“Poetry is the removal of all limits on consciousness,” the 88-year-old filmmaker-mystic-performance artist Alejandro Jodorowsky told a group of besotted fans gathered at New York’s Rubin Museum of Art last week. “The limits placed on it by family, by society, and by language itself.”
There’s no single skeleton key to understanding Jodorowsky’s surrealistic, poignant body of work—but this statement comes close. From the 1970 cult classic El Topo to the just-released Endless Poetry, Jodorowsky has created a cinema of poetry, not prose.
Reflecting his immersion in 1950s surrealism and 1960s absurdist performance art, the imagery of Jodorowsky’s films is un-realistic in the extreme: people with no limbs, rampaging animals in the midst of polite society, parodic Christ figures.
In a Jodorowsky film, everything you see is a symbol. The unconscious is as real as the conscious. There are, indeed, no limits.
In this context, Endless Poetry has already been called Jodorowsky’s “most accessible” film. But only in this context. Its narrative is conventional, even familiar: the portrait of the artist as a young man.
Yet within that space, we encounter symbolic images so extreme that I’m reluctant to write about them, lest you think the film is a Gothic horror story.
It isn’t—in fact, it’s heartwarming, and moved me to tears. But there is a lot of blood (of various kinds), a lot of nudity, and a lot of absurdity so radical that you wonder, having seen it, if you really just saw what you think you saw.
“The artist is the person who receives the transpersonal,” Jodorowsky said. “To receive the sacred is the work of art… Art is what you are.” Indeed, Jodorowsky’s best work—my favorite is the 1973 allegory The Holy Mountain—is equal parts aesthetic flood and spiritual baptism.
Alchemists, astrologers, and tarot-readers share a screen with cowboys, naked children, abusive fathers, and circus freaks. It’s common to describe these films as “hallucinogenic,” but, like the psychedelic experiences they both represent and bring about, it might be more fruitful to refer to them as “entheogenic.” They bring the transcendent to life.
Jodorowsky’s life, especially as recounted in his autobiography The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky, is equally hybridic. He began, as Endless Poetry recounts, as a romantic young poet in Santiago. He evolved into an avant-garde performance artist.
But the pure aestheticism of Jodorowsky’s youth was eventually put in the service of spiritual transformation, and Jodorowsky’s life includes years of intensive Zen study (he received Zen transmission from his teacher in the 1970s, but refused to teach), shamanism, work with psychedelic plants and medicines, and a wide variety of esoteric teachers, mostly women.
Eventually, Jodorowsky came to reject the tendency of some spiritual paths to renounce the world. In his autobiography, he writes that Buddhism seeks to end the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, but he would rather ride the cycle as fully and richly as he can.
This was not a rejection of mysticism; on the contrary, Jodorowsky’s life and films are expressions of radical non-dualism, the world in which everything is a dance of the one, radiant essence of the universe (that which some people call ‘God’ but which might better be described as ‘Ah!’) “Remember, all of this is a dream!” Jodorowsky told his audience at the Rubin, to some applause.
I love Jodorowsky for all of these reasons. I am no artistic genius, but I, too, lead intersecting lives of writing on the one hand and spiritual practice on the other. (I’m The Daily Beast’s legal affairs columnist, yes, but also its as-yet-unofficial Buddhist rabbi meditation teacher in residence.) I, too, have written books about non-duality and mysticism. And I, too, have refused the invitation to choose between flesh and spirit, God and the world.
Jodorowsky has paid the price for his fierce artistic and spiritual vision. Perhaps most famously, his 1974-76 attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s Dune (with music by Pink Floyd and set design by H.R. Giger) crashed and burned as funding ran out for a film estimated to run 14 hours.
Yet as the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune showed, the visionary artwork he created for the adaptation inspired later films, and the production team he assembled helped create Alien.
But that’s just the most famous of Jodorowsky’s misadventures. His producer Allen Klein—who had helped break up the Beatles a few years earlier—threw El Topo and The Holy Mountain into cinematic purgatory for thirty years after Jodorowsky refused to do the follow-up project he wanted. For decades, these surreal masterpieces could not be shown legally in most countries in the world.
Of course, there were plenty of cinematic misfires along the way—as well as a highly regarded series of comic books, several books on psychotherapy, and frequent workshops on tarot, divination, mysticism, and enlightenment.
Jodorowsky is not for everyone. A bit like the Velvet Underground, he doesn’t have many fans, but the fans he does have are disproportionately artists, mystics, and filmmakers in their own rights. Even for me, some of the wilder scenes in Endless Poetry were literally difficult to stomach. The unconscious is a messy place.
But I desperately want you to see this movie. Like Jodorowsky’s best work, Endless Poetry changes your idea of what a film can do and how it can do it. I want you to be transported, for two hours, to the world of his imagination.
And when you emerge, I want you to wonder, as I did, whether I had dreamt some of those scenes in the movie theater—or was somehow more viscerally awake.