‘The Holy Mountain’ or — The Height of Silliness?
I love freaky cinema and I want my freaky cinema to be one thing — freaky. That could be why the film I’ve been dying to see the most for the longest time is Jodorowsky’s ‘The Holy Mountain’ (1973), something I finally got to do last night. My only concern was — “Would it be freaky enough?”
This is Jodorowsky we’re talking about here so obviously the answer was going to be an emphatic ‘Yes!’ with ‘The Holy Mountain’ providing some of the most remarkable images and sequences in the Chilean director’s career, and that’s saying something. But what’s it about?
A man in a loincloth travels to the city where he escapes the political and religious corruption he encounters there by ascending a giant tower where he confronts an alchemist. The alchemist initiates the man by turning his poo into gold (we’ve just got started) and prepares him for the quest to reach the Holy Mountain, a quest in which they will be joined by representatives of the different planets of the Solar System.
More purification rituals follow after which the group of ten set off for Lotus Island and the search for the Holy Mountain and immortality.
And that’s pretty much about it. Sure, searching for eternal life via the Tarot and mystical symbolism in the presence of planetary manifestations, transmogrified poo-poo and a city-scape of exploding toads is more than enough for any movie but what’s refreshing is that ‘The Holy Mountain’ is surprisingly straight-forward and easy to follow. It’s a quest movie with a clear goal that’s dressed up in esoteric symbols and stripped back with minimal dialogue. You’ll be baffled and bemused but maybe not confused.
What also helps is that the main chunk of the movie consists of the introductions of the planetary representatives. This allows Jodorowsky to dabble in what he’s most successful at — variation and it’s this variation that keeps the craziness flowing. Each of the representatives embodies a negative aspect of their respective planet — Mars is a weapons manufacturer, Neptune is a police state, Venus a cosmetics maker, Jupiter is an art dealer. Freed from a narrative Jodorowsky can hit us with an endless succession of invention as the film veers into a science-fiction buffet of insanity. It’s also extremely funny and that counts for a lot.
This is always when Jodorowsky is at his most effective — when he’s having surrealist fun with genre conventions. It’s only when he starts taking himself and his work seriously, when he think he has something profound to say, that he disappears up his own backside and the empty ridiculousness of his work is exposed. Fortunately ‘The Holy Mountain’ barrels along with such constant imagination that it’s not until the very closing minutes that I started to feel my eyes wanting to roll about as Jodorowsky begins seeing himself as shaman as opposed to filmmaker. And he’s a better filmmaker than shaman.
I also think it’s a bit rich for a guy to close a film directly calling for love and enlightenment after he’s just blown up a load of toads.
Still, there are sequences here that will leave your jaw on the floor. I think it’s the unexpected scale of it all. For example, the city really looks and feels like Mexico City has turned into a hallucinatory nightmare. Likewise the police chief of Neptune, in a short burst of needlessly elaborate excess, really seems to be running a planetary police-state. I think that’s what I love most about Jodorowsky — seeing him spend so much time, effort and money on one single joke or gag. “You went to all that effort and expense for THAT?!”
The Thief’s ascent of the Tower is another great example and one that left me scratching my head in complete bafflement as to how they actually pulled it off. I had never heard of Mexico City’s Satellite Towers and didn’t realise they genuinely existed so when I was watching this guy in a loincloth climbing what looked like a real, yet utterly impossible, structure in the very heart of a real city, helicopters flying about to demonstrate that this isn’t an effect even though something like this couldn’t possibly exist, I couldn’t figure out how on earth it was done. Turns out it looks impossibly real because the tower is, in fact, real.
Again, that’s when ‘The Holy Mountain’ works best — when it showcases Jodorowsky’s exceptional skill at placing incongruous objects in precise environments to create a surrealist jolt presented with seamless fidelity to sell the effect. Every few minutes, and sometimes every few seconds, there’s another slice of madness to slap you in the face as well as shaking your head at the scale of it all.
‘The Holy Mountain’ did not disappoint at all in the freaky department and it might be Jodorowsky’s most successful, and enjoyable, film. Just don’t, for the love of god, take any of it seriously. Viewed as a psychedelic sci-fi flick it’s a blast and one of the most constantly inventive films you could wish for. Viewed as having anything to say other than that and it’s a load of complete bollocks. But isn’t that also when these movies are at their best? After all, it’s a tricky task to skirt the bumhole without disappearing up it.