“Nothing in [critic’s] educations or experiences can have prepared them for The Holy Mountain. Here is a film completely outside the entire tradition of motion picture art, outside the tradition of modern theater, outside the tradition of criticism and review. Criticism is irrelevant.”–film critic Jules Siegel, a quote chosen for The Holy Mountain‘s trailer
DIRECTED BY: Alejandro Jodorowsky
FEATURING: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Horacio Salinas
PLOT: A thief, who looks like Jesus Christ, silently wanders through a bizarre and depraved city with an armless and legless midget companion, participating in a lizard circus where toads are dressed like conquistadors, bearing a crucifix through the streets and eating from Jesus’ body, and meeting a prostitute with a chimp. He comes to a giant tower in the middle of a busy highway and rides up a hook to the top, where a mystic with a menagerie introduces him to seven companions and purifies him by burning his feces and turning it into gold, among other rituals. After preparation the assembled nine set off the find the Holy Mountain where the immortals are said to live, so they can displace them and become like gods themselves.
- In preparation for making the film Jodorowsky studied with two a Zen master and with a disciple of Gurdijeff. Part of his training involved sleep deprivation (he claims he went a week without sleep) and taking LSD for the first time.
- During filming, the Catholic church in Mexico was not happy with The Holy Mountain because of its apparent blasphemy, and the President Luis Echeverría’s regime was also angry with Jodorowsky because soldiers in Mexican uniforms were depicted massacring civilians. There were public marches protesting the filming. Per Jodorowsky’s DVD commentary, he left Mexico with the footage he had already shot to finish the movie in New York after receiving threats from government officials and paramilitary groups.
- John Lennon partly financed the film. The budget was $750,000, a fairly extravagant sum for a film largely made in Mexico in 1973.
- According to Jodoworowsky’s DVD commentary, George Harrison wanted to play the role of the thief, but balked at playing a nude scene where the character has his anus scrubbed. Sources at the time reported that it was Lennon who wanted the role and that he could not follow through due to scheduling conflicts.
- Jodorowsky dubbed the voice of the thief.
- Various “masters” the characters meet as they prepare for their ascent of the Holy Mountain were played by actual Mexican shamans and witch doctors.
- Due to disagreements between Jodorowsky and producer Allen Klein, The Holy Mountain did not receive any sort of legitimate home video release until 2007. The same issues plagued Jodorowsky’s previous film, El Topo. According to Jodorowsky, Klein became angry and vindictive when, thinking it was too commercial, the director abandoned a project to adapt the erotic classic The Story of O with the producer and instead pursued an opportunity to make George Hebert’s cult science fiction novel Dune (a project Jodorowsky never completed—David Lynch was hired instead to film Dune, which ended up as a flop and an embarrassment).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are so many candidates—the apocalyptic toad and chameleon circus with amphibians dressed as conquistadors and missionaries, the giant mechanical vagina art installation stimulated by a nude woman with a probe, the hermaphrodite with leopard head breasts that squirt milk onto a proselyte—that choosing a single representative image seems like an almost arbitrary exercise. Still, there is one trick so stunningly beautiful and effective that Jodorowsky essentially uses it twice: the live birds that fly from out of the gaping wounds of corpses mowed down by fascist soldiers.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Holy Mountain plays like a cut-up version of the world’s sacred texts. If you tore out pages from the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, The Golden Bough, and a dozen other esoteric works from the Kabbalah to Gurdijeff—throwing in a couple of sleazy pulp novels for good measure—and put them together in a giant cauldron, stirred them up and pulled out sheaves at random and asked a troupe of performance artists, carnival freaks, and hippies tripping on peyote to act them out, you might come up with a narrative something like The Holy Mountain. Here, the cauldron is Alejandro Jodorowsky’s skull, and the stirrer was LSD, and an ex-Beatle gave the director and master visual stylist a small fortune to bring any elaborate and depraved fantasy he could dream up to shocking life. The singularly bizarre results—the pure, undiluted essence of mad Jodorowsky—are unlike any film that has ever existed before, or ever shall be, world without end.
Short clip from the “Neptune” sequence of The Holy Mountain
COMMENTS: The first thirty or forty minutes of The Holy Mountain are as astounding, intense and hallucinatory an experience as anything any weird movie alchemist has ever conjured. It contains imagery so sacrilegious it would make Buñuel spontaneously give the sign of the cross, and so confusing it would make David Lynch throw up his hands in frustration. This extended opening segment may be as fine a work of surrealism as has ever been filmed; for pure passion, audacity and agonizing irrationality, the thief with Christ’s face’s journey through a depraved, nightmarish Mexican city is hard to beat.
Though many find The Holy Mountain‘s narrative weak (if not frustratingly obscure), the story does easily break into three acts: the Thief’s adventures in the city, his apprenticeship to the Alchemist inside the tower, and the trip to and ascent of the Holy Mountain itself. Each segment has its own aesthetic sensibility, while retaining their essentially demented Jodorowskyness, and together they form a loose allegory about the soul’s quest for enlightenment: from living in a corrupt world to the first stirrings of a spiritual sense to the actual climb towards enlightenment.
The film begins with a prologue featuring the Alchemist (played by Jodorowsky), his downturned face hidden by a ludicrously broad-brimmed sombrero, as he shaves the heads of two nude women. The episode has nothing to do with the main narrative but imparts a ritualistic air to what follows. The credits then roll, over a series of reverse zooms revealing flamboyant dioramas decked out with cryptic symbols—a blue eyeball surrounded by azure peacock feathers and shiny turquoise beetle shells—before the view shifts and the camera alights on the face of a bearded man covered in flies. A dwarf with stumps for arms and legs drags himself to the sleeping body and wakes him; after some adventures involving a mock crucifixion and stoning by a group of boys with green genitalia, the pair wander from the desert into a city. The metropolis is a riot of perversion and decadence: brown-skinned soldiers parade in the streets carrying crucified, gutted goat carcasses, and execute dozens of civilians in the city square while white faces laugh and take pictures from inside the air conditioned comfort of a tour bus. The Thief gets a job working in the “Great Toad and Chameleon Circus,” where costumed reptiles re-enact the conquest of Mexico in a bloody spectacle, and then serves as the model for a wax Christ made by four obese entrepreneurs, three of whom dress as Roman centurions and the fourth as the Virgin Mary (in drag). Angered by his experience, the Thief first eats the face off his likeness, which is filled with dough underneath the wax visage, then ties balloons to the statute’s legs and releases it to fly to the heavens. Uniformed prostitutes (including a child) prowl the streets and cathedrals; they follow the Thief, and the one who carries a pet chimpanzee with her is particularly attracted to him. He comes to a large red tower in the middle of a highway, before which peasants are holding a banquet; a large fishhhook descends from the tower. On the end of the hook is a bag full of gold, and the peasants place food on the hook. The Thief, spying the gold, throws the food off and climbs on the hook itself as it rises to a hole at the top of the tower. And those are just the main highlights of the tour; there are two or three stunning, never-before imagined scenes per minute during this astounding first half hour, whose never-ending stream of images assault the viewer like a swarm of surrealist bees.
There is an inconsequential amount of dialogue during this amazing, lysergic sequence, which makes the proceedings all the stranger. The soundtrack (by Jodorowsky and free-jazz legend Don Cherry) consists of Hindi drones and percussion, Tuvan throat singing, pan flutes, gongs, buzzing insects, classical dirges, a bit of melodious cornet improvisation by Cherry, a German march for the conquest of the chameleons, and a waltz with muted trumpet and xylophone to which the soldiers slow dance with each other. The vast, eclectic, exotic instrumentation changes form almost as often as Jodorowsky changes visions—we find ourselves bathing in a new and unique musical environment every minute or so—and the orchestration is always in perfect harmony with what’s going on onscreen. Like the imagery, this musical invention can’t quite sustain itself for the picture’s entire running time, but it’s a masterful achievement while it lasts and adds immensely to the sensory saturation.
The magic continues as the Thief enters the Alchemist’s abode: first, in a magnificent rainbow room where the master waits on his throne of goats with a camel and a naked Nubian woman tattooed with Hebrew characters and astrological symbols. The remaining sets in the sanctuary are equally opulent. The Alchemist’s marble pool comes complete with a bathing hippo. He has a hall of mirrors with an obelisk. Rooms are decorated with occult symbols on the floor, and they spin; everything is painted in vivid primary colors. One circular room is lined with Jodorowosky’s surreal interpretations of Tarot cards. In this section’s centerpiece scene, the Thief is encased in a glass bowl on top of a brick apparatus with braziers and copper tubing; the Alchemist burns his excrement, tuning it into gold while the fecal smoke flows into the bulb and chokes the thief. Meanwhile, the nude woman plays a cello and a pelican strolls around the machine. More rituals ensue, as the Thief is further purified and absorbs obscure Zen lessons at the feet of the Master.
The tone abruptly changes from mystical to satirical/absurdist when the script introduces seven new characters, fellow seekers like the thief, each associated with a planet. The previous segment featured some incisive, blackly comic moments—as when a soldier begins to rape a tourist’s wife, and the enthralled man tries to capture the amusing native antics with his camera—but these were tiny pointed shards of ridicule poking out from an illogical, nightmare mass. The segments here are blades, forged for cutting. In voiceover, each of the initiates describes their backstory on their home planet: they are Important People. Mars is an arms dealer, Jupiter a millionaire, Neptune an enforcer, and so on. Jodorowsky uses these segments to take scattershot aim targets including militarism, consumerism, modern art, political propaganda, fascism, and even the modern art and architecture scenes. There are many memorable images in these mini-movies. Mars designs a line of munitions targeted at the various religions (Judaism gets a multi-barelled gun shaped like a menorah). Saturn is a toy designer who develops her product line with future wars in mind; her computers predict a conflict with Peru in the coming generation, so she designs a series of anti-Peruvian amusements for kiddies. The castrating chief of police for the autocratic Neptunian despotism gets perhaps the film’s best line: “Your sacrifice has completed my sanctuary of 1,000 testicles.” Weirdness continues to permeate these sequences, and the planetary excursions allow Jodorowsky to broaden his already wild palette. But the comic tone is a jarring change from the formerly mystical atmosphere and themes, and the constant narration is a significant stylistic departure from the near wordless silence that came before. Perhaps Jodorowsky meant these digressive excursions to provide a lighthearted breather from the intense surrealism that came before; it feels like, halfway through the film, he’s drifting off point.
One of the minor issues with The Holy Mountain is that each successive sequence becomes slightly less surreal and less intense than the one that came before it; which is not to say that the final act isn’t astoundingly weird, by ordinary cinematic standards, but just that what came before is so dreamlike that Jodorowsky faces an impossible task trying to top himself. After some more purification rituals, the group, under the direction of the Alchemist, leaves the tower and ventures out toward the Holy Mountain, where they intend to displace the Immortals. This journey is shot entirely out of doors, with the cast, now with shaved heads, dressed in dull brown robes or Olympic jogging suits (when they aren’t nude, that is). This new naturalistic style (Jodorowsky calls this portion a “documentary” of the group’s spiritual quest) robs the film of two of its greatest strengths: set design and costuming. Previously, whether we were in a depraved urban dystopia, an arcane alchemists lair, or an art exhibit on Jupiter, there was always some amazing detail to draw the eye, some Hermetic symbol or freak or weirdo wandering around the frame. Now, things are relatively restrained; Jodorowsky spends more time tossing out aphoristic bonbons drawn from Buddhism or rabbinical literature than he does conjuring menacing visions. There are only two sections that truly liven up the weirdness here. The first is the Pantheon Bar sequence, where the questers meet a drunken carnival of fellow seekers who began following the path of enlightenment but were distracted by a weakness of their own ego and stopped at the base of the mountain, abandoning their ascent. The most notable of the caricatures is a gentleman in a feathered hat with a stoned expression who informs them that “the cross was a mushroom–and the mushroom was also the tree of Good and Evil.” (Jodorowsky mocking acidheads seems to be the definition of biting the hand that feeds you). The second manic sequence occurs when each of the members of the team has a dream just before reaching the summit. The director goes all-out grotesque here: the visions include animal sex, hermaphrodism, castration, ejaculation, and lactation.
Jodorowsky’s finale is notoriously controversial, but ending this movie was an impossible task. If the Thief’s journey is an allegory for the soul’s journey towards Ultimate Reality, then how could the director film God? What could he do that would exceed the fractured visions that started the movie? Jodorowsky doesn’t even try; what he does, instead, is basically to topple his entire house of cards with a wave of his hand. The Thief discovers that he could have ended his quest an hour ago, when he met a nice girl. Everyone goes home. With this ending, Jodorowsky seems to be saying that the character’s search for metaphorical enlightenment was itself an illusion. Of course, all the blood, sweat and cerebral juices the cast and crew spent bringing this bewildering and extravagant spectacle to life belie that conclusion. But, unable to drop an enlightenment bombshell at the film’s climax, this was the best the director could do.
Is Jodorowsky a Surrealist? The tableaux he creates are shocking and appear irrational, but to him each image has a particular, specific symbolic meaning. The key part of that sentence, perhaps, is “to him,” because he rarely provides his audience the necessary clues to divine the meaning he’s propounding. Viewers pick up bits and pieces of his intended message; it’s easy to see, for example, that the transvestite Virgin Mary selling crosses to tourists represents the Catholic Church distorting the true meaning of Christ’s message. When the Thief goes on a rampage and wrecks the crucifixes, most will catch the reference to Jesus overturning the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. But in a film where the director references nearly every mystical or occult tradition the world has ever produced, scrawling Taoist symbols on the hide of a passing elephant, how could he expect anyone to catch all the details and follow his overall argument—if, indeed, he has one? Listening to his commentary on the DVD helps explain what he had on his mind on a scene-by-scene basis, but his exegesis only confirms that he isn’t consistent with his symbolism. At one point he tells us that the Thief’s legless and armless friend represents his divine spark within (when he first awakens his body from its drunken coma). Later, we are informed that the very same character represents the monstrosities of the ego (when the Alchemist demands the Thief throw the freak over the side of a boat to cleanse his soul). How are we supposed to follow along if the author won’t even keep his own symbolism constant? A thirtieth degree Mason couldn’t decipher a third of the symbolism of The Holy Mountain. Jodorowsky’s method is to flit about from concept to concept as the mood strikes him, like a schizophrenic doctor of comparative religion, and he never paints a consistent portrait of the soul’s progress to enlightenment. The result is that, although it he intends each image to have a precise symbolic meaning, the key to unlocking their meaning is locked inside the author’s mind. The Holy Mountain is meant as a Symbolist work, not as unconscious nonsense; but the end user, unable to decipher the film, experiences it as Surrealism.
Is Jodorowsky a mystic? He tosses every esoteric reference he can think of into The Holy Mountain, and the breadth of his knowledge of cabalistic traditions of the world is truly impressive. But you can’t make a lush, sensual, psychedelic film and promote authentic mysticism at the same time. True mysticism, what Aldous Huxley called “the perennial philosophy,” involves asceticism, the denial of the body and even the imagination, an absolute abnegation of the ego and the senses. It seeks and longs for what appears to be nothingness. Along the journey Jodorowsky pays lip service to the necessity of dissolving the ego, but it would be hard for a novelist to conjure up a more narcissistic character than this director. After all, here he casts himself in the role of an ascended master and spiritual teacher (admittedly a step down from his role as a messiah and demigod in El Topo). The contemporary Jodorowsky reveals that his earlier self was convinced that this film would change cinema and change the world, hardly the position of an ego-less master who has transcended pride. Most of all, Jodorowosky is obviously intoxicated by his own superlative creativity and imagination—and rightfully so. But a true mystic views imagination as a relic of the ego and an enemy to enlightenment; imagination can only work on things brought to it through the senses, which obscure the Divine. Consider the words of another mystic who wrote about a spiritual journey up a metaphorical mountain, St. John of the Cross in The Ascent of Mount Carmel, who asserted that those who wished to ascend must rid themselves of imagination and visions:
All these imaginings must be cast out from the soul… Whether beginners or more advanced, all must learn to abide attentively and wait lovingly on God in a state of quiet, and to devote no attention either to imagination or its working… the soul must take care not to lean on visions that take place in the mind… they perturb it, and for this reason the soul must renounce them and strive not to have them… If the spiritual director has an inclination towards revelations of such a kind that they mean something to him, or satisfy a delight in his soul, it is impossible for him not to impress that delight and that aim on the spirit of his disciple… From his inclination toward such visions and the pleasure he takes in them, he develops a certain kind of esteem for them… In this lies a great delusion. Ascent of Mount Carmel, BOOK TWO, Chapters 9-13.
This warning from a certified mystic that imagination is a false path to enlightenment could have been specifically addressed to Jodorowsky, the great magician and alchemist of cinema who hopes to change the world through the elaborate symbolic visions he constructs for the masses. St. John of the Cross would likely see Jodorowsky as one of those stuck in the Pantheon Bar at the foot of the Holy Mountain, believing he has already reached the peak and found the answer when he has not even begun to ascend the slope yet. Perhaps it was his knowledge of texts like this that explain Jodorowsky’s apparent, sudden rejection of mysticism at the end of the film. If the mystics say that imagination can only take you so far, well, then, the creative soul can play the same game and turn it around; mysticism can only take the imagination so far, and then it must abandon it and follow creativity’s own path.
Jodorowsky uses the techniques of the Surrealists and the symbolism of the mystics, but he himself is neither a Surrealist nor a mystic. He’s more of a madman and a Fool, trusting and delighting in his own deranged visions. And cinema is enriched by his injection of his own singular brand of madness. No one else could have made the astounding, narcissistic, and utterly beautiful The Holy Mountain.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“All the classic surrealist techniques are called into play, like when a young woman is shot down by police, and doves fly out of the wound. But finally, ‘Holy Mountain’ is all surface and very little meaning.”–M. Goodwin, Take One (contemporaneous)
“…an extraordinary visual concoction, loaded with stunning primary colors, anti-religious caricatures drawn from Diego Rivera and a succession of dreamlike, grotesque vistas worthy of Dalí at his most deranged.”–Andrew O’Hehir, Salon (2007 rerelease)
ABKCO Music & Records, Inc. – Films – The Holy Mountain – the closest thing to an official site, this is the homepage for producer/distributor ABKCO. It contains a long synopsis of the film and a couple of stills, but there is also a five minute documentary featurette mixing scenes from Fando y Lis, El Topo and The Holy Mountain with an interview with Jodorowsky
IMDB LINK: The Holy Mountain (1973)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
The Holy Mountain – The Holy Mountain page at “The Symbol Grows,” a Jodorowsky fan site, contains little specific to this film, but search the site for images of vintage posters and a relatively extensive Jodorowsky bibliography
The Holy Mountain (1973) at Mubi – the trailer, synopses, and links to forum discussions involving the movie
The Holy Mountain (Cultographies) – A full-length assessment from Wallflower Press’ “cultographies” seires
DVD INFO: The Anchor Bay DVD (buy) features a typically fascinating (Spanish language, so be sure to turn on the subtitles) commentary by Jodorowsky, who at times seems affectionately bemused by the passion of his younger self. Other extras include deleted scenes, also with commentary, and a five minute feature where Jodorowsky explains the philosophy and symbolism of the Tarot, and the original trailer. Joe Byrne, who worked on restoring the film, gives a technical but nonetheless very interesting explanation of the restoration process; segments of the film are shown in split screen, with the original print shown on one side and the restored version on the other to dramatize the improvement. One final extra shows photographs of the working script, which is itself almost nonlinear; it’s full of markups, notes, crossouts, scrawled amendments and doodled alchemical symbols.
The Holy Mountain is also available (with all special features listed above) as a key component of Anchor Bay’s The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky (buy). Also included in this collection are Fando y Lis, El Topo, and the documentary The Jodorowsky Constellation. Soundtrack CDs for El Topo and The Holy Mountain round out this very cool collection.
Anchor Bay plans blu-ray releases of both The Holy Mountain (pre-order) and El Topo on April 26, 2011.
(This movie was nominated for review by too many readers to list individually. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)