The Jodorowsky Controversy – Context Matters

el-topo

We hate to keep going on about this, but…

In the fevered world of #metoo and the increasing desire to dig up anything questionable that anyone has ever said or done, no matter how long ago, it is unsurprising that filmmakers who have liked to shock and push the envelope have found their words cherry-picked, twisted and misinterpreted to use against them. It’s especially easy to do with interviews, where we often have no idea what was really said, and it’s also easy to do with people for whom English is not a first language. Bernardo Bertolucci experienced it a year or so ago when he was accused of facilitating non-consensual sexual assault in Last Tango in Paris, despite all the evidence showing it to be untrue. Now it’s the turn of Alejandro Jodorowsky, who has had a retrospective of his work pulled by New York’s El Museo del Barrio, based on comments published in 1972, in which he appears to claim that he raped actress Mara Lorenzio during the making of El Topo.

If we take the quote – that was republished by the Telegraph in 2017 in an article that we won’t link to, but which seems to be the source of the outrage – at face value, then it’s pretty damning. “I said, ‘Now it’s my turn. Roll the cameras.’ And I really… I really… I really raped her. And she screamed.” Well, that sounds shocking. But of course, given that it was Jodorowsky in the early 1970s, when he was at his most deliberately outrageous and provocative and excessive, it was probably meant to be. But is it true?

If recent events have told us anything, it is surely that we look at the bigger picture before we just to condemnation. In this case, the bigger picture is the full quote, which is easy to find. It’s even in the Telegraph piece. Here it is:

“When I wanted to do the rape scene, I explained to her that I was going to hit her and rape her. There was no emotional relationship between us, because I had put a clause in all the women’s contracts stating that they would not make love with the director. We had never talked to each other. I knew nothing about her. We went to the desert with two other people: the photographer and a technician. No one else. I said, ‘I’m not going to rehearse. There will be only one take because it will be impossible to repeat. Roll the cameras only when I signal you to.’ Then I told her, ‘Pain does not hurt. Hit me.’ And she hit me. I said, ‘Harder.’ And she started to hit me very hard, hard enough to break a rib… I ached for a week. After she had hit me long enough and hard enough to tire her, I said, ‘Now it’s my turn. Roll the cameras.’ And I really… I really… I really raped her. And she screamed.”

Now, to me, that changes the context considerably. Jodorowsky is clearly talking in terms of performance in a fictional rape scene. Regardless of whether it is acceptable to shoot such a scene with such intensity or not, there is clearly consent involved. And we also have to consider just what he meant by the word ‘rape’ in this context – did he mean it literally, metaphorically or what? Is it just possible that he did not intend the statement to be a literal confession of assault, even then?

And lets remember that 1972 was a considerably less sensitive time that today. You could make flip comments or even jokes about rape back then and no one cared. The fact that we have moved on as a society does not mean that everyone should have comments made then viewed through the prism of modern taboos. A single quote in a book, stripped on meaning, nuance and overall context is not the smoking gun that it is being made out to be, especially as Lorenzio has not, to best of my knowledge, said a word about this since the film was made.

Indeed, lost in the inevitable fury is the fact that in 2007, Jodorowsky clarified the comment by saying “I didn’t rape Mara, but I penetrated her with her consent.” He later expanded on this, saying “how could I, in front of such a crowd, rape an actress with such impunity? I said things to shock interviewers.” He explicitly stated that his claims were nonsense – the amount of crew involved, everything. Perhaps he was trying to excuse himself, but perhaps he was just a more mature person who no longer thought that being as outrageous and controversial as possible was important.

The Telegraph article itself flip-flops between admitting that he speaks in metaphor and extremes, and desperately wanting to make him out to be a monster. It’s a skilled bit of character assassination, in which every comment is given sinister import. When, in Jodorowsky’s Dune, he says he was “raping Frank Herbert”, he clearly did not mean that he sexually penetrated the author against his will – yet these comments and a handful other references to in interviews and social media posts spanning almost five decades are dusted off as some sort of evidence that he is fixated on the subject. Imagine the effort put in to going through every interview and post someone has done to help back up your opportunistic theory?

Why we would be expected to believe the 1972 comments of a man who was, at the time, an outrageously boastful provocateur over the more considered comments of a man trying to explain what he meant originally is hard to fathom, beyond a wish from some people to find the very worst in everyone in order to make themselves feel important. Let’s prove ourselves above the howling mob, and not jump to the conclusions that some people are cynically manipulating us towards.