Endless Poetry affirms the important struggle of The Artist without insisting that he is the world’s noblest character.
We don’t need any more art about what it’s like to be an artist. Why champion the pursuit of a bohemian lifestyle when so few voices push against it? The creative class has seized the narrative to the point that popular consciousness aligns us to their side by default. Still, legendary Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s latest film Endless Poetry doesn’t really care if we need it. It’s two-plus hours of surreal, full-tilt self-deification, all about the courage and strength of spirit it takes to become an artist—and it’s an absolute wonder.
Much of the film’s charm lies in its brazen unselfconsciousness. It is a balls-to-the-wall fulfillment of Jodorowsky’s vision, made with such confidence, momentum and skill that it transcends its lack of necessity and insulates itself against accusations of navel-gazing Jodorowsky knows it’s solipsistic, he knows we’ve heard his messages a million times before, and he doesn’t give a flying fuck—he’s going to tell us again, and he’s going to make it impossible for us to look away.
Like a more colorful 8 ½, Endless Poetry recounts Jodorowsky’s personal history and interrogates his contributions to the cinematic pantheon through a hyper-stylized, transparently artificial lens. Adan Jodorowsky, Alejandro’s real-life son, plays a version of himself for much of the film, and his other son Brontis plays Alejandro’s father. Jodorowsky’s decision to keep this story in the family lends the film a sense of authenticity, but in a very different way than the presence of Trey Edward Shults’ real-life family makes Krisha feel authentic. Far more than the savage, sterile beauty of something like El Topo, this film employs Jodorowsky’s considerable gifts in order to evoke feeling. It’s an emotional, sensitive, human experience, the kind where it only makes sense to have real men play their real fathers.
Typical of Jodorowsky, the film looks at the myriad stories being told within a single image; every frame of Endless Poetry really is like a painting, not just in form, but in purpose. His compositions utilize every inch of visible space to tell a self-contained story. The larger story, though, goes something like this: young Alejandro (Jeremiad Herskovits) lives with his parents (Pamela Flores and Brontis Jodorowsky) who run a shop in Santiago. His father is ruthless, his mother is tender, and he ends up running away from them and their insistence he become a doctor to pursue a life of poetry and art. He crosses paths with such Chilean writers as Enrique Lihn and Nicanor Parra, who becomes a mentor. Alejandro joins the circus, learns about loss and jets off to Paris when things get dicey in his native Chile. The film lurches forward patiently despite its manic tendencies, really taking time to tease the emotional depths out from all of its fairytale settings.
Many of Jodorowsky’s decisions grate on paper but gel onscreen. Sara, Alejandro’s mother, sings all of her lines, a perpetually overwhelmed opera performer stuck in a domestic melodrama she can’t escape. Alejandro’s father appears in one early sequence as a massive floating head that taunts his son at the dinner table for reading flowery verse. Rather than build period sets, we see costumed stagehands set up an early-20th century Santiago over the present-day cityscape, pulling down two-dimensional renderings over storefronts to highlight the inherent theatricality of making a movie about oneself. Those same stagehands show up throughout, in bodysuits, to carry off items that characters discard.
All of this works for two reasons. One, Jodorowsky knows what he’s doing tonally: the film is funny but avoids camp, it’s grotesque but avoids exploitation, and it’s moving without becoming maudlin. Two, we care about the things that happen onscreen. Pretty pictures and wacky ideas can’t hold a candle to personality, and Jodorowsky’s characters have it. Every eccentric that jets across the screen feels rooted in reality, and we want to know why they are the way they are. This goes double for flagrantly two-dimensional characters like Alejandro’s father: somehow by flattening them, Jodorowsky makes us wonder how they got so flat.
Endless Poetry affirms the important struggle of The Artist without insisting that he is the world’s noblest character. It’s openhearted and inventive, easy to watch and thrilling to behold, and it asserts its urgency by acknowledging its place.