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Much is often said concerning the pretentious nature of certain film directors, and usually the word is thrown around as a negative criticism, or a code word for ‘I don’t get it’. I often find myself defending more challenging motion pictures as ‘misunderstood’ rather than ‘pretentious’, but for the most part the label fits, and we just need to get over our insistence that ‘pretentious’ need be a bad thing. 'Pretentious' implies the snobbish and the insincere, but it also implies the theatrical and the ambitious. Consider the antonyms – simple, modest, meek. Are these words we want to be associated with our film entertainment? Sure, a simple film can be just what the doctor ordered, and I’d certainly describe many of my favourites as modest, but sometimes an audience can thrive on elaborate visuals and aggressive subtext. Chilean-born art house master Alejandro Jodorowsky (who I keep mistakenly referring to as Mexican) is one of the champions of the pretentious, and films like El Topo and Santa Sangre tend to give pretentious a good name, and inspire other self-obsessed visual artists to do more of the same. But for every El Topo there is a Holy Mountain, just as for every Deer Hunter there is a Heaven’s Gate. Holy Mountain and Heaven’s Gate aren’t particularly similar movies, but they both represent a previously unknown filmmaker buying too deeply into their own early hype, and taking their defining extremes so far as to alienate the majority of their audience.

Holy Mountain
I like Holy Mountain very much, and recommend readers with a healthy interest in widening the scope of their movie watching see the film at least once for its breathtaking visual grandeur alone (it’s like Baraka for the religious set). Never again would writer/director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s images reach such a distinct level of purity, free of limitations like plot, characters and context. Holy Mountain is an experience, it’s just not the transcendental one Jodorowsky intended it to be. There is no plot, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a terrible liar. Like many conceptual or avant-garde films ( Begotten, Un Chien Andalou, 8 ½, Eraserhead, The Cremaster Cycle, Jodorowsky’s own El Topo) Holy Mountain comes down to a series of events that roughly connect through similar thematic elements. Not surprisingly, Jodorowsky’s connecting themes mostly relate to religion and spirituality, and include reenactments of ceremonial activities from a virtual sea of sources. Unfortunately, Holy Mountain skews towards the ridiculous, which leads to some unintended hilarity. As in El Topo many of these vignettes are probably meant to be amusing. For example, at one point frogs and horned toads are dressed as Aztecs and Spanish Conquistadores and pitted against each other to the sound of a German counting song. However, the scene ends with melancholy music, and the poor creatures being drown in blood, which inspires more definitively sorrowful emotions. These sorrowful emotions are a prime example of what rings hollow in The Holy Mountain.

Some of the imagery does inspire awe, however, and occasional pieces even strike the viewer as genuinely profound. And even if the ridiculous reigns supreme, there are overwhelmingly haunting and horrifying pieces. A procession of men march the streets carrying skinless, crucified animals. The Alchemist’s lair is a Technicolor nightmare, and every room features some kind of exotic animal that everyone in the room is very pointedly ignoring. Even images I find conceptually silly are often breathtaking in purely visual execution. At one point the beggar drinks himself into unconsciousness, and his drinking buddies take advantage to create a series of plaster molds of him in the Christ pose. He awakens and screams as the camera pans out to reveal hundreds of plaster recreations, which he proceeds to smash to bits. Later the Alchemist literally turns the Thief’s shit into gold using an elaborate machine. Besides the general beauty, Jodorowsky’s brisk ability to keep his surrealist imagery changing certainly helps strengthen the audience’s reserve. Just after the halfway point, when the Alchemist is done with the Thief, it appears that he is putting together a sort of enlightened Dirty Dozen (minus two) together in preparation for an Ocean’s Eleven style heist of the Holy Mountain’s riches, which gives the production a nice boost following its most trying moments. This very purposely never comes to fruition in quite the manner a mainstream audience would prefer, but it does reframe some of Jodorowsky’s more ridiculous ideas, and makes a long series of heavy-handed lessons much easier to endure. The final ascent of the mountain (including a sequence in which one of the team furiously dry humps the cliff face) where the travelers come face to metaphorical face with their own deaths (which include a woman drowned in what appears to be bull seamen, and a man drowned in the breast milk of an elderly man with ocelots for breast) will possibly frustrate some into violence, but I’m not sure this particular film could end any other way, considering that Jodorowsky didn’t have the ability to actually murder his audience.

Holy Mountain

Video


Holy Mountain is, I believe, Jodorowsky’s only 2.35:1 released film, and the extra wide quality gives the film a bit of a visual advantage over El Topo in a 1080p field (though the film was not shot anamorphically). This Blu-ray largely matches the overall upgrade presented by the El Topo Blu-ray. The overall detail levels are very impressive, including expansive wide shots teeming with contrasting colours, and extreme close-ups teeming with textures. Edges aren’t super sharp in either case, but comparatively speaking the difference is huge. Contrasting colour elements are also impressive, especially the incredibly vibrant scenes taking place in the Alchemist’s ‘lair’. The rainbow hues aren’t as bright or as pure as those seen in modern equivalents, but are possibly as close as a relatively modest film from 1973 can ever come. The print is incredibly clean compared to even major studio releases from a similar era. The overall image quality doesn’t quite live up to standards created by discs like Sony’s Bond re-releases, but the image doesn’t appear to have been scrubbed too aggressively, and there aren’t many signs of DNR (though there is discussion in the extra features that describes the use of DNR to correct some aggressive Moiré effects). Grain is an issue, especially over the brightest colours, but only the occasional dark scene features inconsistent levels of grain, and minor loss of detail. This disc also features minor issues with the purity of black levels, but for the most part this is easily ignorable, and seems to be mostly delegated to the edges of the frame. The outdoor sequences that start around the 1:20 point are a curious mix of the transfer’s greatest strengths (vibrant blues and greens set sharply against blacks and browns), and weaknesses (minor dirt on the print, and pale blacks). The purification ceremony about ten minutes later is easily the transfer’s low point in terms of consistency, but is still a sizable upgrade over both DVD copies I own.

Holy Mountain

Audio


Holy Mountain is also a more aurally expressive film than El Topo (which suffers a bit from a lack production cash), and lends itself more effectively to the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio remix. Like the El Topo disc, a PCM recreation of the original stereo mix is included, but this time I can definitively recommend the redub over the original track, for both the effective centering of occasional dialogue (which is either presented as gibberish or broken English), and for effectively spreading the intricate sound design into the stereo and surround channels. The majority of production noise is thin and tinny, but the added sound effects are bombastic, and only feature minor distortion on the highest volume levels. At times the soundscape turns devastating. Sound designer Gonzalo Gavira, who was snatched up by William Friedkin for The Exorcist, creates the single most frightening aural experience I’ve ever experienced. The additional rear channels certainly help to make a more immersive environment, even if they act almost exclusively as artificial echo chambers. The track also features some genuinely great music that was begging for a digital makeover, and uncompressed presentation.

Holy Mountain

Extras


The extras, which match the 2007 Anchor Bay DVD release, begin with another solo Alejandro Jodorowsky commentary track, in Spanish with English subtitles. This track is more of what we’ve come to expect from the writer/director based on his El Topo commentary, only with less technical discussion. Jodorowsky is full of information, in good spirits, and occasionally quite funny, but he’s kind of stuck in narration mode, and such specific talk of the meaning of these images seems to defeat the point of the exercise (which is pretty much the same complaint I made in reference to the El Topo track). There are some interesting behind the scenes factoids, such as the fate of some of the film’s animals, the histories of some of the actors, and some of the stuff that never came to pass, such as George Harrison playing the Thief (Harrison wasn’t willing to have his anus washed on screen, and Jodorowsky wasn’t willing to cut the shot). If you’re the type that demands to know what precisely was going through the filmmakers mind (a type I often fit, just not in this specific case), this track is a must listen, and might even lead some to appreciate the production where they might not have earlier.

Next up are a series of deleted and extended scenes (5:60, HD). Production audio was never mixed for these, so Jodorowsky offers up his thoughts in the form of commentary, and everything is backed up with music from the film. These scenes mostly consist of additional trials for Team Enlightenment, and though nice to look at, would’ve brought the already trying film to a stop. ‘The Tarot’ (7:50, SD) is a brief discussion with the director about the Tarot divination process, set to images from the film, and a series of animated cards. Jodorowsky is actually one of the world’s leading experts on Tarot, and does high profile readings to this day. ‘Restoration Process’ (5:30, SD) is an exciting split screen look at the before and after of the digital restoration. The contrasting quality of the images is almost unbelievable. It’s too bad this particular extra wasn’t remastered into HD so that we could know the full extent of the achievement. Extras end with the original trailer, and an image gallery.

Holy Mountain

Overall


I’ve never enjoyed The Holy Mountain as much as El Topo or Santa Sangre, but it’s still an entry on the ‘must see’ list I like to share with people. At the very least this is an experience like very few others, and a great place to start a strong discussion. This Blu-ray release doesn’t look or sound perfect, but it’s extremely close, and technically better than the film has ever looked, according to writer/director Alejandro Jodorowsky, who oversaw the new colour timing. Extras are a bit hit and miss depending on your level of interest, but those that won’t have the experience ruined by screen specific Jodorowsky commentary should have a good time.

*Note: The images on this page are

not

representative of the Blu-ray's image quality.


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