You are excrement. You can change yourself into gold.
To wish an art film took itself more seriously seems counterproductive considering most art films have their head so far up their backside that it would be impossible for them to do so. I love Matthew Barney‘s Cremaster series because it is so excessively pretentious and precious about its grand ideas that really don’t matter when approaching the work as a visual art wherein aesthetic is paramount. The fact that it revels in its museum sterility helps us to approach it from an experimental and formal vantage point because story becomes a byproduct of the experience itself. Barney breaks down his motivations intellectually to build them back up visually with ornately surreal visions far-removed from reality. We’re voyeurs to objects rather than audience members following a strict plot.
Watching Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s La montaña sagrada [The Holy Mountain] is therefore a much different enterprise. It wants to have its cake and eat it too by transporting us into a reality that is art film rather than distilling ours into one. I wonder if an artist like Barney saw Jodorowsky’s work and sought to improve upon it by removing content from context—running with its undeniably successful aesthetic while ignoring its desire for story structure. Because if I’m being honest, The Holy Mountain hurts itself trying to activate our senses in a heightened plane of drug-induced fantasy while grounding us in the filth of our inescapable reality. It wants us to laugh with it and revere it simultaneously despite being neither funny nor self-serious enough for either.
It seeks to awe with audacious art direction and confrontational imagery exposing the nightmare of our world one second and then entertain the next with Monty Python-esque gags as though that nightmare is but a product of our anxieties rather than a problem to combat. So here I was riveted by the violent carnage and insatiable cravings of mankind’s demons at the beginning only to be lulled to sleep by on-the-nose commentary about capitalism, religion, and war existing as punch lines without any real depth of meaning. I sunk my teeth into visions of gasmask-wearing Fascists marching with flayed animals on sticks who break ranks to rape tourists genuinely game to be involved as victim and spectator: tragedy as sport. I embraced that edge before watching it dull.
I get what Jodorowsky moves towards after the fact, but it’s just not as interesting as a screaming Jesus eating the face of a false idol built in his likeness or a reenactment of Mexican war with amphibians and explosives. It doesn’t matter whether you know that characters are manifestations of Tarot cards at the beginning because we become invested in the visceral chaos moving beyond the actions of men. We become absorbed by the vast expanses of outside horrors and the pristine temples of inside perfection with smooth white walls feigning spiritual superiority. We let the images of a black-hatted alchemist shaving the heads of two naked women and the gibberish-spewing ramblings of aggression in the dirt wash over us with their meticulous, mechanical precision.
These are things that beg interpretation. They provoke with equal amounts of inspiration and revulsion. It reminded me of the surreally darkened rage of Pink Floyd: The Wall—oppression as lifestyle. But then the Jesus-like figure supposedly at the center of this journey (Horacio Salinas‘ The Thief) finds a sickle hanging from a rope outside the window of a tall red tower and grabs hold. From this point on The Holy Mountain is a completely different and much less interesting film. He meets the aforementioned alchemist (played by Jodorowsky) and proceeds to take a backseat. What was a derisive takedown of organized religion suddenly becomes a middle finger to spirituality on the whole with a message to awaken us to a reality unclouded by bedtime story mass hallucination.
The chaos screeches to a halt to introduce seven figures from seven planets (Venus through Pluto) each given a comically cruel or outlandishly satirical occupation to laugh at. That vein of anger is replaced by clumsy jokes pretending to be pithy commentary like a planet that creates war toys for children to specifically ready them for the fight their generation will wage in the future. These are skits meant to entertain rather than open eyes. What was virtually a silent film of visual stimuli becomes a mostly boring series of narrated vignettes that think they are saying something profound despite intentionally making light of that profundity. Maybe Jodorowsky and his crew took too much LSD and mushrooms (both documented as being used on set alongside Zen-based communal living).
We find ourselves more than halfway through the film before being told what’s going on. The Alchemist has enlisted The Thief to be in his group of ten (with the planets) marching towards the “Holy Mountain” to replace the Gods currently there. He explains they were once mortal too and therefore must have taken over for those that came before. So his group reaching the summit earns immortality: the dream of every depraved soul on the planet seeking redemption in an afterlife of eternal bliss. The trek provides them tests that more or less reiterate what we learned about each in their comedic introductions until a climactic reveal supplies us with the most disappointing whimper possible. It’s amazing how something so wildly kinetic could become so unfortunately banal.
I’m not disappointed I watched, though. The opening thirty minutes or so of wall-to-wall blasphemous insanity is a true delight. And while I wasn’t laughing at every single stupid thing that happened like the guy two seats over, there was a lot that earned a knowing smirk. In the end I think The Holy Mountain is smarter than it gives itself credit for and therefore saddled with a potential for true enlightenment that never arrives. Eventually it seems to be less of a project for audiences and more a document of a wild ride had by cast and crew in search of something their heightened state of reality couldn’t quite fully grasp. It’s best when its angry and worst when it forgets how effective it was without dialogue.