Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Holy Mountain

Mexican director Alejandro Jodorowsky was a highly celebrated artistic figure during the heydays of the counterculture movement. When it came in 1971, El Topo became a cult sensation and was one of the most talked about films of its time. John Lennon was so blown away by it that he persuaded Beatles' manager to buy the distribution rights of the film. He also helped finance Jodorowsky's next film The Holy Mountain. Though nowadays, like much of other artifacts of counterculture, Jodorowsky and his films have also vanished away from the mainstream into obscurity.

When I saw El Topo ("The Mole") a couple of months back I found it extremely tedious, which is much worse than it sounds because the film is so full of way, way over-the-top imagery and jaw-dropping, eye-popping visuals and set-pieces. I was probably not the intended audience of the film, given my extreme indifference, indeed even hostility, towards all kinds of esotericism and occult, which to me seem more like sentimentalization, perversion and infantilization of religions than any worthwhile or intellectually respectable challenge to the dominant ideology of rationality, as Jodorowsky's surrealist affiliations would lead us to believe.

In was with this background that I found Jodorowsky's next film The Holy Mountain a huge leap forward. Most of the religious ideas and symbols still seem to be imagined by some over-enthusiastic student of comparative religion but there is also an element of irony and self-consciousness, specially in the final act, which to my surprise actually goes even further and seems to repudiate a lot of what counterculture stood for. The film seems to plead for a return back to "reality" and "life" and acknowledges (at least it seemed to me) the airheadedness and sentimentality which those gurus passed off as deep thought, in the process even satirising the LSD gurus. These is also a lot more social political critique, much of it very original if not in the ideas then at least in the metaphors used to convey those ideas.

It is impossible to describe what really goes on in the film. The main narrative thread tells the story of a Christ-like thief who with the help of an Alchemist (played by Jodorowsky himself) plans to become immortal by climbing up one of the titular holy mountains. Okay. In his journey he is accompanied by a bunch (I forge the exact number) of powerful people in the world, each from a different planet, who in turn recount their sordid biographies in voice over. This sequence is the most straight-forward and coherent of the entire film. All these mini-stories delightfully and very pointedly and effectively satirize a bunch of Jodorowsky's targets like Militaristic ideology, Arms industry, cosmetics industry (and consumerism in general), modern architecture, entertainment industry and many other institutions of modern life in the western society. Images and set-pieces in the film are so way over the top and so weird that once seen they will not be forgotten easily. Like the one in which an army of real (yes, real) toads and lizards, all dressed in army regalia, attack a replica of Mexico city or a scene in which the alchemist turns shit into gold (I mean literally). There is one scene involving an electric "orgasm machine". I can go on and on.

The film ends with what seemed to me a repudiation of counterculture ethos. The thief, the alchemist and the powerful men in their quest for immortality by climbing up the holy mountain come upon a pantheon bar where they meet people who came before them in search of the same immortality but decided to remain in the bar enjoying material pleasures. They meet an LSD guru who lectures them about how the experience of a drug trip is the same as finding spiritual wisdom. There is also a "spiritual magician" who can walk through stones who says he has conquered the holy mountain but only "horizontally" not "vertically." All these satirize the same perversion of religion and spirituality that I mentioned in the beginning of the post. At the end when they reach the summit of the mountain, Jodorowsky as the alchemist says that the immortals are actually dummies and advises them to go back to reality and life and spouts some cliche about love. He finally tells the camera to zoom back, which it does revealing the artificial sets and lights. He finally says that this is "Maya" and asks us to leave the movie and go back to "life."

Wikipedia has some more details about the film.


km said...

A Mexican named "Jodorowsky"? That's new :D

//Adding this film to my list of "Films I've Heard About On Alok's Blog".

Alok said...

He was actually born in chile and his grandparents were jews from Russia who had to emigrate from there to escape the anti-semitic persecution.

You should definitely check it out... lots of hippie and counterculture stuff in there. Also its predecessor El Topo