“Do pretty pictures plus symbols equal art?”
– Pauline Kael on the film Blow-Up
Alejandro Jodorowsky is a man who deals in symbols, which is almost a silly thing to say considering that almost all artists are in some way working with linguistic, physical, or aural means to convey a larger point. Jodorowsky however is an artist who enjoys playing in the realm the obtuse. To paraphrase an apocryphal quote: a cigar is never really just a cigar with Jodorowsky. His movies are moving tapestries of symbols from multiple cultures and multiple studies of faith, which isn’t such a big surprise when you realize that Jodorowsky is, by all accounts a, citizen of the world. As he stated in a typewriter-written biography he handed to Roger Ebert at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival he “was born in Bolivia to Russian parents, lived in Chile, worked in Paris…directed 100 plays in Mexico and now live[s] in the United States.” Jodorowsky would take his well-traveled experience and multifaceted skill set (Jodorowsky has written comics and poetry, started and dissolved a theater movement, was an assistant to famous French mime Marcel Marceau, and was a Shaman) and inject it directly into his films.
His first feature length film was 1968’s Fando y Lis, an adaption of a play by Panic Movement co-founder Fernando Arrabal. The Panic Movement was a theatrical response to the Surrealist movement becoming accepted within the mainstream.The Panic Movement (named after the Greek god of goats, priapism, terror and laughter) was concerned with provoking and shocking the audience in the most visceral ways possible. Some of these ways included animals being sacrificed on stage, simulated sexual acts with symbolic phalluses and just downright bizarre imagery, such as two women covered in honey whipping Jodorowsky. Fando y Lis was the celluloid manifestation of a movement (even sparking a riot at its Mexico premiere) seemingly designed to confuse and disgust, but the film itself is very simply about two characters’ search for a mythical city called Tar that may or may not exist. The journey for the city itself and the surreal and strange happenings around it would all introduce Jodorowsky’s broad fascination with the journey to enlightenment. Jodorowsky’s enlightenment wasn’t of any one particular belief system, pulling from Buddhism, Shamanism and plethora of others, it would make sense that Jodorowsky’s next feature would connect with another crowd of people whose beliefs and influences were as broad as Jodorowsky’s own: the counterculture.
Jodorowsky’s second film, El Topo, would begin its legendary exclusively midnight run on December 18th, 1970 at the Elgin Theater, a theater specializing in cult and revival screenings aimed at the hippies and freaks of New York. The film is about a man (El Topo, “The Mole” in English) and his young son’s (Hijo, “son” in English, played by Jodorowsky’s own son Brontis) initial journey to defeat the four master gunslingers who hold sway over the land and represent different philosophy and belief. However after defeating the gunslingers El Topo is broken down and must go on different journey to dig himself and the deformed followers who worship him out of their cave and into the world, even if those outside the cave don’t want their presence. The film was met with success (packing screenings for weeks and attracting the attention and support of John Lennon and then manager of The Beatles, Allen Klein) and praise from some film critics for its almost extraterrestrial vision and freshness. It also was a smash hit with countercultural crowds that showed up en masse.They viewed the film as a psychedelic representation of their movement’s struggle (a movement that had symbolically ended after the Manson murders a year earlier) and a wish fulfillment of the counterculture’s attitude toward the mainstream, pointing to a scene near the end of the film where El Topo guns down an entire town for their rejection and slaughter of the “freaks” who lived with El Topo.
Some critics took other stances on the film. Some saw it as pandering to the counterculture. Pauline Kael wrote in her review of the film about Jodorowsky, “Jodorowsky has come up with something new: exploitation filmmaking jointed to sentimentality–the sentimentality of the counterculture” Other critics would dismiss the movie as just symbolic smoke and mirrors, images lacking substance that are only there to shock and excite (which is in line with Panic Movement philosophy). Roger Ebert, in talking about the film and its dense and obtuse symbolism, referred back to one of his own rules: “If you have to ask what something symbolizes, it doesn’t. Or it stands for itself.” Author of Midnight Movies J. Hoberman endorses both points and calls Jodorowsky an “aesthetic opportunist in a tradition shared with with professional symbol-mongers…Shuji Terayama, Fernando Arrabal, Jean Cocteau and Ken Russell.” Hoberman even points out that in El Topo’s appeal to the counterculture Jodorowsky overlooked the counterculture’s place as a “popularized, updated, mass-produced surrealism,” something Jodorowsky as a founder of the Panic Movement aimed to avoid. Jodorowsky did nothing to assuage these claims, even telling the Los Angeles Free Press that he wanted to be “the Cecil B. DeMille of the underground.”
Jodorowsky, maybe hearing the criticism or maybe viewing El Topo as a precursor to his true vision, would make what is largely considered his masterpiece: The Holy Mountain. Unlike El Topo, The Holy Mountain is a well-oiled machine in supporting its enlightenment theme. In short, the film is about false gods and personified beliefs following the teaching and path of a man named The Alchemist on a journey up the holy mountain. While I won’t get into what each character and symbol means (much smarter and more astute people have already done that), it’s pretty clear from how the film is laid out and pieced together that everything ties back to the film’s central conceit: What we are living in and seeing now is artifice, the reality lies beyond these artificial boundaries. It’s tighter and less obtuse than Jodorowsky’s other Panic Movement projects. The film even goes out of its way to make fun of the counterculture audience that made El Topo such a success by having a buffoonish stars-and-stripes-wearing hippie show up and talk about how the Tibetan Book of the Dead is a “trip.” The whole film reads like a refutation of the idea that Jodorowsky simply put evocative images on the screen for the hell of it or to pander to an audience. The Holy Mountain is a culmination of years of study and experimentation with eclectic schools of thought, but it’s all unified and more coherent in its purpose than any of his previous works.
Unfortunately The Holy Mountain would be met with indifference by the critical crowd at Cannes, but would go on to be a success abroad (it was the number two film in Italy behind Live and Let Die) and rival El Topo as a successful midnight mainstay. It ran for sixteen consecutive months on Fridays and Saturdays at midnight at the Waverly Theater in New York City. In the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune director Richard Stanley would sum up The Holy Mountain’s power thusly, “It feels like a work of art that come from a parallel world, from a totally different version of the film industry were there really are no limits.”
The Holy Mountain would serve as the end of this creative period for Jodorowsky. This would mark the final film in the Panic Movement, after being dissolved by Fernando Arrabal in 1973. Jodorowsky would helm a legendarily doomed Dune adaptation, but afterward he took The Holy Mountain’s message to heart about seeking reality. He states in a 1988 interview with Roger Ebert “Then I stopped making pictures. I said ‘this is illusion.’ I need to work with reality, find myself, discover what I want to say.” He would go on to make a different type of masterpiece in Santa Sangre, oddities like Tusk and The Rainbow Thief, and even pulled a Bob Fosse à la All That Jazz by making biopics about his own life with the films The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry. But for now The Holy Mountain remains the thesis statement for an artist who strives to tell the audience the mysteries of life in the most poetic ways possible. The film promises a great secret and it will not disappoint you.
Also on September 8th at 9:00 PM and September 10th at 6:30 PM are screenings of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s latest film, Endless Poetry.
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.