Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Holy Mountain - 1973

"The Holy Mountain" - 1973
Dir. by Alejandro Jodorowsky - 1 hr. 54 min.

Theatrical Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

So, there are two kinds of movies.  Stop me if you've heard this before.  There are many types of movies, but in this regard, there are only a couple of kinds.  There are the movies that are plot-driven, and then there are movies like "The Holy Mountain," which are experience-driven.  It's not that there isn't a plot, it's that if you were trying to describe what you'd just seen to a friend, you wouldn't go through the "this happened, and then this happened" explanation.  If I tried to explain the plot, it wouldn't help you understand anything about the movie.

"The Holy Mountain" is a first-rate experience.  On one level, it's a visual feast.  Even when making little sense, you can still watch what's happening with sense of wonder and awe.  Above all else, director Alejandro Jodorowsky knows how to make a scene, in the sense of a spectacular event.  Those scenes are frequently sacrilegious, because Jodorowsky is a button-pusher, but also because those images are recognizable.  One example, we're introduced to the main character (who not only bears a strong resemblance to Jesus Christ, but a cast is made from him later to create paper-mache Jesus figures, and is at one point tied to a cross) with his being passed-out drunk in the street, urinating on himself.

This is a very tough film to write about.  I'm, of course, aware of the "dancing about architecture" line, but most film directors don't make it that tough to write about their movies.  "The Holy Mountain" is the exact opposite of a film like "Rear Window;" every scene is radically different from the previous scene.  And, as I was watching the film, I was aware that these visual treats were all made prior to green screen technology.  Everything that you see had to be real (or convincingly faked).  That leads into the main point that makes this film so watchable: commitment.

When a filmmaker makes a movie about mystical or religious things, it can be a tough sell for a lot of viewers.  Once people settle into a belief system, anything foreign to that can be greeted with hostility.  It's not enough to have an original thought (or mishmash of thoughts), it's not enough to have wildly original visuals or shocking occurances caught on film.  The one thing that you have to have, and cannot fake, is absolute commitment to the reality of the story that you're telling.  Anything less turns a mystical movie into spouting gibberish from a soap box.  It's not a coincidence that this is one of the central tenets of "The Holy Mountain."  The Thief (Horacio Salinas) groups together with a band of eight other criminals (all of whom are introduced in vignettes in their natural setting, each from a different planet) to try to achieve immortality.  The shared trait that they all have is that their success comes from doing things that are largely immoral - their only commitment is to making money.  Early in the process led by the Alchemist (Jodorowsky), they are all instructed to burn their money.  Putting that misdirected commitment firmly in the past is a necessary part of moving forward.

This idea of whole-hearted commitment is present from the opening scene of the film, where the Alchemist strips two women (who bear a passing resemblance to Marilyn Monroe), wipes off all of their make-up, and then shaves them bald.  There are a number of reasons why this film could not be made right now, and even in it's time, I'm sure that "The Holy Mountain" was an audacious, shocking piece of work.  But even more than the "content" of the movie, the earnest entreaty to commit oneself entirely to something is idea that a good number of people might find very uncomfortable in the age of irony and winking in the audience's direction.  For the radical idea of commitment to take hold, you have to go through the vignettes to see how disconnected each of the group is from the consequences of their actions.

This was the second time I watched "The Holy Mountain," and I enjoyed it almost as much as I did the first time.  On a first viewing, it's a barrage of ideas and visuals, and a knock-out punch of an ending.  The second time around, the element of surprise is gone, replaced by the nagging question of what exactly does all of this mean?  I don't have the mystical or theological training to even hazard a guess, but what it adds up to is one hell of a ride, and the kind of film that just doesn't happen (in the sense that it's both completely insane, but still makes sense).  If you have any affinity at all for crazy 70's art films (or just crazy-ass films in general), "The Holy Mountain" is about as good as it gets.

5 / 5 - DVD

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