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Four years ago Anchor Bay and Abkco brought out a four-title DVD set called The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky. The two 'star' offerings from that set are now being released on Blu-ray. The super-cult pictures El Topo and The Holy Mountain are in general not for the faint of heart or anyone unprepared for extreme imagery and content that persists in reaching beyond conventional politeness. Some critics not shocked entirely speechless have verbally condemned the filmmaker; who is happy to report that he's more than once been the target of death threats.
Jodorowsky's pictures are provocative political art in the tradition and sometimes the style of the Iberian tricksters Luis Buñuel and Fernando Arrabal. Cinematically speaking, Jodorowsky doesn't hold a candle to the master Buñuel, who can suggest any number of obscene or subversive ideas with a simple inspired (and often un-censorable) image. When Jodorowsky strains to provoke, he can be a mud and feces-smeared bore. When he expands his wild ideas about Tarot cards and mysticism into grandiose visual tapestries, our interest level rises accordingly.
El Topo was Jodorowsky's breakout film and is one of the earlier cult pictures to receive substantial initial distribution via weekend midnight shows. In contrast with his earlier experimental efforts, the director this time definitely has his act together, shooting in brilliant 35mm color with a professional crew. Sandy locations near Mexico City create a world borrowed from the spaghetti western, with special emphasis given plentiful gore effects a la Sam Peckinpah. El Topo is a rather sloppy jumble of cruelty and ugliness, sort of a Buñuellian Land Without Bread inhabited by hateful symbolic characters. Jodorowsky plays the black-clad gunfighter who defeats one guru-like opponent after another. After killing them all and absorbing their wisdom, he becomes a bald monk in the most evil town imaginable.
Jodorowsky manages some arresting visuals. The opening vision of the gunfighter giving his naked son a ride through the desert is better than anything in Fernando Arrabal's picture Viva la Muerte!, a title that would be a good fit for this film. The killings and gore quickly go over the top, with animal carcasses crowding the frame and people shot down by the dozens. Despite the attempts at spiritual messages, El Topo comes off as a nihilistic and unpleasant freak show.
With The Holy Mountain Jodorowsky takes a giant leap forward, finally staging a production on a scale to match his grand ideas. Luis Buñuel may only have been kidding when he claimed that he wanted to put a full orchestra into one shot in Los Olvidados, just to achieve a weird effect. Jodorowsky takes this attitude seriously. He treats us to 1001 visual splendors in 35mm and Panavision. Some are easily described, and others are not. An opening section finds dozens of offensive ways to use Christian symbols yet ends up telling a rather interesting tale of a thief who is sort of a Jesus surrogate. We then tour six or seven elaborate 'planetary' worlds, each relating to a new form of human corruption. Potent visuals and elaborate set pieces keep our interest high, even though we haven't the slightest idea where The Holy Mountain is heading.
The production sweeps through dozens of impressively designed sets and settings mounted on an epic scale. The sadomasochistic leather costumes in the 'Neptune' sequence predate the same look in George Miller's The Road Warrior. One brilliant scene shows a mass slaughter, and makes a point of highlighting the special effect hardware used to fake the killing. Weirdly, the scene is profoundly disturbing anyway. Jodorowsky doesn't flinch at killing animals. A gargantuan re-enactment of La Conquista shows Spaniard lizards slaughtering Aztec toads on a giant pyramid miniature. It ends with slow-motion shots of the entire construction -- animals included -- being blown up with pyrotechnics. Jodorowsky sacrifices all these living creatures for his bloody circus of Art: it's undeniably impressive yet completely heartless.
After a complicated explanation of the Tarot ("It will help you create a soul"), the second half of the film gathers a group of special people to do the impossible: raid a secret mountain where a group of monks guards the secrets of existence. The guru-like alchemist (Jodorowsky) submits his apprentices to all manner of physical and psychic tests. Jodorowsky apparently had his actors psyched up to climb real mountains, anticipating the same glorious revelation as the audience. Jodorowsky's magician's act is so good that we're profoundly disappointed when the big finale turns out to be a hollow riddle ... not even Orson Welles in his F for Fake dashed our expectations this completely. Reality is the ultimate trip, man ... like, far out.
Anchor Bay and Abkco's separately-sold Blu-rays of El Topo and The Holy Mountain are immaculately transferred, which is I suppose what happens when a rights dispute keeps film elements locked safely away for 25 years. The flat El Topo looks much brighter and less grainy than the film prints I have seen. It begins with a shot of a horse being ridden down a long sand hillÉ to the distinct sound of clip-clop hoofbeats!
The Holy Mountain is formatted for 2:35 widescreen, which Jodorowsky uses as a broad canvas for a seemingly infinite variety of fanciful, colorful settings. The added contrast range gives the pictures more life than the previous DVD editions, and the increased image stability betters that of film presentations, that tended to flicker on shots of bright walls and clear skies.
The director commentaries will be a must-listen, simply because we want to know how this madman's mind functions. Jodorowsky is very frank about his demented intentions. He claims to have invented 'ear cocaine' and also assures us that he was 'the first actor to have his fingernails painted black'--? We have no idea how much of the commentary should be taken as gospel. Jodorowsky tells us that when a producer absconded with $300,000.00, a new investor with more money simply "appeared." Wild stories circulated about Black Masses being conducted on The Holy Mountain, and the director claims he fled to New York to avoid being assassinated. Every time a new actress appears on-screen, Jodorowsky describes her as a completely zonked acidhead who wasn't acting and just wandered into the film. Somebody on these pictures had to stay sober, as they're too carefully filmed!
Jodorowsky fills in details for every scene, admitting that he cut some material down for fear that he'd be accused of making child pornography. It's gratifying to know that he's concerned about something. Yet one wild scene has a dozen small boys running around with their genitals painted bright green! Some of Jodorowsky's 'inspirations' for visual ideas can be exceedingly lame. In El Topo he has a crazy cowboy (Alfonso Arau) embrace ladies' shoes because "Buñuel liked that." But elsewhere we cannot imagine where his extravagant ideas are coming from. To say that The Holy Mountain isn't for every taste is a wild understatement, but I'm forced to admit that the movie satisfies in its own weird way. Jodorowsky even resolves his thief/Jesus parable in a likeable manner, sending the thief off to live a happy, 'normal' life with a woman from an earlier episode.
The commentaries are subtitled, because Jodorowsky expresses himself better in Spanish. El Topo has an extra English dub track, an on-camera interview with the director and a photo gallery with script excerpts. The Holy Mountain has a restoration demo and an original trailer. A feature on the Tarot and a selection of deleted scenes both carry Jodorowsky's comments.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
El Topo & The Holy Mountain Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.