Like a prophecy too dangerous for its times, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s infamous, myth-and-blood-soaked cult film El Topo went into hiding not long after its 1970 release.
Actually, it fell victim to a 30-year legal dispute between Jodorowsky and the film’s distributor, Allen Klein. But it may as well have vanished.
A surreal cross between a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western and (a poor man’s version of) Andrei Tarkovsky’s metaphysical sagas (Stalker, Mirror), El Topo made a big splash during its brief run. Widely credited as the first midnight movie, it enjoyed a sold-out nightly run at the Elgin Theatre in Manhattan for more than nine months, starting in December 1970.
It was soon joined on the late-night circuit by The Harder They Come and Pink Flamingos (1972), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Eraserhead (1977) and the rerelease of such films as Reefer Madness and Freaks.
El Topo so turned on John Lennon (who had urged Klein, his manager, to get the distribution rights) that he helped finance Jodorowsky’s next film, the audacious, 1973 spiritual fable Holy Mountain. (In a testament to El Topo’s catholic appeal, shock-rocker Marilyn Manson is also a big fan and was on board to star in Jodorowsky’s now-abandoned El Topo sequel.)
At last, the time is at hand: Anchor Bay released El Topo on DVD as part of an exquisitely restored and remastered series of three of Jodorowsky’s major films, each of which features a new, priceless, and useful commentary by the now 78-year-old Chilean-born filmmaker. Love him or hate him—and some critics find him a self-indulgent bore - this is a welcome release whose historical worth far outweighs its artistic shortcomings.
An episodic picaresque that follows a man’s quest—for, um ... God? His inner child? Buddhist enlightenment? We’re never quite sure—El Topo is a fable packed with Christian, Hindu, Confucian and Zen Buddhist symbols, not to mention references to Freud and Jung. But, as the film’s trailer succinctly puts it, El Topo “is not a religious film, it contains ALL religions.”
Jodorowsky, who has been a circus clown and puppeteer, mime and playwright, comic book writer and psychotherapist, doesn’t suffer much from humility—he has famously said, “Most directors make films with their eyes. I make films with my ‘cojones’”. And he said that to watch El Topo is to have an actual religious experience. (Wow, salvation AND a shoot-out!)
Starring a very virile-looking Jodorowsky wearing all black, El Topo is about a man named El Topo (The Mole) who begins his spiritual quest as a vicious vigilante who brings down harsh, cruel, pitiless justice on evildoers. As the film opens, the antihero rides a dark horse toward us through the barren desert. It soon becomes apparent that there’s a boy (the director’s 7-year-old son, Brontis Jodorowsky)—naked, except for a hat and shoes—holding onto El Topo’s shoulders.
The man tells the boy it’s time he grew up. He must bury his only possessions: a teddy bear and a photo of his mother. The poor kid complies. (Jodorowsky remarks that the scene was real: He made his son bury the boy’s favorite objects.)
Before you know it, little Brontis is helping dad take out a gang of bandits who have reduced a village to a pile of corpses and a river of blood. One memorable image shows an emaciated horse, ribs sticking out like death, its torso rouged in a sickly rust.
Things get complicated when El Topo takes a lover named Mara (played by Mara Lorenzio, a non-actor who, Jodorowsky says, was tripping on LSD during the shoot). We soon learn that Mara is a Mexican version of Lady Macbeth, egging on her man to prove himself by killing the Four Sharpshooter Masters of the desert (Oh, yeah. ...) Contaminated by Mara, El Topo can win only by cheating. But as a True Hero, he is wracked by guilt. Eventually, he undergoes a version of Christ’s Passion and begins atoning for his sins—by helping out hordes of deformed dwarfs.
El Topo does stand up to its rep: It’s still one of the most distinctive, if solipsistic, translations to film of one man’s vision. It contains images and scenes of breathtaking sublimity—some quite beautiful, others nasty and cruel—as well as boasting a few comic gags straight out of vaudeville.
But Jodorowsky’s spectacle is at times little more than an incoherent parade of religious ideas and spiritual salves torn from one religious context after another. Like much of the cultural fodder smoked by ‘60s hippies, and the fabu soulfads marketed by today’s nouveau-granola gurus, the film suffers from existential dilettantism: To use Jodorowsky’s language, it wants to bed every religion, every godhead and divinity, without committing to any.
For all its anti-consumerist anarchy, El Topo recycles the consumerist ideology that authenticity is a matter of collecting as many experiences as possible. (“Be all you can be,” indeed.)
If anything, El Topo is a hoot to watch (in moderate doses) and a powerful reminder that we’ve become a people obsessed with having experiences of the material, and spiritual, kind, regardless of their content. There’s not much you can do with a gourd-full of memories, except recollect them—usually alone.