Alejandro Jodorowksy made his name in the United States by producing two of cinema’s most iconic midnight movies in the 1970s, dozens of the most influential science-fiction stories in the comic book medium and almost directing an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi classic Dune. The Chilean-Mexican director’s surrealist filmmaking is matched only by his public persona — a tarot-reading artist who can sell hungry audiences his philosophies on the strength of his genius for stunning imagery alone. That’s about the extent of his American footprint. In France and Spain, however, Jodorowsky’s other creative feather is his therapeutic methodology of Psychomagic. He’s published multiple books on the subject (few are translated to English) and led clinics for decades. Psychomagic, a Healing Art, which debuts on Alamo Drafthouse on Demand today, documents the practitioners of Psychomagic while the director himself explains his vision, often pointing out the way in which his filmmaking is a successful example of it.
Psychomagic is to Freud’s psychotherapy as visual art is to writing, or so Jodowrosky explains it. It boils down to people dealing with their problems through displays of performance art. Women paint self-portraits with their menstrual blood; parental traumas are overcome by birthing recreations as the patient strips naked and pretends to emerge from another naked person’s vagina while connected by strings around their waists. Full body massages seem fairly common. No touching is off limits.
To a skeptical viewer, Psychomagic seems to be a system rife with possible abuse, and Psychomagic, a Healing Art an enthusiastically crafted infomercial. Frankly, that’s exactly what it is. There’s no denying that those who practice it are doing so because of their attraction to Jodowrosky’s larger-than-life persona and his knack for sensationalism. Psychomagic is the real-world activation of the same emotions in Jodorowsky’s art; each of his most memorable stories, whether written or filmed, are rife with nudity, rape, deformity, oedipal complexes and spiritual notions collected from religions large and small alike. In The Holy Mountain, a table of frogs and lizards are used to recreate the pillaging of Azetc by Spain. In El Topo, the titular cowboy rapes a woman while a phallic stone erupts water in the barren desert. In Dance of Reality, his first biopic that doubles as an advertisement for Psychomagic, a young Jodorowsky overcomes his fear of the dark by stripping down with his large-breasted mother and running around painted in black oil.
I love each of these films, particularly the last one (which also features the mother figure graphically urinating in his father’s face). What does it mean? It’s not subtle, and that’s the attraction of it. Jodorowsky knows how to be outrageous, to get attention, to excite audiences by going farther than anyone else. He’s damn good at it. Nicolas Winding Refn went through a phase in the early 2010s where he linked his films Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon to his relationship with Jodowrosky. These are midnight movie staples among college students for a reason.
Which brings us back to Psychomagic, a Healing Art. One subject of the film’s interviews sought out Jodorowsky’s advice on how to improve her cello playing. He suggested menstruating on the cello for 9 months. She displays the bloodstains to the camera and then plays a hell of a tune. Did her actions really improve her playing, or did receiving the attention of an artist she admired do the trick? What are we to make of one of the subjects, who is first seen pretending to emerge nude from her “mother” and then reveals six months later she is “healed” and also now visibly pregnant?
This isn’t to cast aspersions and assumptions on anyone who finds meaning in following Jodorowsky’s teachings, as it may well be something that positively affected them in their personal lives. A lot of people believe a lot of things. But as a documentary, Psychomagic, a Healing Art follows the path of 2013’s Jodorowsky’s Dune: It’s selling a product, a cult of personality around a man whose enduring career has rested on occasionally reminding people he’s still around, still being wild, still making movies that play well in art cinemas and then vanish into the ether. In the case of Jodorowsky’s Dune, the documentary was shallow but interesting, delving into creative what-could-have-beens. In this case, Jodorowsky has developed a cult around himself and his ideas. For a filmmaker whose entire life has been spent making avant-garde art that invites interpretation and conversation, Psychomagic is a disappointingly straightforward sales pitch.