Over the last few months I have been privileged to share with you, my dear readers, a collection of the strangest, most offbeat films in my catalogue. I’ve told you about brain-eating monsters and teen murderers, transsexual rock stars and contained zombie apocalypses, but now it is time for me to graduate and leave this magical land where girls in bikinis ride fixed-gear bikes. But, before I go, I have one last film for you all, the crowning jewel in this series and the strangest film I have ever seen: Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “The Holy Mountain.”
Though it is considered by many to be the weakest of Jodorowsky’s surrealist epics, I maintain that it is not only every bit as brilliant as his ultra violent western, “El Topo,” it is also even more visually sumptuous, more thematically cohesive, infinitely deeper, and even more weird.
Based largely on “Ascent of Mount Carmel” by St. John of the Cross and “Mount Analogue: A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing” by Rene Daumal, “The Holy Mountain” (sort of) tells the story of a Jesus-like figure named The Thief who goes on a journey with the assistance of a spiritual leader called The Alchemist (played by Jodorowsky). Along with the seven most powerful people in the world, this pseudo-Jesus travels to a secret island that cannot not exist in order to kill nine gods who control the world. When this new group takes the gods place, they will become immortal and truly earn their title as “most powerful.”
The film, which was funded by members of The Beatles and was originally set to star John Lennon until a debate about an extended scene of body cleansing involving a vigorous washing of his buttocks forced him to pull out, is unendingly gorgeous and deeply disturbed. Jodorowsky, an avid follower of the occult, stuffs the movie to the brim with arcane imagery and pagan allusions. Mixing bits of Jewish mysticism with Zen Buddhism, mashing up Christian imagery with pagan animal sacrifice. The effects seem at once both holy and obscene, scared and utterly undignified.
Each of the seven most powerful people in the world is represented by a different planet and poses like a significant tarot card. We are introduced to each team member during hilarious, satirical, and deeply unsettling vignettes describing how each attained their power.
One, a toymaker, engineers racial hatred for a planned war using comic book villains, laxatives with the color tone of Peruvian skin, and toy guns as his primary brainwashing tools. Another, a warlord and cult leader, collects a room full of 1000 severed testicles from his followers. The Thief’s holiness is proven because he can turn excrement into gold.
Each of these vignettes tells an epic story over the space of just a few moments. And while this approach doesn’t exactly help story flow, it does create a sense of narrative collage, building a case for a world gone mad. And, though the story elements are patently and even pointedly absurd, Jodorowsky builds a damn good case.
Then, after setting up each and every character in the film as a monster as hideous and frightening as Hannibal Lector Jodorowsky does something unexpected; he offers them spiritual purification.
In order to kill the gods, the group must first divest themselves of all of their worldly possessions, transcend their physical forms, and reject all venial influence. In essence, Jodorowsky is playing with audience expectations. Instead of indulging our bloodlust, (and trust me, once you see what these men and women have done to attain power, you will wish harm upon them) Jodorowsky goes the other way, attempting to redeem them. it’s an especially interesting approach when one considers the stunning violence of his previous film, the aforementioned “El Topo,” which features literal lakes of blood.
The film is overflowing with dumbfounding imagery. From the crash courses Zen Buddhism, through the miniature Aztec temples that spew blood upon a gaggle of frogs no two scenes repeat the same gimmick, and none of the images are like anything you have ever seen before or will ever see again.
There is a certain eroticism in the scene where The Alchemist shaves the heads of two nude women and a certain vileness to scenes with The Thief eats a wax approximation of his own visage. The conflation of high art and smutty implication is as jarring is it is hypnotic.
I cannot adequately explain any of this film with the imprecise tool of words, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the filmmakers didn’t exactly have a screenplay to help them either. There is no discussion to be had after this film ends, just a shell-shocked feeling of awe that washes over you, flowing into the deepest crevices of your soul, buzzing through the brain like that first nauseous hit of nicotine.
An experimental filmmaker, Jodorowsky encouraged his cast and crew to ingest psilocybin mushrooms before filming key scenes. And frankly, it shows, not just in the dime-sized pupils of the stars, but also in the delirious anti-logic of the proceedings. The first time I saw the film I had to stop it at the 30-minute mark to go look up a plot summary just to make sure I was still following along.
Frankly, you will probably be unable to follow the “plot” of this film, but even as it makes almost no linear sense, it makes an immense amount of emotional sense. And, though I cannot confirm this to be a fact, I have heard it said that this is a film that benefits from the use of psychotropic substances.
But even without the ‘study aids,’ “The Holy Mountain” is a trip in and of itself. The film has long been a thing of legend, unreleased on commercial home video and available only through back alleys with crappy, third generation VHS reprints, traded at comic book and fantasy conventions. Luckily, the film found new life recently with the help of a pristine new box set release of all of Jodorowsky’s releases that lovingly attunes the picture to the unbelievably vivid colors and graphic, often near pornographic imagery of the scenes.
If you watch only one film that I have suggested in these pages, please make it “The Holy Mountain.” It is not just a film, it is a literally life changing rite of passage for any serious cinephile. A truly eye opening experience. It will show you things you never thought you’d see and might well force you to reconsider your definition of filmmaking. It’s artsy and nearly impenetrable philosophically, (possibly because Jodorowsky’s philosophies are too drugy to be taken with a straight face), but too it is magical and absolutely worth the price of admission.
Turn on, tune on, and drop out.
The Holy Mountain is available for 20 bucks at most stores, but you can also get it as part of a multi-disc set that also features three of Jodorowsky’s other features as well as heaps of special features and soundtracks to all the films for about 40 bucks on Amazon.com.