Last of the Monster Kids

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Director Report Card: Alejandro Jodorowsky (1973)

3. The Holy Mountain
La montaña sagrada

The underground success of “El Topo” attracted a number of unexpected fans. Among them was John Lennon. Lennon loved the movie so much that he convinced Allen Klein, the Beatles business manager, to buy the rights to the film. Klein gave “El Topo” a nation-wide release, which went over about as well as you’d expect. Even if Jodorowsky’s wild visions were hardly palpable to the public at large, Klein still thought the guy could make him money. The big shot producer cut Jodorowsky a fat check, a million dollars, to allow him to make his next magnum opus. With that money, Jodorowsky made his most ambitious yet. The result, “The Holy Mountain,” may be the strangest film ever made.

A movie as weird as “The Holy Mountain” did not emerge from a vacuum. During the film’s pre-produciton, Jodorowsky was heavily involved in Eastern mysticism. At one point, the director didn’t sleep for a week and freely ingested psychotropic drugs. Before filming actually began, Jodorowsky and the main cast spend three months studying various spiritual texts and lessons. The director was influenced by Zen, Kabbalah, Tarot, Rosicrucian, the novel “Mount Analogue” by Rene Daumal, John Lilly's isolation tank experiments, and magic mushrooms while creating the film. The result is a highly surreal spiritual text put to film. While “El Topo” decimated philosophical concepts among a traditional narrative, “The Holy Mountain” devotes itself entirely to delivering the filmmaker’s beliefs about the human soul to the masses.

Like all Jodorowsky films, the film’s strangeness hides the rather clear main plot. A thief, who resembles Christ, awakens in a strange city. He climbs the tower of an Alchemist, in search of gold. Instead, the Alchemist accepts him as a student. The Thief meets seven other students, each connected to a different planet, each representing a horrible sin of the mortal world. Together, the group heads out on a journey to ascend the holy mountain, meet the immortals who live at the peak, and learn their secrets. It’s easy to write that out but the film is far from straight-forward.

“The Holy Mountain” is an exploration of philosophy and spiritualism. It is also a biting satire about the foibles of the human society. This is most evident in the film’s first third. In a space of about forty minutes, most of which goes by without any dialogue, we are introduced to the world of “The Holy Mountain.” The Thief and his friend, a man who crawls with malformed arms and legs, explore the city. Trucks full of dead bodies roam the street. Soldiers in gas mask gun down protesters. Meanwhile, American tourist, clad in garish sombreros, record the atrocities with handheld movie cameras. What Jodorowsky is getting at here isn’t subtle but he goes on anyway. A circus show, which the Thief and his friend is invited to perform at, portrays the conquest of Mexico by the conquistadors with frogs and lizards. The show ends with the miniature pyramids exploding, the reptiles being brutally killed. The director is mocking the economically prosperous America’s relationship with the poorer Mexico. People are dying in the streets while the Americans laugh and have a good time. It’s one of the most overt political messages Jodorowsky has ever made.

The town also has an odd relationship with religion. The masked soldiers carry skinned, crucified sheep. Later, a kitschy shop, manned by obese men dressed as Roman centurions, sell cheap statues of Christ. (The shop is marked with the sign “Christs for Sale!” Subtle, Alejandro.) The movie doesn’t give a shit about subtly anyway. In its opening minutes, the Thief is strung up on a cross by the locals. After walking across the shop, the shop owners have the Thief carries a huge cross through the streets. They get him drunk, make a cast of his body, and sell them to the customers. This emerges the man. The actual people in the city seem to mistake him for Christ too. A prostitute with a pet chimp, who is part of a trope of prostitutes all dressed in the same clothes (including a prepubescent girl), seems to devote herself to the man. Of course, it is not revealed to the audience that this Christ-like figure is a common thief until a half-hour into the movie. Jodorowsky knows how hamfisted and obvious his symbolism is. Obviously, he’s commenting on the commercialization of Christianity and the corruption of the church. Mostly though, I think he’s fucking with us.

Once inside the Alchemist’s tower, “The Holy Mountain” reveals its secret weapon: Its unforgettable set design. The main hall of the tower is painted like a rainbow. The Thief is bathed in a jeweled fountain along side a baby hippo. The room where the Alchemist turns the Thief’s excrement into gold is shaped like the Star of David, the walls painted blue. The other travelers are located in a golden room that constantly rotates. The group burn all their money, along with effigies of themselves, in a huge room shaped like an eyeball. The center of the eye is a fire pit. Given a larger budget, Jodorowsky went nuts creating unique, unforgettable landscapes.

A long section in the middle of “The Holy Mountain” is devoted to introducing each member of the traveling group. On one hand, this brings the pacing to a halt and is easily the strangest, most pretentious portion of the film. Each traveler represents a planet. They are said to be the most powerful people in the world. Each one also represents another crime of the human world. The first man, representative of Venus, runs a factory that produces many things. He makes masks that project people’s preferred image, hiding their true faces. He also makes devices that animate corpses at funerals. This criticizes the shallowness of the world and the cruel industries that take advantage of people’s insecurities. The woman from Mars, meanwhile, makes weapons. Soldiers toss themselves onto bayonets, bleeding yellow. Her male concubines sleep in a giant chamber. She produces weapons designed to appeal to hippies, guitars that are shotguns. She even sells to different religions, guns outfitted with crucifixes, silver Buddhas, or menorahs. Here, Jodorowsky is biting the hand that feeds him. He is making fun of the shallow hippies that embrace spirituality just because its trendy.

This critique continues into the next chapter. The man from Jupiter manufactures art, reducing an artistic endeavor to something down on a conveyor belt. And to hammer it home, the art is made by people painting their asses and sitting on a piece of paper. Jodorowsky is criticizing the commercialization of art. This section is also highly sexual. The man made a computer, a giant box, that responses to sexual stimulation, via a giant green dildo. Seriously. When brought to orgasm, the computer expands, transforms, and even gives birth to a baby computer. Wow. On Saturn, meanwhile, a woman dressed as a clown hands out toys to kids dressed as Santa Claus. She manufactures toy guns and propaganda to convince children to hate the country’s enemies. This section speaks for itself, satirizing propaganda and the way pop culture brainwashes kids. My favorite moment from this section is a briefly glimpsed comic book about “Captain CAPTAIN!

Wait, we’re not done yet. The hardest section to handle is the one about the man from Urunus. His wife is a hideous fat woman with green pubes. She sits on the commode, sings annoying songs, and plays with a life-sized hobby horse. The man, meanwhile, is the president’s adviser. Casually, he instructs the president to murder 4 million people. Some of this imagery, like the man smashing a cake, is hard to grasp. However, this section is the director critiquing the way governments make grand decisions damning people’s lives without any care for their welfare. The section devoted to Axon, the man from Neptune and a police chief, contains some of “The Holy Mountain’s” most extreme imagery. While dressed in leather bondage gear and carrying a giant toy gun, he castrates a young boy. Axon’s has a room covered wall-to-wall with jarred testicles. Along with his officers, he massacres a group of protestors, spraying them with red liquid. They bleed gumballs, birds, and coins. Here, Jodorowsky is parodying not police brutality but masculine posturing and machismo. This is illustrated by Axon's home, which built around giant statues of his naked, muscular torso.

The shortest section focuses on the architect from Pluto. Deciding people don’t need lawns or homes, he makes the perfect apartment: Coffin shaped boxes. Behold, the director is satirizing industry’s disinterest in people’s well fair. None of this satire is subtle. Yet the party member’s back story is part of the movie’s backbone. These people are the most wicked humans alive. They search for enlightenment, abandoning their worldly possessions. In order to gain true knowledge, one most know what’s it’s like to lose everything. So Jodorowsky can have it both ways. He can skewer the conditions of the world and explore his far-out spiritual ideas.

After the excess of the middle chapter, “The Holy Mountain” regains focus in the final third. The party of ten, including the Thief, the Alchemist, and his female assistant, begin their journey towards the Holy Mountain. They gather in a temple, shaving their heads, abandoning any sense of self. Everyone takes magic mushrooms, which the actors did in real life by the way, and accept the inevitability of their own deaths. They are reborn. There’s a dog, flowers, and a boat trip. The Thief births his malformed buddy before tossing him overboard. By this point, “The Holy Mountain” has lulled the audience into a trance. Now the film can wash over you, taking in every odd thing it does.

Before launching into its final lap, “The Holy Mountain” indulges in some more counterculture satire. At the mountain’s base is a building called the Pantheon Bar. There, would-be hippies gather and spew nonsense. One claims the Holy Mountain is inside of all of us. The travelers dismiss this as bullshit. Another man pops pills, extolling the values of LSD. Finally, a muscled bound wrestler can walk through the mountain but only through it. He can never climb it. It’s surprising to see the the director was so willing to poke fun at the people who probably enjoyed his films the most. Jodorowsky kept making ultra-weird movies long after the seventies were over. The guy was in it for the art, not to entertain stoned hippies.

As the group climbs the Holy Mountain, the film reaches its nightmarish peak. The travelers are haunted by disturbing visions. We see dogs fighting. A woman in a tree, the branches covered with white chicken corpses, castrates one of the men. Two cows fucking is intercut with one of the women’s faces being covered with white slime. A man with sagging teats breastfeeds one of the travelers. His breasts transform into tigers who then spew milk. What the hell does it mean? Do we pass through hell before reaching enlightenment? Who knows. Is it freaky as hell? Obviously.

As the characters reach “The Holy Mountain’s” peak, the film comes to its point. All the while, the Thief’s prostitute and her pet chimp followed behind the search party, scaling the mountain by herself. The Alchemist informs the Thief that the student has surpassed the master. He tells him to go home with the woman who loves him, that this is more important then any spiritual fulfillment. Meanwhile, the immortals living on the Holly Mountain are faceless mannequins. In the final section, the film becomes incredibly meta. Jodorowsky dismisses the characters from the mountain. The camera pulls back at his command, revealing the crew. Jodorowsky instructs us to leave the Holy Mountain and return to reality. He is talking to the characters and the audience. The trip is over, go home now that your minds are properly blown.

In “El Topo,” Jodorowsky cast himself as the lost man seeking enlightenment. In “The Holy Mountain,” he cast himself as the master who passes down wisdom. After watching the film, I felt like I had experienced a psychedelic trip myself, which was doubtlessly Jodorowsky’s intention. Did I find spiritual fulfillment? No. Did I feel like I had been transported to a completely alien world unlike anything I had ever seen before? Yep. And I didn’t even mention the Tarot card symbolism or all the dead animal carcasses. “The Holy Mountain” is not as assessable or re-watchable as the director’s other films. It can be a hard-to-watch slog at times. However, the trip is worth it, if only because you’ll see things no one else could have conceived of. I’ll reiterate: “The Holy Mountain” may be the weirdest film ever made. This gives it value. Only Alejandro Jodorowsky could have made this movie. [Grade: A-]

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