Feature Lost Classic

Lost Classic: The Holy Mountain, or, How to Awaken to Society’s Surreal, Unnerving Shadow Self 

When the sun is high, it casts the most unyielding shadows. And in Jodorowsky’s unflinchingly off-kilter masterpiece The Holy Mountain (1973), the sun is always out, illuminating the improbable tangents of the human condition and stirring the dark impulses that lurk in our culture’s crevices. 

As a piece of high-camp, low-inhibition social commentary, The Holy Mountain pulls out the gun and executes without blinking. With biting innuendos about the role of war, lust, and venality in our polite society, and discomfiting visuals of unorthodox symbolism and the mortification of the flesh, Jodorowsky forgoes the platitudes and confronts the human condition with a sustained exercise in exposure therapy. 

During the course of this sensory cold plunge, we awaken to the rot at the core, the cynicism and rabidity recast as cool commercialism and sensual indulgence. We are beckoned forth, figuratively, yes, but also literally, as Jodorowsky guides us through the nether territories of the sociocultural psyche writ large. He becomes our symbolic muse, our material alchemist, a figure capable of unmasking our beloved symbols as those of a society grown corpulent and shameless.

Jodorowsky, in his role as the Alchemist, commands the Thief (Horacio Salinas), our protagonist,  “You are excrement. You can change yourself into gold.” And thus the Thief begins an improbable awakening into the promised land of his authentic, unvarnished self, a place unbound from the mores of his surroundings. Or does he? Stay tuned.

The Alchemist and the Thief encounter various personifications of our collective malaise on their voyage: a war toy maker, a weapons manufacturer, a financial spinster. The Alchemist will lead each of them on a strange journey to their inner truth, but only after they burn their money and a wax effigy of themselves. In order to undertake this surreal voyage into an awakened state, they must irrevocably cut ties with the mess of materialism and hedonism that has reduced their spirits. 

Their journey of transformation takes them to the ultimate pinnacle, the Holy Mountain, where they will court the immortal masters, seeking their secrets to eternal life. But upon this encounter, they discover that the immortal masters are frauds, merely faceless entities with neither wisdom nor salvation on offer. But is that such a horror? Jodorowsky tells us, “We came in search of the secret of immortality, to be like gods, and here we are, mortals – more human than ever. If we have not obtained immortality, at least we have obtained reality.”

Jodorwosky, our Alchemist, who has, throughout our journey, offered us the implicit promise of unmasking the truth behind the surface of things, turns to us, and as the camera zooms out to reveal the apparatus of the film set, he severs the fourth wall. He speaks directly to us, letting us down with a commanding send-off, “Goodbye to the Holy Mountain. Real life awaits us.”

What of this final disappointment? Perhaps it is Jodoroswky proscribing the terms of our awakening, slyly suggesting that ultimate transcendence is a chimera, and that we may never escape the terms and conditions of our soulless, morally impoverished culture. Perhaps we cannot outrun the treachery and debauchery of the society we have built because it is within us. And a journey of transcendence undertaken with the aspiration of escaping what lies within is a folly comparable to turning excrement to gold.   

By Emma Kansiz

Emma Kansiz tries to live her life in the spirit of the mystical child warrior Atreyu from the Neverending Story. She loves learning about the intersection between geography, landscape, and cinema. She loves experimental films, campy horror, and Americana infused road movies. Her favorite pastimes are taking photographs of small towns at sunset and sitting around a campfire in the middle of the forest. She enjoys writing about visual culture and album covers at her website The Wonder List and hopes to one day meet Jay & Silent Bob.

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