Human beings are narrative creatures. From memory to history to story, the drive to take impressions and twist them ‘til they cohere is one of the strongest known to us. And the most common form of narrative, as you know, is the linear one, championed by Hollywood since time immemorial; beginning-middle-end, setup-challenge-climax, coke-choc-top-popcorn.
So when we first encounter a film like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s twin classics El Topo and The Holy Mountain, whose narratives twist like Moebius strips, the impulse is to cry “Surreal!” – at worst, to scratch our heads, at best, to ‘switch off’ and enjoy the show. But, despite the box office, narratives come in all shapes and sizes, and ‘surreal’ is not a dirty word. Nor is it strictly accurate, in Jodorowsky’s case – though filled to the brim with beautiful, absurd imagery, both his classics display an uncanny mastery of storytelling.
“The mole digs tunnels under the earth, looking for the sun. Sometimes, he gets to the surface. When he sees the sun, he is blinded.”
1970’s El Topo, one of the hallmarks of the Ben Barenholtz’ ‘midnight movies’ phenomena alongside David Lynch’s Eraserhead, is a cowboy movie, a comedy and a tale of Zen enlightenment. El Topo (played by Jodorowsky), son in tow, stumbles upon a pillaged homestead. He dispatches the culprits – first three perverted hombres, then the corpulent Colonel and his bodyguards – rescuing a woman in the process (Mara Lorenzio, later named ‘Mara’ in the film). Mara urges El Topo to earn her love by killing four gun masters. El Topo proceeds to abandon his son, kill each gunman through deceit, and get shot by a rival gunwoman (short version).
El Topo awakes a changed man, beneath the earth, where dwarves and amputees dwell. He travels to the city, raising money for dynamite, so that he may release his comrades trapped underground. With the help of his now-grown son (Robert John), El Topo releases his mole-people, who are promptly murdered by the townfolk. Distraught, El Topo immolates himself. The Son, with El Topo’s pregnant lover in tow, departs for the desert.
The parallel, intersecting and circular paths of El Topo and his Son are the narrative backbone of this film. The cowboy’s first words are to his child, “You are seven years old. You are a man.” are not simply an odd injunction from some harsh logic. The director-protagonist is addressing the seven-year-old Son and the man, El Topo. The command that follows, “Bury your first toy and your mother’s picture” will mirror the film’s first act, in which El Topo, through duelling perverts and megalomaniacs, rids himself of emotional baggage on his path towards enlightenment. Though the cowboy opts for trickery and cheating to defeat the gunmen, his folly becomes clear when he is betrayed by his femme fatale rival. His quest as an enlightened man is overwhelmed by the cruelty and avarice of the city, while the abandoned Son, cleansed by life as a monk, takes on the mantle of his father and departs, presumably to repeat the events of El Topo ad infinitum.
What is the significance of this twin narrative, whereby the Son is betrayed but cleansed, and the father becomes enlightened but is then driven to despair? Jodorowsky, for all his allusions to mysticism, theology and surrealism, has crafted an eminently human tale of life, legacy and faith. For each decline there is ascension, and the Father/Son, through the circular narrative, experiences both at once. The endless cycle of births, the Son riding into the sunset, at once repeats and subverts mortality and disillusionment. The film’s iconic imagery, a unique blend of religion, symbolism and the spaghetti western, is deployed in service of this heartfelt narrative.
The Holy Mountain
“You are excrement. You can change yourself into gold.”
1973 furthers Jodorowsky’s treatise on love, art and enlightenment. It’s also a total mindfuck. But, as with El Topo, this seemingly surreal venture can be understood in terms of its deliberate departures from (though not absences of) narrative, another triumph of hyper-real storytelling.
A Christ-like figure called the Thief, through a series of misadventures, arrives at the tower of the Alchemist (Jodorowsky, again). The Thief’s story, a jumble of gospel lore and critique of modern society, comprises the first half-hour of the film. The real mind-blow, following the Thief’s induction by the Alchemist, is that this messianic figure is but one of eight apprentices, each designated by their own planet, whose goal is to find immortality at the peak of the Holy Mountain.
All of the apprentices’ life stories, depicting bizarre, stylised versions of Earth, are unique in that they revise the notion of the messianic figure. Opposed to the Thief, these heroes are ambivalent titans of industry, weirdly Oedipal politicians and military juggernauts. This is most clear in a scene where, on their path to enlightenment, the heroes are asked to burn their money in a fire. Nothing so special, except that when it comes time for the Thief to burn his, he only has a few measly dollars, and he is laughed at. The Thief (whose planet is presumably Earth) is an essentially human character, and carries the audience’s empathy through what is a complex, often sensational series of events.
Holy Mountain echoes the themes of El Topo in one crucial scene towards the film’s end. The apprentices, enduring the trials of the Holy Mountain, are followed by the Thief’s lover (and her monkey). In the film’s penultimate scene, the Alchemist, moved by this display of love, releases the Thief from his charge, to return to the world as a mortal and enjoy his life. The remaining eight apprentices reach the summit, and find immortality to be a sham, as the Holy Mountain is, in fact, a film. The film’s rich, oftentimes cruel heroes are freed from the bonds of narrative, but the Thief is allowed to return, without this knowledge, to continue the cycle of love, life and storytelling.
Who is the winner in that situation? I can’t say.
While El Topo is a stronger narrative film, Holy Mountain is an expanded treatise on similar themes. The two are best seen together for the full experience. But my advice to viewers is not to presume that, since the films are commonly called surrealist, that they are by any means unintelligible. Jodorowsky is one alchemist of a storyteller, and his films offer a wealth of interpretations. Highly recommended.