Set It Up
A solid romantic comedy with sharp dialogue, amusing characters, and a few surprises up its sleeve.
If you want something new, odd, and strange, Alejandro Jodorowsky is your movie director. With a bizarre and unforgettable mix of symbolism and mysticism shown in his two cult classic films “El Topo” (1970) and “The Holy Mountain” (1973), he quickly rose to prominence as a filmmaker of wild poetry and uninhibited imagination, and then, after more than 15 years, he returned with “Santa Sangre” (1989), a harrowing horror masterpiece which will dazzle and befuddle you with its dark, perverted phantasmagoria revolving around one tragically and murderously traumatized soul.
After his unpleasant experience during the production of the following film “The Rainbow Thief” (1990), Jodorowsky’s filmmaking career seemed to be halted for more than 20 years, but then he slowly began to draw attention as “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain” were finally released from their long years of obscurity thanks to the end of his long conflict with their copyright holder Allen Klein. Around the time when “Santa Sangre” received a fantastic blu-ray treatment in early 2011, I heard about his possible comeback, and that surely induced curiosity in my brain, which still retains the vivid memories of a double feature show of “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain” at a local arthouse movie theater during one afternoon of May 2007 (I remember that sensational tagline in the promotional leaflet: “Don’t you dare to imagine anything!”).
Two years later, Jodorowsky eventually made a comeback with “The Dance of Reality” at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2013 while Frank Pavich’s “Jodorowsky’s Dune” (2013), an engaging documentary about Jodorowsky’s failed dream project during the 1970s, was incidentally shown at the same festival. While it is gentler compared to his other works, “The Dance of Reality” shows that Jodorowsky is still full of wild imagination, with no compromise of his idiosyncratic artistic vision, and this semi-autographical film gives us a heap of impressive moments through its superlative dance between personal memory and magic realism. Looking back at his rocky childhood, Jodorowsky reveals his deep personal feelings more directly than ever here in this film, and that is often quite poignant to watch as we come to sense that the movie also works as a sort of personal therapy for him to make peace with his past.
Right after his arresting opening monologue about money and greed, Jodorowsky guides us into his childhood memories re-imagined through his own surreal approach, which deserves to be compared with Federico Fellini’s “Amarcord” (1973). At first, we see a group of unknown people moving across the barren landscape of a Chilean desert, and their shabby black clothes and umbrellas make a striking contrast to the next scene, which shows young Alejandro (Jeremías Herskovits) and his father Jaime (Brontis Jodorowsky, who is one of Jodorowsky’s sons and also appeared along with his father in “El Topo”) visiting a circus troupe Jaime once worked with.
The gaudy ambiance of this scene clearly evokes those colorful circus scenes in “Santa Sangre”, and there are also many other scenes reminiscent of the bizarre touches we observed from Jodorowsky’s previous films. As watching the broad fictional depiction of young Alejandro’s troubled relationship with his parents, I was reminded of that twisted relationship between the disturbed hero of “Santa Sangre” and his differently oppressive parents. There is a harsh moment involving a bunch of people carrying some contagious disease, and their arrival in the town and the subsequent harsh response from town people took me back to one of the crucial scenes in “El Topo”. We also meet a dwarf hired to attract customers for Jaime’s clothes shop by any amusing means necessary, and then we get a weird moment of deformity when Jaime comes to confront a group of poor ex-miners variously and horribly crippled by their hazardous mine work.
For adding extra authenticity to his film, Jodorowsky went back to Tocopilla, a Chilean beach town where he spent childhood years during the 1930s, but he also freely hurls fantasy elements into his life story without hesitation. While his son Brontis plays Jaime with bold, broad style as a stubborn Stalinist who constantly enforces machismo on his shy, sensitive son, Pamela Flores gives an operatic performance as Jaime’s buxom wife Sara, always singing her lines in soprano voice. This interesting combination of two different stylized performances on the screen is surprisingly compelling to watch, even when we are conscious of its artificial aspects.
Besides being bounced between his parents, Young Alejandro has other issues to deal with during his unhappy childhood. As the son of a Jewish Ukrainian immigrant couple, he does not get along well with other boys in the town, and he feels hurt a lot when they cruelly reminds him of how he is different from them. Jodorowsky sometimes appears on the screen as comforting or communicating with his younger self, and the scene where he quietly soothes his tormented younger self on the cliff is one of the most heartfelt moments in the film (I learned later that he shot this scene on the same cliff where he really considered suicide during his early years).
In the meantime, the movie keeps delighting or striking us with other fantastic scenes to reflect on. As a smart, perceptive kid, Young Alejandro gets the first lesson of his life philosophy through beholding one unbelievable moment at the beach you have to see for yourself, and we witness the possible origin of his spiritual view through his cheerful and meaningful encounter with Theosophist (Cristóbal Jodorowsky, Jodorowsky’s other son who played the hero of “Santa Sangre”). Not long after becoming the new mascot of the local fire department because of his father’s insistence, Young Alejandro participates along with his father and others in a big funeral march for some deceased fireman, and he suddenly finds himself literally suffocated by a truly unnerving hallucination about death and decay in the middle of the procession.
And then there comes a very powerful scene which makes that infamous scene in “The Paperboy” (2012) looks mild in comparison. When Jaime happens to be in a very serious medical condition at one point, Sara does what she should do for him as a woman who still loves her husband despite all these abuses from him. Her emergency treatment coupled with her operatic singing is a bizarre sight; simultaneously weird, poetic, vulgar, sublime, and touching. Jodorowsky and his two main actors do not step back at all during this challenging scene, which will grip your attention regardless of whether you love or hate it.
After this turning point, the movie becomes rather sketchy and unfocused during its second half, though it does not entirely lose its power to hold our attention. As soon as he recovers, thanks to his wife’s efforts, Jaime becomes determined to assassinate the Chilean dictator Carlos Ibáñez (Bastián Bodenhöfer). His botched assassination attempt at the dog show is followed by a long, torturous personal journey around religion and politics (Adán Jodorowsky, who also appeared in “Santa Sangre” like his brother Cristóbal, appears as Jaime’s accomplice), and he comes across several moments of personal enlightenment not only through Ibáñez but also others, including a kind old carpenter who accepts Jaime as his temporary assistant when he is in desperate need of help.
In the end, the movie eventually culminates in a dramatic payoff which can be described as a therapeutic act exemplifying Psychomagic, Jodorowsky’s own psychological/spiritual method for healing personal traumas. In his opinion, the subconscious area of mind can be liberated from traumas through the performance of symbolic act, and the haunting final scene in the film further emphasizes this as he says farewell to the pieces of his early years as a wise old man with understanding and compassion. Although I heard that his parents were more mundane while also more unpleasant in real life (for instance, his father never attempted any assassination, and his mother did not love her son much from the very beginning just because he was the product of one of many abuses from her cruel husband), Jodorowsky approaches what Werner Herzog called “ecstatic truth” through his eclectic mix of fantasy and memory, and you may agree with what he said in one of the interviews on his film: “Everything in the film is true, but it’s explained with the language of art.”
“The Dance of Reality” is Jodorowsky’s most accessible work to date, making it a good entry point, especially if you are not so familiar with Jodorowsky’s other works. The movie is not perfect, and I must point out that its special effects look as tacky as “Sharknado” (2013) and those cheap made-for-TV movies. While they do show the limits of the production budget, they are used with purpose and imagination, adding more odd quality to the film, and the overall result is in fact far more refreshing than what I usually saw from those slick but forgettable blockbuster films drenched with bland CGI.
Recently passing through his 86th birthday in last month, Alejandro Jodorowsky is already set to make another film, which will be a follow-up to “The Dance of Reality”, and it also seems that he has not yet given up the idea of making the sequel to “El Topo”. As shown in his lively interview clips in “Jodorowsky’s Dune”, this aging master is ready for whatever will come next in his career, and it is really nice to be confirmed through his latest work that he still has more awesome things to show us after all these long years.
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