This is a chapter excerpt from the 2019 book, The Bizarro Encyclopedia of Film Volume 1, penned by myself & John Skipp. Enjoy!
Good art is fun, silly, whimsical, deep and gives you the odd inner tremor. Great art is all of those wonderful descriptors but with more vibration. But when art grows fleshy and transitory, when it wraps itself around and within your very own DNA strands, is when it becomes magick. (Note the k, since it helps separate fantastic parlor tricks from something that lies deeper outside of our typical tangential experience.) When you enter the cinematic realm of Alejandro Jodorowsky, you are in the presence of art that can shatter your heart, mind, and perception, only to help rebuild it into something more strong and rich.
Born in Tocapilla, Chile in 1929, Jodorowsky worked extensively in the theater and moved to Paris in the 1950's. After making LA CRAVATE, a surrealistic short film based on Thomas Mann's novella THE TRANSPOSED HEADS in 1957, Jodorowsky would go on to be a founder of the Panic Movement, along with artist, writer and actor Roland Topor (who was great as Renfield in Werner Herzog's 1979 NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE and also wrote the novel that would become the basis for Roman Polanski's 1976 film THE TENANT) and playwright and future filmmaker himself, Fernando Arrabal. The Panic Movement was an art collective that was the riot-inducing child of the Surrealism and Antonin Artaud. Only lasting for a few years, the seeds planted with the Panic Movement have proven to be long lasting, between Arrabal's own film masterworks, VIVA LA MUERTE (1971) and I WILL WALK LIKE A CRAZY HORSE (1973) and Jodorowsky's feature film debut, 1968's FANDO Y LIS.
Based on Arrabal's 1958 play of the same name, Jodorowsky's FANDO Y LIS emerged onto the film scene in a bloody scream of birth, with its debut at the 1968 Acapulco Film Festival resulting in a literal riot. (Forget standing ovations. When your art inspires people to actually revolt and pelt your getaway vehicle with rocks, then you know you have truly tapped into something really sacred.) In pure surrealist fashion, FANDO Y LIS opens with medium-close up of a white-haired porcelain girl-woman thoughtfully eating the petals of a rose.
From there, the brutal poetry of this Universe set after "the Great Catastrophe" is framed like a fairy tale. The intro credits roll with a narrator (Alejandro himself, his voice sounding rich with co-conspiratorial secret), who shares "Once upon a time..." and tells us that all of the cities are left in rubble save for the mystical city of Tar. A series of old German woodcut-style art appears as he talks, including imagery like a nude female body with a feminine and masculine head, as well as a man surrounded by flames. (Art of a similar style would also be incorporated in Arrabal's intro for VIVA LA MUERTE.)
Two vulnerable figures, Fando (Sergio Kleiner) and Lis (Diana Mariscal), are placed in this landscape of this desolate world of dirt and rubble, trying to find the city of water and wine, Tar. (The narrator cryptically informs us that “If you know where to look for it, you will find it.”) The film shows their frail journey while revealing through dream-like fragments, the similar but different inner scars Fando and Lis have earned throughout their young lives.
Their childlike nature shines through early on, with a shot of Lis surrounded by a vast array of broken dolls, dirty and cracked with neglect, while Fando plays with plastic toy soldiers, then sets a dead spider on fire. The latter image will be repeated in quick cuts with the film's use of a repeated images as fast cuts used as a transition. This was pretty radical stuff, especially for 1968. A year later films like EASY RIDER would use similar techniques, though compared to FANDO Y LIS, that classic counter-culture biker flick looks more like GIDGET.
The two run into a series of strange and occasionally menacing sorts, with each encounter often revealing a layer of past that explains the damage. Early on, they stumble upon a group of well-dressed society types, dancing with each other as a man plays the piano that is literally on fire. The elegant mob swarm around Lis, while a woman pulls Fando away. The flurry of boundary-pushing limbs triggers a flashback to little Lis in a theater watching a lone puppeteer (Jodorowsky). Cutting all the strings to the weak-kneed marionette, he starts to sweep the doll up with a broom. This elicits Lis to playfully jump up and try to grab the puppet. The man pulls her up to the stage, uttering to the little girl, "Let me show you my world." He pushes Lis up over a wall, where she encounters eccentric theater types. At first. Things turn nasty on a dime though when a group of men approach her, saying things like "What a cute little girl! What nice legs! Lie down with us." They swarm her down, with the screen being blunt forced with her screams and cries, while the film cuts to a shot of a hand crushing an raw egg. More potent imagery tied to childhood trauma has rarely been as used in such a disturbing and poetic way. It's intense in a way that is not exploitative but honest. It also gives some insight into possibly why Lis, who was fully mobile as a child, is paralyzed from the waist down as an adult.
While poor adult Lis is left to fend for herself, the women of the group blindfold Fando, leading and teasing him around an auto junkyard, ultimately tricking him into kissing a man. The cruel upper-crusts mock and thank him for "entertaining us." Fando finds his way back to Lis, embracing her. The two then stage a mock post-death ritual, noting "How beautiful is a funeral?" Soon they get stuck in a large ditch, only to be freed by a straggly bearded mystic, who cackles like sanity left that wheel-house a LONG time ago. The man then tries to force himself on Lis, who is lying on a pile of thorns. Fando manages to pull the man off, who then runs to his female plan B, "the beautiful child.” The "child" in question is a nude pregnant woman who breastfeeds this worst kind of magical rascal, who ends up doing a little dance and jump after feeding time.
The love between Fando and Lis, while pure, is soon revealed to be fraught with an intense amount of unhealthy dynamics. Finding a large mud pit, which is littered with a multitude of writhing, languidly orgiastic bodies that border on revenant, Fando places Lis' feet in the mud and acts like he is going to leave her. He does remove her, only to drag her limp body around, then walk away as she weeps right from the gut. Fando meets his second batch of cruel ladies, a small group of old women playing as gambling, oversexed grotesques. One woman tries to lure Fando over to her with canned peaches, only to call him a “faggot” when he walks off, resulting with her squeezing the wet fruit in her fist, providing a twin image with the egg crushing hand from Lis' childhood assault.
A group of younger women arrives, hurtling bowling balls at Fando, while an especially beautiful woman emerges with a whip and lashes the business end of it upon his body. But it is the sight of a man in an open grave that makes Fando pass out, as the deceased gets out of his grave. With help from the women, he puts Fando in the now vacant spot. The man then attacks the women, with Fando coming to, yelling out "Father! Father!"
Fando has a vision of a topless Lis lying in a supine Christ-on-the-Cross pose upon a pile of cow skulls. He sees a man kissing a baby doll, only to viciously stab it in the crotch with a blade, gauging out a large hole. As the man starts to place worms inside the cloth maw, Fando screams out “Lis” and runs to her. He licks her dirty feet as she rolls her eyes in ecstasy, echoing a fascinating permutation of Christ washing the feet of his disciples. (Obviously, that is a different type of religious ecstasy!)
A moment of lightness follows when a large group of drag queens arrive. These Amazonian ladies dance and vamp around to some great Jazz from Hell dissonance while Fando and Lis smile. Unlike almost everyone else we see that the pair encounter, there is zero malice from these friendly transvestites. In fact, they end up giving a Fando and Lis a gender swamp makeover, with the former in a ratty wig and cocktail dress and the latter dressed up in Fando's clothes. The group moves on, with Lis caressing Fando aggressively until her hand lands on his breast, pulling fabric out of the cup, making the two of them erupt into childlike laughter.
One of the most fantastical scenes bursts out, showing a fever dream of Fando and Lis painting their names on each others bodies with black paint. They then paint rhythmic repetitions of "Fando" and "Lis" all over the white room until they are almost blended in with the environment. It all culminates with the two of them throwing paint all over the room and each other, creating a cavern of ink. Lis has full use of her legs, indicating a dream of freedom of movement.
From there, we see a blind man calling out for blood, resulting in his father taking a syringe full of Lis' and drinking it out of a small glass. An older, slightly mannish woman gluts herself, as Fando is told to “Kiss your mother, she's about to die.” He flashes back to himself as a little boy at what appears to be his father's execution. A man cuts a bird out of his father's chest and then stuffs it into a laughing woman's mouth. Fando as a grown man attacks his mother, first choking her and then pulling off her false eyelashes and wiping her mouth. Ultimately they embrace, with her telling her son, “Thank you for killing me” as he walks her to an open grave. Fando grows more and more cruel to Lis, with devastating results, though by the very end, redemption and the mystical city of Tar itself take on a whole other light and meaning.
FANDO Y LIS is many things but the central crux of it is that it is a tale of two people crippled by the cruelty of life and their fellow man. Lis is robbed of personal mobility by being molested as a little girl and Fando is emotionally crippled because of his oddly distant and self-focused mother and the murder of his father. Both are ailments of the mind for the two and with such things, finding a cure in a landscape riddled with so little love is beyond a thorny riddle. Lynch-pinning this are the dual lead performances of Sergio Kleiner and Diana Mariscal as the titular Fando and Lis. They are so perfectly cast, with Kleiner managing to pull off the violent duality of Fando. His savagery is not heartless but heart-scarred. He is vulnerable, sweet and boyish at times, as well as angry and vicious. You never hate him but loathe how life has truly stunted him. Mariscal is positively luminescent as the fragile and doll-like Lis. She easily projects this quality that makes anyone whose core isn't fully jaded feel instantly protective. Kleiner would go on to have a very fruitful career, especially on Mexican television. Mariscal sadly disappeared from film altogether by the mid-1970's after a premature retirement. She passed away in July of 2013 in a hit and run accident.
Like all of Jodorowsky's work, there is nothing here that is weird for weird's sake. All of the imagery has meaning and the layers have further layers underneath. Imagine a voluminous hand-stitched tapestry depicting the words of vast poetry, the dreams of man and the worlds of spirit and then your mind has understood the beginnings of Jodorowsky's cinema. If FANDO Y LIS looked at journey and redemption through surrealist imagery, then Jodorowsky's next film, 1970's EL TOPO would take these elements, add copious religious imagery and set it all in a flammable arthouse powder keg.
EL TOPO, which translates to “The Mole,” was Jodorowsky approximating the Western film genre and using its assorted tropes to infuse a tale about life and death in its many guises—both corporeal and metaphysical. The film opens with a man clad in black, the titular El Topo (Jodorowsky) riding a dark horse with his nude save for shoes, son (played by Jodorowsky's real life son, Brontis). They stop, with El Topo telling his son that now that he is seven years old , his a man. He has his son bury a picture of his mother and his first toy. Riding off into the distance, we see the portrait and toy peeking out from the sand.
Being a man means seeing the world's brutality first hand, which happens as the two enter a small village that has been massacred. Shrieks and moans of the dying merge as ambient noise, as the father and son pass by disemboweled animals and bloodied people. Bodies hang from the rafters of a church and a dying man crawls to El Topo and Hijo. Capping off the death show mural is El Topo handing his gun to his son to put the poor townsman out of his misery.
The bandits in this universe have a special kind of perversity. The first group we see include a man making a crude drawing of a nude woman on a rock and writhing on top of her, while one of his comrades sniffs, licks and even inserts part of a woman's shoe in his mouth. One of them sees El Topo's rings through a spyglass and launch into an attack. Placing his young son behind him, El Topo deftly kills all of them but not without getting answers about who was responsible for the village massacre. Getting his answers, he removes all of his rings and places them inside the man's now dead mouth, fulfilling a grim irony about greed.
Another group of criminals, headed by a man known as The Colonel, are staked out at a Franciscan Mission. The group of monks there are sexually degraded by the Colonel's men, one of whom is sporting three hats. The men slow dance with the monks and paints one of the monk's mouths red with blood. The sole biological female at the Mission, Mara (Mara Lorenzio), comes out of the stone tepee to get water and is greeted by the loined-up men who are riding iguanas like horses. Their words and movements shriek gang rape but they are halted when she reminds them that the Colonel will kill whoever touches her.
Speaking of The Colonel, Mara helps him get dressed and he is comically dandified, right down to glued down hair and royal military drag. We first see him as a sad looking middle-aged man with a bloated paunch and a hairline hanging on by a tiny handful of hairs. She helps him transform, complete with girdle, make-up, a glued-down hairpiece and a gaudy militaristic uniform. The blowhard-peacock emerges outside, as a mass of pigs sprint out behind him. His men cower and The Colonel makes them bark, referring to them as his perros. Apparently tired of Mara, he offers her up to his dogs, with El Topo arriving just in time to spare her a nasty gang rape. The men are shot and El Topo confronts The Colonel within a stone circle, stripping him of his clothes, shooting his toupee off and finally, murders him by gunning him down directly in the crotch. Before his death, The Colonel asks him “Who are you to judge me?” with El Topo answering, “I am God.” This castration by gunfight results with Mara and El Topo sort of dancing around each other, like two cautious animals sniffing each other out. The boy tries to get in between them, with Mara knocking him down to run towards El Topo. Forsaking his own son, he leaves him with the Monks, telling him “Destroy me. Depend on no one.”
Riding off with Mara, the two find a small oasis with bitter water that he transforms to taste sweet. They find eggs in the sand and when she complains of thirst, he mentions “With my soul, I thirst for God, the living God.” and then shoots a rock that bursts out water. She quickly grows bored and starts to circle him while he meditates. Erupting, he jumps up and rapes Mara, making her scream to the heavens, with the film cutting to her drinking water from a phallic rock.
She asks of love and when he says that he does love her, she tells him that she does not and that to earn her love, he has to be “the best.” The best is defined by El Topo defeating the four great gun masters that live throughout the desert. He notes that the desert is a circle, so to find the masters, they must travel in a spiral.
The cycle of masters that El Topo must encounter is a step closer to a form of death. The first master is a beautiful young blind man who is protected by two men, one armless and the other legless, who are joined together in a phalanx of one. He resides in a small circular stone building that possesses no door, only a hatch on the roof to enter the interior. This Master tells him that "I don't fear killing you because there is no death." El Topo speaks of his fear of fighting this man to Mara, explaining "Even though I'll win, I'll lose." Blinded by a lust for winning, she ignores this and encourages him to cheat.
The Master's long hair is braided by the feet of his guard in preparation. El Topo ends up winning, though crumples immediately to the ground while Mara laughs and guns down the two guards, separating them. El Topo manages to get up and place the two human pieces back together as whole as they both die.
A woman in black who speaks with a man's voice, looking all the world like a glamorous reflection of El Topo, has started to follow them. El Topo soon finds the second Master and his mother, who greets them with tarot cards, stating “The deeper you fall, the higher you'll get.” Her son, looking like a comic book character clad in furs and physically built like a bull, creates delicate geometric shapes out of pure copper. He tells El Topo that perfection is “...to get lost. In order to get lost, you have to love. You don't love. You destroy, you kill and no one loves you.” He speaks of his deep love of his mother, whose outdoor table sports a crucified owl. He ends up shooting the second Master in the back, leaving his mother to cradle her dead son.
The Woman in Black and Mara have a whip fight, with the former being the victor and kissing the bloody wounds on the latter's back. El Topo finds a dead rabbit and a crow, which lead him to a living rabbit that is attached to a rope. This trails to the third Master, who is surrounded by a throng of rabbits. He lets El Topo know that he does not distrust him and offers to play music with him, noting his challenger's flute. Bonding over music, this Master tells El Topo that he loathes himself and notes that his presence is a black plague, killing off the surrounding rabbits. The third Master shoots him and succeeds until it is revealed that El Topo has placed a small copper disc under his clothes that deflected the bullet, giving him the chance to shoot and kill his opponent. He then buries the third Master with dead rabbits and palms Mara's bare breasts with his bloodied hands.
Lastly, there is the fourth Master, an old man who long ago traded his gun for a butterfly net. He offers a fist fight with El Topo, with the latter not able to connect his hits with the nimble old master. The old mam tells him that life does not mean anything and to prove it, shoots himself, telling El Topo, “You lost” before he dies. Screaming from the gut, he stumbles to the site of the third Master, where the pile of bunnies bursts into flames. The first Master's body is covered in honey and honeycomb.
“I have been spilled like water and my bones have been dislocated. Why has God forsaken me?”
Stumbling midway on a bridge, the Woman in Black challenges him. El Topo walks towards her as she shoots both palms of his hands and the tops of his feet, committing a forced Old West style stigmata. She looks at Mara and tells her, “It's him or me” and hands over the gun. Mara makes her decision and shoots him in the side, then leaves with the Woman in Black. A small group of people, including a little girl deformed from what looks like the results of polio, pick him up and save him.
The second section of the film begins with El Topo, now with frizzy bleached blonde hair and make-up, sitting in a large cave with his eyes closed while holding a flower. A pretty woman who is a dwarf visits him, freshening up his make-up and giving into a chaste kiss. This wakes him up and he states that "I am not a god." This woman, Mujercita (Jacqueline Luis), tells him that she has been taking care of him since she was a child. She is part of a village that has been trapped underground for years, with nary any help from the above-ground townspeople due to their deformities caused by incest. He then meets an old woman who suckles the hindquarters of a large beetle. El Topo mirrors the elder's actions and has a complete come-apart, with the old woman giving birth to him, making him now, literally, a re-born man. Mujercita cuts off all of his hair and beard. Donning a brown robe that is exactly similar to a monk's. He comes up with a plan to build a tunnel to help free the underground villagers. El Topo and Mujercita manage to climb out and head towards "the great town."
The great town looks almost perfectly cut out of any classic Western film. That is, save for the inhabitants who are a throng of absolute living ghouls. There are people uniformly marching with signs featuring a pyramid with an eye in the center. (An old symbol that is also called "the all-seeing eye" it is best known to Americans as being on the back of every one-dollar bill.) A black man gets chased, terrorized and branded in the middle of town, much to the smiles of some well-dressed society women. Men dressed in white are ridden like horses and when they try to escape, they get shot in the back for their troubles. This is the scene that El Topo and Mujercita are arriving to.
They decide to busk in town to help raise money for the digging project, which initially works fairly well for them. Noting the hellishness that constantly simmers over the barely polite veneer of the town, Mujercita notes to him that the town is worse than the cave, but El Topo simply responds with, "I'll keep digging." The town's Sheriff hires them to help clean the jail toilets, which he makes sure is freshly used before they start scrubbing. Meanwhile, a handsome young monk who looks a lot like a younger version of El Topo arrives to the town. He meets the local priest, who is found kneeling before a bottle of wine. He does seem legitimately happy to see the monk and has him attend one of his sermons. The latter centers around the priest and his parish playing Russian Roulette with a blank bullet, unbeknownst to anyone save for the religious leader. Each time someone survives the game, it's proof of the glory of God. When the priest whispers his parlor trick to the Monk, the latter takes the gun and puts a real bullet inside it. A little boy grabs the gun and loses the game.
The priest declares “the circus is over,” leaving the church to the monk who pulls off all the sheets painted with the “all seeing eye.” The local “Decent Women League” declare a local bar “decent” and leave. (These same “decent” women are seen earlier obscenely harassing and raping their black servant, only to accuse him of trying to violate all of them.) The proprietor of this establishment beckons El Topo and Mujercita inside, offering them the chance to earn some extra money. He leads them to the bar's basement, which is where the real den of money and sin reside. They first are requested to do their kissing act, which is an innocent gag where Mujercita uses a tiny ladder to climb up and kiss El Topo. After this, by gunpoint, they are requested to do “the wedding night.” In one of the most touching and yet, heartbreaking scenes in the film, Mujercita comforts him, saying “I love you. They do not exist.”
Mujercita ends up getting pregnant, with El Topo rejoicing in the news and takes her to go get married. It is at the church that they meet the monk who turns out to be, of course, the son of El Topo. The latter promises to kill him but agrees to wait until the tunnel is finished. He ends up joining the two in helping out with their busking and assorted cleaning duties. When push comes to shove, his son utters "I cannot kill my master," making him more evolved than his father had previously been. As they finish the tunnel, the underground people rush out, running towards the town. The climax, which is two-fold, is devastating and will leave a stain long after the film has stopped running.
While EL TOPO might be the most accessible out of Jodorowsky's first three feature films, it is still a challenging and unforgettable experience. With an artist like Jodorowsky, you simply do not just watch his films, but are put in the passenger seat for each and every journey. It successfully marries the beautiful with the brutal. Bright blue skies and golden deserts are littered with death, splattered grue and human pain. The most beautiful of all though is El Topo's relationship with Mujercita. Their love and affection is the orchid in this charnel hothouse. Jodorowsky and Luis play off of each other exquisitely.
Out of all the ways that EL TOPO takes assorted Western film tropes on their head and vivisects them is the role of the villain itself. Typically there is a singular bad guy that the hero or antihero must face in the ultimate duel. Interestingly, El Topo begins as the man in black, which in classic Hollywood style Western cliche, usually signified the bad guy. While he does some fairly despicable things in the first half, he shows enough glimmer to make him more than a 2-D character. So he is not a villain nor are any of the Masters, obviously. As dysfunctional as Mara and even the bandits are, they can all be seen as people warped by a life of dirt to the flesh survival. Instead, the real villain is society itself. The ones who try to stuff their id and darker nature under a proper guise, which in turn only perverts everything they do and all that surrounds them. They are not seekers and are formed to be wholly incapable of basic human emotions like empathy and kindness.
Jodorowsky is absolutely captivating in the role and he accurately illustrates a changing and evolving person. Luis is charming as Mujercita, to an extent that it is too bad that she never popped up again in any notable films. It is also amazing getting to see Brontis Jodorowsky here as a little kid, especially after watching his absolutely blazing performance as his own grandfather in Jodorowsky's 2013 's THE DANCE OF REALITY. One of the first bandits is played by Alfonso Arau, who would have a fruitful career, including playing other western bandits including in the 1987 Hollywood comedy, THE THREE AMIGOS.
EL TOPO would become one of the earliest "midnight movies," signifying a time when films that were considered outside the parameter of mainstream were played at midnight for crowds specifically looking for something different. This is the same era where films like John Waters' PINK FLAMINGOS (1972) and Jim Sharman's THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975) would take bloom. (For more information on that halcyon phenomenon, please check out J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum's Midnight Movies. It is required cult film reading...after this book, of course!) EL TOPO found further notoriety by being championed by John Lennon and would be distributed in America thanks to Beatles manager, Allen Klein. (Klein was also Lennon's solo manager around that time.)
Klein would also go on to produce and finance Jodorowsky's 1973 film, THE HOLY MOUNTAIN. Trying to dice out THE HOLY MOUNTAIN in any sort of linear way is a foolhardy enterprise. To truly bury yourself into even half of the nooks and crannies of this film would take at least a novella. At least. Could anyone wholly describe a psychotropic spiritual journey with a palmful of paragraphs? Because that is what THE HOLY MOUNTAIN truly is. It is Jodorowsky's LAWRENCE OF ARABIA.
Epic in both visual, aural and subject scope, this is the kind of gift one can receive when a real artist has the benefit of getting truly solid funding. Which is how exactly it should be. Does the world really need the next Michael Bay BJ-wank-o-rama CGI-shit fest while guys like Jodorowsky are having to crowdfund? Absolutely fucking not. So to give you an idea of this great film, regard this section as your amuse-bouche into the world of THE HOLY MOUNTAIN. (No TGIF horseshit Jack Daniels buffalo wings here!)
The film's plot is less traditional story and more like a large, taut canvas for Jodorowsky's imagination and soul to accurately explode on every single untouched fiber. But for the sake of this chapter and for those of you uninitiated, I will do my best. The opening scenes reveal Jodorowsky as The Alchemist. Clad in all black and sporting a large tall hat, he prepares for a ritual in a black & white tiled room. Two women who are styled as bobbed-blonde-Hollywood-glamor twins flank him. He ritualistically wipes the makeup off of their faces, pulls off their fake nails, strips their clothes and begins to cut and shave their heads. The stark contrast of their bodies, naked and shorn of hair, crouched next to the mysterious and entirely clad Alchemist is one of the film's most iconic images. (This scene would also be re-enacted almost wholesale in Marilyn Manson's music video for his song "No Reason.")
After that intro credits sequence, a thief (Horacio Salinas) is lying in the streets with a face full of flies and openly soiling himself. A small man missing his hands comes over and cleans the thief's face with his stumps. A horde of children, all of them naked save for some green paint covering their genitals swarm in and pick up the thief. They place him on a wooden “T” and start to throw stones at him until he comes to and steps down, looking physically like the classic Western depiction of Christ. (IE. White skin, long brown hair, blue eyes, slender frame, etc.) The armless man shares a spliff with him and the two laugh and hug. The town they are centered in is not unlike a modern day version of the Western berg in EL TOPO. People march while holding up skinned and flayed lambs crucified on the cross, while white tourists gleefully take pictures and 8mm film of locals getting executed. (All of whom bleed blue, black and yellow hued blood.) One executioner starts raping an all too willing leggy blonde tourist, while her husband has the Thief hold a film camera so he can pose in front of his violated wife.
There's the Great Toad & Chameleon Circus which starts out adorably whimsical...at first. Several small chameleons are colorfully festooned like Aztec warriors standing very zen and regal among small replicas of the pyramids. It gets scary pretty quickly when the invading toads are introduced. The invaders are swamped in, eating, for real, some of the lizards. The ones not munching look pretty stressed and then the whole structure ends up exploding, revealing a nauseous amphibian and reptile death-a-go-go.
The Thief and his friend pass by the "Christs for Sale" stand, which features rows and rows of crucified Christ-figures, all ready and waiting for the capitalist dollar. The vendors have the Thief carry a large wooden cross for the excited tourists, then, later on, get him to chug a large bottle of alcohol. The method of their madness works, getting him good and passed out, all for the purpose to of making a mold of his body for more of their life-sized Christ statues. There's a perverse nod to the Pieta, with a vendor sporting bleached facial hair, make-up and feminine religious robes and hood, cradling the Thief. The Thief wakes up completely surrounded by the Christ statues literally created in his image and freaks out. Enraged, he whips the vendors and destroys most of the statues.
A group of prostitutes, all ranging in ages from the older end of middle-age to a little girl, plus a chimpanzee, pray in a church. Walking on the streets, an old man picks out the child, kisses her tiny hand, plucks out his false eye, then puts it into her hand and kisses her hand some more. You will never unsee this.
The Thief, carrying around one of the few intact Christ intact statues, ends up eating its face off and then sends the rest of the body into the air with an array of red and blue balloons. The prostitutes follow him all the way to a sky-high skinny orange brick building. Much like the first Master's building in EL TOPO, there is no proper front door. Instead of an entrance through the roof, this building has a circle at the very top. A large hook drops down from the entrance. Seeking gold, the Thief brushes off the food originally offered on it and is drawn up the building.
Breaking through the white paper membrane greeting him, he arrives at a rainbow (or more accurately, perhaps, a chakra) hued labyrinth. At the end is the Alchemist, now clad in all white and sitting in a chair that has two white and black stuffed ram attached to it. Standing near him is a striking woman nude save for religious script written all over her body (appropriately known as The Written Woman) and a two-humped camel.
If things were strange before, they are about to get full tilt boogie, both for us and the Thief. A small blue octopus is removed from a lacerated large boil on the back of the Thief's neck and he is then bathed in a beautiful pool by the two while a baby hippo cries out. The Alchemist asks the Thief if he wants gold and he excitedly nods yes. The gold in question is created from the Thief's own excrement, showing the absolutely purest of alchemies. They enter a spinning room that has nine figures on the wall. In addition to the Thief and the Written Woman, there are seven people who will become the Thief's companions. The Alchemist tells him that they are "thieves like you" but instead of being poor common criminals, they include politicians, industrialists, etc. (The more things change, the more they stay the same.)
In a captivating array of sequences, we meet these companions. The first is Fon (Juan Ferrara) who is head of a textiles and beauty empire that was built by his father. The latter is still alive though now confined to a wheelchair. All of his major decision making is based on the dry/moist ratio in the nethers of his wife's mummified corpse. Fon makes a point to sleep with key workers in the factory, elevating them to secretaries and wives. (But only during working hours.) There's Isla (Adriana Page), a beautiful and androgynous woman who dresses like a man and is a weapons manufacturer. In addition to your standard bombs and guns, she also develops various types of biochemical weapons. There are specialized guns for the counter-culture, since "Young generations needs arms for its marches and sit-ins."
There are psychedelic shotguns and grenade necklaces, as well as weapons sporting an assortment of religious iconography. Klen (Burt Kleiner) is an artist who has a literal factory for his art, right down to employing an assembly line process approach. There's his biggest project, "The Love Machine." His beautiful wife stays at home playing piano in their mansion while he and his paid for lover (Re Debris aka Re Styles, who was a dancer, singer and cover model for some of The Tubes' most seminal work) plays around and tests his sexualized yet homogenized creations.
There is Sel (Valerie Jodorowsky), whose "customers are children." She is first seen as a glittery, whimsical clown in the streets riding a large elephant. Arriving at the Sel Foundation building, she changes from a colorful yarn hair merrymaker to a severe 1940's style business-vamp. Her workers are largely sad looking old folks. Part of the Sel Foundation's activity includes manufacturing "War toys" for children, which includes some great looking propaganda-style comics book starring a hero called "Captain Captain." Their main aim? To condition children to hate their future enemy.
Berg (Nicky Nichols) is the financial adviser to the President and lives with a woman sporting turquoise hair (and a merkin) who is akin to the uber-bizarro love child of Divine circa FEMALE TROUBLE and a two-bit burlesque dancer gone to seed. They bottle feed their pet snake and she writhes around on a large toy horse as part of their foreplay. Berg doesn't seem quite as a bad as the others, comparatively, especially next to Axon (Richard Rutowski). Axon is the chief of a large police force who operate like a cult. He publicly castrates the newest initiate who is then taken up to a blue room brimming with properly organized jars of severed testicles. It's a room full of testes. This is both horrific and amazing. Last but not least is Lut (Luis Lomeli). An architect whose money-hungry aim pushes him to come up with the idea that "Man doesn't need a home, he needs a shelter." This approach takes the working class, sets them up with no electricity or water, conditions them to eat only at the factory and then sleep single person in these coffin-like beds.
The Alchemist assembles everyone together and tells them "You have power and money but you are mortal." He speaks of seeking the secrets of the immortals and heading to the holy mountain of Lotus Island. First, they must become a collective being and burn all of their money. After that, they then must destroy the image of the self by burning all of their mannequin counterparts that had been placed on the wall. Their heads freshly shaved, their true spiritual voyage begins. Every individual has to face their fears, which reveals spiders, fighting dogs and being sprayed in the face by a figure with lactating Jaguar nipples. Meaning, nipples that are literally dual Jaguar heads spitting out a steady stream of milk. From there, everything leads to a twist ending that I dare not spoil but that is a glove-tight fit for the rest of the film.
THE HOLY MOUNTAIN brilliantly explores not only matters like mysticism and growing as a spiritual being, but also the many facets that corrupt our world. In EL TOPO and even FANDO Y LIS, the focus is more centralized with peeks at the world at large that we live in. Issues like religious corruption are certainly touched upon in EL TOPO, but not quite to the vicious and accurate levels of THE HOLY MOUNTAIN. Each companion is someone who has taken some things that are pure and have spoiled them with personal greed and lust for power. Creating toys for children to specifically shape them in a harmful way is hideous but yet, such things certainly do exist in more subtle ways. The artist taking something sacred like creating and turning it into a crude product is another type of human pollution, not to mention the exploitation of the poor and working classes, especially in the case of both Lut and Fon. The former is screwing over his employees literally, while the other is making it so that it can happen figuratively. It just takes a handful of wrong-hearted, moneyed and powerful leaders to harm and contaminate millions. We see it every day, to the point that THE HOLY MOUNTAIN feels in some ways more timely now than ever.
The way that Jodorowsky integrates his messages is a revelation. The continual references to the Tarot, which reigns fiercely here, is a perfect example. In the hands of a master, there is zero danger for anything to feel like new age navel gazing or gross overstatements about the actual nature and meanings of the Tarot. Case in point, how many horror movies and TV shows have you seen where someone gets the Death card and it is instant-spooky-bad-omen time? Exactly. Meanwhile, it is actually a symbol of change and transformation, meaning it is more about spiritual death and rebirth than literal physical death. There's a fantastic scene early on where the Alchemist tells the Thief that "the tarot will teach you how to create a soul." Also, the Thief himself is basically a human version of the first card of the major arcana, The Fool. Jodorowsky is a legitimate expert on Tarot and has written books on the matter, as well as doing public showings of his human tarot. (For a taste of that, definitely check out Louis Machet's excellent documentary, LA CONSTELLATION JODOROWSKY (1994.)
THE HOLY MOUNTAIN, like all of Jodorowsky's canon work, is a deliberate and fierce act of love. Real love. Not just the lovely, frills and fragrance end of it, but the many layers and strata. Some of it is going to hurt, while other times will leave you thoroughly enchanted. But it is real, it is honest, it is absolutely radiant and it is all right there on a platter waiting for your arrival.