Do you remember what you saw, what you tasted, what you felt and smelled, the moment before your life suddenly changed direction? Think of the boy in David Foster Wallace’s short story, “Forever Overhead,” his toes rubbed raw on the nubbly platform of the high dive. Ponder Judy Garland’s startled “Oh!” when Dorothy’s house lands in Oz. Think of the instant eternity that passes as the car bumper in front of you smashes into your own, or the smell of a lover’s breath as they lean in to kiss you for the first time. Change electrifies these memories of the mundane with a retrospective power. Recall Dorothy again as she pauses before opening the door onto Munchkinland’s Technicolor. The walls of her house are still a drab gray, but she has transformed. Where once she too was gray, now her hair is brown and her gingham dress is blue. It’s as if the future reaches through the present to color the past.
I didn’t know that night five years ago would contain such a moment. I don’t even remember whose idea it was to go see The Holy Mountain, his or mine. He was an improv actor I was sleeping with in that casual way that he preferred and I resented. The only reason I gave him the time of day was that he could talk movies. His deep passion for film was enough to make up for the lack thereof in bed with me. That, and he had good weed. We arrived just minutes before the screening started; the only remaining seats were on the front row. We claimed the seats and left our drink orders before we ran back outside to the parking lot. There, as the early drunks of Austin’s Sixth Street lurched past, we shared a spit-soaked nubbin of a joint. It left ashy crumbs on my tongue.
Though the roach was small, it was strong. My ears roared with blood. Giddy sparks of euphoria presaged the headrush to come as we scampered to the theater. We tiptoed with the woozy care of the high down the dark aisle. Like magic, our beers were waiting for us. My saison tasted like an alpine meadow in June upon my sandpapery tongue.
The Holy Mountain started.
The theater’s speakers boomed with the chanting of Tibetan monks. A man in black, his face obscured by the wide brim of his hat, sat zazen-style in the center of a white room checkered with black. Flanking him were two women wearing the same kind of dress and heavy makeup that Marilyn Monroe wore in The Seven Year Itch. The man in black poured water from a silver decanter and wet a towel. These two simple tasks should have lasted mere seconds, but the man drew them out into a slow ballet, taking almost a minute to set down the decanter and meticulously unfold the towel. With it, he wiped the lipstick and rouge off the faces of the women. Next, in one quick yank, he stripped the women of their dresses, but his decisive movements were devoid of sexual aggression. They sat naked as he, with infinite care, cut and shaved each strand of blonde hair from their heads. Their faces glowed with quiet ecstasy as they were shorn. He gathered them into his arms with great tenderness.
I have seen hundreds of movies in my lifetime. I feel I basically know what to expect. The vast majority have been so-so; a few were either amazing or awful. But only two films in my life have ever moved entirely beyond any distinction of “good” or “bad”. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s film was one of them. With that opening scene, The Holy Mountain kicked down the doors of my expectations, but not because it didn’t make any sense. There were recognizable characters, and things happened to them in what can reasonably be called a plot that advanced through space in sequential time (which cannot be said of Inland Empire, the other of the two films that smashed my mind). But Alejandro Jodorowsky—who not only wrote, directed, and acted in The Holy Mountain but also had a hand in its production and costume design—communicated his plot through symbols alone. I’m not talking about a subtle symbol, such as the swirl in Madeleine’s hair in Vertigo, which stands for the dizzy obsession that nearly drowns her paramour, Scottie. Rather, each scene in The Holy Mountain was staged as symbol in and of itself—and they came at me in a ceaseless barrage.
An army of flayed goats crucified on poles. Songbirds flying from the gaping bullet wounds of protesters gunned down in a street. A man screaming his head off in a room filled with papier-mache Christs. An old man taking out his glass eye and giving it to a child prostitute. Dozens of horny toads dressed as Mayans, complete with tiny capes and feathered headdresses. On and on and on it went, one symbol after the other in a rainbow assault. There was no hope in trying to pick it all apart as it came in. It was too much. I felt some levee inside me break under this flood of images. I gave up and let it wash me away.
Of The Holy Mountain and his other films, Jodorowsky has said, “I ask of film what most North Americans ask of psychedelic drugs. The difference being that when one creates a psychedelic film, he need not create a film that shows the visions of a person who has taken a pill; rather, he needs to manufacture the pill.” That much was true in my experience. The beer and marijuana were redundant, because that night, I swallowed Jodorowsky’s pill. I left the theater dazed, yet strangely elated. “What the fuck was that?!” my date and I mused as we went to find a bar where we could drink enough to fuck each other.
It would take some years before that pill took full effect.
Fast forward to earlier this year. My fiance and I settled down on the couch to stream a movie after dinner one night. After a bit of scrolling we found Jodorowsky’s Dune, Frank Pavich’s 2013 documentary about the man’s grandiose attempt to make a film of Frank Herbert’s novel immediately after the success of The Holy Mountain in 1973. I say “grandiose” because there’s no other way to describe it. Not only did he gather together a veritable Super Friends of talented people to work on the film—among them Pink Floyd, Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, Dan O’Bannon, H.R. Giger, and Jean “Moebius” Girard—but the result would have gone one further than The Holy Mountain. Not only did he plan to incite a psychedelic experience in the viewer, but a union with universal consciousness itself. The film would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make and lasted 15 hours. Naturally, no studio would take it, and the whole thing was eventually handed over to poor David Lynch. His experience as a big budget hack-for-hire was so bad, he went on to make Blue Velvet in revenge.
What impressed me most about the documentary wasn’t the Dune that never was, but Jodorowsky himself. Though he was no longer the intimidating Alchemist of The Holy Mountain—the years had shrunk him into a snowy-haired old man—his grin was impish. Utterly unselfconscious in front of the camera, the director held forth on the travails of Dune in a mixture of Spanish, French, and English. His attitude was surprisingly sanguine despite heading such a legendary failure. In fact, the whole ordeal galvanized him. His eyes blazed with conviction as he stared directly into the lens and decried the capitalistic industry that rejected him.
“This system make of us slaves. Without dignity. WIthout depth. With a devil in our pocket. This, this incredible money are in the pocket. This money. This shit. This nothing. This paper who have nothing inside. Movies have heart. Boom-boom-boom. Have mind. Have power. Have ambition. I wanted to do something like that. Why not?”
In short, the inspiration I took away from Jodorowsky’s Dune was similar to Samuel Beckett’s famous exhortation: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” I also finished the film with a little filmmaker fan crush on the guy. I joked on Twitter that I was going to dye my pubes green and join his cult. “Kickstarter to make that happen!” one of my friends replied.
Turns out, I didn’t need one. He had one of his own.
I hate myself. I’ve tried a lot of things to get over it. I was a kundalini yoga student and teacher for a while. That involved wearing white and hyperventilating while sitting on a sheepskin rug. When that didn’t work, I went on a silent meditation retreat where I didn’t speak to another soul for ten days. For each of those days, I stared at my nose for ten hours at a time and tried not to go insane. That helped a little, as did six years of psychotherapy and two years of group therapy. But no matter what I tried, any method I used eventually became yet another tool I used to beat myself mercilessly. If only I could meditate more/ be less distracted/ be kinder/ be anything else other than what I am, maybe I could accept myself.
Drugs and alcohol were also handy tools, if double-edged ones. Four glasses of wine was what it took to get me good and happy of an evening, which of course required a pipe bowl of weed the next day to get me over the hangover. Neither of these made me hate myself any less, but at least I could forget myself for a while.
It was on one such wine-soaked evening a few months ago that I stumbled upon The Dance of Reality. Jodorowsky’s newest film, an autobiographical fantasia on his childhood, had popped up on Amazon Instant. My husband was off on a business trip, and a fourth glass of wine sounded like a great idea on a Sunday night, so I pulled it up. While the film was as audacious as The Holy Mountain, with tableaus involving hundreds of extras and enough bodily fluids to drown them all, it was firmly grounded in the personal. It was filmed in Tocopilla, Chile, Jodorowsky’s birthplace. He cast his eldest son, Brontis, as his abusive father (Brontis’ grandfather), Jaime. Throughout, the director narrated events and popped on and offscreen at will. In one scene, his boyhood self (played by young actor Jeremias Herskovits) stood on the edge of a cliff, ready to throw himself off in despair. Jodorowsky materialized behind him.
His arms encircled the boy in a tender embrace. He said to that boy—to himself, “You are not alone. You are with me. All you are going to be, you are already. What you are looking for is already within you. Embrace your sufferings, for through them you will reach me.”
Maybe Jodorowsky is just that good of an actor. Or maybe symbols—such as that of a sad child’s future self reaching through time to comfort him—are important. Maybe it’s never “just a movie.” All I know is that the look on Jodorowsky’s face as he held the stand-in for his younger self made me cry so hard that my eyes hurt.
After this emotional experience, it didn’t take me long to find out that Jodorowsky had a Kickstarter to fund Endless Poetry, the sequel to The Dance of Reality. After the Dunedebacle, he worked almost entirely outside of the studio system, and he was famously proud that none of his movies ever made a profit. I was down with this. I looked at the list of awards, which were the typical Kickstarter prizes: my name in the credits, a t-shirt, a poster, a place to stream the film once it was done. All well and good, but I wanted something more. For $250, I could get a personal filmed thank you from one of the principle actors, or…Jodorowsky himself.
As a Jodorowsky fan, I’d read all about the Tarot readings he used to do for free in Paris, and about the “psychomagic” therapeutic sessions he performed during lectures, also for free. I dreamed about attending one of those sessions or readings, but I knew it would never be. I couldn’t afford to go to Paris, I didn’t speak French or Spanish, and the guy was 86 years old. Getting a filmed “Muchas gracias” would probably be as close as I’d ever get. So I picked that prize and paid my $250. It wasn’t cheap, but what the hell: my birthday was coming up, and in addition to a thank you, I’d get a new Jodorowsky film to watch in a year’s time.
That was on a Friday. I left that weekend to go camping far from any cellphone or internet service. When I returned, I found an email from the Endless Poetry Kickstarter team in my inbox. The first sentence read, “Your video is online, and it’s an amazing surprise: Alejandro reads you your Tarot!!!!”
It’s a good thing my husband was out getting groceries, because my scream rattled the windows.
In halting English, the man gazed warmly into the camera, thanked me, and took about five minutes to read my cards. I’d read a bit of his book on Tarot, so I knew he didn’t use it to divine a person’s future. The symbols in the Tarot become a way for the reader’s subject to analyze their own psyche. What I understand of his reading is this: I have a well of creative inspiration that I keep locked up in a tiny, cramped space within me. Some great change must occur to break it open. To initiate that change, I must purify the place where I live, and, as Jodorowsky put it, “open the spring to anoint the world.”
I wept once more, though this time it was of happiness. One of the best gifts I’d ever received was this one, and I’d given it to myself. All it was: a man I admired who held up a mirror and said, “Look. This is who you are.”
It was another Friday night. My husband was out again on business. I had bought a gigantic box of white wine earlier that week to drink while he was gone. I’d had a few glasses on Thursday, went to bed with a headache, and woke up the next workday feeling wretched. Jodorowsky’s words played over and over in my mind. Hoping for some distraction, I called and talked to my mother for a while. I complained that I was so old, I was getting a hangover after only two glasses of wine.
Which was a bald lie. I’d had four.
Lying to my own mother was what did it. I didn’t want to go through life like this anymore. I was through with drinking too much and hating myself. So, after the sun went down, I stuffed a backpack with a paring knife and the nearly full bag of wine taken from its box. The moon shone so brightly that I didn’t need my headlamp as I walked to the park in the middle of town. I found a suitable place hidden among the trees along a dry creek bed. There, under the stars, I would emulate The Star, one of the cards Jodorowsky pulled for me. I had to purify the place where I lived.
Quickly, so the cars passing in the distance wouldn’t see me, I shucked off my clothes and took the wine bladder and knife out of my pack. I placed the bag on the ground and knelt in front of it on the prickly grass. It looked like a severed organ, shining a pale gold under the moon’s silvery light. I took the small knife in both hands and raised it above my head.
“With this I break the bond you hold over me. I release myself from you forever. You will not bother me any more.”
I said the words quietly, then plunged the knife into the middle of the bag. It went in as smoothly as if it had been Jell-o. Then I picked up the bag, stood, and poured the wine out through the gash I made. I put my clothes back on, packed my things, and walked home.
Symbols have power. I remember the feel of the knife and the finality with which it fell. I remember the cards and the order in which they were played. I remember the intoxication that lead me to sit in a theatre before The Holy Mountain. Though I have left those days behind me, I cherish them and the confused, sad, searching person I was, as she lead me to this moment, right now.