Born in 1929 in Chile to Russian-Jewish immigrants who owned a dry-goods store, Alejandro Jodorowsky seems an unlikely candidate to become one of the godfathers of the American midnight-movie scene. But essentially every turn in his career has been unlikely, a career that has found Jodorowsky taking on the roles of director, screenwriter, author, actor, cartoonist, editor, artist, composer, mime, guru, mystic, and tireless self-promoter. A famed raconteur, it's occasionally difficult to sort the facts of Jodorowsky's early life from the myth. Entering the theater at an early age, Jodorowsky eventually enrolled at the University of Santiago, where he developed an interest in puppetry and mime. After creating a theater company that, at its height, employed 60 people, Jodorowsky departed for Paris, breaking with his parents and, according to Jodorowsky, throwing his address book in the sea.
Once in Paris he began a lengthy collaboration with Marcel Marceau, collaborating on some of his most famous mimeograms. He also worked both in mainstream theater (directing Maurice Chevalier's comeback) and offbeat productions. For the next few years, Jodorowsky would alternate between working in Mexico City and in Paris, developing his interest in the avant-garde and staging the playwrights who would be major influences on his film career, including Samuel Beckett, Ionesco, and August Strindberg, and the surrealists. Of special importance would be Theater of Cruelty champion Antonin Artaud and Spanish playwright Fernando Arrabal, with whom he launched the Panic Movement (from the god Pan) in conjunction with artist Roland Topor. By the mid-'60s, the Panic Movement began yielding full-fledged "ephemeras" or "happenings," theatrical events designed to be shocking. One four-hour ephemera starred a leather-clad Jodorowsky and featured the slaughter of geese, naked women covered in honey, a crucified chicken, the staged murder of a rabbi, a giant vagina, the throwing of live turtles into the audience, and canned apricots. This privileging of the provocative above all other qualities would prove to be a sign of things to come in Jodorowsky's early film career.
While working in the theater as one of Mexico City's most in-demand directors and concurrently turning out a comic strip entitled Fábulas Pánicas, Jodorowsky first tried his hand at directing a film in 1967. For his first project, he chose to adapt the Arrabal play Fando and Lis, which Jodorowsky had recently staged. Working on weekends from a one-page outline and his own memory of the script, Jodorowsky shot the story of two quarrelling lovers looking for the magical city of Tar. Fando and Lis would go on to be banned in Mexico after starting a riot at the 1968 Acapulco Film Festival, an event that forced Jodorowsky to flee an angry mob in a limousine. The film would next resurface to poor response in New York in 1970, garnering unfavorable comparisons to Fellini Satyricon.
It wouldn't take long for the pain of rejection to wear off. In December of 1970, Jodorowsky premiered his next film, the self-starring El Topo, at a midnight screening at the Elgin Theater in New York, bypassing the tumultuous Mexican scene entirely. Ignoring criticism that Fando and Lis owed too much to other directors, the nightmarish allegorical Western El Topo practically announced its debts to Fellini, Luis Bunuel, and Sergio Leone. If audiences minded, it didn't show. El Topo became a cult sensation and the first midnight-movie hit.
After a few months of underground success, El Topo attracted the attention of the critics, who were fiercely divided. Pauline Kael and Vincent Canby fell firmly in the anti-Jodorowsky camp, but a number of publications embraced El Topo as a masterpiece. "El Topo is a quest for sainthood," Jodorowsky claimed, but it was also a highly unpolished piece of filmmaking not above exploiting violence for kicks and throwing in copious amounts of misogyny and voyeuristically staged lesbian sex. Regardless of the split, the film played on as a midnight sensation in a theater thick with eager fans and marijuana smoke. Time has been less kind. Unlike other midnight movies -- such as the work of John Waters and George Romero -- El Topo's reputation hasn't grown over the years, perhaps because it's a film virtually inseparable from the moment that produced it, a blood-soaked counterculture parable for the post-1968, post-Altamont, post-Manson era.
At the suggestion of John Lennon, El Topo was acquired by Allen Klein's Abkco Films. Abkco also produced the even more extreme follow-up Holy Mountain, which failed to build on the success of its predecessor. In 1975, Jodorowsky, now living in Paris, announced his next project, an adaptation of Frank Herbert's sci-fi epic Dune starring Brontis Jodorowsky, Alexandro's son. Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson, and Salvador Dali were also on board, but the film never got past the production stage. Almost as intriguing as the cast was the development talent Jodorowsky employed, which included writer Dan O'Bannon and the artists Jean Giraud (aka Moebius), Chris Foss, and H.R. Giger. (All four would eventually work together on Alien.) Pink Floyd and the prog-rock group Magma were also reportedly on board to provide the score. If nothing else, the failed Dune project marked the start of Jodorowsky's long friendship and collaboration with Moebius, with whom he has worked on a number of comic book projects.
His next film project, Tusk, told the family friendly story of the bond between an English girl and an Indian elephant. It remains rarely seen and Jodorowsky, citing differences with its producers, has disavowed it. Production difficulties included the fact that instead of receiving 1,000 elephants with which to work, he received seven; and instead of a budget of five million dollars, he received 1.5 million. By the end of the '80s, Jodorowsky's time seemed to have passed along with the counterculture that supported him. But in 1989, he staged a surprising comeback with Santa Sangre, a surrealistic horror film that attracted considerable cult interest. Produced and co-written by Claudio Argento (brother of Dario Argento), it contained many moments of Jodorowsky's trademark for-its-own-sake bizarreness within a relatively coherent story and the handsomest filmmaking of the director's career. Despite a cast that included Omar Sharif, Peter O'Toole, and Christopher Lee, its follow-up, The Rainbow Thief, fared far less well and Jodorowsky seemed to disappear from filmmaking yet again, although he continued to conduct weekly seminars in his own self-styled amalgam of Jung and Tarot card-derived spirituality. In the late '90s, he announced plans to film Abelcain, a semi-sequel to El Topo. Due to copyright disputes with Klein, Jodorowsky was forced to change his protagonist's name from El Topo to El Torro.