The Holy Mountain

The Holy Mountain

The Holy Mountain (1973)


Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Main Cast: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Horacio Salinas

Alajandro Jodorowsky is really one the the most unique film directors of his time.  The Holy Mountain opens much like The One Thousand and One Nights (especially Raoul Wash‘s The Thief of Bagdad), with a thief (Horacio Salinas) cavorting about a town.  The town is a bit heavy on religious and military pomp (recalling both Fellini and Costa-Gavras‘ political thriller Z).  There is much other symbolism, including characters modeled on Tarot cards.  But then the thief hops aboard a hook being pulled up a minaret-like tower and enters the mysterious structure.  A cloaked alchemist figure (Alejandro Jodorowsky) disarms the knife-wielding thief and then makes him his apprentice, telling him, “You are excrement; you can turn yourself into gold.”  This, of course, in the premise of modern psychoanalysis.

The alchemist, acting as a “master” (Jodorowsky describes the character as “a sort of hybrid of Gurdjieff and the magician Merlin“), then introduces a montage of scenes describing his other disciples.  These are powerful, wealthy figures, and yet, also the most outrageously surreal representations of society’s worst traits: domination, deception, decadence, exploitation.  He summons them and they ceremonially burn their money and effigies.  They set out on a quest to find the mythic Holy Mountain upon which hermits who know the secret of immortality have supposedly lived for thousands of years.  They plan to capture the hermits and appropriate the secret.

The rest of the film is a surreal vision of an adventure movie, supposedly taking inspiration from René Daumal‘s novel Mount Analogue: A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing.  A girl (Ana de Sade) with a monkey follows the master and his disciples.  On the journey, the group is confronted with a series of tests to provoke subjective destitution, to surrender worldly desires.  The master convinces disciples to kill him, literally and symbolically (though with a laugh, he is killed only symbolically in one scene despite literal intentions).  The thief winds up with the girl with the monkey.  Although Jodorowsky wanted the film to end in a paradise scene filmed in a Mexican restaurant with a woman (actually) giving birth on camera, the pregnant woman backed out at the last minute, scuttling those plans.  Instead, the film ends in an equally remarkable way.  The master orders the camera to zoom back, revealing the film equipment surrounding the actors — what is known in cinema as “breaking the fourth wall.”

Much like in Jodorowsky’s immediately prior film, the western El Topo, there is much emphasis on traversing the fantasies of religion (especially) and cultural desires.  Jodorowsky very much makes his films according to Antonin Artaud‘s vision of a “theater of cruelty,” producing shocking, bizarre scenes to derange and assault the senses of viewers in the hopes of making them traverse their own psychological fantasies.  Viewers are meant to be surprised by what they see, to encourage them to cut the Gordian knot of their own ingrained habits of thought imposed by culture (and especially by family).  There is little doubt most viewers have never scene a movie quite like this!  Yet for as much as he breaks down mythic cultural institutions and the illusions that symbolically bind individuals, he refashions mystic processes in an atheistic way.  Here, he is concerned with a kind of frontier justice that fights symbolic problems with symbolic weapons, though later in life he changed his methods somewhat into what he calls “psychomagic”, a kind of “shamanic psychotherapy” — which perhaps can be described as using poetic rituals to self-administer metaphorical fulfillment of desires, to free the people burdened by those desires to engage reality on their own terms.

If there is any other artist worth comparing to Jodorowsky, aside from Artaud and perhaps Yoko Ono and Carlos Castaneda, it might be the jazz bandleader Sun Ra.  In a documentary, an associate said that Jodorowsky liked to work in areas beyond his knowledge  Sun Ra made an album called Strange Strings in which he instructed the performers this way: “We’re going to play what you don’t know and what you don’t know is huge.”  While Sun Ra dealt in Afro-futurism, and especially Egyptian and outer-space mythology, Jodorowsky has a different set of things he draws from, like the Tarot.  They both nonetheless share a very communal, mutually-supportive practice that draws on the strangeness of mythology and exoticism to promote self-empowerment and liberation.  Contemporary philosophers like Alain Badiou like to talk about the need for positive statements about the world.  Isn’t Jodorowsky exactly that?

Jodorowsky had difficulty funding many of his later film ideas, with his ambitious attempt to film a version of the sci-fi novel Dune falling apart before shooting began — recounted in the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013).  It took him almost a decade before he actually completed his next feature, Tusk (1980), and it was not until the horror film Santa Sangre (1989) that he really made something with close to full artistic control.  He turned to writing comics and books instead of films when funding was not available.  This seems partly a matter of the idealism that peaked in the late 1960s fading away.  Jodorowsky’s work certainly sits in opposition to everything that the celebrity-driven, corporate, commodified mass culture of the following few decades.

While a dispute with the film’s distributor kept The Holy Mountain from widespread view for decades, it has become available again.  It is quite a film, and its “comeback” has brought well-deserved attention to an artistic method that presents a substantially different approach than the mainstream.  Love it or hate it, this won’t be a film easily forgotten.

The Music Room

The Music Room

জলসাঘর [Jalsaghar; The Music Room] (1958)


Director: সত্যজিৎ রায় [Satyajit Ray]

Main Cast: Chhabi Biswas, Gangapada Basu, Padmadevi, Kali Sarkar

Satyajit Ray was a director who mostly followed the lead of cinema in other countries.  The Music Room is basically an Indian re-make of Sunset Boulevard (1950).  It is the story of a Raj (Chhabi Biswas) who admires music, but whose royal estate has dwindled due to some sort of flooding (the explanation in the film is cursory and implausible).  He is nearly broke.  A nouveau riche moneylender (Gangapada Basu) arrives and as a matter of pride the Raj spends the small remainder of his funds on a concert held in his palace music room, to show up the businessman and assert his hereditary superiority.  The culmination of the film is a lengthy music and dance performance.  But the best individual moment is perhaps when a servant is shaking incense or something at the concert guests, and when the businessman recoils the servant makes a point to shake some more of it at him.  The film suffers from having no likable characters.  The aging Raj seems like a fool, and the sniveling businessman is insufferable.  The servants and musicians offer no significant independent perspective in the film.  Most significantly, though, the film’s exploration of social class is considerably less daring when set in a caste-based society than when Sunset Boulevard explored class conflict and social prestige in a society that denies the existence of class.  The Music Room takes much too much for granted in casting archetypes: the Raj, the moneylender.  As a study in the vices of pride and hubris, this doesn’t offer much in the way of depth.  But the big musical number has its own value independent of the film.



Hud (1963)

Paramount Pictures

Director: Martin Ritt

Main Cast: Paul Newman, Patricia Neal, Melvyn Douglas, Brandon De Wilde

One of those rare times Hollywood delivers a movie worth watching.  This might be seen as an early warning shot of the “New Hollywood” movement. The drama involves an old fool rancher (Melvyn Douglas) in a state of desperate denial, clinging to old values as the world changes around him.  He disavows his sanctimonious nature, which forces his son Hud (Paul Newman) to become everything that Douglas’ character hates.  On Turner Classic Movies, Robert Osborne describes it as Douglas’ morality vs. Newman’s amorality.  That seems like a ridiculous view.  Newman has morality, of a kind, it is just antithetical to everything Douglas’ character stands for.  Hud is a womanizing drunkard, and hardly a conventionally likable character.  But he’s a character true to his circumstances.  He highlights how Douglas’ character denies his oppressiveness and closed-mindedness, by revealing how Hud sees no other option to preserve his dignity.  On the surface, Hud creates problems, but as the movie progresses, he comes across as someone fighting back — perhaps in a futile, excessive way, but fighting back nonetheless.  The cruelty of the human characters is underscored by the casual animal cruelty on the ranch.  Everybody leaves Hud in the end, but that suits him just fine.  The ending is kind of fitting.  Hud wins out.  He gets no real satisfaction in it though.

This is just a really well-made film too.  There is music in the film, but usually the stark black & white cinematography speaks for itself.  Much of the music comes from characters turning on a radio or jukebox.  Of course there is great acting throughout.  Osborne called Patricia Neal’s performance one of the best of the decade and he’ll get no major argument here even for such a bold claim.  And this might be Newman at his very best.  He throws all the charisma he can behind a character that seems to deserve none of it, and that underscores the tensions and contradictions of the character’s situation eloquently.



Metropolis (1927)

Universum Film A.G.

Director: Fritz Lang

Main Cast: Gustav Fröhlich, Brigitte Helm, Rudolf Klein-Rogge

A classic of the silent era.  Epic in proportions yet simple in story, this has influenced countless films that followed.  Some (Elysium (2013)) are practically remakes.  The special effects were groundbreaking.  This — along with the likes of Brecht/Weill‘s The Threepenny Opera and Döblin‘s Berlin Alexanderplatz and even Hilferding‘s Finance Capital — represents one of the great achievements of Weimar Germany.

The Crowd

The Crowd

The Crowd (1928)


Director: King Vidor

Main Cast: James Murray, Eleanor Boardman

King Vidor’s silent film “The Crowd” was the most acclaimed early feature to use a melancholy, existential ending where a character with great aspirations learns to accept a life short of that, in this case as an anonymous failure.  This would become a sort of film staple, especially in “art house” cinema, with similar examples ranging from Yasujirō Ozu‘s Otona no miru ehon – Umarete wa mita keredo [I Was Born, But…] (1932), Ingmar Bergman‘s Sommarlek [Summer Interlude] (1951), and Satyajit Ray‘s Apur Sansar [World of Apu] (1959), to name a few.  This is one of Vidor’s very finest films — up there with Our Daily Bread (1934).  The pacing is meticulous and graceful, the humor well-placed, and, of course, the acting superb.  Large parts of the film are shot on location — a rarity for Hollywood films of the era — and the sense of realism that the bustling city shots provide is really a useful counterpoint to the ambitions of the protagonist John Sims (James Murray).  But what separates The Crowd from much of what simply has a similar ending is that this is a film that from beginning to end is about ordinary people.  It is not an epic.  There is no hero.

Mr. Arkadin [AKA Confidential Report]

Mr. Arkadin

Mr. Arkadin [AKA Confidential Report] (2013)

Filmorsa/Cervantes Films/Sevilla

Director: Orson Welles

Main Cast: Orson Welles, Robert Arden, Paola Mori, Patricia Medina

There are few movies that so clearly explain Jacques Lacan‘s concept of the “barred subject” ($) in psychoanalysis like Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin.  The concept is that the subject, the essence of the consciousness of a human being, is a void or lack, and people are driven to try to fill that void to be perceived by others in a certain way.  This is almost a summary of Welles’ film!  Arkadin (Welles) is a wealthy and secretive financier.  Guy Van Stratten (Arden) is con man of sorts who tries to get close to Arkadin, then winds up working for him to investigate the man’s allegedly forgotten past.  As the film concludes, Van Stratten discovers that Arkadin always knew his about his past, when he was a member of a crime syndicate, but saw himself as just an empty vessel to create the Arkadin persona to be seen as powerful in the eyes of his daughter Raina (Paola Mori).

In his entire career, Welles only had complete creative control on two films.  This was not one of them.  As such there are a lot of different edits circulating.  Criterion Collection has issued what they call a comprehensive edition.  They seem to have put together the best and most coherent version I’ve seen.

This film was not regarded very highly at the time, except by the French.  That makes sense.  After all, Lacan was French.  Some superficial readings focus on the simple plot twist whereby Arkadin uses Van Stratten to locate his past criminal associates to eliminate them one by one.  But the film opens and closes with an plane flying empty, that once contained Arkadin.  He disappears when he daughter discovers his personal history, and the foundational crime that established his persona as a powerful financier.  His power and authority is premised on his past being concealed.  More importantly, though, Arkadin is revealed as nothing, the barred subject, like all of us.

After Earth

After Earth

After Earth (2013)

Columbia Pictures

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Main Cast: Jaden Smith, Will Smith

Here is a sci-fi film with an interesting core premise, burdened by all the usual plot holes of a typical M. Night Shyamalan feature.  Humanity makes the Earth’s environment essentially uninhabitable, and the planet’s population moves to a new planet called Nova Prime.  Some other alien species tries to remove humans from Nova Prime (for reasons not explained in the film) by attacking them with genetically engineered monsters called Ursa, which relentlessly attack humans by detecting pheromones given off when humans are frightened.  Cypher (Will Smith) is a general in the Nova Prime military, and his son Kitai (Jaden Smith) wants to follow in his father’s footsteps.  However, Kitai is troubled by having seen his sister killed by an Ursa.  So, father and son go on a space voyage and an “unexpected” asteroid belt causes the spacecraft to crash land on a planet that turns out to be Earth.  There were only two survivors.  To raise a rescue beacon, they must reach the tail section of the craft that landed some number of miles away from where Cypher and Kitai landed.  But Cypher has broken his legs, so Kitai must make the journal alone. And an Ursa that was being transported in the craft has survived the crash too, and gotten loose.

The story line is fairly typical “son must prove himself to a military father” one.  Those plot holes?  Well, here are a few.  How would an asteroid be unknown and undetected, so close to the human home world?  When Cypher injures his leg, why is he unable to apply a tourniquet, a technology known for millennia?  If the Ursa are practically blind except for their pheromone sense, how are they able to walk about without crashing into things?  And are they also mostly deaf?  Why must the Ursa be fought practically hand-to-hand, rather than using tanks, missiles, robots, and the like?  And with all the new technologies, it strains credibility that the characters are so unfamiliar with it that they are inclined to offer explanations (for the benefit of the film’s audience).

Will Smith’s acting is wooden.  He was always better in comedic roles.  Jaden Smith is terrible, and devoid of acting ability.  So why watch this film?  There are great special effects.  If you can set aside the bizarre forgetfulness when it comes to “ancient” technologies like tourniquets, there are a few interesting concepts, like flexible and holographic computers.

What makes this movie decent, in spite of its flaws, is the psychological basis for the main plot point.  Kitai must overcome his fear of Ursas to accomplish “ghosting”, by overcoming fear and avoiding the release of pheromones to pass by them as if invisible.  The very notion of “ghosting” is ridiculous.  But the idea that you have free will as to how you subjectivize objective experience is a key concept of psychology:

“[M]an is not simply a product of objective circumstances.  We all have this margin of freedom in deciding how we subjectivize these objective circumstances, which will of course determine us.”

Kitai has to decide whether in response to the very real and objective threat of the Ursa whether he subjectivizes that circumstance through fear, or another way.  In one very anthropomorphic scene, too, Kitai is saved by a giant eagle who chooses to protect him from severe cold that occurs every day, who manifests the same phenomenon.  She chooses to protect Kitai after loosing all her babies in an attack by jaguars or some such mutated large cats.  A “protector of the weak” is how she wanted to be seen by others.  So the basic message of this film is a defensible one.

Ciao! Manhattan

Ciao! Manhattan

Ciao! Manhattan (1972)

Maron Films

Directors: David Weisman, John Palmer

Main Cast: Edie Sedgwick, Wesley Hayes, Isabel Jewell

The mysterious, tragic and often disturbing world of Edie Sedgwick is plastered across the screen in John Palmer and David Weisman’s Ciao! Manhattan, a film almost as mysterious and tragic as Edie herself. The great Jonas Mekas called it “the Citizen Kane of the drug generation.” Even more so it’s the Lola Montès of the drug generation. Opinions of the film vary for an understandable reason. There remains a fundamental, unresolved conflict at the bottom of the film: Edie Sedgwick.

Who was Edie Sedgwick? She came from an extremely wealthy family in California and as a model landed amidst Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd in the mid-Sixties. She was, to put it bluntly, a dazzlingly gorgeous icon of that era. But her moment in the sun didn’t last. Edie’s lifestyle was combustible. She died shortly before the film was ready for release.

Edie inspired many artistic creations. “Femme Fatale” is the Velvet Underground song about Edie written by Lou Reed at Andy Warhol’s suggestion. On the 1969 Velvet Underground Live With Lou Reed the song is introduced by Reed saying: “This is a song called ‘Femme Fatale,’ which we wrote about someone who was one. . . And will one day maybe open up a school to train others.” On the Velvet’s Bootleg Series Volume 1: The Quine Tapes, Reed comments that maybe the Warhol Factory environment had nothing to do with Edie’s condition. It is also rumored that Bob Dylan wrote “Just Like a Woman” for her. In Warhol’s a: A Novel, Edie is “Taxine.” A common sense of Edie emerges. She had immense power over people to get what she wanted by creating hope—a tangible, real hope — that seems to have drawn people to her. In the end, these manipulations worked too well. Edie was guilty of having innocent dreams, too grand and too destructive to ever last.

Weisman calls Edie “Icarus” and the Central Park “Be-In” on Easter Sunday of 1967 was when she came too close to the sun, melted her wings and began to fall. That began a long period when Edie shuffled from hospital to hospital, eventually returning to California to get much the same treatment. It was years after filming began that Edie was again available to finish the film. Her fall was no ordinary one. She was all alone in her own personal world. The Warhol Factory, with which Edie had been associated, was kind of a ward for talented but unstable personalities. Warhol took in an array of people, then used them in his artistic endeavors while providing those people opportunities to establish themselves. Edie was cast from that shelter after a while. Warhol once remarked on that topic that he thought Edie didn’t want to change her self-destructive ways. In any case, the soaring heights she reached lead to a long fall, eventually ending a life urged on by what it was seemingly missing something from the start.

Edie’s life questioned emptiness. She seemed to want to find a new life beyond herself by destroying her old one. Her methods were extreme and violent but also affecting and, in a strange way, effective on whomever they reached. The lawyer in Albert CamusThe Fall engaged in “debauchery, a substitute for love, which quiets the laughter, restores silence, and above all, confers immortality.” But more than a mere escapist substitute, Edie’s ways seemed to have purpose. Antonin Artaud, in his life, took up the task of the “general devaluation of values.” What remains of values in Edie’s story? She left no value in illusions. Maybe Edie found at hand only cheap and superficial emotions, but she seems to know and lament that fact. At least on film this seems the case.

Palmer and Weisman were part of a splinter faction of the Warhol Factory crowd. Edie herself was sort-of cast off by Warhol. So Ciao! Manhattan looks back inside that scene from the outside. As a splinter faction, Palmer & Weisman moved away from true underground filmmaking as they distanced themselves from the Warhol crowd. In a sense, they abandon the Warhol underground filmmaking style. In The Andy Warhol Diaries, Warhol comments, “I’ve hated David Weisman ever since Ciao! Manhattan.”

Rambling along, this film finds purpose only as it keeps moving. The line between documentary and fiction is blurry. It was like finding manipulations of reality and then finding a way to recreate and capture some of those manipulations.

Cio! Manhattan took many risks with experimental techniques in order to pull the film together. A voyeuristic billionaire drug baron Mr. Verdecchio (Jean Margouleff) looks on through an elaborate video surveillance system. Having the characters separated but still linked through very artificial interaction forms perhaps the only continuous thread through the film. At the time the film was made, however, there was no such thing as video like we know today. When the filmmakers show multiple television screens showing different images, much like Abel Gance’s polyvision, this was before the technology for such things was actually available. This even predates related techniques used in Godard & Miéville’s Numero Deux.

Those portions in black & white are quite beautiful. The people seem pristine and untouched. Edie seems the epitome of grace. The color segments have different, though still distinguished, good looks. These color portions were filmed after Edie’s period of multiple hospitalizations, and she is more of a ravaged beauty. Still stunning and graceful, she seems to carry more burdens, more weight (not the least of which were her breast implants, shown off through most of the film). What brought about that ravaged state is a difficult question. Though partially answering that is the fact that the drugs Geoffrey (Geoff Briggs) brings out on a tray were Edie’s actual prescriptions. In their commentary, the filmmakers make a point to say Edie was a willing participant in the film rather than a forced victim of exploitation. Of course, it is still debatable whether Edie’s vulnerable willingness to self-destruct was precisely what was exploited.

Only one professional actor was in the cast, Isabel Jewell. This allowed the film to overflow with startling cameos from a few of the most interesting personalities of Sixties underground culture. Guru Bhavananda (a/k/a Charlie Bacis) portrays real-life preventative medicine “vitamin doctor” Dr. Robert, about whom John Lennon wrote a song for The BeatlesRevolver. Viva (a/k/a Susan Hoffman) plays Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. Tom Flye, the drummer from the theremin-oriented band Lothar and the Hand People, is present as Mr. Verdecchio’s driver. Brigid Berlin appears as Brigid Polk. Brigid, after perfecting an Edie impersonation, also did many of Edie’s voice-overs after Edie’s death. Also appearing are Uma Thurman’s lovely mother Nena and a sometimes-naked Allen Ginsberg.

On the DVD of the film are some great little interviews — none too long but all still varied and interesting. These include costume designer Betsey Johnson, from the boutique Paraphernalia, as well as Wesley Hayes, George Plimpton, and Weisman. The DVD also has a still gallery and selected black & white outtakes that showcase some nice footage not in the film. The feature commentary track is interesting and, along with the interviews, helps sort out the action in the film via the back story on the people and places who inspired and contributed to the film.

Ciao! Manhattan is not a definitive film in any way. It presents varied, ambiguous insight. That is precisely its strength. It wanders from the Silver Sixties to the aftermath of that era. Along the way, the film is a postmodern dream of people trying to find the means to hold on to something real. But what is real? Watching the film it’s impossible to eliminate all the distance that separates us from Edie. We can only get as close as Mr. Verdecchio and look in from outside. Maybe in that respect this film is a distinctly postmodern biopic.

So here’s to you Edie, for not being immortal but still trying to go on making your great mistakes indefinitely.