Alejandro Jodorowsky on How the Pandemic Can Save Cinema

Jodorowsky's trauma-therapy documentary "Psychomagic" offers unorthodox tools for healing amid a crazy world.

While Alejandro Jodorowsky has never colored inside the lines, he has made movies that approximate some version of commercial appeal, such as his midnight-movie classics “The Holy Mountain” and “El Topo.” That’s not the case for his new documentary, “Psychomagic, a Healing Art” a kind of “avant-garde infomercial” that presents the highly unconventional form of trauma therapy he pioneered in the late 1970s, which draws upon everything from shamanism to Carl Jung. Rejecting the premises of common techniques like psychoanalysis and talk therapy, Jodorowsky compels his subjects to engage in performative exercises, which he calls “actions,” that defy description and are meant to exorcise familial demons. In this film, some of those activities include one subject being buried alive up to his neck and having a plastic helmet placed over his head as vultures feed off raw meat all around him. In other sequences, a man is asked to strip naked and paint himself gold, and a woman paints a canvas with her menstrual blood.

In a recent Skype interview, Jodorowsky explained his technique, how he believes cinema can evolve for the better in spite of the pandemic, and even offered this writer his own “psychomagic” homework to try on my own. Jodorowsky’s partner Pascale Montandon, a costume designer who also collaborates on his movies, provided some translation assistance. Our discussion also included earlier thoughts on Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of “Dune,” a project Jodorowsky famously tried and failed to put together in the 1970s (featured here).

This interview has been edited for clarity.

This movie is timely because it offers the world possible tools for healing, and the world is obviously in a lot of pain right now. What do you think “Psychomagic” can give us now, and what do you think we can learn from the pandemic?

It’s a real problem because it’s not a health problem; it’s a political problem. You can have a lot of opinions and you will not know what it is because it’s the first time many people are in an epidemic on the whole planet. Scientists wants to make a vaccine and you don’t know if it is a marvelous thing or it is a big, big business that kills a lot of people. You don’t know if your president is crazy or not…People have died all the way through human history, but people live like they are immortal. They don’t want to think about death. But now, every person is [aware] of death. That is good for the progress of consciousness. We will become more conscious.

How do you think the pandemic will impact the way we make movies?

We need to adapt ourselves to a new way of feeling life, and that is interesting. Art will change. The goal of movies is to make business. Now, people are waiting for something more, in order to have the joy of life. We cannot continue to see Supermans and violence. We’ll need to discover how beautiful the human being is, so beautiful it is to be alive.

Psychomagic, a Healing Art
“Psychomagic, a Healing Art”ABKCO Films/screenshot

How has the pandemic specifically affected you and your work?

My life cannot change because I am 91 years old. I try to live as much as I can, but I am a little in the end. I am not thinking of the benefit of my work now, or glory, power, money. I am thinking in the big, big felicity to be doing art and life, and also making human contact.

How did developing the psychomagic method change the way you made movies?

I had a son who was 24 years old who died, and that put me in a big depression. All my conceptions of art changed. What is art? Why am I making pictures? To amuse the people, to make money, to be a celebrity? How am I useful? Art that doesn’t heal isn’t real art. I am not thinking about the political. I am speaking of human beings. That’s why I did psychomagic.

I wanted action. I need to know all the genealogical tree of the person because our problems come first from the family , and then society, and then history.

History, society, family, the way we are put in the world: The woman gives birth, your mother went to the hospital, maybe they had cesarean or there was a problem, maybe you need to be a woman and not a man. Things like that. We start there with our problems, and then with the family. Who is your father, who is your mother, your work, when we know that, we know why we have the problems, and then I give an action in the language of the unconscious, the language of dreams. Dreams are Psychomagic. We have a concept of ourselves. We are in the world as we think the world is, but everything is very vast and great.

Chilean French author and philosopher Alejandro Jodorowsky attends the 25th International Book Fair and Literary Festival Book World Prague 2019, Czech Republic, May 9, 2019. Photo/Marketa Vojtikova (CTK via AP Images)
Alejandro JodorowskyAP

Can you give me a Pyschomagic action to do?

You need to play rugby with balloons painted red. I see you. You are a human being. I am not interested in an interview. I am interested in a relation. I see you are a delicate person, not a sporty person, you know? A very delicate person. You should have four or five friends, very strong, battle you for the red balloon. That could bring you a big happiness, and open you to new possibilities.

As soon as I am allowed to see my friends again, we’ll try it.

When my child was young, we played sumo. There are two big Japanese people in a circle, and you need to eject the other person from the circle. One day, he put me out of the circle. And then, he was stronger than his father. It’s a big scene, to be stronger than your father.

I don’t know that I am, but I would like to be.

You’re a writer. Your father doesn’t like writers. What will you do? How will you impose to your father who you are, what you are, and not what he wants you to be? Generally, we are in a world where we are not who we are. We are what they want you to be, and then when you are an artist, you stop obeying that kind of thing.

A writer is not typically what your father wants you to be. Probably not mine.

I will give you an example. You’re a writer and your father doesn’t want you to be that. He hates literature. Hates! And then he likes to eat the duck. He’s a material person. Then, you cook for him a duck, and in the innards of the duck, you roll a page of your writings and you put it into the duck, and you make the duck with the writings, and you serve it to your father. You make him eat what you write. That is a big solution, and you’ll be happy for many years.

“Psychomagic, a Healing Art” is currently available exclusively on Alamo on Demand.

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