Monday, February 3, 2014

The Holy Mountain (1973): Religion is corrupt

The Holy Mountain (1973)
dir: Alejandro Jodorowsky

In the world of film, frequently once you unleash your work of art into the world, it no longer becomes your own. Especially if you're trafficking in spiritual and symbolic cinema where the viewer can, or must, inject himself and his own interpretations in order to fill in the gaps where his knowledge is lacking. The Holy Mountain, is probably one of the most symbolic and esoteric films unleashed onto a largely Christian public.

One of my first reviews explored the post-1969 world of spirituality through the documentary The Source Family, wherein a group of spiritual seekers formed around a patriarchal figure who formed his own makeshift religion out of common sense, and various other spiritualities including Paganism, Christianity, Buddhism, and almost anything you can imagine. Father Yod created an ur-religion to enlighten his flock, in a way.

Jodorowski's The Holy Mountain is about the quest for enlightenment and the Ultimate Truths of the universe. It is a satire, a quest, and a bit of snark all at once. It's weird, often visually stunning, and just a general freakout that was unleashed on the midnight crowds in the 1970s.

The Holy Mountain is actually divided into five acts. Act 1: History. Act 2: Trials of the Thief. Act 3: Current Events. Act 4: Death/Rebirth. Act 5: Quest. Each act is told in over-the-top symbolism, and each has its own brutality.

In Act 1, we follow the Thief (who can also be seen as The Fool), as he wanders through a Mexican town, accompanied by his partner, a midget with no hands or feet. They try to gather money by hook or by crook, and see a whole lot of symbolic gestures through their journeys. First they see the Pagan Mexico. Then, they wander upon a Frog and Salamander show called The Conquest of Mexico, in which Ancient Mexico is bombed and murdered and taken over by the Romans. The Romans then bring Catholicism to hock at Mexico, who buy into it in hoards. The Thief tried to get in on the action, and, already resembling other forms of Jesus, makes a figure of himself, and sells himself as crucifixes. But, he is rejected.  Upon rejection, he happens on a tall red obelisk, from which a large hook with gold comes down, and he decides to go up to see what is up there.

In Act 2, The Thief, now in the obelisk, meets The Alchemist. After dueling the alchemist, the alchemist cleanses the Thief, then turns the Thief's excrement into gold, and tells the Thief that he is excrement but can be turned into gold. Then he begins to train the Thief to become his second assistant.

Act 3 introduces The Thief, and the Audience, to a group of 7 different power players on Earth currently. Each is represented by a planet, and each represents the worst impulses of the world. There is an arms dealer, a kids war toys manufacturer, a sex artist, a government financier, a police chief, a cosmetics and mattress manufacturer, and an architect. Each are uniquely selfish, self-centered, and willing to sell out the world in order to make themselves a buck. Money rules almost every one of these power players.

Act 4 is all the trials of the whole group must go through before they can think about climbing the Holy Mountain. First they must abandon their worldly goods. Then, they must abandon their self. Then, they get steadily stripped down through a variety of chemicals and go through a death and rebirth sequence through which they can obtain a more pure sense of self.

Act 5 is the journey to the top of the mountain. They first go to Lotus Island. They start to get sidetracked at the Pantheon Bar, but reject that carnal sensibility. They must move on to achieve enlightenment. They begin their ascent, where they go through a trial of their fears, like lying naked with a bunch of tarantulas on your body!!!  OMG. And, finally, they reach the summit. The thief, however, is dismissed to be the next trainer at the top of the obelisk and gets a prostitute and monkey as a consolation prize. He finds eternity through love and not enlightenment. Which is OK, because it was all a strange sham anyways. When the rest of the group reach the top table, where they are supposed to duel the immortals, they find the immortals are dummies. The alchemist reveals that this is all a movie anyways, and true enlightenment must be found on your own. And there is real life outside of the movie screen. Go find it.

But, through that, there is a weird undercurrent of distrust of spirituality. The finale is a gimmick that is meant to not answer the big questions because that answer is always personal, but what of the group that is formed? It is formed of the worst people of society. Is it saying that anybody through giving of themselves can find spirituality once they abandon Earthly goods? Does this alleviate any of the wrong-doing they have set in motion? Is religion just as much an easy answer as, say, stopping at the Pantheon Bar?

And, Jodorowsky is also criticizing the hedonistic hippies even more than he is criticizing religion. At least the pagan spiritual religion that the movie is based in gets a fair shake. But, the druggie hippies who spout that enlightment can be found solely through a drug are shown to be idiots that should be ignored. As such, he is saying that they don't really believe that they've found spirituality, even though they claim to. They've just found a distraction. At the bar.

So, what is pure in The Holy Mountain? Is anything pure? Is anything worthwhile? Is the search for enlightenment a worthwhile gesture, or is it just a lark? Are we ever going to find anything? Was Jodorowsky tearing down everything he saw around him in order to find a way through? Is this another movie about the search for the greater something in the post-1969 black hole before disco and cocaine really took over? Is it fraudulent?

Whatever it is, it is a visually stunning, frequently obscene, sometimes blasphemous, biting, prescient piece of work. With constant nudity, violence, and viscera, Jodorowsky frequently keeps his viewers on their toes. That he also has an eye for extraordinary compositions makes The Holy Mountain an art piece to be reckoned with.

Required Viewing.

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