Kanye's Holy Mountain: The Influence of Alejandro Jodorowsky on the Yeezus Tour

A face covered in flies becomes a face hidden by jewels.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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There’s more than one mountain looming behind Kanye West’s Yeezus tour. As West told his audience at his first New York show Tuesday night, Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky and his cult movie The Holy Mountain are important touchstones for the absurdly massive, theatrical, transcendent tour. Makes sense. In the first 25 or so minutes of Jodorowsky’s 1973 magnum opus, you can find more than enough imagery to rhyme with the high fashion assault of the Yeezus tour: a poor thief’s face covered in shimmering black flies like a jeweled mask by Maison Martin Margiela. The same thief born aloft by a mob of little naked brown boys, all with their genitals painted green, becomes West’s body lifted high by a group of masked female dancers in nude bodysuits. A model Aztec pyramid hemorrhages blood like an erupting volcano, the kind that dominates the stage during “Blood on the Leaves.” Etc. (The Holy Mountain, like the tour, is so stuffed with such images that you can get away with glossing over the crazy shit in one sequence because there’s always more you could talk about. It’s too much, and that’s the point.)

Alejandro Jodorowsky was born in “1920 or 1930,” film critic J. Hoberman writes in his book Midnight Movies, “to Russian-Jewish parents in Iquique, a small copper and nitrate port on the northern coast of Chile.” The Holy Mountain, filmed entirely in Mexico, is not kind to gringos. In those first 25 minutes, a band of white American tourists delight in filming the fresh corpses of indigenous brown Mexicans, the victims of a senseless firing squad. The white men and women are dressed like a Taco Bell, with tacky serapes and cheap over-size sombreros. They turn their cameras on the dead with glee.

Though Jodorowsky’s parents were immigrants to South America, his “father owned nothing more spectacular than a dry-goods store, perhaps precluding his son’s easy identification with Iquique’s other foreigners—the North American and British mine owners.” That’s Hoberman again, who goes on to quote Jodorowsky on the subject: “One of the first things I remember is that we could not walk in certain areas because they were forbidden to Chileans. It was the beautiful side of the gringo colonies.”

The anger fostered during Jodorowsky’s childhood and manifested in The Holy Mountain finds an echo in “New Slaves” and its opening lines: “My mama was raised in the era when/Clean water was only served to the fairer skin.”

To stack the parallels between West and Jodorowsky even higher, here’s the filmmaker in an interview with the Los Angeles Free Press, “Maybe I am prophet. I really hope one day there will come Confucius, Mohammed, Buddha, and Christ to see me. And we will sit at a table, taking tea and eating some brownies.” Baked goods, deities. All my BFFs are gods.

In The Holy Mountain, the thief eventually meets a spiritual guide (played by Jodorowsky), who promises to walk him down the path to immortality. This path leads up a holy mountain. Ultimately, the thief doesn’t reach the top. His guide encourages him to leave with the woman who’s been tailing them. They get married and head back down the mountain with her chimpanzee friend. As the film ends, Jodorowsky's character explains that "we have attained reality," and then the camera zooms out to reveal the film crew shooting the scene. Go forth and be real.

The Holy Mountain, then, is a kind of cracked step-by-step handbook for self-realization, powered by blasphemy, Freud, Surrealism, counterculture politics/drugs, and Buddhism (among other things.) But there’s a scene early on in the movie that's more illuminating about the guts of the Yeezus tour. After coming down off the cross the band of little boys mount him to, the thief wakes up in a room full of plaster casts of himself. He roars at the sight of all these copycats. The copies are more blasphemous than anything else in sight—even the crucified lambs—graven images of the true god. So, to assert himself, this god shouts louder than everyone else. To assert himself, Kanye West stunts. He does what no one else can, and he does it bigger. You can’t believe what you’re seeing (and hearing), that someone pushed to make this happen, got others involved in such a personal and inscrutable adventure. Where did Kanye West find the guy willing to dress up like White Jesus? Where did Jodorowsky find the one-eyed man willing to kiss the hand of the little girl after popping out his eyeball on camera, revealing the secret red inside of his body to the viewer? This is crazy. It’s awesome for its craziness.

That’s one way of looking at the Yeezus tour. But certainly not the only way.

Keep reading for side-by-side comparisons of the Yeezus tour and Alejandro Jodorowsky's Holy Mountain.

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The Mountain

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Mountain imagery is present in both The Holy Mountain and the Yeezus tour from the start. The first instance of a mountain in the film appears when the thief comes down from a cross, where he has been getting stones thrown at him by the young boys who carried him there in the first place. The thief later meets his spiritual guide, who shows him the path to the Holy Mountain, which he never actually reaches.

At Yeezus, the mountain is present even before Kanye comes on stage. It's a place where he performs from, where his installation of nude and cloaked women ascend and descend from, and where the gremlin-like monster hides out. At times there are explosions and stunning projection mapping, before the mountain eventually opens up. It's the stage's centerpiece for Kanye's journey of self-discovery and path to reality, interpreted in his own way from Jodorowsky's narrative.

"Send It Up:"

The mountain opening up:

The Installation of Women

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Kanye's stage props, a group of women we assume were choreographed and installed by frequent Yeezy collaborator, Vanessa Beecroft, are an integral part of the stage design for the Yeezus tour. They alternate between wearing nude body suits, nude masks, and cloaks, yet throughout they are his entourage and foils. At times they surround him and cradle him, and at other times they carry him away. Their movements are mysterious, as are the movements of the many groups of women in The Holy Mountain. At many points, they are choreographed in a circle around Kanye, resembling the multiple circular arrangements of women in the film.

"I'm In It":

The Masks and Unmasking

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In The Holy Mountain, faces are covered, uncovered, eaten, overtaken by insects, laced in blood, and much more. Kanye's Margiela masks reference Jodorowsky's many forms of face covering, as do the sheer masks worn by 'Ye's dancers. Kanye's black studded mask appears to be a direct reference to the thief's fly-covered face, yet of course in 'Ye's own fashion-forward style. Eventually, like the characters in The Holy Mountain, both Kanye and the models installed with him reveal and cover their faces as the story continues.

"I Am a God":

"Can't Tell Me Nothing":

No mask during "Flashing Lights":

Being Carried

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Many scenes in The Holy Mountain contain the gesture of multiple people carrying someone, usually the thief. The same occurs during the Yeezus tour, except Kanye gets carried out after "I Am a God" by his crew of semi-nude women.

"I Am a God":

Kanye's Poses and Sprawling on the Ground

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The Gremlin Monster

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The Jesus

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Instagram and Twitter were buzzing with the news that Kanye's first Yeezus tour date in Seattle contained a Jesus actor during "Jesus Walks." The thief in The Holy Mountain bears a resemblance to Jesus, and appears on a cross early in the movie. The entire film plays with Christian imagery, subverting tropes and making the holy unholy.

The Holy Procession

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The Christian imagery continues during "Lost in the World" with a kind of high church procession. Early in the film, a similarly strange procession appears in the street, with crucified lambs.

Before "Lost In the World":

The Explosions and Lava

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During "All of the Lights" and "Blood on the Leaves," the mountain catches fire, drips lava, and is lit with a fantastic array of colors that contrasts the previous darkness and bluer hues. At times, it explodes, similar to the scene in The Holy Mountain where the model Aztec temple explodes during a reenactment of the Spanish invasion of Mexico.

"All of the Lights":

"Blood on the Leaves":

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