Friday, November 25, 2011

The Fool On the Hill

“You are excrement. You can change yourself into gold.”

--Jodorowsky’s Alchemist

Cinema was developed more than a hundred years ago with purely entertainment purposes in mind: it was a way for an entrepreneur to make a buck. However, it didn’t take the State too long to discover its manifest possibilities as a tool of propaganda, which, more or less, bears little difference to having a warty man with bad breath shouting slogans in your face—disagreeable no matter your politics. Later Hollywood developed guidebooks for living that have evolved with various zeitgeist movements, whether it’s embracing consumerism or choosing to follow one’s dream. “Your life is yours to live!” is a popular New Age bromide for those who need the reminder. To misquote for my own purposes of making a point, “The message is the medium.”

It’s inevitable that many filmmakers will to articulate his politics or belief system in a narrative format. The bravest ones will even try to capture that elusive ghost better known as the meaning of life. Whether or not I agree with the message does not seem the point—most messages are just idealistic clich├ęs anyways, whether good-hearted or not, the candy-coated maxim often interchangeable among very different films. I’m more concerned with the messenger and how he utilizes his imagination to make such points without resorting to saccharine behests or melodramatic drivel. That he succeeds is the difference between good storytelling and bad.

Alejandro Jodorowsky, a self-described magical shaman, is generally not a great storyteller and his masterpiece, The Holy Mountain, is not a great story if one defines storytelling by taut structure and a sense of urgency. Now that that beef’s out of the way I can and will say that Jodorowsky is an undeniable genius of the mise-en-scene. Within The Holy Mountain, a brave attempt to dramatize the spiritual quest for immortality, is a world hitherto unseen anywhere in literature or film. One doesn’t just watch The Holy Mountain. One experiences its caterwauling, rank odors, and tactile projections on a very visceral level. A fat woman urinates in a tall toilet, an art magnate pokes the ass of a live human exhibit, the Chief of Police castrates a teenage boy, a crusty, old man removes his glass eye from its socket and hands it to a child prostitute. For those partial to the gross-out, he’s an inspiration unlike any other.

But what is it all supposed to mean? The answer evolves slowly in episodic quantities. The Holy Mountain is set in a disturbing, dystopian future run by perverse industrialists and a corrupted government. Undesirables are publicly executed by firing squads, their bodies mutilated, eviscerated, and pillaged to the delight of camera-toting First World (American) tourists, one of whom is raped by a soldier, the physical violence of which is filmed joyously by her husband on his camcorder. Streetwalkers worship a very bloody crucifix and ply their trade in front of the cathedral. Poverty is endemic, madness ubiquitous.

Witness to all this is a human savage, revived and cared for by a multiple-amputee gimp. The savage has an unmistakable Christ-like visage in his ratty hair and beard, naked but for a g-string loincloth. If that weren’t enough likeness, he carries an oversized cross, is drugged by obese Roman legionnaire actors, and while passed out his likeness to Jesus is molded and reproduced into a thousand Christs. Through it all, he is more thief than martyr, reacting rather than willing: equally victim and wastrel.

Within this savage society, he discovers a windowless tower rising high out of the human stink. (One is reminded of Kubrick’s black monolith and its mysterious projection of order within chaos.) Into this tower our savage enters a marvelous room painted in bright rainbow colors. Ravi Shankar-style fusion-rock sets the mood. A Bactrian camel looks uselessly on and a statuesque black woman tattooed with enigmatic runes stands guard by a man in white priestly tunic and a conical hat, apparently awaiting the visitor on a throne partly composed of bipedally arranged goats. This man in white is the alchemist. He quickly subdues the savage via some gentle martial arts moves.

The alchemist is our guru for the film, played by Jodorowsky himself. He sees potential in the savage as an apprentice (“It is the master who seeks the disciple”) and following a scrub-down baptism in a bathtub with a baby hippo, he educates his inductee in a tarot-themed room on the perversions of politicians and industrialists— “thieves like you”—their wax effigies spaced in niches throughout the round room. The fat middle of the film digresses into their individual biographies, e.g. gluttonous habits and exploitative fortunes, et. al. It is worth going into some detail about these tycoons, as the flesh of power structure is thoroughly skewered in the bizarre presentation of a decadent plutocracy.

There is Fon, of the planet, Venus, heir to a cosmetic empire, prospering because “people want to be loved-- not for what they are but what they appear to be.” Isla, of Mars, runs a chamber of horrors, manufacturing ray guns, hydrogen bombs, bacterial diseases, anti-matter waves, carcinogenic gases as well as novelty arms like “psychedelic shotguns, grenade necklaces, rock and roll weapons... mystical weapons for buddhists, jews, and christians.” Berg, of Uranus, a weirdo with a fat-woman fetish and financial adviser to the President, reports “to save the nation's economy we must eliminate 4 million citizens in the next five years,” to which his superior responds by picking up the phone and casually ordering to “begin operation of gas museums, gas movies, gas whorehouses, etcetera.”

Beyond profiting off the superficial traits and weak character of a society losing its moral prerogative are those who seek to profit by brainwashing it. Sel, of Saturn, is a beautiful redhead who dances in a mime troupe in her off hours when she isn't running a toy factory operating in conjunction with the war department. In her words, “We feed the computer data on coming wars and revolutions. It tells us what kinds of toys to produce to condition children from birth... For example if the government decides to wage war on Peru, we manufacture hyper-sexed, brown, native vampires who can only be destroyed by crossing white skin.” They produce a comic book called The Peruvian Monster, another calculated move to indoctrinate children to “hate the future enemy... in order to kill Peruvians with pleasure.”

There is also Lut, of Pluto, who claims to work in architecture, but whose prowess is in urban realignment. Having lost money building “homes” with central heating, plumbing, electricity, he and his architectural firm want to convince workers that they don't need creature comforts and only require shelter. In a presentation to fellow champagne-imbibing, drumstick-gnawing magnates, he unveils his model of residential planning-- dozens of tall, coffin-like rooms bunched together in faceless buildings, an anonymous, meaningless existence in a ghetto designed to maximize profit at the expense of the human spirit but advertising minimalist merits on a colorful poster, behooving us to, “Be a free man. Without a family. Without a house.”

Flying by helicopter to join the alchemist and his small entourage, the millionaires embark on a quest for immortality that will take them to a holy mountain at Lotus Island. Before this is possible, they must renounce their fortunes as well as their individuality, becoming part of a collective being. In addition to money, wax effigies are ceremonially burned. Heads are shaved, identical cloaks donned, chlorophyll concoctions drunk, the journey undertaken. There are distractions on the way, notably the last stop for sinning on Lotus Island called The Pantheon Bar where debauched parties are thrown in French-style cemeteries. It has the atmosphere of a Renaissance fair or a lysergic carnival. A drug dealer points out, “The holy mountain is in this vial,” selling a shortcut to enlightenment. But this coterie, as grossly self-serving they may be, are wise enough to trust that so far as immortality is concerned, it's not to be found on the cheap.

I won't tell you whether or not they acquire the immortality they so desperately covet-- by now it should be obvious that this film is crawling in messages, though one supersedes all others and after all the guru-speak, its thematic declaration comes as a bit of a surprise, in effect turning the film's aesthetic on its head. That the message is commonplace and sensible makes it all the more beautifully resonant after such a ride. Jodorowsky then proves himself a wonderful messenger, although that’s an underwhelming way of putting it. There is no other film like it—The Holy Mountain is weirder than anything Bunuel or Fellini or anyone else has ever dreamed.

Well, what happened? John Lennon and Yoko Ono, fans of Jodorowsky’s acid-Western, El Topo, provided the bulk of financing. The film’s distributor, Allen Klein, who built his hipster CV managing the Beatles and Stones, had a very public falling out with Jodorowsky, burying the film for more than thirty years. Already finding it difficult to secure funding for his outrageously subversive material, this petulance on Klein’s part effectively denied Jodorowsky an audience for his very best work. All filmmakers have personal ‘What if…’ scenarios but few are as likely disappointing as Jodorowsky’s, who has only made three films in the near four decades since.

Though of course, even had he found the audience that might have loved him in 1973, it’s not inevitable they would have followed him into the 1980s and beyond. The Holy Mountain has been described as a movie very much of its time. But really it is a sixties artifact in politics and content—by the time it came and went in the few theaters it was shown, most spiritual questers had abandoned the communes for jobs in the city. The “Me Generation” was developing a belief system in which wealth and enlightenment were not irreconcilable. Immortality could be rendered in lifestyle through Beverly Hills cosmetic surgery and haute-couture fashion.

The Holy Mountain is a cauldron of ideas, many of them dangerous, and for every enthusiast then there is the proportionate number of haters. The comments section in youtube videos is as a good place as any to extract testimony from the court of public opinion. Beyond the majority of “Trippy, Dude!” comments we discover some surprisingly visceral language. One person writes, “It was a complete and total piece of shit that attempted to portray disgusting and distasteful shit as something meaningful.” Okay, then, but another poster, named ‘Oblivious Wolf’ writes, “This movie made me hate the human body and seeded a rage inside of me that gave me an urge to punch things till my fists were just bloody stumps.”

Perhaps ‘Oblivious Wolf’ harbors strict rules regarding filmmaking conventions. Or he/she did not like a Christ-like figure portrayed as an ignorant, avaricious, primal screaming fool. Or he/she watched it late at night dosed on controlled substances, as it seems many are wont. (The Holy Mountain does not need a psychedelic coating— it is fully formed weirdness, just the right amount, no need to up the dose. A cup of coffee and a sense of humor will suffice.) That it can be so polarizing makes it all the more important as a work of art. You love it or hate it but you never shrug, “Meh…”

Not a lot of people saw The Holy Mountain when it came out, though not a lot of people saw The Velvet Underground live in the 1960s either. They say that anyone who did see the V.U. play went off to start their own bands. And maybe that’s true here too, as there are elements of David Lynch, David Cronenberg, George Miller, and Marilyn Manson, among others who likely saw the film and said they want to do that too.


It might seem to today’s wired-up, post-modern kids that all the sacred cows have been butchered, packaged, digested, shat, flushed. But judging by the vitriolic on youtube there are yet plenty of prudes left to provoke. All we need are wealthy eccentric financial benefactors who understand that immortality is not just a spiritual quest but attaching your name to piece of art that survives to piss off future assholes and inspire artists who say, “Yeah, that’s right. Now let’s see what I can do.” Ad nauseum. To the infinite.

* This was originally published in Heso Magazine.