Thursday, June 21, 2007

Review of The Holy Mountain

Back in February, I made the odyssey to Chicago to catch a screening of “El Topo” (1971) and I wrote a brief review. The experience was well worth it and a real eye-opener for myself, then a film enthusiast who had only heard legends about the Mexican surrealist masterpiece. The Music Box Theater was also showing “The Holy Mountain” (1973), Alejandro Jodorowsky’s followup to his cult success, but I could not stay for the entire week what with school (darn, college getting in the way again). This weekend, Webster University, far closer to my home, finally theatrically aired “The Holy Mountain” (more than a month after the restored DVD release) and I had a chance to catch it on the scale it was meant to be experience in.

Sadly, the theater was almost barren, with a scant twenty or so showing up for the Saturday evening screening. I can only hope that most of St Louis has been too busy obsessively rewatching the DVD, for there is nary another excuse to miss the opportunity. I, too, have purchased the box set and will eventually grab some screen captures to augment this review, because you can’t really appreciate the work without seeing his powerful brand of imagery [Note: I was too lazy to take my own, but check out John's screenshots on The Grump Factory]. A description can not do it justice, but I will do my best.

The Thief (Horacio Salinas), who is covered with insects, awakens near a lake. He is swarmed by small children who attempt to stone him to death, but is saved by a quadriplegic midget. The two begin a meandering exploration of a Mexican city where he witnesses brutal totalitarian soldiers, mindless hedonistic tourists and the oppressed poverty of the masses. He makes money by participating in an ultra-violent re-enactment of the conquest of Mexico acted out by toads and lizards in elaborate period attire.

Eventually he meets a band of religious/military/commercial crucifix salesmen who trick him into drinking until he passes out. Capitalizing on his uncanny resemblance to Jesus, they cover his comatose body with wet plaster poured from the stomach cavity of a large hog. He awakens on a pile of potatoes surrounded by hundreds of his crucified likenesses, a vision that sends him into a fit of rage and madness. Finally, he takes one crucifix with him and stalks the city, picking up a following of uniformed prostitutes. Unable to convince a local bishop to accept the icon, he eats its waxen face and bequeaths it to the sky gods on a chariot of balloons.

The second segment begins with the descent of a hook from a tall orange tower in the city’s center. The thief is raised up by the lure and enters the rainbow painted hallway of The Alchemist, a man cloaked in white and wearing a strange white sombrero. He sits between two goats and is guarded by a naked woman covered in alchemical tattoos. The man (Alejandro Jodorowsky) turns out to be a powerful scientist/philosopher who defeats the thief in a knife fight and teaches him powerful secrets. The bulk of the second segment consists of introducing the thief to the seven most powerful persons in the world: a leisure goods manufacturer, an arms dealer, an art designer, a financial minister, a toymaker, a general and an architect. Together they plan to journey to the holy mountain, a sacred quest to replace the immortals who have ruled there for 40,000 years.

I won’t spoil much from the final segment; the training and the quest itself. The nine participants must overcome physical, mental and spiritual hurdles and resist temptation and fear. The ending is at once brilliant and anti-climatic, a sort of inevitable implosion/explosion of the grandiosity that has been steadily building for the full two hour length. I found it to be satisfying more on later reflection than in the moment of culmination.

Jodorowsky has claimed that his films attempt to bring the drug experience to the audience in a purely audio-visual format. The results can be so trippy, unstable and loaded with mysticism and symbolism as to repel the average viewer, but for fans of artistic exploration on the edge of the senses, few can beat Jodorowsky’s mind-blowing film craft.

An example. The horned toad and desert lizard re-enactment of Pizarro’s invasion and destruction of the Incan empire is envisioned with the type of sumptuous costumes and side-tracking camerawork usually reserved for sweeping war epics. The comical petting zoo tone turns grim when waves of blood wash over the miniature ziggurats and explosions level the city, sending dead amphibians and reptiles into the air. As a side note, those who don’t like to see animals killed or their corpses used for compositional value should probably avoid the film. Admittedly, I find it distasteful and unethical in general, but for Jodorowsky I can make an exception.

Other examples. The thief waking up in a potato factory is done with a back-dollying camera that slowly revealed the full scale of the Christ-style simulacrum is truly haunting and mesmerizing. A side-ways dolly catches the thief, mostly naked and bearing a knife in a fighter’s crouch, stalking through the rainbow colored strips of the alchemist’s vast chambers.

There is a giant cubic robot that must be “pleasured” with an enormous rod to reach orgasm. The result is not only an unfolding music-box/light-show extravaganza but also a cute cubic robo-baby.

There is a tree made out of dead chickens that recalls the rabbit pyre in “El Topo.”

There are lines like, “Your sacrifice completes my sanctuary of a thousand testicles” complete with a visual that will not shortchange your expectations.

Jodorowsky’s knows exactly how to maximize the visual impact of human flesh, arcane symbols and unusual architecture. He frequently uses religious iconography, exotic animals (both living and dead), oddly-postured nudity, bright color fields, endless duplications and the extremes of violence and sexual depravity. The camera seeks out strange symmetries or birds eye views that spin and fracture with kaleidoscopic electricity. His editing unsettles and unnerves by surprising, shocking, indulging, repelling and always inviting the audience to see the undeniable aesthetic power of even the grotesque and incoherent.

The plot, almost essentially, takes a backseat to the visuals. Likewise, the dialogue bows out to the synthy, exotic score by Jodorowsky, Don Cherry and Ronald Frangipane. Nevertheless there are plenty of quotable lines and no shortage of potential political satire and social commentary to discuss. Particularly full of critical allegory are the seven world-class movers and shakers; cruel manipulators and corrupt profiteers who abuse the public and indulge their every fetish.

To some extent, its tough to know how to respond to all the symbolism, metaphors, spiritual mumbo-jumbo and pretentious gibberish and no satisfying unifying theory seems to bring it all together. I would advice letting the mind zoom in and out of face-value aesthetic pleasure and deeper scholastic interpretations without forcing yourself to try and “understand” every narrative detail and choice of prop. Much of the joy in surrealism is found through giving the unconscious and subconscious a chance to come out and play. Certainly, much of “The Holy Mountain” is borrowed from the land of nightmares, sexual fantasies, primal fears, free association and distorted memories.

I’ve always been a fan of Luis Bunuel, a prolific Spanish surrealist who worked primarily before and at the dawning of Jodorowsky’s era. Bunuel’s work is more subtle and accessible (and more critically accepted) while Jodorowsky’s is more lush and unpredictable. There are oddities and atmospheric glitches that make us feel wonderfully off kilter or even alienated, but with the general sense that this is real life only one or two step removed. Even his strangest, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972) and “Phantom of Liberty” (1974), are simple twists or inversions on reality compared to Jodorowsky. Bunuel’s is a parallel universe while Jodorowsky’s is a perpendicular realm, one much farther away than a mere trip down the rabbit hole or hop through the looking glass.

Check out the DVD boxset available on Amazon for the scandalously cheap price of $34. A most-own for any cultster anywhere.

Walrus Rating: 9

20 comments:

Patrick said...

I knew I missed out. Damn! I love the Webster Film Series. I make sure to mention it on every campus tour I give.

Kathryn said...

Someone's brand new Jodorowsky box set arrived today in the mail. All of our friends will be so jealous!

...

Joe D said...

Have you seen "Un Chien Andalou"? I think it's the Spiritual Godfather of Jodorowsky's films.

Walrus said...

Joe,

No question. "Un Chien Andalou" was Bunuel's first film and led (decades later) to his other work. Jodorowsky was definitely influenced by Bunuel (who revived Mexican cinema in 1950's with "The Young and the Damned) and Salvador Dali (who also worked on "Un Chien Andalou").

Some connectionw between UCA and HM are that both films make use of insects, animal corpses and religious symbolism. What's not to love!

Joe D said...

By the way, when I saw El Topo in 1972 at a midnight show it was SRO, packed! And the air was thick with the pungent fumes of Marijuana smoke.

Mad Dog said...

It's funny how $34 has become cheap for us. I just blew $90 on the entire series of Gunbuster 2. But man. What a ride.

Walrus said...

Joe,

I'm very envious that you got to see the original release. Midnight showing? What city?

Mad Dog,

$34 for three fully restored films, a short and two soundtracks. Also consider that two of these film each ran $100+ even for decent bootlegs. The few rental places that carried rare VHS's required $300 deposits to check them out. They could have charged in the area of a hundred dollars for the box set and it would still be a pretty good deal.

Joe D said...

W
I saw it in North Caldwell N.J. at what was I believe the Caldwell Theater. Other midnight screenings, Greaser's Palace, Performance, Zardoz, Fantastic Planet, etc. The theater burned down mysteriously. There was a rumor the local police were involved. Hordes of hippies wandering about an upper middle class neighborhood at 3AM when the shows let out finally got to be too much to take. But it was great while it lasted.

Kathryn said...

Zardoz! I am SO jealous.

Walrus said...

Joe,

Sounds like a great venue. I still need to see "Greaser's Palace" one day but I've yet to get my hands on a copy.

Mad Dog said...

It was $40 MSRP for each disc of Gunbuster 2. Each disc had two episodes.

:(

Joe D said...

Kathyrn
Zardoz was great on the big screen. The trailer for it is excellent as well, I must have seen it 20 times.
Walrus
Greaser's Palace is another unique film, I recommend it.
I did a little research and found out that the theater was called the Park, it was in West Caldwell, N.J. and it burned down in 1974. I remember looking forward to getting the new schedule each month to see what cool movies were coming up. It was a great venue.

Walrus said...

I also love the trailer on Zardoz. After the first time I watched it, I transcribed it wholesale and sent the text to my sister to pitch it to her. For those who don't yet know it by heart, here it is:

"BEYOND 1984. BEYOND 2001. BEYOND LOVE. BEYOND DEATH."
-------
"ZARDOZ! ZARDOZ speaks to you, his Chosen Ones!
The gun is good! The penis is evil! Go forth and kill!"
-------
"You came here in the stone head. It is the only possible passage into the vortex."
-------
"INTO A WORLD OF ETERNAL LIFE, HE BROUGHT THE GIFT OF DEATH"
-------
"I HAVE SEEN THE FUTURE AND IT DOESN'T WORK! ZARDOZ!"
-------
"...AND THEN ZARDOZ CREATED GOD... AND IN THE END ZARDOZ RE-CREATED MAN!"
-------
"Kill the tabernacle!"
"It is indestructible and everlasting."

Joe D said...

Walrus
That is so amazing that you've memorized the Zardoz trailer. I actually am friends with the guy that made it, Pablo Ferro. He also did great trailers for Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange.

Walrus said...

You have to tell me how you met Pablo Ferro. Are you in the film business or did you become friends outside that?

Also, it seems that the coincidences will only continue to mount. If you check the post directly before this review (http://filmwalrus.blogspot.com/2007/06/key-grip-aye-very-interesting.html#comments)

about opening credit sequences, you'll notice that I mentioned Pablo Ferro by name on #8 (Napoleon Dynamite). I almost included Dr Strangelove on the list because of the influential use of differently sized fonts. Graphic design really picked up the technique in the 80's. Tell Ferro that I'm a big fan of his work and to keep it up. He's the type of guy who puts lazy opening credits to shame.

Joe D said...

W
I met Pablo in 1982, I was working for Robert Downey Sr. he's known Pablo since the 60's. Pablo plays an Indian in Greaser's Palace. I've worked with Pablo on several projects since then. He's a great guy. I'll tell him you like his work.

jim vacek said...

i too got the box set based on the buzz about the long-awaited release of these films. i've watched el topo so far... and i'm not sure where the hype ends and the genius begins. we'll see if holy mountain clarifies the issue.

Walrus said...

It probably won't, but that's half the fun!

Mad Dog said...

I think our articles ultimately complement the other. That makes me happy and not feel so guilty for not properly writing the film up!

Walrus said...

Mad Dog,

I agree, and also now I don't feel so bad about not scouring through the DVD for screenshots.

I'd do premeditated collaborative efforts in the future...