Whatever your opinion of resident cinematic mad scientist Alejandro Jodorowsky, he’s not a docile creature. The Chilean director, whose El Topo ultimately helped found the inaugural class of Midnight Cinema, stages guerilla warfare against that often benighted subgenre of film with his second feature The Holy Mountain; as a work, it defies even the somewhat genre-bound surrealism of his debut and the relative sanity of most so-called midnight films which are, if more libidinous than most mainstream films, no more artistically provocative. An eyeful of imagery and a mouthful of anarchic social commentary, The Holy Mountain is a deranged field day. Replete with symbolism that Jodorowsky both embraces and mocks, this fragmented, fractal film feels like Jodorowsky’s attempt to replace all of film form with a medium more to his liking.
In a sugar-fueled rush of kaleidoscopic deliriousness, the at once allegorical and morbidly anti-symbolic mise-en-scene of The Holy Mountain remains diffident to religious iconography (using it) even as it desecrates the idea of fixed iconography altogether (abusing it). Relying on a superficially simplistic Christian parable of a Jesus-like Thief (Horacio Salinas) who errantly maunders about a tableau of irreconcilable imagery guided by an Alchemist (Jodorowsky himself), The Holy Mountain is as much the perceptual story of our passive, innocent, Christian cinematic eyes being thrown to the lions of absurdism. Like Thief being liberated by Jodorowsky’s on-screen persona, the audience is awakened from sleep by his off-screen one. And while Goya may have assumed that the sleep of reason – meaning the lack of reason – produces monsters, for Jodorowsky, the sleep of reason – meaning reason as a form of sleep – is the monster that lulls us into torpor, and the beast in need of felling by Jodorowsky’s even more frightening creation: the Frankensteinian images before us and their creeping sensation that reason in cinema is a premature burial, a limit that must be eradicated and decimated for art to truly emerge from slumber.
His diegetic role in the film, a voice of pandemonium that ends up feeling like the only option within the entropy of the film itself, suggests himself as a Charon-like guiding hand for us. In his mind, cinema has been inundated, exsanguinated, and desecrated by the timidity of its everyday utilitarianism, and the medium – perhaps dead – is traversing the river Styx. As an ultimately humanistic guide, he’s not only here to see the old cinema along to its sarcophagus, but to bring a little – or a lot – of the underworld back up to the common man to imbibe in, to use death and destruction to bellow new blood into the medium and glimpse one possible future for a medium in danger of being sedimented and plaster-casted into the oblivion of a rote focus on narrative.
His film is an act of anarchy then, but its most important targets are not the social and religious structures it lecherously mocks, but the dogmatic cinematic form of normative narrative cinema and continuity filmmaking that it smacks and jostles around. His greatest coup is not only a critique of social structures but perceptual ones, staging a nefarious carnival that sets the unmetered mind loose. Among the many institutions it defecates on is the institution of the human mind that classifies objects into stable, recognizable categories.
Jodorowsky not only morphs everyday objects to his liking – turning crosses into guns or people into plastic, for instance – but ejaculates over the idea of symbolic value with a razor-wire comedy that liquefies our attempts to erect meaning where Jodorowsky wishes there to be none. The film gloriously desecrates our rational brain’s hope to rectify a monstrously hybridized, category-devouring experience with the laws and regulations of common sense. That we want to reduce the film to a series of “this means that” connect-the-dots crossword puzzles where crosses become guns and religion becomes violence doesn’t mean that Jodorowsky is willing to let us stop there. In this vision, we are merely trading in one object for another, one meaning for an alternate, but Jodorowsky is invested in an insurrection against alternate meanings altogether.
That something can be repurposed and reimagined is more important than what any one thing is reimagined as in The Holy Mountain. The latter still traps us in “what” – “what” does this object mean? – while the former teaches us the liberating “how” – “how” does it mean at all? – gifting us new tools for opening us up to the world and reinterpreting it anew. Throughout the course of this film, both human flesh and the cross take the role of just about anything we can imagine, the point being that the socially-sanctioned object is a mental prison partially constructed out of the need to affix stable meanings to everything. For Jodorowsky, a cross can be anything; he isn’t infringing on one set of social significances with another, but threatening to abolish the idea of stable, singular social meaning altogether. In doing so, he more devoutly acclimatizes us to the fact that any social significance is an unstable and tenuous construct to begin with.
The Holy Mountain is sacrilegious as a matter of form as well as content, beckoning for us to pigeonhole it with adjectives and symbols, only for the film to slip away from us every time we suspect we can come to grips with it. Symbolism usually pacifies a film, transcribing meaning to the meaningless, but Jodorowsky alchemizes his film in a conceptual inexplicability that dares us to shun inhibition and bask in the sensory transcendence of images that exist sans appended meaning. A symbol this Jesus may be, but it’s a rogue symbol, devoid of any singular meaning that can be easily essentialized or safeguarded from the roving terror – and the life-affirming possibility – of a world that constantly defies any true essence.
This pop-art fantasia hemorrhages a cubist sensibility to reenvision accepted standards of being and becoming, to reappropriate physical objects for new purposes and to spatially reconfigure the mental building blocks of how we calibrate and categorize shapes and spaces around us. Turning film into an almost involuntary spasm of constantly rekindling purpose and meaning, The Holy Mountain is always intravenously injecting salt on the wound of our mind, always digressing from itself and shifting until conjunctions become clauses and tangents energize into statements of purpose. Capricious though it may be, its reverberations speak to a sense-first lexicon that reaffirms the essential quality of art as a tactile, visual, incandescently beautiful experience that cannot be reconciled by the shivers of a mind that needs to define and intellectualize. The drives to literalize or stoke in the fires of metaphor are desecrated by a film that is best served as an unclassifiable plaything of mutinous stream-of-consciousness sensory excess where the images, rather than what they represent, save us from artistic redolence and milquetoast homogeneity. Beauty is seeing a wonderfully sharp, violent perpendicularity rather than “a cross”; only by reducing it to its barest essentials can it be restructured anew or seen for the first time at all. Compared to The Holy Mountain, Kubrick is practically a sensory deprivation chamber.
Thus, while the narrative – insofar as it exists at all – is often reduced to a plea for ascetic refrain from worldly vice and material need, a closer inspection suggests a more complicated proposal on Jodorowsky’s part. A film about escaping from and embracing the physical realm that enshrines its sensory effects with an almost olfactory pungency, The Holy Mountain’s vision of escape from materiality isn’t denial of that world but reimagination of it. Jodorowsky doesn’t ask that we eschew the earth, but that we open ourselves up to it to stave off its decomposition; his constantly reigniting fire of a film disorients us as a way to reorient us toward the prismatic possibilities of tangible objects, of human flesh, of shapes and senses.
Material becomes plastic for him, almost liquid, malleable and ductile and unstable as a way to reject the mortal coil of an ossified mind; the rawness of the film’s beauty, its embracing of the mantra of surrealism as a chisel to scrape away the limits of our mental structures, is testament enough to Jodorowsky’s infatuation with materials and objects. He isn’t rejecting the tactility of the world so much as he is uplifting it by shifting our perspective of it away from the muck and mire of superimposed capitalist meaning. For him, the nastiest sacrilege is to assume a space or an object is limited to our assumptions about it, to capitalist definitions of materiality imposed onto objects by social systems that colonize our minds. Objects can be prisons or prisms; rather than avoiding the question, The Holy Mountain barrels into it with the courage and conviction of a film looking to shock our souls to save them, like an ostensibly obstreperous cinematic malcontent that ultimately reveals a heart of gold.
“Everything and the kitchen sink” doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head for Jodorowsky. For one, his magician’s hat is filled with a maelstrom of a dozen kitchen sinks colliding with the nuclear-fission force of an electron massacre, with all of his under-cover-of-darkness social commentary ultimately misrepresenting the open-hearted explicitness with which his images speak for themselves. A hallucinogenic deviant of malfeasant proportions, it’s a little like a cinematic Dali if Dali was more fiercely invested in investigating and quarreling with the structural form of his medium, rather than simply replicating it with more pugnacious or lightly meddlesome imagery. If Dali is a light hysteria, then Holy Mountain is the full-on midnight psychotropic plunge; beneath the excessive, galvanizing commentary on spiritual and political dogmatism is a striking vision of art as a grand inquisitor as well as a grand liberator.