow and Bill Barnes. And I also read a book about the Tarot.
And your father was a Stalinist?
Yes, a communist, a Stalinist.
Did he have any books by Lenin and Stalin in the house? They were authors. They wrote a lot.
No, he was a businessman. He didn’t read. But he opened an account for me in the communist library. I could go there to take any books I wanted.
Whenever I read your books or comics or watch your movies, I see a collision of radically contrasting elements similar to what you are describing in your childhood experiences with books. For example, El Topo is a western, but it’s a metaphysical western loaded with symbolism, but also sex, violence, and humor. Meanwhile, your publisher describes your new book, Albina and the Dog-Men, as “mystical folktale, road novel, horror story, and social parable.” It also incorporates elements of mythology and religion. In all your work, it seems that you like to mix disparate elements together, almost aggressively.
I will tell you why. Now we are in the 21st century, but from the beginning of human culture man has imitated things. In the beginning man imitated agriculture, no? When he buried a body, he put a seed in the mouth to make a tree. And then he started to keep animals, and he started to make a totem of animals. The totem of animals is still with us today: Russia is a bear, the United States is an eagle, Mexico is a serpent with feathers. Later, man started to imitate the movement of the moon, and of the sun. The king is the sun, but sometimes the king is the moon, and in some kingdoms they would kill them because the moon disappeared — this was an imitation of the movement. And then came physical imitation. Every movement of reality, of gravity is in the language.
When a person starts to study logic he decides that life is separate, that time is past, present, and future. We divide: body and soul, spirit and soul, we make these separations. But life is a unity — we have everything at the same time. Open the newspaper, you will see the Pope and you will see a criminal on the other side, and also prostitution and business and boxing. Everything is happening at the same time in the newspaper. That is our mind.
And then, I am like this: I have no limits. I am trying not to have limits. Why am I trying to do that? Because it’s my pleasure. [Laughs] I like freedom! When I was child I was alone, reading books, fantasy. What can you do in this life? What can you do? Have fun!
This freedom from limitations is something I really appreciate in your work. Most writers distinguish between genres, moods, and tones, but you put it all together and push it out there.
I like also to make something that is positive, because life is so negative now. We are destroying the universe, we are destroying the planet, we are inventing illnesses in order to sell pills. It’s terrible, the politics; it’s terrible, the religions; it’s terrible that we all believe in nothing. Why be negative if you are an artist? Now the revolution is to be positive.
The transforming self is a common motif in your work. For instance, in your graphic novel The Incal, the central character John DiFool is constantly changing. When the story of his cosmic quest begins, your co-creator Moebius draws DiFool as an ugly guy with a big nose, and he’s —
— a detective and he’s with prostitutes.
But as the book progresses he becomes more heroic, and he even changes physically, becoming more handsome. He goes forward, he goes backward, he keeps changing. And in El Topo, the cowboy begins the film as a gunslinger in black with a thick black beard. But in the end, he’s completely different, he’s wearing rags, he’s bald, he’s like a beggar. In everything you do, characters undergo radical change.
I told you that the first little book I read was Shakespeare for Children. And there was Hamlet in it. And when I was reading, Hamlet was doubting. He never changes. I was so angry with Hamlet! Why doesn’t he change? Why doesn’t he solve his problem? I suffered a lot with that story; I suffered a lot that he never changed. And then I started to think that art exists to show you that life is changing all the time, that it’s continuously changing, that everything is changing. And characters need to change.
Eastern religions say: “Life is an illusion.” Now if life is an illusion, I will live the most beautiful illusion. I will suffer a beautiful illusion. Why suffer an ugly illusion, a terrible illusion? I started to make art, all the time thinking of healing the person who reads me, to give to that person an image of what she really is.
Now I’d like to ask you about something else. At the start of your career you studied mime with Marcel Marceau.
Not only study. I did it!
Mime is a wordless form of communication, but in most of your creative work you use words. When you make a film, you start by writing the script. Comics also start with a script. And when you write a book, it’s all words. Did mime teach you anything about writing?
There are two things in my life that formed my mind. The first was mime. And in the last five years, it was Twitter. Twitter is forming my mind. It’s like a Japanese haiku: you are inside the form. With mime, I learned how to communicate through nonverbal relations and how to be in the space, to know who is important. This is very important for making movies because movies are not theater. Movies are image and movement; their essence is nonverbal. Whatever I can show, I take out of the script, I remove the words. When I cannot show this thing, I use dialogue.
But even when I did mimes for Marceau — who was a genius of mime — I realized I could not be as good as him. But I was more intelligent than him. So I proposed to write pantomimes for him because he was always imitating Charlie Chaplin. I said, “You need to make a metaphysical pantomime,” and then I created the mime of the person caught in the cage, like this [Jodorowsky probes an invisible wall with his hands]. I made a lot of pantomimes for him at the end of his life. I worked for him for a very long time.
You have worked in many different art forms. When you have an idea, how do you decide whether to execute it as a film, as a book, or as a comic?
I write as I want. For Albina and the Dog-Men, I studied a lot of books on how to make a picture — all with the same system. The hero is in his world, and then he receives an offer. He doesn’t want to do it, but then something comes that destroys his life and he’s obliged to do it, and go in search of some kind of treasure. So then he goes, he has enemies and allies, etc., and in the end he finds the magic thing and brings it to where he is living: all done!
I applied all that, and for the first time I make a book like a picture: Albina.
Albina — and your work generally — contains thousands of ideas, or at least hundreds of ideas. On every page, there’s a new idea, and then another. How do you begin? Do you have one image and then you start improvising from there, or do you have a grand plan in your mind?
When I need to write something, I am tired. For one day, two days, I am asking for what to do. And after a moment with a lot of tension: Whoosh! It comes. I don’t know how, I am not responsible for it, I receive these things. Because between consciousness and your unconscious, there is a world. You need to open that world. When you do, it’s like a river. Everything comes to you.
In The Incal, or in another of my comics, The Metabarons, I placed an impossible solution at the end of each chapter and then I waited. What is the solution to this problem? I didn’t know it myself. For example, in The Metabarons, the powerful warrior Othon needs to have children, but he lost his testicles in a fight with a bull. And he will have children because the oracle said he will have a son. How will he have a son?
But I found a way to do it, no? A woman comes who is a magician, and with a drop of his blood she makes sperm and he has a child. And in The Incal, I have impossible situations all the time.
So you like to create impossible obstacles for your heroes to overcome?
Yes. I am not a worker, I do that for my pleasure … but in reality, I do it because from when I was a child, the only thing I love is art. I went to the university to study psychology and philosophy, but at that moment I had two ways in front of me. I could follow the way of intelligence or I could follow the way of imagination. I preferred to go by the way of imagination, to develop my creativity. I did exercises to develop my imagination.
Like what for instance?
They are very classic: for instance, to make something grow. I take your beard there and make it grow. I make it grow to fill your room, and then the whole planet. Something like that. I can make something big, big, big — like King Kong! And then I can make something little, little, little, little, little — like the man who fights against a spider in a film.
Healing is a major theme in your work.
Yes, because I had a son who died. A terrible overdose. One night at a party, and then — finish. It was terrible for me. I asked: What is art? If I can give all my art, my books, everything I have, I will give them — because the most important thing is to have him now, a new time. I realized that the most important thing in life is the person you love. You can give everything you have for that person. Nothing is more valuable. And then I said: “I will love humanity now. I will make my art to heal. If there is a person with depression, I will try to make a book in order to heal depression, to heal the person.”
Did you write a book like that?
Sí! For 30 years, I went to a coffee house near me. For free, without payment, I read the tarot. On Wednesdays, I read the tarot to any person. I wrote a book, The Way of Tarot, and with this I can help people. Not by seeing the future, but by solving a lot of problems people have. Psychoanalysis is a problem because it comes from scientific people, from doctors. But the unconscious is not scientific. The unconscious is crazy. But art can understand that, and then we can heal psychological problems.
I think more people should know about your comics. You have done so many wonderful collaborations with fantastic artists, but in interviews people just talk about your movies again and again. Of course the movies are very interesting, but the comics represent 30 or 35 years of really unique work.
Yes. Comics are an art, like movies. To write, to draw, and to write healing books also! Everything is an art.
One of my favorite comics is Son of the Gun, the series you did with Georges Bess about Juan Solo, the South American mob enforcer with a tail.
That is the boy who died. That was my son who died.
Yes, the main character. I used photos of him to make this character. I’d never done this. I had wanted to make a movie, but when he died I didn’t do it.
Son of the Gun definitely reads and feels like a movie.
Yes it was, but when he died, I did it as a comic.
It’s a dark story. I mean, it begins with Juan Solo dumped in a trashcan as a baby, and then rescued by a transvestite dwarf prostitute who suckles him with a pistol. He grows up to do terrible things.
Yes. I wanted to make a dark story.
There’s not a lot of healing going on.
Yes there is! In the end, when he arrives in the village, he is caught in the game. He wants to lie, and to steal from the people, but he gives his life for a town of poor people. No, no: He changed!
I feel there are parallels between Albina and Son of the Gun. Both feature grotesque mother figures who nurture mutants.
All my life I have felt like a mutant, always fighting to impose my work. Because a normal person would think: What does the public like? Romance? Then I will make romantic stories. They want fighting? I will make something with fights. They want Superman? I will make Superman. But myself, I did what I wanted and created my public. All my life I was creating a public. I think it is good to do that, because if not you will always repeat what people already know.
But it’s a much more difficult path.
Yes, it’s terrible! Oh la la I can tell you! When I made my film Fando and Lis in Mexico, they wanted to kill me!
Do you feel you have been able to steadily build a public or has it ebbed and flowed?
No, I advanced. Now they are translating my books into a lot of languages, but I am not a rich person, or a guy wanting money: No no! Industrial art has a lot of publicity, incredible publicity. I don’t have an art [like that], but publicity is coming. Not like an industrial process though. Our civilization now is consumer society.
I always am thinking about really inner problems; the inner search. What is the beautifulness of a human being? Moral problems — something like that, no? You need to ask yourself: What is the goal of my life? At what age I will die? How many years I have? What I will do with the years that I have?
Your films are very well known, but you’ve written all these books and all these comics and created so many other things. Is there one of these “things” that you wish the public knew better?
Yes, but this is impossible. My big, big, enormous pleasure is to make poems. I have a book of poems. Endless Poetry — it’s a book I did. In Italy they know it, and in Mexico. But poetry is not a business. Poetry you don’t sell. But poetry is the most honest art still in life.
Do you still write poetry?
Yes! But my poetry is not about personal, neurotical things. My goal is to come to poetry like Lao Tzu, the Tao Te Ching — a fantastic poem, a very metaphysical poem, no? My goal is to speak about metaphysical things. That I like to do.
I like also Twitter.
When you write for Twitter, what sort of ideas do you put there?
I say, “What do you give, you give to yourself. What you don’t give, you take out of yourself.” I don’t give nothing for me; it’s for the others. We need to make a re-evolution poetical, not a revolution poetical. We need to put a seed of consciousness in the person. We need to make free our consciousness. Because we have a lot of things — family, society, the culture — that put our consciousness in a prison, that limit it, and we need to open the prison, the self-definition, the feeling of nationality, the feeling of age, all the things that stop your freedom to find real happiness. And that I am making with philosophical tweets.
They say, “You are idiot, nobody will read that — the Tweet is to see what you ate during the day!” No, I do that. I came to more than a million followers, which to me is enormous. I came to that through poetry, and then I am making followers do poetry a new time and they say, “That changed my life.” And that I think is important.
Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist from Scotland, now based in Austin, Texas, following a 10-year stint in the former USSR. He has written two books, Lost Cosmonaut and Strange Telescopes, as well as many articles for publications around the world.