With the psychedelic zaniness of “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain,” Chilean-born director Alejandro Jodorowsky invented the concept of the midnight movie, but even the filmmaker’s most outrageous gambles weren’t weird-for-weirdness’ sake. His filmmaking matches its trippier elements with sensitive, even sensual, qualities, so it’s unsurprising that a director keen on burrowing inside his audience’s mind also fancies himself a therapist.
“Psychomagic, A Healing Art” is a wandering non-fiction collage of the shamanic service Jodorowsky has offered tortured souls for decades and allows the 91-year-old to make the case for his strange services. The result is a messy but mesmerizing summation of his unusual career ambition, a dreamlike chronicle of human suffering for which Jodorowsky offers a wild solution on par with his craziest filmmaking conceits.
Jodorowsky has appeared in his own stories before, guiding audiences through autobiographical dramas “The Dance of Reality” and “Endless Poetry,” but in “Psychomagic” he’s less storyteller, more interdimensional reality show host. As he helps a range of troubled people excise inner demons through the same otherworldly behaviors found in his fiction, we witness everything from menstrual blood paintings to breastfeeding and skydiving. A lot of it simply materializes, sans specific logic, after the subjects explain their hangups. We experience Jodorowsky methods with them, sometimes in awe, other times disgusted, annoyed, or baffled — a range of experiences familiar to anyone who has endured Jodorowsky’s movies.
The maestro is less interested in breaking down his techniques than establishing their existence and letting the work unfurl. Stepping in front of the camera from his Paris home, he reveals how he conceived of “a therapy through words and acts” some 50 years ago before archival footage reveals men and women prancing around an empty room, moaning and wrestling through abstract emotions as the middle-aged Jodorowsky watches from the sidelines, occasionally caressing his subjects.
Sans context, it might look like an improvisatory dance exercise, but that seems to be the essence of Jodorowsky’s approach. In one of the few times that the filmmaker’s voiceover provides context, he says: “One cannot teach the unconscious to speak the language of reality.” For the most part, “Psychomagic” adopts a vignette-like approach as people explain their maladies before indulging in strange and often unsettling behaviors meant to chart a better path forward. Jodorowsky follows most of those moments with “proof” of positive results weeks, months, or years down the line. The only thing he’s missing is a 1-800 number.
Call it the first avant-garde infomercial. If you can accept the episodic structure, “Psychomagic” becomes a fascinating rumination on troubled people so desperate for solutions that Jodorowsky’s exercises force out whatever bad vibes have kept them down.
Many of Jodorowsky’s treatments are blunt metaphors transformed into acting exercises. A woman struggling with infertility pretends to be reborn; a man haunted by the death of his father attaches a photo of his parent to a heap of balloons and watches them drift away. An aging couple contends with relationship woes by wandering Paris with chains on their ankles, and an Austrian man deals with anger by placing family pictures on pumpkins and smashing them to bits. As the stories grow more dire so do the approaches, and their impact is poignant. The woman whose husband committed suicide after their wedding may be trapped by her sorrow, but when she buries her wedding dress and jumps out of an airplane, we feel her glee.
To the extent that “Psychomagic” works, it’s because we never quite know where these encounters might end up. Set to an ominous score by Jodorowsky’s son Adan, the movie drifts into jarring new territory every few minutes. Yes, there’s a gross factor in watching women painting with their own menstrual blood, but the portraiture they create yields some of the most striking imagery found throughout Jodorowsky’s career.
And for those unfamiliar with Jodorowsky’s work, “Psychomagic” offers some guidance. While he eschews context, the filmmaker includes many clips of his more memorable cinematic achievements including a mother dousing her nude son in black paint in “The Dance of Reality” to tidbits from “Fando y Lis,” “El Topo,” and “Tusk.” Like “Varda By Agnes,” also made by a 90-year-old auteur with a revered body of work, “Psychomagic” makes the case for art as autobiography in every outrageous moment.
Jodorowsky’s therapeutic approach often yields the same sort of vulgar slapstick and dreamlike excitement of his narratives. The most outrageous scene might come when Jodorowsky gropes (with consent, apparently) a man with a stutter before painting the guy in gold and sending him outdoors to embrace the world. The most revealing one tips into religious territory, with footage from a live event 10 years ago in which Jodorowsky appeared to heal a woman suffering from throat cancer by simply getting the room to hum in unison. It’s the kind of medical malpractice that Penn and Teller love to cry bullshit over, but it’s enthralling (and a bit eerie) to watch the conviction in the room. Beat that, Tony Robbins!
Jodorowsky might be full of it, but his filmmaking has always walked a fine line between ridiculous and sublime. “Psychomagic” never attempts to root its claims in science but in the euphoric energy that allows his subjects to find the rejuvenation they seek. Skeptics need not apply.
Nevertheless, it can be queasy watching given recent backlash to Jodorowsky’s legacy, including a decades-old comment about raping an actress on his first feature that resurfaced last year. The filmmaker pled innocence and claimed he was going for shock value; given the invasive nature of his therapy, he’s probably not be the best person to assess when he’s crossed a line. “Psychomagic” may not resolve that issue, but it embodies the complicated nature of his artistry more than anything he’s made in 50 years. After all that time, Jodorowsky remains a baffling figure too ridiculous to take seriously, and yet impossible to dismiss outright.
“Psychomagic, a Healing Art” premieres exclusively on Alamo on Demand on August 7, 2020.