Performance Art on Drugs

The most psychedelic '70s film returns to the big screen

Writer/director/mystic/son of god/savior Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain is not only the pinnacle of psychedelic filmmaking; it's an unbelievably inventive expression of performance art, immersively sculptural set design and intelligently artistic mysticism.

It's so good and strange that it's hard to believe that it was even made. I like to imagine that when Jodorowsky went to pitch the film, the meeting with the studio heads sounded something like this:

"In the start of my film, a Christ figure, his face covered in flies, urinates on himself," says Jodorowsky, as he removes his own appendix.

"Uh, listen Alejandro, I don't know if the studio can get behind this," replies the corpulent production company head, his gold chains tangling in his chest hair.

"Just wait," says Jodorowsky, as he miraculously gives birth to a dove. "This Christ figure, he has a flower growing out of his hand, so a gang of naked boys with green genitals tie him to a cross and begin stoning him."

"No, I'm afraid we're going to have to pass."

"You must listen, because it is at this point that the quadriplegic dwarf leads the man to a public firing squad where tourists look forward to being raped by Mexican soldiers as a city of lizards is attacked by frogs dressed as conquistadors." Jodorowsky begins to levitate and emit pulses of dark energy.

"OK, that's it. Get out of my office."

"Let me continue: This man is then thrown on a pile of yams, and hundreds of papier maché copies are made of him. When he encounters the topless Catholic women with their pet chimpanzee, he begins to eat his own face."

"I'm calling security."

"I'm afraid you cannot. I've cut the phone lines, and I've locked the door. Also, my body is rigged so that if you touch me, I'll spray LSD and baby carrots at you."

"Let me out! Oh my god!"

"Yes. I am your god. Now listen ...

Actually, John Lennon and Yoko Ono financed this film, because they were the only two people on Earth who were psychedelic enough to give Jodorowsky the $750,000 he needed. Plus, it was 1973, and Hollywood was run by people who were naked and high.

The Holy Mountain is essentially a series of performance-art pieces and gorgeous installation sculptures strung together into a mystical narrative of psychotropic self-discovery. The Christ figure, after going through the above (yes, that's an actual summary of the plot), climbs a giant orange tower, crawls through a tiny tunnel, bursts into a rainbow hallway and meets an enlightened master who removes an octopus from his neck. After the master bathes the Christ figure in a tub with a baby hippo, the enlightened master makes the Christ figure cook his own feces until they turn into gold.

It's after this that strange events occur, including a gathering of six planetary avatars who join with the enlightened master and the Christ figure to travel to an island where a Bavarian man tries to get them to become poets instead of climbing the mountain that houses the immortals. I think there are some more amputee dwarfs, too, but that's merely a side note.

What makes The Holy Mountain so impressive are the sets and odd objects that Jodorowsky designed. Among the best are a giant, square machine with odd protuberances that jut forth when the machine is sexually stimulated. When the machine has an orgasm, and an alligator crawls forth from a sewer, and the blind man checks his wife's vagina to see if he's received an oracle about the future of his mattress company ... well, you get the idea.

It's sort of like watching Willy Wonka backwards and underwater while naked with hippos. Only with more nipples and candy.

So, really, this is the most psychedelic film ever made. From the early '70s computer music to the early '70s naked orgy and bell-bottoms sequences, through the early '70s hermetic astrological mysticism, it is, as the kids now say, "yes."

And it has three great advantages over most psychedelic cinema. First, Jodorowsky ultimately knows the difference between his mystical dreams and mundane reality, and he's able to make intelligent commentary on tourism, filmmaking and cultural imperialism without ever breaking his magical spell. Second, the construction of the strange performance pieces isn't just druggy; it's also tremendously inventive and apt. And finally, The Holy Mountain is simply mind-blowingly awesome.

Little-known fact about Jodorowsky: He can turn fish into adverbs by licking them. Also, Matthew Barney should send Jodorowsky a monthly check, because Jodorowsky invented the performance-art/visual-sculpture film format that's made Barney so rich and well laid. In fact, if Barney were smarter and more inventive and less concerned that art critics approve of him and also much, much higher, he might make a film like The Holy Mountain.

But I doubt it, because there is no other film like The Holy Mountain. Except maybe Jodorowsky's other films, the psychedelic Western El Topo and the psychodramatic carnival fable Santa Sangre. But as great as those films are, Holy Mountain is probably his masterpiece. Almost devoid of plot, but overloaded with visual and aural invention, it's like drugs that are good for you.