Endless Poetry, the latest film from Alejandro Jodorowsky, has a lot to overcome. It’s a coming-of-age story, done to death and almost always boring. It’s about an artist, and artistic creation/exertion are among the hardest things to engagingly depict in narrative art; he’s a poet to boot, the writing and reading of poetry are really hard to make interesting on-screen. It’s about somebody whose primary obstacle to achieving their artistic dreams is parental disapproval, which, come on, seriously come on. And it’s autobiographical, which generally translates to “the writer has no ability whatsoever to discern which parts of the material are actually interesting to anyone but themselves.”
To play all this conventionally would be obviously dismal. Fortunately, the word “conventional” runs screaming off the page in Jodorowsky’s presence. Endless Poetry is definitely unlike any other topically-similar film, packed to the gills with surrealistic, quasi-Brechtian formalism, and colorful imagery. This means that Endless Poetry is, thankfully, rarely dull. In fact, the theatricality of its individual performances and its sense of performance, its bonkers cinematography (courtesy the great Christopher Doyle), and its genuine ability to infuse the unexpected around every corner mean that Endless Poetry is often compelling, even when it’s frustrating and exasperating.
The problem with Endless Poetry is that it’s frustrating and exasperating most of the time. It’s about a starry-eyed Jewish Chilean youth named, hey, Alejandro Jodorwosky – the film is novelistically opened by the real Jodorowsky setting the scene, and he pops in now and again to muse on events – who is oppressed by his father, a materialistic and selfish shopkeeper, and doted upon by his mother, who sings all her lines as though in an opera. (Movie) Jodorowsky begins to develop conviction and courage in his desire to be an artist, infuriating his father, who, by the way, is played by one of the real Jodorowsky’s sons. Movie Jodorowsky gets a little older so he, too, can be played by one of the real Jodorowsky’s other sons, and begins to learn things about, like, life and the world, which includes being deflowered by a vermilion-haired fur-bedecked poet, who is played by the same actress who plays his mother. All this and more happen, not in the way that events happen to people, but in the way events/feelings can be distilled into performative episodes through fairly-obvious symbolism, concluding with movie Jodorowsky and real Jodorowsky telling his father he never received enough affection.
The film is overstuffed with the kinds of “avant-garde” and surrealistic elements a genuinely creative teenager or a moderately creative young adult would overstuff their own autobiographical screenplay with, the kinds of things that generally somehow land with a mix of the obvious and the bewildering – Nazis, dwarves, masks, stilts, coffins, skulls, dicks, angels, devils, it goes on and on. There’s too many to list, yet they so infuse the film’s texture and style it’s impossible to comprehensively describe it without detailing them, an odd sort of paradox. Listing them would also not really do the film’s texture justice, although in some ways it would; the film’s symbolism is so relentlessly straightforward that the cumulative effect of seeing it is not actually much different than reading them off the page. In that sense, Endless Poetry is itself perhaps best described as itself being like poetry on-screen, any potential of real inspiration or movement stifled by a misfit of medium. For everything that works, several other things fall flat, confound, or just read as juvenile.
The biggest problem Endless Poetry has is that it’s too focused on text and not focused enough on mood, on emotions, on clawing at what lies underneath its material. A comparison with David Lynch is instructive here; when his stuff works, it works not because he is engaged in an intellectual act of auto-deconstruction or symbolism hieroglyphs, it works because it attacks the spirit, building its incident from its underlying hows and whys. Endless Poetry, on the other hand, is constantly engaged in the act of invoking without ever evoking anything. In that sense, its name is just wrong; there’s no poetry to it at all.