After years of disappointing transfers which drained the original print of colour and used optical fuzzing to cover over the film’s frequent recourse to nudity, Jodorowsky’s legendary third feature gets a UK DVD release and we can finally experience, albeit on the small screen, the glory of his first foray into cinemascope. The legend itself is well known – John Lennon and Yoko Ono liked El Topo so much they stumped up the money for The Holy Mountain which at $1,500,000 made it the most expensive Mexican production to date. Allen Klein, the Beatles manager, produced though he refused to relinquish legal rights to the film hoping to profit financially from its re-release in the eventuality of the director’s death. Jodorowsky and Klein have since made up however, and a restored print was shown (along with El Topo) at Cannes in May 2006.
Many reviewers of The Holy Mountain have thrown up their hands in dismay at its lack of unified narrative but this is merely indicative of an end-obsessed culture with an infantile craving for punishment and reward served up for years by an impoverished cinematic diet of suspense and delay. I remember the American avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage explaining this was one reason he dispensed with his camera altogether and began making films just by manipulating the film stock and running it through the projector. And anyway there is narrative in The Holy Mountain if you want it and plenty of it if you really do want it that badly. Its prologue (also the title sequence) might have caused some of this anxiety. In it a black-clad figure, possibly a High Priest, ritually washes and shaves the heads of two blonde women over the soundtrack of chanting Tibetan monks. This ‘scene’ however is broken into by a series of static abstract arrangements of arcane imagery (eyeballs, peacock feathers, pearls, a snake, a Magritte-like vignette of recumbent statues above a cocooned butterfly) much of it in a striking palette of blues and greens. What to do with all this? The bringing together of a pearl and an eye reminds us of Ariel’s speech from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: ‘Those were pearls that were his eyes’ says the spirit of Ferdinand’s drowned father; ‘Of his bones are coral made…/Nothing of him that doth fade/But doth suffer a sea-change/Into something rich and strange.’ I can think of no two better words than ‘rich’ and ‘strange’ to describe much of The Holy Mountain, which like the drowned man is also about the magic of transformation. In effect the prologue offers up a series of images through which we are invited to view the rest of the film and thematically metamorphosis is a central preoccupation of much that follows.
The main narrative concerns a figure whom we later learn to be a thief. We first encounter him lying unconscious on a dusty road, his face obscured by flies. Brought round by a limbless dwarf (a recurrent trope in Jodorowsky’s films) he undergoes a journey through an unnamed South American city where his physical resemblance to Christ causes him to be subjected by various unscrupulous parties to well-known scenes from the gospels and to which he initially succumbs. One of these is his own crucifixion by a group of naked pre-pubescent boys though it’s typical of Jodorowsky to have his journey begin with this event (thus reversing the Christian myth) and to have him free himself and smoke a fat spliff with the dwarf! After a further series of gruesome trials, including one in which he awakes to find himself surrounded by hundreds of life-sized casts of his crucified form – Christ awakening to the nightmare of history one might say – the thief recognises the corruption of the Church and renounces his collusion in what he realises is essentially nothing more than a theatre of cruelty.
Thus ends what might be called the first section of the film. The thief is subsequently drawn to the lair of an alchemist who impresses him by metamorphosing his shit into gold. Evidently still in thrall to the lure of worldly wealth, the alchemist tells him: ‘You are excrement. You can change yourself into gold.’ He then shows him a sequence of grotesque satirical vignettes of the lives of seven other wealth-obsessed industrialists and politicians, all thieves in a different guise – a maker of cosmetics, a weapons manufacturer, an art dealer, a toy maker, an architect, a chief of police and a presidential financial adviser. Each figure points to the industrial-military complex as an illusory impediment to what the alchemist calls ‘the true alchemical work,’ the transformation of the earthly self through spiritual enlightenment. After this presentation (which shows Jodorowsky’s background in theatre – each vignette is a kind of celluloid masque-show) the alchemist summons the figures and together with the thief they all embark as pilgrims on another journey this time to the eponymous Holy Mountain where according to the alchemist they will find the secret of eternal life by seeking out and killing the Nine Masters of the Summit.
This, the third section of the film if you like, shows us the trials and tribulations of their journey as they all seek to cast off their earthly limitations. The journey is one of the overarching structural tropes of The Holy Mountain and in many cultures its physical side is imbued with a rich spiritual dimension. Interviews with Jodorowsky reveal his abiding interest in the latter. His fascination with the Tarot is well known – he even designed his own Tarot pack – and The Holy Mountain is, unsurprisingly, saturated with its esoteric symbology. At the beginning of the film beside the prostrate body of the thief we see two twinned cards of the Major Arcana, The Fool and The Crocodile. Later the Tower makes an appearance which the thief scales to reach the alchemist. The alchemist is himself an avatar of The Magician.
Knowledge of the meaning of this complex symbology is not however strictly necessary for the uninitiated (like myself) coming to The Holy Mountain. I’d argue that Jodorowsky’s placing of the image of a golden Key towards the end of the prologue is a provocation for us to see its arcane imagery as unlocking some obscure meaning at the heart of the film. Besides, Jodorowsky is as concerned with immediate historical and political context as he is with any ‘timeless’ spirituality. The city the thief wanders through at the beginning of the film is swarming with uniformed militia, reminders of South America’s turbulent colonial and post-colonial history. They parade the streets holding aloft standards bearing flayed animal carcasses. Scenes of physical violence are insanely photographed by tourists including a husband who gleefully films his wife as she is raped by a soldier. This is not simply a broad satire of the madness of consumption but also evidence of a mind acutely attuned to the erotics of power. One of the most memorable scenes is a chameleon and toad circus which depicts the Conquest of Mexico. Filmed in close-up, it’s a glorious orgy of amphibian slow motion with toads (the invading Spanish) dressed in monk’s cowls and armour clambering over gaudily dressed chameleons (the Aztecs) before the whole set (a scale model of an Aztec city complete with ziggurats) is blown to bits, all played out to a Nazi marching tune.
Part of the appeal of this scene – and part of its sophistication – is the slippage between what is played out before our eyes and what we hear. There’s no need for ‘comment’ on what’s happening as two historical eras are brought together and it ‘works’ through disjunction. It’s what the Russian Formalists called ostrananie or ‘making strange.’ It’s a concept Jodorowsky would have found as a theatre student from his reading of Brecht and Artaud and it’s a much used device throughout The Holy Mountain. Nowhere is it more apparent than in the film’s handling of violence. Rather than attempt to portray it naturalistically (as for instance in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, released four years before The Holy Mountain) Jodorowsky emphasises its strangeness. A group of young protesters are shot and have buckets of blood thrown over them. Another line of protesters are shot and bleed in yellows, blues and greens. A dead man has a length of ribbon drawn from his chest, another a chicken pulled from his stomach. In another scene a woman’s head drips blue, not from a wound but from the metal piping quite visibly attached to her temples. This is all much more surprising – much richer and stranger – than the sublimity Peckinpah was reaching for in his use of slow motion to depict on-screen carnage. It aims not for empathy – what’s the point? – but for understanding.
It is also Jodorowsky’s very evident sense of humour that should warn us not to take the film’s spirituality too seriously. Witness the camp, lederhosen-clad gatekeeper who welcomes the pilgrims to the island of the Holy Mountain – it’s Tiny Tim meets The Sound of Music! Plus the mountain itself looks more like something off a cheap alpine postcard than a possible seat of the Gods. Perhaps it’s also a light-hearted nod to Leni Riefenstahl and Arnold Fanck’s 1926 paean to Aryan health and fitness also called The Holy Mountain. It’s the very end of the film however that reveals Jodorowsky’s tongue is firmly in his cheek. As the pilgrims reach the top of the mountain the alchemist reveals that the Masters of the Summit seated at their magic round table are nothing more than lifeless, hooded manikins at which point he begins to laugh and cocks a snook at everyone. It’s infectious and laughter breaks out amongst all the assembled. He then utters the following which is worth quoting in full:
‘I promised you the great secret and I will not disappoint you. Is this the end of our adventure? Nothing has an end. We came in search of the secret of immortality, to be immortal like the Gods and here we are, mortals, more human than ever. If we have not obtained immortality at least we have obtained reality. We began in a fairy tale and we came to life, but is this life reality? No, it is a film. Zoom back camera. We are images, dreams, photographs. We must not stay here prisoners. We shall break the illusion. This is Maja. Goodbye to the Holy Mountain. Real life awaits us.’
The camera zooms out accordingly to reveal all the hidden paraphernalia of film – the lights, the sound boom, the crew. It’s the world of Fellini’s 8 1/2.
However it’s also the world of the theatre again. The alchemist’s words echo the magician Prospero at the end of The Tempest as he breaks the spell that has kept the audience confined in a magical state of suspended disbelief for the duration of the play. Just as Prospero breaks his staff and casts his magic book into the sea, the alchemist overturns the Summit Masters’ round table. It’s just a prop. What we are brought back to at the end is that we have been watching a film and in this film about the dangers of illusion we must remember that what we are seeing is also an illusion. The alchemist has of course been played all along by Jodorowsky himself. He’s the director as alchemist and magician and thinking back to his initial meeting with the thief, turning shit into gold is also what the film-maker does. It’s a metaphor for many aspects of the cinema (certainly for the industry as Hollywood sees it) and a reminder that film-making is about chemical transformation. However it’s also about transforming the viewer who leaves the cinema a changed person and the end of the film is the signal for the audience to carry on its work in the world outside of the theatre. This new DVD release will enable a new generation of viewers to take it up again, as rich and strange as it was over a quarter of a century ago.