Holy Smoke

Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain.

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Long ago, in a distant age partially obscured by the mists of time, people made movies like The Holy Mountain. I’m talking about the 1970s here.

In one memorable scene, the Jesus figure (“The Thief”) presides over a colonial war between toads and chameleons dressed as Spanish conquistadors. The reptiles clamber over a scale model of a pre-Columbian city replete with pyramids and temples. At the end of the scene, blood spurts everywhere and the model blows up.

The Holy Mountain is a religious fable that is also about outer space. It is based, more or less, on The Ascent of Mount Carmel by Saint John of the Cross and Mount Analogue: A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing by René Daumal. Limbless midgets, a group of aliens, and an Alchemist aid The Thief in his quest to find and kill the Nine Immortals and steal the gift of immortality. George Harrison (John and Yoko partially financed the film) was supposed to play The Thief but balked over a scene in which his anus is lovingly scrubbed. Filmed in Mexico, it cost $1 million and, in 1973, was the most expensive movie ever produced there. The sets and scenery are elaborate and complicated, if sometimes kitschy. The giant throbbing orgasm machine appears to have been constructed at an elementary school somewhere in the Midwest.

It is impossible to explain the plot in any detail for the simple reason that the viewer frequently has no idea what is going on (I suppose enthusiasts of mysticism and the occult can at least follow much of the symbology). The parts that do make sense test the limits of pretentiousness and stupidity. The actors, likely drawn from a Sacramento community theater, are so completely seduced by the cult leader qualities of their monomaniacal director Alejandro Jodorowsky that, in other circumstances, they would surely have made for ideal members of The Family, preparing for the Helter Skelter to come. To no one’s surprise, the ingestion of mushrooms played a role in the shooting of many of the scenes.

At close to two hours in length, I suspect that even David Lynch, an avowed fan of Jodorowsky, must have glanced at his wristwatch once or twice. And yet I watched the damn thing all the way through and was glad I had (and not just as testament to my powers of endurance). The film is a glorious monument to a time when it almost seemed possible to live by artistic vision alone. I’m not even saying that’s a good thing. The incredible self-indulgence is impossible to justify in rational terms. But there it is.

The Holy Mountain is as uncompromising a work as you will ever see. It is utterly self-assured, from the moment that the Jesus figure hugs the quadriplegic midget to the scene where the acolytes ascend the mountain and the camera pulls back to reveal the whole set and crew, exposing the artifice of it all. The film fully accomplishes what would otherwise seem a complete paradox. It is clear-eyed and systematic in the pursuit of a story that does not follow, a story that is, essentially, irrational. But as you watch, an inner logic or anti-logic begins to take over and you find yourself carried through, as if the non sequiturs could have been anticipated all along. The visual beauty of the film overwhelms your mind. Partly this is due to the pace of the “story,” which is wisely rapid in its transformations. Partly it is due to the lavish attention paid to each scenario. But it’s also due to something you will never ever ever put your finger on. I suppose, in contemporary terms, that the films of Matthew Barney come closest to The Holy Mountain in their exploration of a counter-logic that holds together only according to its own logic.

Yet Barney’s films, which I enjoy, lack something of the innocent and charming (albeit bewildering) honesty by which Jodorowsky throws out scene after scene with the confidence of someone completing a syllogism. In time, you come to accept that Jodorowsky is simply showing you his world, a truth, the really real. And for a little while, I caught myself almost believing that he might be right. That, I suppose, was what was possible for a short time during the 1970s: anything. • 11 March 2009