Saturday, 7 February 2015

Santa Sangre (1989)

Dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky

What repeats in my mind about Santa Sangre now is the music. In what was seen as the return of director Alejandro Jodorowsky, the music is a glorious thing to hear. From the melancholic synth compositions to the Latin songs, they add a richness to the content with its own emotional depth, especially when it helps a potentially ludicrous story have greater meaning. A young man Felix (Axel Jodorowsky) is first shown perched on a dead tree in a mental ward cell. In flashback we see what led to this circumstance, his life as a child in a circus where his mother Concha (Blanca Guerra) was the leader of a cult worshipping a mutilated young girl as a saint, his father Orgo (Guy Stockwell) the owner of the circus and a knife thrower, an abrasive man having an affair with the tattooed woman in the company (Thelma Tixou). The result at the end is gristly. After the flashbacks, Felix escapes the asylum and meets his mother again. As a result of the fall out when Felix was a child, she lost both her arms, her son taking over as her own hands using his own. In direct synchronicity with Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), anytime Felix has a potential relationship with a woman, it leads to terrible results at prompt from his mother. The only salvation is Alma (Sabrina Dennison), a deaf-mute girl he first met as children in the circus who, grown up, makes her way to meeting him again. The music is a literal match, a heavenly one, for this plot as it is as diverse and interesting as what Jodorowsky has been doing in his entire career - like the diverse and pitch perfect scores of El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973), their content is as bold as anyone can attest to having witnessed them. The layering of the music matches symbolically with the layering of the content, how Jodorowsky compiles films together onscreen.

Jodorowsky is accessible in terms of the narratives of his films. The content surrounding his plots is on the other hand usually dense, and has cemented his reputation in cult cinema greatly, to the point it could be difficult to grasp everything going on in a film like El Topo even though, in a cult movie air, it still works as an easy to follow psychedelic trip shot on film. There is also the contentious issue of how many people, even the most open minded, can sidestep esoteric concepts with caution, significant with Jodorowsky for how his work is full of symbolic content from various religious and belief systems. There is an obvious danger to creating a film like The Holy Mountain, for example, in trying to stack so much esoteric content into its form that are not Christian or absorbed easily into mainstream culture. Jodorowsky's philosophy and films could have easily become vague, irritating New Age rhetoric, and the bad taste that kind of material can have could compromise viewing the films of Jodorowsky. However he has the advantage of his work of being able to balance his ideas with anything from humour to horror, and being obsessed with causing a primal gut reaction on viewers, mostly through his visual content, from direct onscreen violence to bizarre imagery. Santa Sangre, for all its twists and turns, is the most accessible of Jodorowsky's films from what has been available for film viewers, able to spin the narrative out into his considerations.

He has a very accessible story involving murder and psychological strife, one considering that one of the main producers is Claudio Argento, brother of director Dario Argento, causes one to imaging the blending of the Italian genre films the Argentos have been involved with married to Jodorowsky's delirious style. The director-co writer is able to tackle personal issues still through the narrative. Of the father and mother relationships in Felix's life. In ideas of religion. The interest in the circus, of carnivals and clowns. Of sexuality. He is still an auteur here able to be confrontational, especially as a violent film, a sexually explicit film, and being progressive in his taboo breaking. There is still the director in here that stands from convention, provocative in his content, from subverting gender in a sequence with a female wrestler character to a scene of real boys with Down's Syndrome being taken to smoke week and sleep with prostitutes by a street hustler, the later alongside Lars von Trier's The Idiots (1998) in its entirely, as a viewer with a disability myself, one of the few wonderful examples in films where disabled individuals are not treated like children but are complex adults. He is able to juggle a heightened tone around this content to create a film that anyone could catch the vibe of and be sucked into, but is still gobsmacking in what is shown.

It's best to tackle Santa Sangre as an emotional piece, not with a clear philosophical idea as with The Holy Mountain, emphasising instead the psychodrama that is central in many of his narratives. The plot lets chance and coincidence propel it, and with the final turn of its ending, it becomes an entire subjective story which is about the emotional states of its protagonist Felix. The Psycho comparison is literal in tone, but the result is in more depicting a mentally fragile male character in a phantasmagorical state, where the content reflects the character and others in exaggeration further than even a Hitchcock film would depict in his more lurid state. Moments where it can become grotesque, in depiction of the human form and environments, but also have an earthly reality rarely seen, as reflected in its lush Latin music, that feels fuller. It is possible in the director's work to have, for example, the Orgo character be both repulsive, this incredibly large and hairy round man in American stars and stripes garb and ponytail, but also noble with a giant phoenix tattooed on his chest. It is a entirely corporal world depicted onscreen, of real people, however larger than life, being depicted like the Tattooed Woman, a fire haired beauty covered in a tapestry of art on her skin, to the spectacle of ordinary life, the corners and streets of Mexico made into a carnival of human emotions that never ends. To match the personality of a man who is blunt and expansive in all interviews I've read and heard of his, Jodorowsky's films are vivid when violent and when emotional. Everything is expended and maximalised in tone, the eroticism its fullest, the bloodshed in his films always strong, and the emotions sincere and always willing to take a risk into the saccharine. The result is a genre movie at its core, but that doesn't mean it negates any emotional investment to these characters and the effect of Jodorowsky's style and obsession on the tropes, leading to a look and content that you don't see in regular features.

The result is undeniably the director's unique vision, with moments synonymous to him that are unforgettable, effecting one on a visceral level. Everything surrounding the funeral of the circus elephant stands out as one of the best moments in his career, especially upon revisiting the film how significant it is in terms of emotional importance throughout the rest of the movie, from the funeral itself in its extended street procession, to the immediate aftermath of what happens to the giant coffin for the beast. The director can be extremely blatant in his symbology, but the lack of self conscious reserve is really of great use in this film. This is especially when it gets to the mother-son relationship later on in the narrative where Felix becomes less and less dependent on himself, and further bound to his mother. Becoming less of a full person, Felix literally is behind his mother providing her hands to use by the centre of the story, Axel Jodorowsky and Blanca Guerra working together fully for their roles to make the idea work soundly. That the film is less concerned with the meaning outside the characters' emotions means that the actual viewing experience becomes more of a literal experience between sequences. Of knife throwing through hypnosis where the ropes are not real, but the "performance" can take place, to a direct reference to The Invisible Man where it is further emphasised how detached from himself Felix is when he has bandages over his face and is trying to make himself invisible. The result can pull you in various directions without losing track of itself.

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low
As a personal place dedicated to the "abstract", not the "weird" or "surreal", Alejandro Jodorowsky's films are interconnected to the idea of the abstract, but not intertwined with the concept, a significant difference. He is concerned with effecting viewers directly, usually through his visual content, not necessarily through structure. If any film has a chance to reach higher on my list, it will be The Holy Mountain, as it was created in structure and content as a journey of enlightenment, and that you are bombarded with so many bizarre images it saturates your thoughts by the end. The second closest candidate, if I can see it ever again, is his debut Fando and Lis (1968), an intentionally surrealist work connected to his period in the Panic Movement. (As for his first film in two decades, The Dance of Reality (2013), it's an unknown entity for what its chances are until I see it).

Santa Sangre is his most commercial film, lest one not forget, that, if what I've heard of the films Tusk (1980) and The Rainbow Thief (1990) is right, didn't become as badly compromised like they were. This is not to downplay how many would react to this film - where at one point a female wrestler, played by a man with prosthetic breasts and frizzy long hair, is killed with a samurai sword in a theatre in a character's own home with an Egyptian pharaoh's casket on stage. Or where sexual frustration is personified with Axel Jodorowsky wrestling a giant snake shoved down his trousers. Or where it suddenly takes inspiration from the giallo murder mysteries Claudio Argento produced for his brother for some of the murder sequences. It cannot be downplayed how strange the film will be for many viewers, its only in context of this site where this is not as unconventional as you can get in the director's own work let alone anyone else's.

The film saddles between his desire to juxtapose unconventional imagery, juggling between a narrative driven plot which can yet cut quickly to an image of a man in a Christ pose in a barn full of chickens, or repeat the whole emotional turmoil over the dying circus elephant later on again to create unexpected reactions in the viewer. Even the tropes that the film plays with one can see in many horror movies can be made into something new through the director's eyes, as with a nightmarish moment where the dead rise on mass from the grave, all tied around an accessible plot. Jodorowsky in general is quite accessible, bearing in mind how overwhelming the content can be, how extreme it can be for many, in a position where he has been as embraced in cult cinema as he has been but is also a good stepping stone into cinema that goes even further than him in tone. El Topo was a Western, and The Holy Mountain was based on a journey narrative. But because there is more emphasis on the drama here rather than the metaphors, Santa Sangre becomes the most accessible of the well known trio in Jodorowsky's filmography. His trademark style in general, because it is direct in presentation for all its esoteric content, direct and violent when necessary, means its closer to normalcy in terms in presentation in comparison to more abstract works in structure. He is not interested with the delays and pauses of mood, in dream logic, like a David Lynch or late Luis Buñuel. Neither is he interested in structural concepts of avant-garde films. Instead he is completely upfront and uses simple narratives to express his views, the "strange" content of the director's work entirely what he puts on screen. Santa Sangre is still immensely unconventional, but it's the more accessible in its content too, bearing in mind how surreal it truly is on first experience and on repeat viewings.

Personal Rating:
Santa Sangre is a film I am growing fonder of. The first Jodorowsky film I ever saw, back in a period where it was the only one easily available, it grows in quality because of how, as a horror/psychodrama hybrid, it stands out as something special in itself. It feels different from the other films of the director's I've seen in fact, likely because of the situation of who produced it, the time that went by from the last film he ever made in 1980, and also because it feels, for all its blood and tragedy, like a celebratory tone is permeating throughout it. There is a love for life despite the death and sadness that one doesn't see in the seventies films that made his reputation originally. That it was released in 1989, the year of my birth, doesn't hurt either. The coincidence, as someone who is obsessed with this sort of cinema, that this film was released the year of my birth is befitting. It alongside Tetsuo: The Iron Man, despite being radically different films in artistic ideology and presentation, as the kind of unpredictable cinema I am weaning myself onto more and more. Everything in Santa Sangre can be felt, having a great effect without even knowing any of the autobiographical or spiritual content Jodorowsky has under the surface. If you know of this context viewing Santa Sangre though, it becomes more impactful. Both perspectives lead to an incredibly strong film.

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