Sunday, January 26, 2020

This way madness lies

Before yesterday evening, I didn't know much about Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain - but I knew enough that I had to see the screening at Chapter.

The Chilean/French auteur's previous film El Topo (also shown at Chapter last night, as part of a double bill) achieved notoriety through screenings at the Elgin Theater in New York in the early 1970s, and is credited as kicking off the avant-garde/countercultural midnight movie movement. Among the film's fans were John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who persuaded Beatles manager Allen Klein to bankroll a follow-up to the tune of £1 million.

Unleashed in 1973, The Holy Mountain caused a similar sensation as its predecessor, but a falling-out between Jodorowsky and Klein (who held the rights) meant that it was subsequently buried for more than 30 years, until a screening at Cannes in 2006. Friday saw the release of a 4K restoration - and Chapter were quick to put it on.

So what exactly is it about? Good question. Essentially, an Alchemist (played by Jodorowsky himself) leads a Thief (a Jesus-like figure) and seven other disciples to spiritual enlightenment via a series of personal challenges and a hike up the titular mountain. But The Holy Mountain is also a technicolour commentary/satire on religion, capitalism, mysticism, sex, politics, authoritarianism, charlatanism, excess, greed, hypocrisy, faith, the death of the hippie dream and much more. Often this commentary/satire is oblique, but sometimes it isn't - such as when the Alchemist is shown turning the Thief's shit into gold.

Jodorowsky being an arch provocateur, graphic nudity and violence are everywhere - as are animals: dogs fighting, exploding toads and chameleons, a baby hippo in a fountain, a tiger on a leash and a chimpanzee shown rowing a boat in circles and clambering up the mountain in knitted yellow stockings.

This restored version is a decadent, surrealist, genuinely hallucinogenic, visceral visual feast. It might often leave the viewer bewildered, but every single scene could be the source of an iconic and instantly recognisable still. The sound effects are perfect, capturing everything from the squelchy gloopiness of viscous deep-red blood to the wet flap of a pelican's feet on a hard floor, and the score uses sinister drone and cacophony to great effect.

While the film is relentlessly transgressive and undoubtedly not one for the squeamish or faint of heart (the eyeball removal scene turned my stomach and I lost count of how many male genitalia were chopped off), I should make clear that it's regularly laugh-out-loud funny - not least the scenes in which the disciples encounter a tourist bar halfway up the mountain and a woman tries to give a machine an orgasm.

All of this probably sounds utterly bizarre - so perhaps best to stop there and direct you to the trailer so you can take a look for yourself...

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