A Fall From Grace
In short, it’s nuts.
I have a small childhood memory indirectly associated with Alejandro Jodorowsky's "Santa Sangre"(1989). I remember well about how it drew the attention of people when it was introduced in South Korea in 1994. One tagline was simple brutal honesty that I still recall with smile: "This is no doubt the cult!" And here is another nice one that makes my eyeballs still roll: "Today, you will be infected by the cult!"
They were blatant enough to draw the attention from an 11-year-old boy, but the problems were that (1) I was too young to get the chance to watch it, and (2) my hometown was a local city far from Seoul. However, that was a blessing in disguise. They showed the audiences the butchered version with a considerable amount deleted due to local censorship. In those days, bold, controversial films like "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover" were never introduced to South Korean audiences unless they were heavily chopped. You probably think it is kind of weird considering some uncompromisingly violent South Korean movies made nowadays, but it did happen a lot when I was young.
From Cannes in 1989, Roger Ebert wrote this interview with Alejandro Jodorowsky
Despite its big indirect impression, it took some time for the film to reach to me. After that year, the memory about it was moved into the oblivion area of my brain while I went around to other more accessible movies. Several years had passed till it was awakened by memorable encountera with Jodorowsky's other works in 2007. I finally watched the movie three years ago, and I found it strange, funny, violent, and harrowing, and I still do think so after watching it again with the stellar Blu-ray edition released in this January. This is the macabre but fantastic parade of weird, ugly, horrible and perverse moments, and Jodorowsky is your nutty circus ringmaster to give you the hallucinatory joyride of horror with a tormented mind revealed at the center.
At the start, we see a naked man perching atop a tree trunk in his cell in a mental institution. He acts as if he were a bird. When the doctor and the orderlies (one played by Brontis Jodorowsky, Jodorowsky's son and the naked boy in Jodorowsky's "El Topo") offer him the normal meal, he seems not to be interested much. However, when they offer raw fish instead, he comes down and devours it, so the orderlies get him to wear the patient uniform.
His name is Fenix (played by Jodorowsky's other two sons, Axel Jodorowsky as adult Fenix and Adan Jodorowsky as young Fenix), and the movie goes immediately back to his colorful but traumatic childhood, starting with the viewpoint of an eagle swooping across the city streets to the big circus tent where he performed as a young magician. His American father Orgo (Guy Stockwell) is a knife-thrower who runs the troupe ("Circus del Gringo"), and he is also a lecherous obese man whose libido is not so much inhibited by the fervent obsession of his wife Concha (Blanca Guerra), a trapeze artist whose part time job is the leader of a religious cult called "Santa Sangre".
Sandwiched between such parents, young Fenix can be a good study case for Freudian psychoanalysis. While Orgo gives his son his symbols (a eagle tattoo on the chest and a gaudy cowboy costume) and says they will make him a man, Concha also pulls Fenix with her religious fanaticism apparently linked to sexual suppression. She and her followers wear red tunic with two crossed arms drawn on the chest part, the symbol of their worshipped saint -- a raped girl who had her both her arms cut off and was left dead in a pool of her blood. They even have the pool of "holy blood" in their tacky temple -- only to have it pointed out by the local monsignor that it is just the pool of red paint, during a conflict between her followers and the demolition crews/the police. She and others get hysterical, claiming it's holy blood no matter what. The temple is soon demolished by the bulldozers, with Concha zealously maintaining her stand inside the edifice.
But it was not entirely a bad life for Fenix because he had some friends in the circus. There are clowns, and a dwarf named Aladin (Jesus Juarez), who sincerely stands by him. And there is a girl Fenix is very fond of -- a deaf-mute mime named Alma (Faviola Elenka Tapia). She is the step-daughter of the Tattooed Woman (Thelma Tixou), a lusty woman who is literally the target of Orgo's lust as well as his profession. Their knife throwing practice is more like their foreplay, with lots of various tattoos on her skin adding more sensuality to their interactions.
With such colorful characters and an equally impressive use of colors, Jodorowsky creates a vibrant circus atmosphere mixed with oddness. Within this strange, exuberant world, he creates the memorable moments, big or small. There is a lovely scene when Fenix plays the music for Alma's high wire act with bottles, each containing different colored solutions. And there is that unforgettable funeral march sequence people still talk about after watching the movie. In the direct juxtaposition of sex and death, Fenix peeps at his parents having sex (next to a savage beast in the cage), and then, when they reach to the high point, the movie jumps to the shot showing a dying elephant's trunk spewing blood with Fenix begging it not to die. The elephant's funeral march is soon held in a tragicomic fashion by the circus crews. They arrive at a cliff, and that big, black coffin is slid down to the bottom of ravine, a junkyard where poor people immediately dash to the crashed coffin with cheers while scavenging the carcass.
The film is, after all, a horror story, and, with its wild imagination and twisted black humor, it goes further into the violent and bloody area where manipulation, obsession, jealousy, perversity, and other dark sides of human psyche exist. During her performance, hung by her hair in the air, Concha finds that her slimy husband is flirting with the Tattooed Woman. She follows them, and, when they are about to copulate, she pours sulfuric acid to her husband's genitals. In a savage irony considering her religious belief, he cuts off both arms arms with his knives before killing himself.
Young Fenix witnessed this horrible incident, which traumatized him so much that he was in the mental institution for a long time, until his dear mother appears in front of his eyes. He gets out of the institution, and soon begins to work in the theater with his mother. In the bizarre performance based on one of the pantomime routines written by Jodorowsky when he worked with Marcel Marceau in Paris during the 1950s, they perform together with his arms acting as her arms.
The near perfect synchronization between Axel Jodorowsky, who actually studied the pantomime under Marceau, and Blanca Guerra generates many uncanny moments in the second half of the movie. Even at their barren mansion, Fenix slips his arms into his mother's sleeves and functions as her arms when she "plays" the piano or eats breakfast with her "hands". He is so devoted to his mother that he deserves the Norman Bates award; as a matter of fact, he is a serial killer driven to kill the women he is drawn to, with his hands possessed by her.
The movie was sort of a happy coincidence. Jodorowsky coincidently met the real-life serial killer that inspired his film at a bar. He was fascinated by how that man had led a normal life after getting out of the prison, with his terrible past put behind him. And he was later approached by the producer Claudio Argento, who was well-known for producing his older brother's horror films, and the co-writer Roberto Leoni for the movie about a serial killer. "I don't understand why a serial killer always kills beautiful and sexy women," Jodorowsky said. "Why doesn't he kill men? Or Ostriches? Or Dogs?" In another weird scene, Fenix brings in a big muscular female (or transsexual, maybe) wrestler for fighting off his mother's control. The dubbing is usually awkward in Jodorowsky's movies, and this scene is no exception, but that incongruous aspect adds extra weirdness to the screen.
Jodorowsky's films are not easy to forget, regardless of whether you like them or not. Watching "El Topo" and "The Holy Mountain"(1973) at a small local theater in May 2007 was interesting experience to say the least. Thanks to the advertisement leaflet handed out to the audiences, I knew I was going to watch something very different from what I usually experienced at the theaters, but it was far more different than I expected. To be frank with you, I would have been at a loss if someone had asked me to write about these movies.
Sure, they have many impressive moments that caught my attention, and it was wonderful time to watch them together, but what do I know for sure about these odd movies, besides the fact that lots of ideas and symbols are mixed together in a bold, uncompromising style on the screen to provoke and challenge me? "The Holy Mountain" is, I think, a big, stylish mystical joke (by the way, I burst out in laughter at the finale). In case of "El Topo" -- well, the afternoon fatigue attacked me at that time, so I understood far less than others in sleepy mode, but it was not easy to forget a man in black clothes riding a horse with a naked boy behind his back in the desert. I recently revisited it, and that impression was same as before, but I admit that this incoherent mix of symbology, western film, and mysticism is something you can't miss.
Compared to them, "Santa Sangre" is a more accessible film for it has a relatively discernible story. But, again, the story is mixed and spun together with lots of stuffs including psychology, surrealism, pantomime, classic horror movies, and many other compelling materials to create the bizarre kaleidoscope of indelible images. There are many questions and problems in logic when you think about the plot, especially in case of how the characters appear in a timely and convenient way for the plot, but they are somehow plausible because of the film's surreal atmosphere. I especially like the sequence where Fenix and his fellow patients, mongoloids, are led to a red light street by a pimp played by another Jodorowsky's son Teo Jodorowsky. Jodorowsky used real mongoloids, and the outcome has a nightmarish quality mingled with cheerfulness. It is a seedy world drenched with ugliness, but the mongoloids have a good time with the others, anyway (and they actually did during the production).
With its bizarre moments dominating the screen, the film could have been merely weirdness for sake of being weird. But it has its hero's shattered psyche as its emotional center. He is helplessly trapped between both parents' influences from the past. He is compelled to behave like his father, but he is also driven to do the killings as ordered by his mother. He wants to be rather disappeared like the hero of "The Invisible Man" (1933), the movie he imitates in a silly way in his private place, but he has been condemned to be like the hero of another old horror movie "The Hands of Orlac" (1935), where its hero cannot control his homicidal hands. To make the matters worse, the guilt resulted from his crimes keeps coming to him -- especially in the chilling scene where his victims, painted white by him, rise from the burial ground at night.
Besides his victims' whitened skin, there are a lot of things in common between "Santa Sangre" and Tarsem Singh's equally visionary movie "The Cell" (2000). In their own ways, both strikingly reveal the psychic horrors inside their serial killer characters. While throwing a series of weird images to us, they also make us understand the emotional state of the warped minds and feel some pity for them.
And there is a "therapy" in each case. In the case of "Santa Sangre," its finale seems to be influenced by Jodorowsky's own psychotherapy method, "Psychomagic". He believes the performance of a certain symbolic act can directly affect the unconscious mind and release it from traumas. Through the help from Alma (now played by Sabrina Dennison as an adult) and the bright side of his past, Fenix performs an act that leads to his redemption while overcoming the evil forced on him at last. A small part of me still questions how it is physically possible, but, with the movie's sheer power to drive us into the distorted world, anything is somehow acceptable in the movie -- like magic realism. The ending is ironic indeed, but it is also very poignant, for we know well that it will be a lot better for Fenix no matter what will happen.
"Santa Sangre" dazzles you with its unorthodox beauty fueled by the uninhibited imagination of Jodorowsky, whose life is as fascinating as his movies. Born in Chile as the son of the Russian Jewish immigrants, he moved around a lot around the world while working as a playwright, a play director, a writer, and a comic book author whose works are much respected in France. Filmmaking is only a small part of his resume. He made a very few films in the last 40 years, but he made them because he wanted, and he is proud of them.
After this movie, he has been relatively quiet in the movie business while diligently active in other fields, except when "El Topo" and "The Holy Mountain" resurfaced a few years ago thanks to the end of conflict between him and the copyright holder Allen Klein. (Now, he said, they are good friends). He is now 82, but he plans on making a new movie, a sequel to "El Topo." On the leaflet given to me when I watched "El Topo" in 2007, the tagline was "Don't you ever imagine anything!" I don't dare to hastily imagine anything about that.
Footnote: As I mentioned, the new edition of "Santa Sangre" is recently released on Blu-ray and DVD by Severin Films. I find the color is more muted than I recall from the first watching, but they say it is close to the original theatrical release. That aspect is still debatable, but I think the video quality is a lot better than before as a whole. In addition, the supplements are bountiful enough to this edition recommendable, including a new feature-length making-of-documentary "Forget Everything You Have Ever Seen: The World of Santa Sangre." (There is an interesting episode about how Axel Jodorowsky and Blanca Guerra worked together - their method did fit perfectly into the psychological context of the story), a UK TV documentary made in 1990, a Q & A session with Jodorowsky shot at 2002 London screening, and other goodies.
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