Alejandro Jodorowsky's "Fando and Lis": An Anti-Review

by Sten Johnson

Typically, an artist's minor or transitional works are discussed in connection with the major works and ultimate successes that give them relevance. In that spirit, this article originally began as a naive attempt to frame the one available DVD title from the Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky, his 1968 debut "Fando and Lis", within his better known works from the same period, "El Topo" (1970) and "The Holy Mountain" (1973). Unfortunately, any attempt to find and view these films has been as rigorous as the spiritual trials-by-fire that they supposedly contain. I say "supposedly", since I have not seen either and have given up trying to find copies for sale or rent. After making a distinctive debut as the first "midnight" movie at the Elgin Theatre in New York in 1970, "El Topo" was acquired by Allen Klein on John's Lennon's advice. Klein still holds the rights, as well as those to "Holy Mountain", and has jealously controlled any re-releases.

That said, it's probably best to view "Fando and Lis" in the resulting vacuum, where its radical air of innocence can be appreciated in the original spirit. The film owes more to an anarchic tradition of the theatrical avant-garde and its contemporary "happenings" than to experimental film and generally feels like a rootlessly eccentric curiosity. It disturbed its original audiences enough to get it banned in Mexico after starting a riot at the 1968 Acapulco Film Festival, where Jodorowsky supposedly fled for his safety. When it was screened in New York shortly afterward, it drew the ire of Vincent Canby, and Pauline Kael, who dismissed it as a "horror circus" and a "head show."

Based on a play by Arrabal, "Fando and Lis" is essentially an extended string of surreally apocalyptic images, beginning with a title sequence assembled from Gustav Doré's "Divine Comedy" prints and provocatively divided into "cantos" (mistranslated as "chants" in the DVD's English subtitles). The title characters set out on a journey to a city named "Tar", Fando pulling the apparently paralyzed Lis in a wagon, encountering one vivid set piece after another: A piano burns in a city square, a group of figures emerges from a Stygian mud bath in an appropriately Dantesque image, and feral bowlers assault the couple. Fando occasionally bangs a drum and sings. The proceedings have an air of melancholy underlying their effusive energy; Lis sings "When I die/Will anyone remember me?" The viewer's experience is astringent, tense and mildly disturbing.

Fantoma's excellent DVD includes a 90-minute French documentary, "Constellation Jodorowsky", in which the director holds court as an eccentrically oblivious aesthete, unbothered by his mixed successes and radiating an infectious creative energy. Many of his works, including a 1975 attempt to film Frank Herbert's "Dune" never reached an audience, and 1980's "Tusk", which Jodorowsky has disowned. That film was partially hobbled by an original 5 million dollar budget reduced to 1.5 million, and an order for 1,000 elephants that yielded only seven. "Santa Sangre", produced and co-written by Claudio Argento, brother of director Dario Argento and producer of the classic "Suspiria", was a cult success in the late eighties, but nothing has ever come close to the original notoriety of the elusive "El Topo," bound up inextricably in its countercultural moment.

© 2002 by Sten Johnson. All rights reserved.

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