Another momentous surrealist work which I’ve definitely been putting off for the simple reason that I can’t possibly sum it up. It is of course Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1973 cult classic, ‘The Holy Mountain’. It has parodies and critiques of traditional religious mysticism, a plot that acts as an allegory for the Bible, surreal scenes of chaotic peculiarity, and the cast are made up of the personified masters of each planet in the solar system – all in all there’s a lot to take in. But though controversial when originally released it has since received critical acclaim as a original work, criticising religious obsession through surrealist film making. In a way it’s a product of it’s time, commenting on war as an excuse for violence and the endless wheel of human obsession and destruction. But for me it’s one that sticks in the mind long after you see it.
The film is centred around spirituality, or rather how we see it as a race. All actors beforehand spent time in Jodorowsky’s home practising spiritual exercises – Jodorowsky and his wife even going without sleep for a week with the aid of Japanese Zen master (although it’s undecided whether or not this is true.) One of the main texts the film is based on is ‘Mount Analogue’ by René Daumal, which contains a blueprint of the films metaphysical direction and is paralleled in many scene , such as the ascent of the mountain and the discovery that such a place which unties heaven and Earth cannot exist. Indeed the film revolves around this simultaneous exploration and dismissal of spiritual enlightenment, and all those who claim authority in its name. This is seen most specifically towards at the film’s climax, when the masters of the mountain are seen to be faceless dummy’s and the master alchemist (the guide of the characters, played by Jodorowsky) breaks the fourth wall by commanding the camera to zoom out so the film crew can be seen, finally proclaiming that they (audience included) should all leave, for “real life awaits us.” This is such a powerful moment, as it undermines the spiritual and mystical aspects of the film thus far, which I found I had unknowingly slipped into seamlessly. To be told that and realise how easy it is to be subsumed by mystic teachings feels like a distinct epiphany, and one which the film forces on you yet you feel as if you’ve learnt yourself.
Of course this conclusion wouldn’t be anywhere near as effective if the film hadn’t provided a psychedelic 101 course in the ethereal beforehand, which it does indeed do with surreal precision. The audience follows a Christ figure, by the name of Thief – the representative of the fool tarot card, who seeks the wisdom and riches of a great tower after being let down from what we presume was a crucifixion. In his exploration through a city he sees many strange scenes. One includes the re-enactment of the Mexican civil war but with small animals in the town square, tanks, guns and all. He also becomes trapped in a plaster casing as a small shop sells Christ figures for cheap profit , all lined up in a structure reminiscent of the Terracotta army, countless and worthless. Tourists wander the streets and have sex with locals in the open arguably a parallel to the excessive individual liberties rife in the social movements of the 1960s. The tower itself is full of strange rituals, goats being sacrificed by the alchemist, who wears the round, black hat covering his face along with his two naked assistants. It all feels spiritually decadent, a ritualistic embodiment of obsessive mysticism. But the physical design lends itself perfectly to the psychedelic introduction of the alchemist, as Thief walks the multi coloured corridors of a twisting structure, having no explanation why it is here in the metropolis.
The masters of the planets too also provide a piercingly surreal satire on the masters of business in the contemporary world, owning the Earth through power and language – humanity’s restrictive way on placing control onto reality. Take Mars for example, a female general who commands armies of naked soldiers, trains children for warfare and obliterates deserts just for the visceral experience of doing so. Neptune also represents a police force with overt references to homophobia in the film’s context – and yet they simultaneously embrace it in a very stereotypical sense. You almost don’t mind the stereotypes as it only goes further to highlight the ridiculousness of the contextual situation between those who are gay and those who are not. Jupiter too, usually the planet associated with knowledge and wisdom is personified as a millionaire art dealer who collects surreal contraptions, such as one which contains several naked men and women standing in various positions like an architecture of human skin. They personify the avarice of humanity, and yet the way they do it is just subtle enough to let the audience draw their own parallels – while also being clear enough for Jodorowsky to get his point across. Although it’s noteworthy that I found certain planets to be forgettable as they blurred too much with another. I found that Saturn, a manufacturer who creates war toys to brainwash children was shown to be far too similar to Mars, the design of their factories and the industrial feel of their planets felt too similar. They may have benefited from having more distinctive design elements. Overall though the surreal nature of these worlds put forward to you achieve what surrealism does in it’s most primal form – reflect our own reality back at us without limits, without language, without restrictions of the conscious mind.
The religious connotations are obviously a strong part of how the film operates. Thief’s parallel to Christ is unmistakable, and his journey through the city seems like a definite interpretation of a ‘lost’ Jesus – as if someone has wiped his memory of who he is and what his purpose is – which is where the alchemist comes in. But I did find it rewarding despite the fact that it’s an idea that’s been done before Jodorowsky extensively. It feels religious but with no particular religion. The rituals in the tower feel akin to certain sects of Buddhism or Taoism, yet the symbols and focus on planetary representation feel distinctly Jewish. Equally the astronomical significance of humans as clay like forms reminds me of certain section of the Qur’an, as well as the masters of the planets renouncing and burning all their material possessions to ascend the mountain (another reminder of the Torah.)
The alchemist too is a very interesting character, or rather a very interesting tool. You gain the impression he is directly channelling Jodoroswky’s own philosophy on the nature of spiritualism, renouncing those who would profit from it but also renouncing those who would be consumed by it. The film gives the distinct message that true spiritual understanding is all around us in the everyday, in the sky and the Earth, in children and the elderly. He acts as this narrator, guiding them through this surreal world. It’s like when they pass a camp at the base of the mountain, where those who have gone to seek enlightenment instead have decided to rest and indulge in sex, poetry and music. It all feels pointed, direct, a criticism of pretend wisdom. His presence in the film doesn’t feel jarring, which I expected it to. It feels like having the painter net to you as you view a strange painting, occasionally giving you guidance or asking you questions to make you consider different elements of the worlds composition – but never once ‘explaining’ something. It brings a narrative which suits the obscure nature of the films exposition.
I’m aware that I’ve only really touched the surface of this film, and there’s so much more symbolic resonance you could explore. But these were the points that stood out for me most, the elements of surrealism which helped to create this distant yet closely assembled world of spiritual exploration. I’d watch it just to to experience the world Jodorowsky creates for you, and type of originality in feature films that may be long gone. Ultimately it’s not a film about ascending to the heavens, it’s a film about coming back down to Earth.