Jodorowsky’s Quest for the Mythical City of Tar
Alejandro Jodorowsky, the filmmaker/mime/writer/Tarot expert/etc., has made a spiritual journey of his entire body of work. This applies to both the body in its entirety and each of its individual parts. In the book Anarchy and Alchemy, Ben Cobb uses this quest as an underpinning for his discussion of each of Jodorowsky’s films, citing Holy Mountain (1973) and El Topo (1970) as the most obvious examples.
But Jodorowsky’s first feature, 1968’s Fando y Lis, presents a bit of a different case. The two characters, played by adult actors, represent children trying to navigate their entry into adulthood. Narratively, this transformation takes Fando and Lis on a quest for the mythical city of Tar, mostly through a deserted wasteland.
Jodorowsky takes these characters through scenes both wildly surreal (a banquet in the desert featuring pineapples, a stuffed alligator, and the two protagonists covered in noodles as the main course) and anarchic (the two “kids” painting their names all over each others bodies before turning the paint on the white room that surrounds them). He combines that element with a great deal of symbolism (a naked, pregnant woman as Mother Nature; Fando holding a sacrificial lamb) to lend gravity, far beyond the narrative, to what he sees as a tumultuous transition out of childhood. The essence of Fando y Lis consists of those elements, but it’s worth taking a step back into the narrative to visit a couple of key points.
The setting is important here. We learn of the “mystical city” of Tar from narration over the opening credits:
“When the great catastrophe occurred all the cities crumbled except Tar. Tar still exists. If you know where to look for it, you will find it. And when you get there, you will be presented with wine and water and play with a gramophone. When you get there, you will help harvest grapes and you will pick up scorpions from under white rocks. When you get there, you will know eternity. You’ll see a bird that drinks one drop of water from the ocean every hundred years. When you get there, you’ll understand life and you’ll become a cat, phoenix, swan, elephant, baby and an old man . . . .”
Then we see Fando pushing paralyzed Lis on a cart through various stages of this post-apocalyptic world, beginning with the remains of an early 20th-century jazz party adjacent to a junkyard full of cars.
As they begin to question their direction, Lis makes a crucial point: “If Tar doesn’t exist, we can invent it.” The duo struggles tremendously on their quest (partly, one could argue, because of their inability to see Tar in the same way), but that doesn’t necessarily take away from the validity of Lis’s idea. In fact, it could be taken more literally than much of the film’s symbolic content – not necessarily to “invent” a city, but if one can imagine a “Tar,” why stop there? Tar may come from a fantasy, but the descriptions that give it life, and more importantly, the energy and imagination that feed those visions, exist in reality.
The idea of inventing an ideal place seems daunting — just ask any 19th-century Utopian planner — but gathering some of its parts isn’t out of the question. Perhaps they simply need finding (like the bird drinking from the ocean), or preservation (the scorpion under white rocks), or even the bringing together of people in a situation in which they can enjoy these settings (cautiously with the scorpion). In this way, the assembling of actors, props, and locations for the film — any film, for that matter — serves as a good metaphor itself for the “quest for Tar.”
For the viewer, Fando y Lis moves slowly and difficultly. I would not recommend it as an introduction to Jodorowsky’s filmography. (I would recommend El Topo or Holy Mountain.) But its plodding pace, combined with scenes of surrealist brilliance, produces a strange delirium in the viewer that encourages the question: why stop there?
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