We Can Dance If You Want To, We Can Leave Your Friends Behind (The Dance of Reality, 2014, Alejandro Jodorowsky)
We live in the era of the comeback. The internet has consolidated and concentrated the interest in things that were once niche cult artifacts and provided a chance for artists who may have found little commercial success at the time to come back and capitalize on the growth in that cult appreciation over time. And for Alejandro Jodorowsky, the mad cinematic wizard behind El Topo, The Holy Mountain, and Santa Sangre, the man who the term “cult film” may as well have been invented for and who hasn’t directed a feature in over twenty years, the time for a comeback is perhaps past due.
The film opens with a clear attempt to dispel the thought that this particular artistic comeback is just a cash-in; gold coins rain down in front of the camera to the tune of Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing” as Jodorowsky gives a monologue on greed as a societal motivator and a still image of the 85 year old director fades in over the coins in a somewhat chintzy effect of the kind you might see on an old episode of Unsolved Mysteries.
I’m sure a spiritual dude like Jodorowsky would not appreciate my snark or my cynicism, so I’m going to get it all out of the way early, for I really only have one big complaint to level at the film. And it’s not even a complaint I feel great about making! I understand that it has indeed been 23 years since Jodorowsky has directed a movie, and I understand that this is in large part a financial issue. Jodorowsky has expressed a severe distaste for what he sees as the money-grubbing nature of the film industry, and film financiers get understandably nervous about sinking money into the kind of truly bizarre, who-even-is-the-target-audience-for-this movies Jodorowsky makes; we’re long past the days when John Lennon and George Harrison tossed Jodorowsky a million bucks to make The Holy Mountain just because. And far be it for me to bag on an artist who refuses to compromise his vision, BUT… The Dance of Reality kinda looks like shit.
Okay, that’s a bit harsh. Jodorowsky’s knack for impressively hallucinatory set design and striking, confrontational framing is as strong as it ever was, even if The Dance Of Reality wears its budget on its sleeve more than his past movies. The problem lies with the cinematography; I’m about to reveal how little I know about shooting on digital, but let’s just say that this movie looks like it was shot on very cheap digital, and everything has that kind of compressed, plasticky look of daytime television. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the movie looks like a soap opera, but it looks enough like one that I had to frame this sentence that way. This would be something of a stumbling block for any movie, but given how beautifully shot Jodorowksy’s past movies were – particularly El Topo and The Holy Mountain, whose sumptuous cinematography by Rafael Cordiki is still somewhat underappreciated – it hits like a punch in the stomach, and combined with some mercifully brief but no less embarrassing use of CG effects near the beginning, it pains me to say that this is Jodorowksy’s worst-looking movie.*
Ah, but I did say I was going to get the bitching out of the way early, so let me reiterate: the digital cinematography is my only complaint about the movie, which is, in all other aspects, one of the most exciting and fun times I’ve had at an art-house film in quite a while. It pleases me to say that age has not softened Jodorowksy one bit; between the explicit sex and violence, the occult weirdness, the multiple graphic onscreen depictions of urination, the carnival atmosphere, and the twisted psychological material involving parentage, we’re very firmly in old-school Jodorowksy territory. Maybe moreso than ever before, in fact, for the story concerns young Alejandro himself (Jeremias Herskovits) growing up in the seaside Chilean town of Tocopilla, cared for by his mother Sara (Pamela Flores), who solely communicates through operatic singing, and his father Jaime (Brontis Jodorowsky, very much the spitting-image of his pop, and giving one of the best performances in any Jodorowksy film), a stern violent brute who takes a very specifically Stalinesque approach to running his family. The film has a weird two-act structure (which is actually kind of common to Jodorowksy – El Topo and Santa Sangre are similarly structured), whereby we follow young Alejandro’s tumultuous upbringing for the first half before abruptly switching focus to Jaime, who in a fit of Marxist fervor leaves his family on a suicidal bid to assassinate General Carlos Ibáñez (Bastián Bodenhöfer) that goes very differently than planned.
That’s really all the plot summary the movie requires, for while it has perhaps a more solid narrative through-line than the director’s past works, it’s still very much about letting the sensory and emotional experience wash over you (the movie is significantly aided in both respects by the quite beautiful score by Adan Jodorowksy – pops likes to keep it in the family, as you can see). The movie carries us through ugly beauty and beautiful ugliness and every permutation of those things you can name. While there’s a lot of past-Jodorowsky here (a less charitable reviewer might call the opening half a retread of Santa Sangre, although to me it’s reframed enough to feel fresh – and hey, it’s not as if we’ve been swamped with Santa Sangre knockoffs these past twenty years), a lot of it is new, as well. It feels like his most overtly political film, for one, with the nature of Jaime’s tyrannical exploitation of socialist ideas to suit his own inner violence being given a hefty workout, complete with a quite brutal portrayal of the torture of dissidents under Ibáñez’s regime. And at the same time, it may well be his most personal film, with the elder Jodorowksy appearing as a kind of phantom observer at key moments – the last of these, in the closing shots of the movie, is a surprisingly tender and sentimental moment, and though he has since insisted that The Dance of Reality will not be his last movie, it makes for as appropriate a farewell as anything ever could.
I was going to close this much the same way as I closed my last entry on X-Men: Days of Future Past: by stating that this is a movie where you almost certainly know whether or not you fall into its target audience, and you will probably act accordingly no matter what I say. But on second thought, if you’ve made it to the end of this review and you don’t know whether or not this movie appeals to you, I urge you: give it a shot. Jodorowksy movies are a precious commodity – we don’t get them often, and we may never get another again. Being afraid of them is like being afraid of dancing. Try it. You might like it.
*Disclaimer: I have not seen Tusk or The Rainbow Thief, but neither has anybody else.