Before he became a tarot star (of sorts), Alejandro Jodorowsky was a maker of exquisitely (or excruciatingly) surrealistic experimental films. I was 24 in 1972 when I first saw El Topo at a midnight drive-in theater screening in Connecticut, and it left a lasting impression (or stain?) on me. A couple of years ago, I saw it again and was reminded how strange and disturbing it is, gritty and callous on the outside but with a complex soul that eventually surfaces in an impressionistic social-justice crusade for deformed and disabled outcasts. It begins as a riff on the lone-gunslinger “spaghetti western” starring Jodo (although it’s an alternate-universe version) that takes place in Mexico, with lots of grim attitude, gunfire and bloodshed, but toward the end it really pushes the “bizarre-o-meter” needle into the red. I will never forget the scene with dozens of slaughtered white rabbits laying about, nor the one where he presents a small legless character riding on the shoulders of an armless big one in a kind of symbiotic duet. (This was well before the days of digital FX [or political correctness], and they gave the impression of being actual disabled, indigenous non-actors who somehow found themselves in Jodo’s orbit.) I’m able to make sense of it as an heroic adventure quest (the protagonist is looking for his missing son, possibly symbolic of lost innocence), but beyond that I’m not quite sure what Jodorowsky was trying to say. Nonetheless, along with Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude, Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Roman Polanski’s Fearless Vampire Killers, he shaped my enduring taste for offbeat movies.
I recently watched his 1973 film, Holy Mountain, and my first thought was that he was simply trying too hard to top the weird but compelling El Topo and this time he had the money to pull out all the stops. The opening third comes across as a rather lumbering, ornate extravaganza that is awash in arcane symbolism (even a little tarot in spots), but its heavy-handedness threatens to sink it in the early going. It opens with a thief who encounters a local bazaar with a sign advertising “Christs for Sale” and what looks like over a hundred life-sized paper-mache or latex Jesus figures sans cross stacked like cord-wood. (The thief gets to try carrying a cross at one point.) After being enticed into a drunken stupor, he is subjected to whole-body “plaster-casting” to produce yet another “Christ.” The thief seems to develop a real love-hate attachment to them, smashing a bunch and then carting one off (probably his own but they all look alike) as a kind of personal totem. There is an unsettling scene with a crowd of helmeted fascist soldiers in gas masks dancing a waltz with male partners in a ballroom, where the thief discovers a lascivious Catholic bishop lying under a blanket with one of the Christ figures. (No subtlety here!) The thief is inarticulate at first and can only growl, howl and gesture. Another small legless and now also handless indigenous character makes an appearance as well, adroitly manipulating objects with the arm-stumps that also serve him as crutches. There is plenty of blatant fascism (exemplified by firing-squad executions), a casual (on both sides) public rape of a tourist and a couple of gratuitous (and graphic) castrations along with an abundance of male and female full-frontal nudity. But, although the film is shot through with outre sensuality, there is very little physical sex – unless you count the bovine copulation – and what there is seems more satirical than conspicuously titillating. And of course there are bloody, butchered animals everywhere: toads, horses, lizards and chickens this time. Jodorowsky’s penchant for sideshow razzle-dazzle is ubiquitous, replete with his typical macabre flourishes.
The thief eventually ties his personal “Christ” upside-down to a double fistful of large red and blue helium balloons and sets it adrift across the sky, which starts the middle segment of the movie. This is where Jodo himself (first seen in the introduction) enters the picture as an alchemist in platform shoes and a tall hat. Things begin to get more metaphysically interesting at this point, resembling at times what might be called an “alchemical acid trip.” After disarming him with martial arts, the alchemist takes the thief under his tutelage, instructing him to poop into a pot and then reducing the results to ashes in a retort, from which the gases exit into a large glass alembic with the thief inside. The thief sweats out (or maybe it condenses on him) a thick, milky white fluid, which the alchemist siphons off and turns into gold, after which the thief graduates into a full-fledged initiate. Things then take a protracted, oblique detour into the introduction of several more characters, all different types of business people – each assigned an astrological planet – with very peculiar professions and back-stories. The idea seems to be to demonize crass commercial materialism, and Jodo skewers it with gleeful (and often grotesque) malice. These caricatures turn out to be the rest of the pilgrims that the alchemist takes on a cross-country quest to find the Holy Mountain. They all go through various tests and trials, and one of them seems to have somehow drowned in a cauldron but I still can’t figure out which one (although I have a sneaking suspicion that when they all look into the water-filled pot and see their own reflections, Jodo is making his point). The thief is sent off to live happily ever after with a lovely young woman and her chimpanzee (in matching red togs) who have been tagging along, while the rest struggle on up the hill to attack an ominous, seated group of hooded figures who (except for the alchemist) turn out to be dolls, and perhaps effigies of their former benighted selves. They don’t reach the summit of the mountain but they all have a good laugh as the camera pans back to show the film crew. The parting message seems to be that it’s enough of an accomplishment to simply be a fully-realized human being. I do intend to watch it again sometime.