Zoom Back, Camera!

The ending of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain (1973) like the film itself is significant in its response to the Peace and Love Movement of the early 1970s in which it was made and its associated psychedelia, as well as to the universal quest its viewers have been on ever since. More than any other part of the film does the ending make it clear that one’s destiny is in one’s own hands—for better or worse. A prevailing theme of false quests pervades the film, and culminates in this closing, which finds the Students confronting the falsity of their own quest. The meta-reference which concludes this confusingly anti-climactic scene tells the viewer that everything is of a fabricated reality, which Jodorowsky, playing the Alchemist, says himself just before ordering the camera to famously zoom back. Cinematography not only conveys this message of bittersweet empowerment and consolation outside of the diegesis, it does so within the world of the characters as well.

A scene which includes cinematography as a character in a film where diegetic cameras abound is surprisingly filmed in a simplistic manner. Of twenty-one shots in the final scene of the film, fifteen are static (or partially static before slight motion begins), giving greater emphasis to the mise-en-scène than a camera in motion might. This could perhaps imply an emphasis on the image—which film, in theory, is all about—and one’s own personal image, for Jodorowsky could easily be satirizing the hippie generation; legions of youth, even the middle-aged, seeking enlightenment, or at least the appearance thereof. Nearly every shot of this sequence is like a sculpted relief, as little diegetic motion is displayed, the characters either move not at all, or not long enough before the next shot appears. Yet, if one follows this interpretation, then the picture being represented must be very bleak. The landscape of the Holy Mountain which the Students feverishly ascend is lacking in vibrancy of colour, even of shape. The cinematography further emphasizes this, in addition to its simplicity, by depicting vastness; the mise-en-scène is wide and deep—its depth we can gauge by the characters almost always being in the far distance of the shot, and always in the centre of the frame; extreme and very wide shots are prevalent.

Other clues to Jodorowsky’s criticism of the Peace and Love Movement exemplified by his cinematography are the centering of figures perfectly in almost every shot—a criticism of the love of Self demonstrated by so many adherents of the flower power generation—as well as the use of zooming, which seems to inform a voyeurism indicative of the quest that everyone is on—we seek that which we, sometimes only we, can see. Iconically and ironically, the Alchemist causes a zoom to occur with his mere hand and words signalling that we are our own magicians, capable of not only forging worlds, but more importantly, perceptions. Whether through drug use—which was rampant during the era in which the film was made, as well as heavily depicted therein—or through intellectual enlightenment or other routes, such as filmmaking, our goal is only that which we perceive, and in striving to improve that perception, we end up back where we started: our Selves, our bodies, our minds—Man, the great microcosm. And this is brilliantly expressed by Jodorowsky’s microcosmic diegetic, the nature of which is revealed in this final scene.

Perhaps best representative of this microcosmic exploration is Jodorowsky himself; in this case, both Alchemist and film director, he commands the cameras while in front of them and while behind them, joining two worlds which co-exist. The choice of lighting in this final scene demands mention, too, as it is all completely natural lighting, with some deflection and filtering. This is perhaps the most organic-appearing mise-en-scène in the film, and the lighting adds an air of waking up to the film; the Students are waking up from their psychedelic experience. The costumes are utilitarian, but contrived with their colouring, while the whole scene itself eventually loses all of its figurative clothes when the camera zooms back. The use of cinematography in this scene is generally as simplistic as that used throughout the film, but the culmination in a meta-reference as well as the deconstruction of the diegesis which such a reference represents makes this the most significant scene.


The Holy Mountain. Dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky. 1973. DVD. Anchor Bay, 2007.