There are two types of people in this world: artists and the people who are obliged to put up with them. You may be an artist. Someone you love may be an artist. Either way, life is not easy for you. Fits of melancholia, Stendahl-syndronesque spasms upon viewing sunsets, dancing plastic bags, or other objects of transcendental beauty, and other outbursts of eccentric behavior are just some of the travails of that elusive thing known as the “artistic personality.” Whether you self-identify as such a type or whether you’re the victim of an artist in your circle of family and friends will determine how you feel about Alejandro Jodorowsky’s latest outing Endless Poetry.
Shown on a double bill at the Oak Cliff Film Festival with Sante Sangre (which I love passionately and without reservation), Endless Poetry is a surreal, madcap reimagining of Jodorowsky’s teen years and young adulthood. Starring Jodorowsky’s son Adam (who starred as the hapless child magician Fenix in Santa Sangre), the film follows Alejandro as he breaks away from his controlling father and his servile mother to enter the bohemian underworld. There, he meets his poet idol Nicanor Parra, has a tumultuous love affair with Parra’s former mistress, the fiery poetess Stella Diaz, and joins a loosely defined artist collective that supports him as he takes tentative steps toward self-actualization.
This sounds like a fairly standard kunstler roman (fancy German terms for “story of an artist”), but it’s Jodorowsky’s surreal touches that make the movie either enchanting or insufferable. Young Alejandro wanders around streets crowded with masked consumers, he contemplates mortality while dressed as an angel and chats with his future aged self, his mother only speaks in song, his father’s gigantic disembodied head shows up to bully him while worries over his sexuality. All of these touches feel uniquely personal, maybe even shamelessly self-indulgent, but at the same time, oddly universal, depending on your appreciation of surrealism and it’s own idiosyncratic visual language.
The best parts of Endless Poetry are also what will make it problematic for some viewers. Jodorowsky has lived a long, strange, fascinating life, and from his old age, it’s clear he is comfortable with sitting back and basking in his old adventures. That’s okay if you’re willing to submit to his story. Like someone who remembers their own tales of long past glory, present day Jodorowsky makes the Alejandro of the film into a bit of a Mary Sue. He is fearless, passionate, talented, universally beloved, and (SPOILER ALERT) the film ends with his friends hopelessly disconsolate because he’s decided to leave for Paris to join Breton’s band of Surrealists. If you take the film literally, this kind of narcissism seems almost ludicrous at best and dangerous at worse.
At one point in the film, Alejandro steals money from his family to support his shiftless bohemian lifestyle, and later, when his family’s house and business burns to the ground, he refuses to do anything to aid them. Of course, everyone has moments of selfishness we regret later, but the tone of the film never seems to imply that Alejandro has acted immorally. There is even an extended scene where Alejandro raucously celebrates the destruction of his childhood home with his friends. With scenes like this, it becomes difficult to sympathize with the protagonist, and this creates a weird sort of alienation the movie’s bright colors, energetic imagery, and cheerful tone tries to combat.
If you take the story literally, you’ll come away from Endless Poetry feeling like you want to punch Jodorowsky right in his regal nose. On the other hand, if you take the story more symbolically, all that self-adulation is easier to swallow and it’s easier just to enjoy the unexpected twists and turns the movie takes. By viewing Alejandro as a symbol “The Artist” as an archetype, scenes that seem heartless or too sentimental become an allegorical, if still completely surreal, experience. A bit like the infamous short story The Lady or the Tiger, this movie will show you more about how you view yourself and that, more than anything, will determine your enjoyment of Endless Poetry.