It was Sunday and my internet was down and I couldn’t get any work done, even though I didn’t need the internet to do my work as all I ever do is type words into MS Word, but when I can’t get online whenever I want in between the typing I start to feel like the Unabomber and what I’m typing starts to really seem like total shit, and so instead of doing any typing or just going outside to enjoy the day like a normal person I decided to watch Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain with my mom.
My mom lives twenty minutes north of me in a suburb of Atlanta where she cares for my dad who has dementia. My mom was a high school art teacher in the 70s before I was born and though we have different taste she’s always been open to things I bring her. She always reads anything I write that I will show her, regardless of how many deformed babies or blood oceans or torture are in there. Still, I wasn’t sure how she’d react to the endless stream of screaming amputees, animal corpses, naked dudes climbing through fields of color, snake children, and the general drugged-out monologue of hyper-spiritual initiation that make up only a fraction of the 113 minutes of the film, though I figured today was as good a day as any to find out.
Mom was just finishing up an episode of Third Rock from the Sun when I arrived. The TV is a great method of zone-out in the household, where my father spends most of the days in his delirium pacing from one end of the house to the other, rearranging furniture, and making incidental messes of all kinds. Regardless, kind soul that she is, Mom immediately offered me the remote and asked if there was something I’d like to watch. I said, Yes, The Holy Mountain, and showed her the cover of the DVD, featuring its iconic image of two naked women bowing their heads against a man dressed in all black in a round room. “I don’t think so,” Mom said.
Perhaps she also had not forgotten the last time I’d picked a movie on coming over: Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry, which I’d forgotten opens with a couple having explicit sex, at which point that evening my mom had graciously and thankfully retired to her sewing room. I explained this wasn’t pornographic, but more psychedelic. “Psychedelic wasn’t so psychedelic for me,” she said. She said even in the 60s she hadn’t known what a peace sign was, being from Kentucky, until she and a few friends took a road trip to California and thought everyone was flicking them off with two fingers at once. Anyway, I read her the description of the movie off the back of the box, concerning its controversy, its attribution of being the progenitor of the American Midnight Movie, and its iconic stature, and she reservedly agreed, promising if she didn’t like it, she’d leave. So then I figured we’d make it in six or so minutes until the guy eats the face off of the replica of Christ and be done with it, and that’d be fine.
I saw her first jolt of almost getting up, though, about two minutes in, at the image of a guy with his head covered in flies. “Bugs, a whole bunch of bugs,” she said to no one in particular. But eventually she settled back into her seat. She watched the screen with mouth partly open, looking intently if often wrinkling her mouth. Like my sister, Mom loves to comment on what she’s watching while it goes, and today the barrage was no less on: “So far I think they’re all nuts, why anybody would do that I don’t know.” “That’s disgusting.” “That’s disgusting.” “How that man can light a cigarette without any hands I don’t know.” “Did that say Christs for Sale? But it had an s on the end of it.” “That’s disgusting.” “I think it’s an anti-war program. Guns are pointing and shooting people, what else do you think it could be? Except they’re seeming to enjoy it.”
By now Mom had her right hand up on her head and holding her hair back, staring--a position that lasted well throughout the film, though more in a position of what seemed wonder than total revulsion. As the stream of endless religious imagery and use of arcane symbols continued, she offered historical anecdotes and symbolic significances springing from her Christian upbringing and later interest in religion of all kinds. It was interesting to watch how quickly the onslaught of what would be totally embarrassing and confusing imagery to watch sitting in your childhood living room next to your mom with your father who has completely forgotten where he is and sits singing off-key on the far end of the room in a way that somehow seems to fit the film so well I didn’t use my normal tactic of giving him candy to quiet him down.
I couldn’t help looking not at the screen but at my mother, watching the way her face changed in the colors. I’ve always been in favor of art putting people into positions of discomfort to thereafter expand their perception of the beautiful, and no better way to test that idea out than where I was now. There’s an overhead shot of an orgy, and your mom says, “All those people look like a big Petri dish full of germs.”? A man breaks a stone pyramid with a silver hammer by hitting it at its apex, and she smiles and looks over at you and says, “That’s how you break a soul.” There’s a lattice of hundreds of coffins hung to form a city, and she’s like, “So everybody’s home is a coffin? Eventually I guess it is. Except for me. I’m going to be cremated.” I couldn’t help the small voice in the back of my mind that wasn’t thrilled about my mom watching a naked woman prod a machine with a huge black dildo until it spurted brown liquid. During this scene, incidentally, my dad came to stand by the screen and stared into it head on, one of those rare moments where he seems to be actually taking in what he’s looking at. I asked him what he thought of the shot and he said, “I think it’s nothing,” and stared another moment before he turned walked away. I was suddenly aware of death in a different way than I think I’d ever been, and it felt at once comfortable and uncomfortable, like a joke that’s not supposed to be funny but actually is. At last, the shock seemed to have worn off completely, and we were watching the same film. Today all three of us were the oldest we’d ever been.
When it was over, Mom asked me what I liked about the movie. I said I liked the images, how they were things you’d never see anywhere else. I suggested not all things had to be entertainment, or that you had to enjoy it, that to see it once was a thing you’d remember and that could be enough.
“I don’t think it’s fun,” my mom answered. “I think it’s sad that someone would come up with that. Blue blood coming out of her ears. Body parts laying all over the floor. That’s not something I’d ever want to see again. If I had to call it anything I’d call it the ‘Blasphemy of All Mankind.’ They’re bringing the whole solar system into it, all nine planets, which is only a small part of the whole universe. Just our solar system isn’t everything. But they’re making everything that we do know bad and disgusting. It makes me think there’s something worse than what’s going on in our world. But it is interesting. I definitely won’t ever forget it.”
I asked my mom how many planets she believes there are.
She said, “Uncountable ones.”