Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Holy Mountain

I’d been looking forward to seeing The Holy Mountain for a while now. Jodorowsky is a noted surrealist filmmaker, and gets a lot of comparisons to Lynch, add in the 60s counterculture aesthetic and this sounded like a film I would thoroughly enjoy. Unfortunately, the film is almost absurdly self indulgent, spending too much of its time on an obsessive challenging of the religious establishment, and not enough on the more interesting themes that occupy its second half. There’s a lot of really great stuff here, but the film as a whole only makes it to good.

The clear predecessor of Jodorowsky is Luis Bunuel. The Age D’Or, and Un Chien Andalou have much in common with the first half hour or so of this film, as Jodorowsky riffs on religious imagery with such classic sights as an army of plaster Jesuses and a transvestite Mary. Maybe it was a different time in 1973, or perhaps I’m just jaded, but this stuff doesn’t seem too shocking, and it doesn’t have that much substance. So, it’s ultimately a not particularly exciting opening to the film. Now, the first couple of minutes, where a monk shaves women’s’ hair off, that was striking, the plaster crucifix stuff, not so much.

I did enjoy the recreation of conquistadors with frogs, but ultimately this is just a bunch of images that have no particular connection to each other. Now, the images are amazing. Throughout the film, Jodorowsky’s creates this wonderful environments that are like nothing I’ve ever seen before, pop art words that you can get lost in. You could take any single frame of this movie and it would be a beautiful picture, a marvel of image and composition. But, unlike in the best films, these images don’t really gain anything from being placed in succession. Because there’s no emotional connection, or any sort of narrative build, most of the time it remains simply a series of beautiful images, and that’s not quite enough to be entertaining for 115 minutes.

I think the best way to improve this film would be to trim the beginning and start things up once the Thief meets the Alchemist, and is given his quest for immortality. That would give the film a drive and direction that was otherwise lacking. I’m not saying that a narrative is needed, it’s just we need some kind of throughline to guide us through this weird world. People criticized Lynch’s Inland Empire for being a nonsensical mess, but even if the narrative sometimes doesn’t make sense, we always have Laura Dern’s performance to anchor us in an emotional reality. The closest we get to a strong central presence here is the Alchemist, whose cryptic philosophical nuggets provide a kind of guidance to the themes Jodorowsky is exploring.

The film starts to pick up when we reach the segment with the people who represent various planets. Yes, it’s a bit goofy to have lines like “My name is Kel and my planet is Venus,” but I enjoy the trip to various odd fantasy worlds that each of these characters incarnate. There’s a lot of 60s countercultural ideas here, but people who say this film is dated ignore the fact that his points are still valid, we just stopped seeing their validity. Particularly relevant to today is the section about how the government uses the media to indoctrinate younger generations to hate specific groups, in this case, Peruvians. Also interesting was the cosmetics manufacturer, who made entirely new faces for people to wear. I love these concepts, and this chunk of the film was a succession of interesting ideas.

From there, they coalesce into a band of travelers and set out for the mountain itself. I love the sequence in the room that looks like an eye from above, where everyone burns their money and a replica of themselves. Much of Jodorowsky’s thematic concern centers around the transience of identity. Because he looks like Jesus, the thief is turned into a plastic Jesus. By burning that plastic representation, is he destroying his identity?

From there, it’s off the mountain itself. This section of the film features more weirdness, as the Thief meets up with a prostitute and a monkey, then abandons the quest. I suppose Jodorowsky’s point here is that immortality is best found in connections with other people. The lonely trekking existence of the group is meaningless next to the potential relationship between two people.

The film ends in a gloriously meta moment, as Jodorowsky orders the camera back revealing the artifice, and then says “Real life awaits us.” Having spent a couple of months reading The Invisibles, my obvious connection is to Morrison’s work. When he says “real life awaits us,” he’s talking equally about the characters, the audience and the actors themselves. The film is finished and all the people involved can leave this fantasy behind and go back to their real lives, as can the audience. Within the world of the film, the characters’ story is at an end, but they will now be carried off in the minds of the audience, out into our reality. It’s a strong ending, and feels right at that moment.

Ultimately, the film’s second half works really well, and this could have been a true masterpiece if Jodorowsky had tightened up the beginning and connected it to the overall theme a little better. I’m not saying it should have been a traditional narrative, rather having some kind of focus would have given us a better context for understanding the opening pieces. And, I can’t get beyond thinking that they’re just lashing out at religious icons for no particular reason other than shock value.

But, once the film gets rolling, he gives us a series of images, moments and ideas that rank among the most dazzling I’ve seen in cinema. It’s a deeply flawed film, but I’d rather watch a movie like this than a perfectly executed Hollywood film that doesn’t try to do much. I always prefer a self indulgent mess like this to a competent, but uninspiring film. The closest analogue to this film that I can think of in recent times is Funky Forest, a Japanese film that features a similarly surreal mesh of scenes and ideas. Even though you’re not going to see a lot of movies like this, it’s great that they’re out there, and I really respect Jodorowsky for making a film that is such a single minded vision.

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