well damn. as expert life commentator and instagram fiend HaHa Davis would say: now that’s a film film. some films just find a way—by an ingenious combination of cast, crew and directors—to get out of its own way. and some, as soon as the end of opening credits, generally finds itself in a cul-de-sac of expectations and presuppositions on the significance of its subject matter. then there is the entirely separate league of films that spring fully formed out the lacquered cranium of a plastic little zeus who, eager to tell what is sure to be tales of epic proportions (indeed of world-historical proportions), runs on stage forgetting the necessary bows and curtsies in the direction of said expectations and presuppositions altogether known as cause and effect.
fabulism is the style (better known as magical realism), and alejandro jodorowsky’s La Danza de la Realidad is the most emphatic, gluttonously unreserved, disorientingly clairvoyant example of the genre that i’ve seen to date: clairvoyant because of how sure it stands in its own sun, confident in the air of its very peculiar altitude. here is cause, it seems to say, and there too is effect, then it adds as a snide aside: but is what all this talk of ‘and’? that is the disorienting magic of fabulism, stretching the light ray of any kind of determinism into a flowering spectrum of perhaps. not curtsying to the rigors of ‘what caused this?’ and ‘and how does it affect that’—freed from this principle of causation, the filmmaker and her audience is much more liable to ask the much more interesting question of: what is this?
jodorowsky’s answer to that question was this two-hour long phantasmagoric elegy to his childhood in a politically tumultuous chile of the 1930’s. in it his own voice-over pleads:
Something is dreaming us, surrender yourself to the illusion. Live!
combine such smiling sage wisdom with a scene of a group of boys literally circle-jerking their ‘bishops’ and you’ve got yourself a film film.
(pamela flores as Sara)———i watched this film alone and yet i couldn’t help but give a standing ovation for her performance: it was the kind of thundering buzz of applause at the end of the last aria in the final act of an exhausting opera—one is grateful both for the performance and the sheer athletic, buxotic endurance it took. casting pamela flores as Sara was the brilliance of a clear vision. the film simply could not have survived its length without that role being filled by someone who was committed to its gaping absurdities without even the slightest reservation. i guess if you’re playing catwoman you can still keep a layer of your anne hathaway self visible—in fact, the box office counts on you doing so—but when your character has to, at some point, cure her husband's leprosy by squatting, full frontal, and ceremoniously urinating on his face…you have to completely disappear into the role and hope to reappear at some post-production point in the future. (i’m almost sure daniel day lewis was at some point asked to play Sara).
her performance was exhausting, for the audience moreso than her—but she all throughout kept the composure and stamina needed for her eager and impassioned soprano. my initial reaction was disbelief at the possibility of her singing in her own personal musical (while everyone else was talking) throughout the two-hour marathon of this film. but she did, and did so with such an olympic poise and single-minded deliverance that left me dumb and awestruck.
(magical realism and the power of mythmaking)———
Let us imagine the lawless rovings of the artistic imagination, unchecked by any native myth; let us think of a culture that has no fixed and sacred primordial site but is doomed to exhaust all possibilities and to nourish itself wretchedly on all other cultures—“” Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy (Sect. 23)
psychomagic was what jodorowsky used to describe the process of healing from a psychologically traumatic event by the performance of symbolic acts. he is on this topic both the labouring expert and profound prophet. it is thereby the psychomagical string that links the magnitudes of events that span the film’s timelessness (the boy never seems to age). much of the film’s first act was a catalogue of such psychologically devastating events (like the boy being forced by his father to endure dental surgery without anesthesia) and the even more disjointed third act was a bizarre tour of improbable circumstances the father must overcome in order to recover from his own psychological disfigurements.
it was the awesome power of myth-making that made this film irresistible for over two hours. in an industry obsessed with tying up every loose end and digging for every plot hole, one has to be especially sure of what one has to say in order to break away from the expectations of diegetic continuity and linear narration that is the bedrock of a cinematic education. though i can’t say i pinpointed what the film’s point was, i enjoyed it at a depth beyond that kind of reasoning and speculation. that is the spectacle of mythologizing, the trancelike stupor induced by the wild leaps and bounds a story can take in order to efficiently deliver us to an altitude more susceptible to cathartic introspection.
this imagery of an exchange of ideas at a lofty altitude is one i burrow much from Nietzsche’s writings; more specifically his justification for his overreliance on aphorism as his style of writing—“In the mountains the shortest way is from peak to peak, but for that one must have long legs. Aphorisms should be peaks, and those who are addressed, tall and lofty.” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ‘On Reading and Writing’)
—this loftiness extends as well to his veneration of myth as the bridge between peaks. Nietzsche is the outstanding example of the progression from a calculating and rationalizing style (Birth of Tragedy, Case of Wagner) to the style that eventually dominated his body of work and the bombastic loftiness he’s known for: the irrational (sometimes anti-rational) mythologizing use of aphorisms, which his Zarathustra remains the most awesome example.
Nietzsche died eight months into the twentieth century (an example of his supreme instinct for timing)—a century wherein the cinematic artform flourished incomparably in content and expression by drawing simultaneously from literature and theatre: one could, with a small leap, make a correlation between the fabulism and aphorism. both are styles of storytelling that rely on the presupposition that there is much ground to be covered, and in order to do so much has to be left to the imagination (this talent for imagination is what Nietzsche meant earlier with his criteria of ‘tall and lofty’). in that sense, fabulism, by way of The Dance of Reality and the like, is visual aphorism.
But without myth every culture loses the healthy natural power of its creativity… “” Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy (Sect. 23)
where exposition and dialogue would otherwise be utilized as a source of information, magical realism instead leaps this demand for information. thereby bringing into foreground the importance of myth and a perspective of truth which the light of reason not only fails to illuminate, but in the instances where this perspective relies on the most subtle and nuanced appraisal, can distort.
one should at every instance make the crucial distinction between the mythical and the mystical. whereas the imagery of height and loftiness exemplifies the myth, that of the mystical is exemplified by the most evasive and cavernous bottomlessness. mysticism in contrast to mythology, evades reality by way of the principle of the most conservative use of energy to explain a natural phenomena. on the other hand, a tremendous amount of exertion might be needed ascend to the truth communicated by a native myth—jodorowsky’s film is such an example. one can believe more in a myth than in mysticism inasmuch as mythology is the shadow cast by reality. the mystical however, competes with reality and desires to position itself as a natural phenomena. nevertheless the distinction between the two is marked by the thinnest margin: much of what is mystical is merely the end of a long game of broken telephone whose origin was a myth, a fable, a dream conjured and pressed into our waking life in order to express our awe and confusion with reality. at some point along the transfer of a transcendent mythology, the messenger becomes the message, the mountain is turned on its own head and the myth, becoming mystical, begins to evade the very reality it was prescribed to. i can’t take too seriously any investigation of the origin of religious experiences that doesn’t at once: make the distinction between the importance of mythology for the exercise of our imagination and the detriment of mysticism as an inversion of this most engaging device for storytelling.
Myth alone saves all powers of the imagination and the Apollonian dream from their aimless wanderings. “” Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy (Sect. 23)
we’ve already heard that there are no such things as modern writers, there are only writers in modern times—the same must be true of artists in general, drawing from the same ancient wells of inspiration but facing the modern challenge of expressing their inspiration in altogether unprecedented formats. one such unprecedented format is that of filmmaking and its visual enterprise. the science fiction genre has so far been the most successful mythology in cinema (Star Wars and so on) and such futuristic effects had to be employed in order to engage a general audience whose solution to the dangers of mysticism is an obsession with the apollonian over-rationalizing approach to storytelling, which Nietzsche described as our ‘Alexandrian culture”. it thereby becomes a feat of genius for an artist to engage the imagination of this audience with a combination of dionysian mythologizing and apollonian rationalizing. the cinematic landscape, having grown exponentially in the last century, has yielded a surplus of that kind of genius—
brit marling, creator, actor and writer for netflix’s The OA is one such brilliant example. her style of storytelling falls very much in the category of magical realism, and her particular obsession with the dynamics of cults (Sound Of My Voice, The East) combine for some of the most compelling moments in a series in recent years. her capacity to investigate the intricacies of tragedy (Another Earth) is more akin to a master in her final years than in her breakout projects. what is especially fascinating about The OA is how confidently and decidedly she has combined mythical subject matters with very tangible and realistic consequences; the ‘magic’ in her creations is indelibly incorporated into its component realism.
in cinematic history, there is a substantial catalogue of south american filmmakers who have cultivated a taste and an audience for magical realism: if jodorowsky is the most recent example, luis bunuel would have to be the most notable firstling. his 1962 masterpiece The Exterminating Angel might very well be the working definition of what we mean by magical realism. a small herd of sheep suddenly appear in an apartment, a hand detached from its body runs amuck across the screen—all of this without any explicit rhyme or reason. in the film, a group of partygoers is unable to leave the room they’re in, by some invisible spellbinding force that evolves into a hilariously disorienting spectacle; it was an exercise in trust (perhaps too much trust) on the availability of audience members with the necessary long legs.
(the vicinity of absurdity)———one of this film’s many saving graces is how unbearably absurd it is all throughout. i don’t think i’ve ever seen anything quite like it. that the first scene was in a circus was of course a hint that one was to about to enter into a vicinity of obscenity (to borrow the title of a System of A Down song), but one could not have been sufficiently prepared for the wild rabelaisian humour that spans the entire film. and yet it’s nothing of a comedy.
more often than not, it is a compliment to describe a film as hard to watch, insofar as its subject matter is of the serious and profound sort—and that is undoubtedly the case here. the sequence wherein the father is trying to toughen up his son was unwatchable, especially the continuous slapping. steve mcqueen’s Hunger (2009) had so far been the only film wherein i had to look away from the screen on account of how blatantly, inhibitedly and unflinchingly cruelty was displayed, by especially committed actors (that film gave fassbender a free pass for the next ten years).
yet another film in this decade that comfortably lounged in the vicinity of absurdity was maren ade’s Toni Erdman (2017). unlike The Dance of Reality, Toni Erdman waded far into its length before cracking open its can of what-the-fuck. what is remarkable is that none of these four films relied on absurdity for absurdity’s sake; the story they wanted to tell was absurd and the creative choice was made to take that absurdity to its fullest extent. it’s that kind of confidence in story telling that can make for an eventually cathartic experience, even if it begun with a good amount of what-the-actual-fuck?
(“in memory, everything happens to music”)———that was the tagline to terence davies’ 1988 retrospective Distant Voices, Still Lives: in memory, everything happens to music. yes, indeed. and i’m willing to make the wager that the richer a musical education one is afforded at an early age, for this very reason, the richer the quality of one’s memories will be evermore—such is the unique power of music. second only to the mnemonic cues of our olfactory senses; even then it might be impossible to recreate a scent exactly, but with music, once it’s in you, it remains eternally. music as a mnemonic device was strongly utilized in Distant Voices, Still Lives, an autobiographical film of the director’s tumultuous upbringing in 1940’s liverpool. every other scene was marked by characters breaking into song in order to glimpse the full meaning of their often passive acceptance of their circumstances. so too did music saturate the experience of the jodorowsky’s childhood. his mother wanted to be an opera singer instead of the a shop clerk, so every one of her lines in the film were sung in soprano. there was enough music in this film to qualify it as a musical, yet its unique take on her dialogue rescued it from becoming a musical. praise be!
(in summa summarum)———in summa summarum, i give this film 11.55 deep v-necks out of 12 f-cups.