Jodorowsky and the
union of opposites
In general I prefer ambitious unbounded imagination to the consciously crafted. It's exhilarating to watch a visionary at work and even if the result is uneven what is often achieved far outweighs whatever problems some might raise. Imagery is the language of film and Jodorowsky's few works overflow with provocative images. It's one of the crimes of the medium that Jodorowsky could only give us so few films. After the huge countercultural impact of El Topo and the support of none other than John Lennon and Yoko Ono, what seemed like a promising, audacious and abundant career was cut short after The Holy Mountain in 1973. It's true that he managed another interesting work, Santa Sangre, much later in 1989 but his other 2 efforts, Tusk (1980) and The Rainbow Thief (1990), were largely lacking. Fando and Lis (1968), his long thought lost first feature has been found and released on DVD and is worth seeing because of imagery which connects that effort to his later work as well as the early cinematograhy of Rafael Corkidi.
An artist of extremes, Jodorowsky could be as garish and blatant as his English contemporary Ken Russell and as subtle as Russian film poet Tarkovsky (both directors I like as well). The mix of high and low culture was evident in his theater directing days in Mexico where Beckett and Ionesco would be staged with trained actors as well as prostitutes. His "panic" happenings in the mid 1960s delved into the pagan realm of rock bands and naked women with smeared blood of animals and plenty of religious symbols. He's always loved comic books as well as classic literature and metaphysical writings.
And so, his 2 best film projects: El Topo and The Holy Mountain are both pop inspired, heavy handed as well as sophisticated in their symbolic allusions. Both are blatantly sarcastic but also passionate, profound and honest. Though they were certainly products of their fevered and exuberant time, I believe these films will continue to be treasured and experienced anew for generations to come.
El Topo was obviously inspired by Sergio Leone "spaghetti westerns" ("The Good the Bad and the Ugly," "A Fistful of Dollars," etc). The desert setting, the nameless man in black and the bandits could have easily come from Leone. Even the revenge setup, where the protagonist avenges the mindless slaughter of everyone in a town, suggest potboiler western. But even here, things are overly intense, the blood runs like a river, the farm animals and horses are theatrically gutted. It becomes absurdist black comedy when the protagonist (who is named El Topo, only in the credits) enters another compound where monks are courted like women by grotesque bandits and we see The Colonel as a chubby man made to look tall and fierce by his young girlfriend.
By the time El Topo leaves on his sojourn into the desert to find and defeat 4 masters who reside there, we leave the conventions of the western far behind. We are completely into metaphysical territory with characters and situations appearing as numinous emblematic hallucinations.
The film has a 3 part structure, the western inspired opening, the central metaphysical section wherein El Topo defeats the masters (mostly through cheating or shear luck/fate), and a final section that finds him reborn as a Zen-like monk. The greedy anima (woman within the man) figure is replaced by a sincere dwarf and El Topo has left his god-like perch of the first 2 sections to clean toilets and entertain the masses in order to finance an excavation of a cave that traps a horde of crippled and contorted humans. He also meets his estranged son (left in the care of monks in the first section) who reluctantly joins El Topo's efforts. In the potent final, El Topo's success in freeing the cripples leads to their death, the dwarf gives birth to his son and vengeful anger turns the town into carnage (much like the one in the opening). The metaphorical narration from the prologue is recalled: "El Topo (the mole) digs in the earth looking for the sun, when he reaches the surface, he is blinded by the sun."
Jodorowsky's larger budget follow-up The Holy Mountain, is my personal favorite of his. Though it lacks the parable narrative structure of El Topo, it tops the previous film in both its imagery and ambition. It's also more optimistic in general.
Like "El Topo", "Holy Mountain" can be easily broken into 3 separate parts. But unlike El Topo where a semblance of the old west is evoked, H.M. is set in a anachronistic metaphysical realm from beginning to end. Ancient Romans exist alongside tour buses and helicopters. Popular culture and fashion of the 1970s are freely mixed in, giving the film a more dated look than its predecessor. Still, there are enough timeless elements explored to make this one a gift for the ages.
Symbolic imagery flies fast and furious in the first part which centers around a character referred to as a thief (based on "The Fool" card in the Tarot) and his legless friend as they elude a horde of rock throwing boys and seek to make money in the nearby town by catering to tourists and assisting in a bloody play where Aztecs are represented by lizards and the Spanish by bloated toads. The thief is unwittingly cast in the role of Christ, the first time by the boys, the second literally as his body is cast in plaster for making a huge number of Christ replicas. The thief destroys all the paper-mâché Christs but one that he gives to a church but is rudely rebuffed by the local priest who sleeps with a different representation of Christ. Along the way, the thief has abandoned his legless friend and picked up a following of female prostitutes. One in particular with a pet ape, becomes worshipful to the thief and later follows him on his journey to the Holy Mountain. Eating the face off his Christ double the thief sends it skyward with balloons - upside down like the Hanged Man in the Tarot. It is a contemplative moment, the red and blue balloons suggesting a union of opposites. Red and blue colors are used symbolically throughout. Even the rowdy green-sexed boys are quiet and respectful of this heavenly offering. Possibly in response, a large hook is lowered from a towering monolithic structure with a bag of gold into a marketplace. The thief sees the gold, takes the bait and ascends the tower.
Inside the tower, the thief confronts an alchemist (Jodorowsky himself) in a large rainbow chamber. After a curious violent attack, the thief is subdued by the alchemist and his Hebrew tatooed female assistant. A blue squid is removed from his shoulder blade (possibly a symbol of the thief's grasping and elusive nature), and the thief is cleaned up. Each room in the alchemist's realm has a totem animal. The thief shits into a glass bowl and both the thief and the feces are placed in an alchemist's oven and during a cello performance for a wandering pelican, the thief is internally transformed while his excrement is changed into gold. Despising his own reflection (reminder of the false Christ), the thief breaks a vesica shaped mirror with the gold feces and winds up inside a mirrored world. Here he begins a series of lessons, including a Tarot reading and is introduced to 7 powerful but corrupt people who he will later team up with to seek immortality.
The second part, the center section of the film, is more straight forward social satire as the 7 introduced individuals demonstrate their power and influence in the realms of cosmetics, toy manufacturing, weapons systems, economics, police enforcement, art and architecture. The symbols are more obvious and the voices quite comical and exaggerated. We're presented with robotic corpses, rock n' roll guitar rifles, dwarf Santa Clauses in a war toy factory, gas universities and whorehouses for population control and coffins as new age apartments. The imagery is shocking, comical and serious all at once. Each character is attached to an astrological symbol for 7 planets in our solar system. By the time all 7 are introduced and explored, much time has passed. It might be said the the thief is split up into 7 personalities here. "All are thieves like you, but on another level," the Alchemist says.
The alchemist brings the 7 back to earth in a helicopter and they watch a slide show where their appetite for immortality is wet with Rosecrucian drawings of nine immortals around a table inscribed with an Enneagram pattern. Though they are more motivated at the beginning by a selfish desire for more power, the alchemist presents them with their first hurdle; to burn all their money and the image of their earthly bodies.
The Holy Mountain is one of those works that utterly saturates the mind and senses. There are more unique and arresting images per foot of celluloid then any other film I've seen. Jodorowsky seems to want to make a comment about everything in society. The film overflows with symbols, allusions, parables, satire, violence, religion. The timing of the production fit into the emerging "new age" spiritual movements when those who experimented with drugs and got a taste of worlds beyond the mundane wanted to pursue these discoveries without resorting to the old belief systems of their parents. Eastern practices were attractive and unusual combinations of faiths were delved into. Jodorowsky's line before the trip to Lotus Island must have found favor with many: "The elements of chemistry are many but finite. So are the techniques of enlightenment. To reach it more quickly, we will combine the techniques. With the correct formula, any human being can become enlightened."
If there's a problem with The Holy Mountain it's a lack of focus. The thief's story is completely sidetracked in the center section and by the time we get back to him, he's been absorbed by the collective group mind. The shaven members are harder to identify so their individual problems and obstacles are easy to confuse. Near the end, when the thief is united with the prostitute and the ape, it's done without dramatic emphasis and lacks resolve. Why does the thief not get to see "the secret?" He's given a present of the alchemical tower and rooms and instructed to teach his people. Teach them what — how to almost achieve enlightenment? The alchemist deliberately avoids showing him the dressed up dummies at the top. Does the alchemist desire his disciple to believe in a false goal and to teach counterfeit lessons? The thief is left within the realm of belief, ritual, family and society while the others move on.
Despite these difficulties, The Holy Mountain is a towering achievement. It's visual imagination and symbolic density is utterly impressive. Even it's more linear and didactic scenes are a joy to behold. There is no other film like it. One could imagine a visionary of such talent producing any number of amazing films. But that didn't happen. Even his return to form over a decade later with Santa Sangre didn't match the crazy power of "Holy Mountain."
Jodorowsky, in a Penthouse interview during the making of Holy Mountain, insisted the film was "objective" in that he was dealing with archetypes rather than psychodrama or personal exploration. This might explain his aloof acting style in the film and the stylized portrayals of the others. Carl Jung also distinguished between personal dreams and "great" dreams that draw on the collective unconscious. Also there are many explicit references to occult systems (the Enneagram design, Tarot suits, Christ parables, Alchemical illustrations, Jewish customs, etc). He said he was bothered by people reacting to all the blood in El Topo in a literal way. So, in Holy Mountain, the blood flows in bright colors. The attaching of obvious effects devices or theatrics to the slaughter of student protestors by the Chief of Police was felt to amplify the impact of the scene by "objectively" showing how it was done. It's also interesting that when he returned to film with "Santa Sangre" he delved into subjective psychodrama -- quite a different tact from The Holy Mountain.
Once while driving cab, I picked up jazz great Don Cherry, who made substantial contributions to the soundtrack. His explaination for why the film was withdrawn from circulation had to do with a lawsuit stemming from the use of a preteen girl as a prostitute. According to Cherry, the girl's mother wasn't informed as to her role in the film and was later enraged and initiated a lawsuit to halt screenings. This story doesn't quite jive with the fact that Holy Mountain was run for several months as a midnight show in New York and San Francisco before it was withdrawn. The explaination most commonly discussed is that Klein wanted Jodorowsky to make version of "The Story of O" and he refused so Klein withdrew both Holy Mountain and El Topo from circulation out of spite. I've yet to read any statements by the late Alan Klein on the matter.