Hold on to your Sanity: The Holy Mountain
Setting aside my marveling of Bela Tarr films, I’m detouring with a film I heard about from a Father John Misty interview. I was curious and well, it led me down an extremely deranged, nearly unfathomable, grotesque art film that’s traumatized my mind for the past couple of weeks. So, it’s going to be highly benefitial for me to therapeutically write about it.
Chilean director, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s, The Holy Mountain was released in 1973, and you can bet your bottom dollar he was on LSD, mushrooms, and was probably sleep deprived to create such masterful insanity. The film was released at Cannes Film Festival that same year but the film never had a wide release and was given a restricted run in New York City where it would be screened at midnight on Fridays and Saturdays for a span of sixteen months. (According to Wikipedia) Eventually, it became a popular underground cult film. Fast forward to over 30 years later, the film would be restored and released on DVD in May of 2007. You can find it on Amazon or even rent it at your unique independent video rental store just take a look in the experimental film section. (Thanks Videotheque!)
The story is about a man who (looks like Jesus), except he’s called the Thief. The Thief awakens covered in flies and his own urine (an intense birth) while a nearby friendly limbless dwarf, who represents “defeatism” helps him. And the two wander around aimlessly in Mexico stumbling across excessive picture taking tourists all clamoring around dead bodies of local Mexicans who were basically shot to death by a vicious firing squad. Then there’s vendors on the street selling whatever religious paraphernalia tourists, while decaying, exposed bodies of dead animals are strung up on crosses being paraded on the street. Then of course Jodorowsky goes as far as meticulously shooting a scene of lizards individually dressed in their own costumes going to battle surrounded by a model size pyramid that blows out blood, glorifying all the violence represented in the world. There’s a scene where birds emerge out of the chests of the piles of dead bodies. I mean these are images nightmares are made of and Jodorowsky elaborately orchestrates the entire freak show with everything he’s got; blood, sweat, tears, other bodily fluids. I’ve never seen imagination go quite like this, at least I can’t compare it to anything. Well, maybe. The closest thing I can compare it to would be David Lynch’s earlier short films but times that by an immeasurable amount of insanity.
At the end of Act I, the Thief’s image is replicated in human size mannequins, all a representation of Jesus nailed to the cross. With an entire warehouse full of mannequins, the Thief awakens, angry and frustrated so much that he destroys all but one. He carries the last mannequin around the city (like a barer of his own cross) he stops and decides to eat the mannequin, ties the remains to a giant balloon and sends it to the sky (perhaps, heaven?). At which point a giant hook attached to rope is lowered from the sky and the Thief hops on, hoping to find gold. It takes him up to this weird tower, which is where the real journey to the holy mountain begins.
The Thief meets the Alchemist (played by Jodorowsky, himself) and from here is cleansed, prepping him for a journey along side seven other disciple like figures, who are all associated with a planet. Each planet symbolizes something and consequently each individual is known as a “thief” of that world. For instance: Mars manufactures and sales weapons. Venus represents beauty and cosmetics, Uranus is about money and politics, Saturn is all about war toys, Jupiter is some artsy-fartsy hotshot, Pluto is an architect of sorts, and Neptune is some type of police force. Each has their montage of who they are and what their about which is chalk full of humorous imagery and of course all simultaneously relatable to what planet earth bathes itself in. (excessive materialism, violence, corrupt politics, religious bigotry) Each is a representation of thievery such as the thief of beauty, peace, human expression, and innocence.
It didn’t hit me until I watched the opening credits several times what Jordowsky’s true premise was. In the very, very beginning, the Alchemist is kneeled before two beautiful naked women, who are facing each other and he begins to shave their hair off, strips their clothes off, removes their nail polish, and makeup. On the surface this what we see him doing but symbolically he’s essentially undressing their egos and external elements that society deems sexually, attractive, female icons. Pop culture festers on image, and the objects that transcend that image into mainstream consumerism. It’s almost like a brainwashing mechanism to convert, influence conformity on a massive scale and he’s brilliantly tearing it apart.
Now, the rest of the film is about the journey to the holy mountain, where each individual is faced with a number of tasks in destroying who they are and what they represent. There’s a scene where the Alchemist sits with all his disciples at the mega round table and demands them to burn all their possessions and money. Each individual’s hair is shaved off and they wear matching robes as they sail to Lotus island. Once they arrive on the island, they approach the Pantheon bar, which is where everyone who ever attempted the holy mountain ends up due to their inability to set aside their own personal desires for enlightenment. It’s essentially a dead end. A mental roadblock of sorts. However, the Alchemist warns them they must confront their fears and obsessions in order to ascend the mountain which sets off a montage of repulsive imagery such as a naked man covered in spiders, more blood and more violence, a man eating a horse, and an onslaught of other sexualized distractions that I won’t get into.
I won’t give the ending away, because you must pursue your own journey to enlightenment. I’ll give you a hint at what truly matters. It is life itself. But, the final shot is pretty damn miraculous. You might even chuckle at the end of all this silly madness. I know I did.
The Holy Mountain is an intense satire, that’s challenging to watch at times but the meticulous detail in every scene is admirable because it’s not so much what see on the surface that’s outlandishly bizarre but it’s the reference behind it. Humanity can be horrendously ridiculous at times, but there also several good parts to who we are as a race. And in this film, I could see how so much distraction infiltrates our lives and how at most times we escape into these distractions to defer from our daily lives for whatever reason. And for the 1970s, Jodorowsky could perhaps sense how our world was changing to that degree and assembled a pretty phenomenal, exquisitely-gnarly, very disturbing, yet a genuine film that’s essentially similar to holding a mirror up to the viewer and saying this how I see humanity. Perhaps, Jodorowsky used the lens to capture what he foresaw as truth and used it to simply warns us about what ludicrousness could be bestowed upon our very souls. Just a thought. Or maybe he just enjoys messing with people’s heads, either way, it’s a fairytale, a dream, real life, and a film all bundled together.