Saturday, March 20, 2010

#81: Santa Sangre (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1989)

I really like this movie, almost as much as I did when I saw it for the first time eight years ago, though my first exposure to the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky was an overwhelmingly negative experience. One Friday night in college, I was at the video store looking for something to rent, and I saw a bootleg VHS for Jodorowsky's midnight movie cult classic El Topo. I'd heard a little about it and knew that it was supposed to be some batshit insane psychedelic western beloved by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. I also thought it was going to be kind of campy and a barrel of fun. When I got back home and put the tape in my VCR, the phone rang. A friend of mine said her and another friend of mine were bored and could I come over for some drinks. I said yes, and that I had a really crazy movie to bring that we could watch. I then proceeded to ruin the evening for all three of us by showing this movie. It was decidedly un-party. It was slow, full of dated mystical symbolism, extremely violent, full of uncomfortable old-man, little-boy, and fat-lady nudity, a rape scene or two, featured deformed extras who spent a lot of time crawling through the desert, and the bootleg transfer was panned and scanned and really gray and muddy. Also the movie was very long. We stopped it about 20 minutes before it ended, I apologized to my friends for ruining the night, and I went home and watched the last 20 minutes while re-alphabetizing my CDs because I have to finish books and movies that I start even if I dislike them because I have some weird compulsions. One year later, I was living in an apartment with my brother. He said one day, "I think I might go rent El Topo." I responded emphatically, "NO! DO NOT RENT THAT MOVIE!"

I finally revisited El Topo three years ago when Roger Ebert made it one of his Great Movies because my wife had never seen it, though she'd heard the tale of The Time El Topo Ruined Friday Night. (My wife and I have seen every Ebert Great Movie. Yes, movie lists are another of my weird compulsions.) By this time, the film had been officially released in the U.S. on DVD, and the crisp, letter-boxed, bright not muddy transfer substantially improved the film. It made a huge difference. The movie is still not a barrel of laughs and is not intended to be, and the dated hippie symbolism does absolutely nothing for me, but there are some incredibly beautiful and unusual shot compositions that were pretty much destroyed by pan-and-scan and mud on that notorious VHS bootleg.

Fortunately, I enjoyed Santa Sangre from the beginning. Even though this film is still awaiting an American DVD release, its pleasures come through even on VHS. This is a film of near-constant visual invention, crazy and personal and intimate and epic. The mystical and psychological symbolism is dialed way down from El Topo and easy to ignore, and nearly every frame is something to see. Santa Sangre is an eclectic but unified mixture of European art film, exploitation film, slasher movie, Mexican magical realist fable, and psychedelic freakout. To get some idea of this film's visual style and formal structure, imagine a gentle, cohesive clusterfuck involving Federico Fellini, Werner Herzog, Dario Argento, Harmony Korine, Luis Bunuel, Hitchcock's Psycho, one week in a random Tijuana bar, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, velvet clown paintings, Dia de los Muertos folk art, and a mariachi band performance. This is a film whose basic story, a man who kills women at the behest of his jealous mother, can't possibly sum up the whole experience, which also includes an epic funeral for a circus elephant, a pimp who gives cocaine to a group of teenage boys with Down syndrome and then dances down the street with them while blaring music from a boom box, masked Mexican wrestlers taking on the strongest woman in the world, and a tattooed lady who gets sexually aroused by having knives thrown at her. In short, I strongly prefer Santa Sangre to El Topo.

The basic story goes a little something like this (though this is a film more concerned with images and dream logic than plot): A young boy is raised in a circus by his knife-throwing father who is also the circus owner (the late Guy Stockwell, Dean Stockwell's older, much fatter brother) and his acrobat mother. The mother is also a devout member of a bizarre Christian sect that worships a young girl who was raped and had her arms chopped off by her assailants. They consider her a saint and claim that a pool full of red stuff is her holy blood. The boy is a magician in the circus, and, when something terrible happens and his mother loses her own arms, he becomes her arms in a bizarre nightclub act. Now a young adult, he is forced to murder any young woman he gets close to on orders of his fiendishly protective, insane mother. It's a lot more complicated and, yes, even weirder than that, but that's the basic setup.
The music in the film is just as much a character as any of the actors. It plays almost continuously (mostly Perez Prado tunes), as the characters are followed around by circus clown and mariachi bands, play piano, and listen to records, boomboxes, or the radio. The music is beautiful, not overbearing, and becomes an integral part of the film's formal style.

Santa Sangre plays like Jodorowsky's most personal film and looks like it emptied directly out of his head and onto film, much like Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia plays like it poured directly out of Peckinpah in unfiltered form. A look at Jodorowsky's background reveals just how personal this film is. He gladly received a pittance for his salary as director (not just movie director pittance, but working stiff pittance) in exchange for total creative control from the film's producer (Claudio Argento, Dario's younger brother) and financiers. Besides being a film director and producer, Jodorowsky has worked (or continues to work) as a comparative religion scholar, playwright, composer, actor, mime, comic book writer, tarot reader, historian, and psychotherapist. Oh yeah, he also does a weekly commentary for a nightly news program in Madrid and has released an album of his music. What a lazy bastard. His ethnic background is very interesting, too. His parents are both Jews from Ukraine, but Jodorowsky was born and raised in Chile. He also lived in Paris for many years, but most of his films are shot and set in Mexico, which has caused the widely reported misconception that Jodorowsky is Mexican. His approach to Mexico is an intriguing mix of insider and outsider. Most of these various strands of his life come together in Santa Sangre. Jodorowsky also shares Werner Herzog's carnival barker style of delivering pithy, hilariously arrogant aphorisms to the press. The tagline for Santa Sangre is "Forget everything you have ever seen." Sure thing, Alejandro. Here are some more of his pronouncements: "Most directors make films with their eyes. I make films with my cojones." "I ask of film what most North Americans ask of psychedelic drugs." "I don't live in France, I live in myself."
Somebody put this movie out on DVD.


{P28} said...

You have a keen eye for quality, and I applaud your review choices.

There was a R2 Dvd release of this movie in Europe, containing an audio commentary by the director himself, amongst others. It's out of print, I think, and it doesn't come cheap. It's one of my most cherished Dvd presentations for an incredible movie.

Megan said...

Brilliant review of both Santa Sangre and El Topo.

I just re-watched this movie on Netflix for the first time about a month ago. Hadn't seen it in over 15 years. I love this movie passionately, but haven't been able to sit through any of Jodorowsky's others.