For over four decades, cult figure Alejandro Jodorowsky—the filmmaker, actor, poet, puppeteer, occasional mime, philosopher, and hopelessly inquisitive man—has been honing the self-devised experimental therapy method he’s termed psychomagic. Through performance exercises customized to the patient’s psychical wound, the practitioner can, he insists, open a shamanic path to inner enlightenment and freedom from trauma. Jodorowsky has published a wide body of writing on the subject, including 23 books, though viewers of his new film, Psychomagic, A Healing Art, would never know it. There’s little to be learned from its two nudity-replete yet tedious hours.
“Psychoanalysis was created by Sigmund Freud, a neurologist. It is rooted in science. Psychomagic was created by Alejandro Jodorowsky, a film and theater director. It is rooted in art.” So declares Jodorowsky himself in the opening moments of this glaringly unedifying new documentary. It’s an exculpatory warning to the non-believers that there’s no use doubting the legitimacy of the mystical miracles of the mind they’re about to see. A person either buys it or they don’t, and those resistant to such New Age approaches most likely suffer from close-mindedness. This film isn’t about proving anything to the skeptics, because there’s no hard explanation to be offered.
Continuing the primer, Jodorowsky singles out a key difference separating his approach from the played-out talking cure: “Psychoanalysis prevents the therapist from touching the patients. Psychomagic invites the therapist to touch the people who consult him.” The footage that follows confirms psychomagic as a uniquely handsy discipline, steeped as it is in the practice of “initiatic massage,” a technique by which harmful energies can be purged from the body through an all-over nude rubdown. The overtly sexual aspect of this move, combined with the dubiousness of its efficacy, takes on the sour odor of lechery in light of the controversy around Jodorowsky’s claim—and later denial—that he assaulted actress Mara Lorenzio on the set of El Topo.
Jodorowsky picked up “initiatic massage” from a woman named Doña Magdalena, though that information—as well as the term itself, or anything running the risk of basic education on the topic—can be gleaned only by supplemental post-viewing Googles. The film contains little more than commentary-free case studies punctuated with selections from the director’s Fando Y Lis and Endless Poetry. Each clip corresponds with varying degrees of vagueness to the on-camera sessions, to illustrate how the whole of Jodorowsky’s career has abided by these principles. In practice, all the recycled material suggests the effort-level of a sitcom’s clip show.
The sessions themselves, presented in the format of before-and-after success stories, prove as interesting as listening to someone describe their dreams. Jodorowsky’s famous for the outré content of his work, but there’s little here that couldn’t be found in a Californian yurt (parental resentment can be resolved by stripping down and simulating exit through the birth canal) or a freshman art-school seminar (painting with menstrual blood reconnects a woman to her femininity). In some cases, the metaphors are embarrassingly obvious; a young man works out his aggression toward his family by putting printouts of their faces on pumpkins he then smashes with a hammer, and a couple struggling to connect walks around with chains on their feet.
Setting aside the possibly pervy ulterior motive, it all seems harmless enough; when it comes to attaining self-actualization, whatever works works. But then we see some old video of Jodorowsky and an assembly hall packed with his acolytes holding out their hands to transfer their positive mojo to a woman suffering from cancer. Cut to 10 years later, and she credits that day with “opening an immense door towards a healing which goes beyond what doctors say.” In making the choice to raise the stakes to medical levels, Jodorowsky opens himself and his teachings up to a new level of scrutiny they cannot hope to withstand. Once you’re claiming that your spirit-magic can help with cancer, you’ve reached the point where you’ve got to start showing your work.
For those charting far-out new frontiers of treatment, there’s a line between courting healthy cynicism and engaging in blatant pseudoscience, and Jodorowsky falls on the wrong side of it. He won’t even make an effort to defend psychomagic with a more comprehensive explication, instead leaving us to wonder how pouring milk on a man will cure his dysfunctions. Historically, of course, making no earthly sense hasn’t been a major impediment in Jodorowsky’s work. In this instance, he commits a sin graver than charlatanism by just being boring.