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 "Your sacrifice completes my sanctuary of one thousand testicles."

This is an actual line of dialogue from this film. It is accompanied by an image where a man with a mohawk guides a youth he has just castrated round a gallery of severed balls, each pair floating in its own little jar. He then inducts the youth into his cult/police force. He is in fact the chief of police, and he stands as a symbol of government oppression and its theft of honourable masculinity.

You now know whether you want to watch this film.

The reason I love The Holy Mountain has a lot to do with how grouchy I became after watching Christopher Nolan's film Interstellar, which is one of the most boring films I have ever outlasted. Not because of plot or character - those weren't great, but they weren't terrible either. No, my major problem with Interstellar was that it was a film insistent on spectacle, on having the audience see wonders, that employed for this purpose an interminable procession of dull-ass vistas. Grey seas. Bleached white-grey ice-clouds. Big dust clouds. All of them big to be sure, but size was all they had. Otherwise they were monochrome, non-detailed wastes. Once the eye adjusted to scale, there was nothing more to see, and I lost interest.

In Holy Mountain by contrast there is always something more to see.

To be fair, Jodorowsky and Nolan are completely different artists. Nolan is wedded to a realist aesthetic, even in Inception, a film which on the face of it should be pretty surreal (and in which he quotes the hell out of surrealist film) [1]. Jodorowsky on the other hand works with pure symbolism. The people in Holy Mountain are not actual people, so much as they are representatives of various elements of humanity. Images are designed principally to make statements on a variety of thematic points, rather than, say, explore how a character feels about something. This is not to say The Holy Mountain is a film without feeling, or indeed that Inception is a film with symbolism - that would be absurd. The scene where The Thief wakes up amongst a thousand plaster Jesuses made from a mould of his drugged body is a moment of extreme horror, thanks both to the unpleasant sight of a mass tangle of frozen, spreadeagled limbs and the disquieting impact of seeing objects normally viewed as a focus of reverence treated like mass-produced tat. The difference is in the degree of focus. Jodorowsky is more focussed on what his images represent rather than the emotional impact they have, and that forces him to vary his composition, because in the meaning of his text relies on the detail of his visuals. Combine that with the sensibilities of a man who started his artistic career in the circus, and you have a film that is endlessly fascinating to watch, and acts as a salve for my grouchy soul.

And then there's what I think he's meaning.

The Holy Mountain is a film of two stories. In the first, a man known only as the Thief runs around a town earning money in a variety of odd ways, until he learns of a mysterious tower that regularly produces gold. He sneaks his way in and meets the Alchemist (Jodorowsky himself), who, after removing a squid from the Thief's neck (which I think is a representation of his desire to murder), offers him the chance of redemption and takes him on as an apprentice. Then we enter the second half, in which we are introduced to the seven best thieves in the world, all of whom represent a different thing Alejandro Jodorowsky hates, from war to commercial art [2]. The Alchemist announces he will lead them on a quest to find the Holy Mountain, where they will encounter nine immortals. After killing them, the Alchemist promises that the thieves themselves will achieve immortality.

Speaking more symbolically, The Holy Mountain is again dominated by a duality of intent. The first is mockery. Jodorowsky's condemnations of social ills are fierce and without compromise: this is a man who believes without compromise that the everyday reality of the Western world is evil. But his critique is a Fool's, a trickster's - he criticises with ridicule, having the citizens of a town waltz lovingly with their gas-masked oppressors, having a company be so obsessed with masking death that it has invented a machine that can make beautified corpses perform a strip tease. Following this, the second interest is enlightenment. On the path to the Holy Mountain, the Alchemist leads the thieves through a process of destruction of the self and the rejection of material cares. Through trial after trial Jodorowsky has his characters cast away all things, from wealth to defeat to fear, until finally they are in sight of the Immortals. And then...he reveals that there was never any prize after all. Because the effort was never about obtaining anything.

It is in this ending that I found the depth in Jodorowsky. On the whole the symbolism of The Holy Mountain is quite overt (though still open to competing interpretations). Jodorowsky is straightforward in his criticisms and his symbols of self-abnegation. But what the ending reveals is that the self-abnegation was not, as Jodorowsky/Alchemist (for the two in the end are effectively one) suggested to the thieves, something to be obtained in order that the immortals might be overcome. It was instead a liberation from their corrupting acts of theft. Jodorowsky/Alchemist lures the thieves into giving up their sin by promising immortality, the same immortality that artists have promised over and over to their patrons, only here that promise is a trick. With the promise of immortality he gets the rich and the powerful to throw their money away, only to have them realise that they never really wanted it in the first place. Jodorowsky is not just a critic of evil. The Holy Mountain is his solution. He does not redeem through preaching. He redeems through misdirection. He is critic-fool and trickster-god, and his work is wondrous.


[2] ‘The film industry is raping you. They are fucking us, and they are killing us. If you go to a picture and you’re already an idiot, you see the picture and have a lot of fun, and you come out as idiotic as you were. Unchanged. Or the film will be using subliminal politics – using you.’

Also, he hates Walt Disney. VISCERALLY.


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January 2016


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