It’s tempting to describe Alejandro Jodorowsky’s latest semi-autobiographical opus, Endless Poetry, as approachable, perhaps even accessible, but that wouldn’t be precise. The truth is that the film is as heady as it is lucid; the more familiar you are with Jodorowsky and his work, the better you’ll vibe with Endless Poetry, but if the sum total of your experience with his enchanting surrealism amounts to exactly nada, it won’t shut you out, either. This is something of a miracle, being as Endless Poetry picks up right where Jodorowsky’s previous film, 2013’s The Dance of Reality, left off, not quite in media res, but close enough that it ought to be puzzling.
The puzzlement comes later, though, much later, and when it does it isn’t confounding as much as it’s merely bizarre. Jodorowsky’s trademark peculiarities pop up in Endless Poetry’s every frame, of course, but they’re buttressed by a cohesion the films of his early career roundly reject: He’s speaking in language that’s direct but also flowery, metaphysical, rife with allusions and illusions, peppered by truly purple poetics, but his grander flourishes maintain coherence even at their loftiest. Endless Poetry is a journey on which we encounter characters who sing all of their lines, in continuance with The Dance of Reality, who drench themselves in paint and hurl their bodies at blank canvases, who profess love through puppetry; we see men gut each other on the streets, parades celebrating fascism, carnivals of devils and skeletons, and grey-tinged cafes staffed by elderly waiters serving tables in as ponderous a fashion as possible.
It’s also a story about a young man trying like hell to escape from his unhappy home, who would rather read poetry than study biology at his brutal father’s command. Two actors play the young man, Alejandro, at two stages of his life, Jeremias Herskovits as a teenager, Adan Jodorowsky as an emerging adult. In case the shared surnames don’t give it away, Adan is Alejandro’s own son, handsome, lively, adroit as a physical performer: He communicates to us with his eyes and with gesture, as often as he does with words. Furthering Endless Poetry’s identity as a family affair is the presence of Brontis Jodorowsky, Alejandro’s older son, reprising his role in The Dance of Reality as Jaime alongside Pamela Flores, cast in the dual role of Sara, Alejandro’s mother, and Stella Díaz Varín, first his muse and then his lover.
So maybe Endless Poetry is a little more slippery than I’m giving it credit for, at least in terms of casting and logistics. The film contains a critical mass of Jodorowskys, plus a whole lot of spillover from The Dance of Reality, and on top of that, Alejandro front loads it with a torrent of naked artifice: You’re watching theater of a sort, where stagehands decked out in black from head to toe repeatedly intervene with the drama unfolding before us, plucking props out of the frame and replacing them with new ones, building the facade of new sets upon old sets right before our very eyes. They’re characters unto themselves, though Jodorowsky doesn’t pay them any mind. He sees them only as instruments in the orchestration of his cinematic aria.
If that makes the film sound daunting or dense, it really isn’t. Anyone capable of sitting through Federico Fellini’s 8 & ½ in their college International Film Studies class can sit through Endless Poetry. They’re cut from more or less the same cloth, though there’s a deep and abiding melancholy to Jodorowsky’s film that one doesn’t quite feel in Fellini’s; Alejandro’s tale is a painful one, marked by fatherly abuse, familial contempt, social alienation, political turmoil and uncertainty of self. Similar to the great poet Nicanor Parra, Alejandro is a human being with divine weaknesses, living in a time and a place that are altogether hostile to dreamers and artists alike. Existential ennui is as important a detail in the fabric of Jodorowsky’s film as unapologetic weirdness, and the two enjoy more overlap than not.
That aforementioned carnival sequence is the best instance of oddity colliding with lassitude: “Another dead man among the dead,” Alejandro opines from behind his clown makeup. “I will grow old, die, rot. Nothingness will swallow my memory, my words, my consciousness.” Cheery stuff. But Alejandro the character isn’t alone, being repeatedly joined by Alejandro the director, who pops up from time to time to narrate and to assure this fictionalized version of himself that all isn’t so bleak as that. “Old age isn’t a humiliation,” he tells us, which might be small comfort for American viewers who habitually check Twitter for warning signs of nuclear apocalypse; for them, reaching old age would be too much of a relief to be a humiliation. For Adan-Alejandro, of course, life is all about inevitable deterioration. It’s about the constancy of inconstancy.
But that’s the running theme of Jodorowsky’s career. Nothing lasts forever, save for the harsh truth that nothing lasts forever. From El Topo to The Holy Mountain, his work is bent around life’s impermanence, and Endless Poetry is his best, most open attempt yet at making peace with this awful reality. It’s a rapturous, gorgeous movie about the sad joy of living, the product of a filmmaker who has spent his life wrestling with the human desire to shed banality and elude our mortality, but for all its intellectual ambitions and philosophical gravity, Endless Poetry never reads as stuffy or self-serious. It’s the rarest kind of cinematic achievement, when a film that’s so innately somber is also such an utter pleasure to watch. And maybe it’s the kind of achievement we should only expect from a guy like Jodorowsky.
Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Writer: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Starring: Adan Jodorowsky, Brontis Jodorowsky, Pamela Flores, Jeremias Herskovits, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Leandro Taub
Release Date: July 14, 2017
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for The Playlist, Slant Magazine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.