Zoom and Pan: The Holy Mountain
Welcome to Zoom and Pan, Eat Me Daily's food n' film column. Each week, Soleil Ho of Heavy Table will tear apart a food-centric movie scene and, with luck, decipher the meaning behind all the food porn. This week: The Holy Mountain
How does one even begin to discuss Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain (buy it
)? The 1973 film's 2-hour picaresque progression barrels through postcolonial criticism, Biblical myths, Tarot mysticism, and war machines in the far reaches of outer space, stunning even the most jaded viewers with its ambition and scope. Argentinian-born Jodorowsky is immovable from his position on the throne of cult cinema; Tommy Wiseau, eat your vaguely European heart out. (So Jodorowsky can film it.)
Though there are quite a few scenes of gastronomic interest in this film, the one I'll be analyzing this week engages both psychoanalytic puzzles and the hypocrisy of contemporary religious institutions. Perhaps more importantly, it's a scene in which a man eats his own face. Which, if my sources are correct, is made of marzipan. Who knew the ego tasted so good?
To begin to evaluate The Holy Mountain as a "food film" is, to be honest, a somewhat sickening prospect. That is, the food is not savored by the characters, nor cherished with zooms and macro shots. Food performs unfamiliar roles; a visceral material that Jodorowsky manipulates and wrenches into uncanny territory.
Soldiers march crucified animal carcasses through Mexican streets, an obese man in Virgin Mary drag slathers a Jesus lookalike in pig grease, and a victim of a massacre bleeds strawberries. This is food as unpleasure, as torture and religious ecstasy.
There is an aspect of the film which passes as a plot, but The Holy Mountain makes it difficult for the viewer to gain a foothold on it. One can divide the film into two chapters. The first deals with the enlightenment of a Jesus Christ-like figure, known only as the Thief, who wanders around urban Mexico until he meets the Alchemist, played by Jodorowsky himself. In the second chapter, the Alchemist gathers up a diverse group of morally wretched industrialists and politicians, taking them on a field trip to a holy mountain, where they will presumably assault a bunch of wise men in order to capture immortality. They encounter fantastical drugs, Frank Zappa, and jaguar breasts along the way. This week's scene analysis focuses on the first half of the film.
In his aimless trek around the city, the Thief encounters a group of charlatans who are making a living selling crucifixes and Christ statues to American tourists. Recognizing his resemblance to Jesus, they get him drunk and create a plaster mold from his body, which they use to create life-size statues. The Thief wakes up in a warehouse to find that he is surrounded by innumerable statues of himself. He destroys all but one, and carries it with him to a church in the city. Though he tries to leave the statue there, he is cast out by a bishop, who disavows the Thief's statue. Outside, the Thief bites into the face of his statue, consuming it until the face is entirely gone. When he releases the faceless replica of himself into the sky, his enlightenment begins.
Jodorowsky is hard to pin down on this one. On one level, he seems to be making a distinction between establishment Catholicism and "real Christianity," as he says in the DVD commentary. He argues that Catholicism is in the business of selling a false consciousness, and he sets this up visually by contrasting the elaborately costumed scam artists — the Virgin, the Romans, and the bishop — with the be-G-stringed Thief. In the church, the altar is draped in cobwebs, and the Bible is being devoured by fat, sausage-like worms. When he is rejected by the Christian establishment, the Thief devours the idol, eschewing the official rites and ceremonies of communion by eating the face of Jesus himself. "Real Christianity," or perhaps real spirituality in general, is something to be performed outside of civilization, touching something much deeper and more primal.
On another level, we are also dealing with the image of a person eating what amounts to a reproduction of his own face. The scene is as much a religious commentary as a call to self-annihilation: to destroy yourself and open your mind to something better. As the Thief eats, a close-up shot brings the viewer directly into the experience, forcing him/her to truly contemplate the action on-screen. The act of eating is perfect for this type of theme, as it's an act of both elimination and creation. When one eats, the food disappears, but re-emerges as something nourishing and new inside of oneself. Here, the food stands in for the ego, or the self. Through the lens of 1970s transcendental ideology, Jodorowsky is asking us to destroy the identities in which we've invested our entire lives, and trust that they will re-emerge as a true consciousness, unadorned by prejudice and materialism.