Fando and Lis (1968), Surrealist Gem from Jodorowsky (Erotic Movie Write-Off)
Written: Jul 3, 2006 (Updated Jul 4, 2006)
a Very Helpful Review
by the Epinions community
Pros:Music, direction, energy in first half, images, graveyard scene, mix of humor and tragedy
Cons:Self-indulgent at times; the "action painting" sequence
The Bottom Line: An assured and bold early film from the Surrealist filmmaker and future shaman, Alejandro Jodorowsky. Weird, but (generally) not merely for the sake of being so. Beautifully shot.
Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
Fando y Lis (1968) is an early avant-garde film by the Chilean post-Surrealist auteur, Alejandro Jodorowsky (henceforth AJ for short). AJ shot the film, and his subsequent, far stranger and mystical films El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973) (the last, financed by John Lennon and Yoko Ono), in Mexico. All three films, but especially Fando and Lis, bear the unmistakable influence and imprint of the Spanish-born, Mexican citizen Luis Buńuel, from an older generation of Surrealists. Both men utilized their breed of Surrealism to criticize what they perceived as the hypocrisy and greed of the Church, as well as the banality, corruption and pettiness of the petit bourgeois. Like his aesthetic mentor, AJ populates his films with absurdist adventures and images in the real and figurative deserts and wastelands of modern civilization.
Fando and Lis is many things, a multi-layered conglomeration of ideas, genres, and themes requiring several viewings to reveal its many riches. Initially opaque, once one manages to sort out the curious symbols and the puzzling chronology, a rather straightforward and tragicomic story emerges. (The film is loosely based on the play by Fernando Arrabal which AJ directed and acted in years prior. For the movie, he draws from memories of the play, but boils the source down to a page of script, otherwise improvising much in the way of his own style, imagery and development, and in so doing, alienating Arrabal.)
Fun Fact: When the film premiered at the Acapulco Film Festival in 1968, the audience was so enraged that they threw objects at the screen, and tried to lynch the director. Jodorowsky had to flee out the back door and into a limo, where he hid on the floor as people pursued the car. The Festival closed down forever, a fact the director cheerfully attributes to his film and the scandalized, conservative Mexcian audience.
Fando and Lis are a pair of holy innocents, lovers more or less cut from the same cloth, and inseparable as a couple of misfits in search of the mythical city of Tar, said (in an opening narration) to be the only city spared from a catastrophic war. The fey, white-blonde haired Lis is paralyzed from the waist down. With her immobile legs and her very white complexion, she is not unlike the doll she carries everywhere with her: an object to be played with or abandoned by children. Indeed, there seem to be many parallels between puppets, marionettes, dolls, and Lis, all representing an innocent world victimized by cruel gods who manipulate them: those who pull the strings. A scene with the young Lis shows her watching a performance with a marionette getting its strings cut one by one until it collapses (a death). After, she is pushed over the wall of the puppets and fondled and needled and harassed by a trio of men in Victorian business suits. (In his commentary track, Jodoroswky calls this a rape: the use and abuse of the young by the corruptive forces of adults.)
For much of the film, Fando pushes Lis through arid mountains and lowlands of Mexico on a wooden cart with four wheels. When the wagon cannot make it through rocky terrain, Fando carries Lis bent around his lower back, parallel to the ground. Tall and thin, Fando alternates between times of great affection for Lis, and utter repudiation, abandonment and cruelty. The relationship could be called sadomasochistic, with Fando controlling a completely helpless and slave-like Lis, who obeys his commands and whims with total self-abnegation. On another level, Lis could represent the innocent and naďve wonderment of youth that Fando is gradually losing touch with. For this oddball pair, surrounded by so many lecherous, deceitful and decadent individuals and groups (above all, Fandos parents who wish to trade their graves with that of their son), it is Lis who retains her innocence, and Fando who caves into the surrounding corruption.
If any of that sounds like a spoiler, trust me: this is not a film whose mere plot divulgence can ruin much. Fando and Lis relies on the dreamlike logic and surrealist juxtaposition of its many startling images. For me, the film stands up as a far more coherent and aesthetically assured work of art than AJs subsequent shockers, the ultraviolent El Topo and Holy Mountain (these latter two in color, with large budgets). The earlier film, shot in gorgeous black and white (with beautiful contrast and depth of field) may have the far smaller budget, but the composition is eminently more artistic and uncompromising. For a director who rails against the decadence of bourgeois society, his larger budgets seem to have spoiled him too. Fando and Lis has the more controlled imagination, the more compelling arrangement of reality and dreamscape that rings true, if unsettlingly so. AJs later films strive a bit too obviously for the weirdness and shock factor, and get terribly caught up in their own mythology and New Age symbols.
Did You Know that in order to save money, Jodoroswky figured out a loophole to avoid using union film crews: he divided Fando and Lis into three Cantos or chapters (each with its own title card), and insisted he was shooting three separate short films (as these did not require the union crew). Another way of saving money (and by necessity and preference): he used mainly non-actors, friends and family members to populate his sets of ruined lots, abandoned mines, mountains and deserted buildings.
One of the things which ties Fando and Lis to the late 1960s is the occasional use of free jazz and bebop, as well as an extended action painting sequence that grows out of AJs experiences as a planner of happenings, which to my eye, now look like a good excuse have a party with rock music, do wild and shocking things with poultry, and get naked and pinch womens nipples, all under the guise of avant-garde art. (Some such footage is shown in the DVD extras, and is great for a laugh). In this case, Fando and a topless Lis (who can suddenly walk) storm in their underwear about a room filled with dolls, painting each others entire bodies and faces with their names, and then dumping cans of paint on the walls and one another. Oh, its happening all right: it just doesnt have much to do with the rest of the film. But Sergio Kleiner (Fando) and Diana Mariscal (Lis) look like theyre having a great time.
Fun Fact: Jodorowsky was slated to direct his own version of Frank Herberts novel, Dune, a giant project that began pre-production in 1973. Huge names gathered for the task: Pink Floyd would do the entire soundtrack. H.R. Giger (famed designer of the Alien movies) would create the world of Harkonnens, and other designers such as Moebius and Christopher Foss would be enlisted. The charlatan Salvador Dalí would be paid $100,000 for an hour of work. Not surprisingly, the film filled more with AJs preoccupations with Tarot cards etc. never became realized, though three years were spent on the failed production. Of course, David Lynch would direct a star-crossed Dune a decade later.
The Sound Design and Score for Fando and Lis are incredible, a brilliant mixture of early and 1960s jazz, mariachi band music, synthesized sound effects, and highly amplified actions (e.g. eating and swallowing), reactions (tools clanging) and natural sounds (e.g. buzzing flies). Pepe Ávila, Mario Lozua and Hector Morely are credited with the innovative music and sound design.
Some Thoughts on Surrealism and Fando and Lis
Jodorowsky inherits his breed of Surrealism from Buńuel and Dalí (the two collaborators on films such as Un Chien Anadalou (1928). He also renounces Surrealism, calling André Bretons collective vision of it petit bourgeois, and seeking in his own work to transcend that Surrealist respectability. To some extent, he succeeds in shaking things up, but then the Fluxus-movement and drug inspired happenings also devolve into a brand of Kitsch that Surrealism tried in vain to escape. (Just consider the ubiquity of Dalí melted clock posters on college dorm walls.)
Personally, I divide Surrealist works (official and those in spirit) into two camps: authentic and contrived. Rene Magritte, whose mother committed suicide at the sea, constantly came back to images of women at the sea, however transmuted through a degree uncanny distortion. Such works strike me as authentic: they have meaning beyond mere shock value of strange juxtapositions. Though there are numerous purveyors of the contrived camp, none is more shallow or unabashedly hollow than Dalí, who painted and drew (or later, had anonymous draftsmen paint and draw for him) thousands of burning giraffes and the suchlike, signing anything for a buck.
While later Jodorowsky films will bury their heads fully into their own navels (or up their own asses, if you prefer), Fando and Lis retains most of its authenticity as an angry lashing out against a corruptive adult world, literal vampires who suck the blood and draw the life out of the young in order to hang on to life. Certain touches, however, ring of falseness, including the burning piano (a specific homage to Dalí) a man plays in an abandoned lot.
Even when the Surrealist imagery in Fando and Lis turns toward shock-value Kitsch, it is still fun to watch: consider the flight of pigs from Lis vagina. My personal favorite moment: Fando and Lis in the cemetery, taking turns as corpse and mourner, ramping up the histrionics with each game, all to a gloriously gonzo, grand guignol mariachi ballad. Such aspects give the film a mad circus feeling, a carnivalesque reversal of values (death is playful, sex is morbid, parents wish to survive their young) that strikes home in both funny and disquieting ways.
Eros/Thanatos: Sex and Death in Fando and Lis
The French Surrealist author and philosopher, Georges Bataille, linked sex and death in his excellent book, The Tears of Eros (and in his entire oeuvre, for that matter). But then the French have always found this connection: it is no mistake that they call the orgasm le petit mort, the little death. Whatever the cultural, literary or psychological provenance (cf. also Freud, for example), the Surrealists took the concept and ran with it. In the case of this film, sexuality in constantly linked with morbidity. Beyond the mildly erotic and flirtatious graveyard scene (with Fando laying atop a dead Lis at one point), we also have numerous instances of decadent (in the literal sense of falling to decay) eros: Fando and Lis come upon a group of naked men and women who emerge from a deep bath of mud in the mountains, rubbing themselves with zombie-like detachment. A crazed and very elderly Pope cavorts alongside a naked pregnant woman who lies on the earth. In one of the scenes that riled the Mexican audiences, a trio of elderly women play cards with peaches for chips, the winner of each hand gaining the opportunity to suck a fruit pit out of a sexy sunbathing mans mouth. There is a long sequence in which Fandos sexually provocative old mother begs him to kill her. Again, in all such instances, sex is only a stones throw away from death.
Another aspect of the films eroticism is its many takes on a youthful, innocent form of bisexuality. Early on, a blindfolded Fando is seduced by naked women, until he is tricked: one of the women has a mustached man come up behind her so that Fando unwittingly kisses the man, thinking it is the woman. When he realizes the deception, he is humiliated, and returns to Lis for comfort. But later in their journey, when a large group of drag queens enters the mountain scene, Fando and Lis give in happily to the cross-dressers wild dance, and finally change into one anothers clothes. There is an overarching sense that Fando and Lis are the male and female aspects of the same person, with interchangeable sex. In a fantasy sequence depicting the dead Fando and Lis, there is a beautiful progression: after the two are buried in a pile of leaves, we see them (perhaps their spirits) off in the distance, naked and holding hands, running toward the woods. From death, they achieve an innocence that transcends Eros, achieving the blissful ignorance of Adam and Eve.
If you like David Lynchs weirder side (e.g. Eraserhead, which by the way I take to be an instance of authentic surrealism), and are interested in the Surrealist movement in general, this is the film for you. As someone who never heard of Jodorowsky before watching Fando and Lis recently, but then caught up by watching two of his later more famous films, Id say this is the place to start (and end) a tour of the directors work. Well, thats a bit harsh: I did enjoy aspects of The Holy Mountain, and am curious to see his other work. But from what Ive read and the clips Ive seen of later works, this charmer from 1968 remains his most assured and artistically well-wrought work.
I give the film a solid four stars, plus points for excellent sound score and its high energy beginning, and minus points for its slower pace in the middle, and the arbitrariness of some scenes. At 93 minutes, it wont eat up too much of your life, and you can practice your Spanish to boot. (Note: there are subtitles, and they are generally easy to read.) The sudden violence, and the rampant nudity (some full frontal) along with some obviously bizarre imagery (sexual and otherwise) probably render this one a no-no for the kids and ultra-conservatives. (Though I think Bush would secretly enjoy the pigs flying out of Lis nether region.) The religious Christian set may also find offensive the Pope figure, a screaming mad lunatic played by a woman in drag.
Jodorowsky gives his own account of the film in his often helpful, but just as often frustrating commentary track. Why frustrating? Just when you really want to know what something might have meant for him, he goes on a long tangent about anything else but what is on screen. That might be the against-the-grain pilot in him operating against expectations. The most illuminating gloss on the film: AJ looks at the protagonists journey through the mountains as akin to Dantes circling down to Hell. He also says of Fandos betrayal of Lis: If I dont destroy you, I will never know I loved you. Somehow, this brought a deeply Satrian layer of existential gloom to the whole scenario, and put Fandos unforgivable gestures into context.
A lengthy documentary by Louis Mouchet called La Constellation Jodorowsky (1994) is included in the bonus features. The music is horrible, and the pace pretentious at first, but we meet the likes of Fernando Arrabal, Peter Gabriel, Marcel Marceau, Jean Moebius Girard and of course the director himself, who comes off as a bit of a crackpot and charlatan by the end. Indeed, I lost just as must respect for the New Age, tarot-obsessed, self-proclaimed healer Jodorowsky, as I had gained watching his early and bold film, Fando and Lis, leaving me at about square one. The film from 1968 bears the mark of artistic integrity and an uncompromising spirit, qualities absent in the larger budgeted films and dubious rituals of the aging counter-Surrealist Surrealist.
For more on the Jodorowsky Dune project:
This review is an entry to the Erotic Movie Write-Off by ChrisJarmick.
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