Wednesday, July 29, 2015

El Topo (1970) & The Holy Mountain (1973)



          Although the word “visionary” is often used by lazy critics to describe filmmakers with distinctive visual styles, to my way of thinking, a true cinematic visionary is someone who creates worlds that have never existed before. Based on the evidence of his two most famous films, Chilean provocateur Alejandro Jodorowsky meets the criteria, because El Topo and The Holy Mountain explode with images and situations and themes that can’t be found anywhere else. The question, of course, is whether there’s any compelling reason besides curiosity to visit Jodorowsky’s universe.
          With regard to El Topo, it’s easier to answer in the affirmative, because the movie offers a strange theological meditation on familiar gunslinger iconography, blending counterculture-era philosophy with old-fashioned signifiers to create something new. Although El Topo is overwrought and silly and violent and ugly, it’s also inquisitive and passionate—which might explain why the picture was one of the earliest hits on the so-called “midnight movie” circuit. Yet Jodorowsky’s foll0w-up, The Holy Mountain, is too much of a not-so-good thing. Despite containing several mesmerizingly strange scenes, The Holy Mountain is so grotesque and pretentious that its power to shock wanes. After listening to someone scream for a long time, the noise isn’t startling anymore; it’s just irritating. Nonetheless, it’s likely that some fans consider these two movies among the highest accomplishments in cinematic history, because for all of their faults, El Topo and The Holy Mountain are the products of a unique mind.
          The opening scene of El Topo sets the bizarre mood. Black-glad gunfighter El Topo (played by Jodorowsky) rides a horse through a desert, holding an umbrella as his naked preteen son clutches his abdomen. El Topo dismounts, then tells the boy to bury his first toy and a photo of his mother in the sand, symbolically ending his childhood. Next, El Topo encounters a village whose inhabitants have been slaughtered. The streets are red with rivers of blood, and humans and livestock lie everywhere, some with innards sprawling out of massive wounds. Still dragging his naked son everywhere, El Topo vows revenge, then finds and castrates the man responsible for the slaughter; the villain subsequently kills himself rather than face life emasculated.
          Soon El Topo abandons his son (“Destroy me! Depend on no one!”), venturing off with one of the villain’s concubines to battle several of the world’s best fighters, each of whom teaches El Topo a philosophical or religious idea. Jodorowsky stages all of these odd scenes with artistry, composing striking frames and utilizing elaborate design to give each vignette its own outlandish flavor. Concepts flow freely throughout El Topo, at the cost of telling a compelling story. By the time El Topo transitions to a second passage, leaving the gunslinger storyline beside for obtuse material involving deformed people and religious frenzy, the movie has drifted into the ether.
          Still, El Topo is downright grounded compared to The Holy Mountain. The threadbare narrative of The Holy Mountain involves a religious allegory about a thief who resembles Jesus going through phases of spiritual enlightenment, eventually gaining such offbeat followers as a chimpanzee and a prostitute. Those watching The Holy Mountain closely will find ample fodder for interpretation, because Jodorowsky fills the movie with overt allusions to spiritual tenets; accordingly, The Holy Mountain is full to bursting with symbolism. Still, it’s hard to take Jodorowsky entirely seriously as a guru wearing the mask of a storyteller. The scene of the thief raging through a factory that makes Christ statues hammers the false-idols note a bit too obviously. The scene in which frogs race around a miniature castle wearing tiny knight costumes—until unseen incendiary devices cause the frogs to explode in slow-motion gore—feels needlessly cruel.
          And then there’s the sex machine.
          In one sequence, Jodorowsky outdoes himself from a design perspective by revealing an elaborate mechanical device meant to represent human sexual function in an art-installation context. A woman approaches the machine, strips half-naked, picks up a giant phallic object, and jabs the machine’s g-spot until the machine ejaculates a geyser of nasty-looking fluid. And we haven’t even gotten to the scene of the thief/messiah sitting on a glass bowl and filling it with excrement that an alchemist (again played by Jodorowsky) transforms into gold. Or the knife fight between the thief/messiah and a robed holy man in a giant chamber painted to resemble the inside of a rainbow.
          Jodoroskwy reportedly experimented with everything from LSD to mushrooms to sleep deprivation to yoga in order to access the transcendental plane while preparing The Holy Mountain, and it shows. For those who venture headlong into the cerebral wilderness with Jodorowsky, the movie is undoubtedly a bracing experience. For those of us rooted on terra firma, the movie—even more than El Topo—is alternately dull, grotesque, offensive, and ridiculous. Like El Topo, however, The Holy Mountain is never the least bit ordinary.

El Topo: FREAKY
The Holy Mountain: FREAKY

1 comment:

Griffin Calhoun said...

The Holy Mountain rules, have you been smoking some of that stuff the naked Jesus guy was smoking? I'm appalled to see such a negative review of it.

In fairness there are a few parts of the movie that drag a bit, but man, the film contains startling image after image of things you've never seen in your life.

But what I really love about the movie is for all it's strangeness and artfulness it's a wildly entertaining, often hilarious movie, it's an arthouse movie even a nerd like me can love.