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Revisit:

El Topo

Dir: Alejandro Jodorowsky

1970

Rediscover is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that have flown under the radar and now deserve a second look.

Alejandro Jodorowsky is not exactly a household name, but he was one of the most significant counterculture filmmakers of the ’70s and his second film, El Topo, remains one of the key midnight/head/trip movies. Hoberman and Rosenbaum gave him a whole chapter, titled “Through the Wasteland of the Counterculture,” in their informative and entertaining 1983 book Midnight Movies, primarily focusing on El Topo and its follow up, The Holy Mountain. Several years ago, after a long period of unavailability, a DVD set of his films was released, which also included a 1994 documentary, La Constellation Jodorowsky, his early short film, once considered lost, La Cravate and two soundtrack CDs.

Jodorowsky had a background that guaranteed he would become an oddball artist. He was born in Northern Chile to Russian-Jewish parents and worked as a cartoonist, co-founded a radical art movement, directed plays and studied mime with Marcel Marceau before getting involved in film. His debut, 1968’s Fando y Lis, was made cheaply in Mexico and was banned in that country, which is always good for a would-be cult director. A sort of surrealist quest movie/love story set in the desert, it is less surrealist in terms of aesthetics/philosophy and more from the random, weird shit happening school of surrealism. Budding surrealists take note; here are some good things to include in your film: animals, religious imagery, nudity, violence, dreams, the desert, cross-dressing.

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But it was with his next film, El Topo (The Mole), that Jodorowsky, less a director and more a canny, Barnum-esque mystical showman, tapped the zeitgeist. The story of its success/notoriety is almost as interesting as the film itself. Championed by John Lennon, who urged his manager Allen Klein to buy the rights, El Topo, billed as “a film too heavy to be shown any other way,” was turned into a midnight movie sensation at Ben Barenholtz’s Elgin Theater in New York City, where it ran for six months and brought underground fame to actor/director/writer/messiah/bullshit artist Jodorowsky. Well-known fans included Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Yoko Ono and Peter Gabriel, whose concept album with Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway was supposedly inspired by the film. Fando y Lis was a sort of dry run for El Topo with its woozy mishmash of styles, undigested surrealist clichés and episodic quest narrative. What was missing was Jodorowsky himself, who describes {El Topo} as “a quest for sainthood.”

Jodorowsky is the protagonist, as well as the director, writer and co-composer. He is everywhere; he is, in his own words, “the maker of the Topo.” El Topo is certainly a shrewd and canny film, expertly codifying various counterculture trends and clichés, as well as making a stew with various religions, which lead Vincent Canby to call him an “intellectual William Randolph Hearst” and Pauline Kael to label him “an exploitation filmmaker.” Unlike most exploitation filmmaker though, he doesn’t even have the courage of his bad taste and pretends that El Topo, with all its cheap religious symbolism and mystical mumbo jumbo, really means something. Kael again: “He’s an exploitation filmmaker, but he glazes everything with a useful piety. It’s the violence plus the unctuous prophetic tone that make El Topo a heavy trip. . .Jodorowsky has come up with something new, exploitation joined to sentimentality-the sentimentality of the counter-culture.”

It’s often overlooked that by reacting against orthodoxy, conformity and mainstream values and mores, the counterculture established its own orthodoxy and rigid virtues. El Topo, in the guise of a spiritual journey, shamelessly panders to this orthodoxy in a way that’s just as manipulative as any big budget Hollywood crap fest, though with less honesty and self-awareness. Jodorowsky and his admirers may think it’s so much more, but it’s essentially a bloody, surrealist Western loaded with “deep” imagery, themes, and symbolism that, rather than challenge its hip, possibly drugged audience, flatters them. If you don’t like it or get it, you’re probably not cool enough or with it enough or free enough. New York Times critic Canby was attacked for disliking it, so they sent another critic, who praised it. Jodorowsky went so far as to say, “If you’re great, El Topo is a great picture; if you’re limited, El Topo is limited.” I guess I’m not great. Seen 40 years later, it feels less like an opening salvo for the youthful underground and more a last gasp. It’s not quite a requiem for the ’60s, like Gimme Shelter or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but is the bloated leviathan of the counterculture washing up on the beach.

What’s just as frustrating is that nowhere does Jodorowsky acknowledge his influences, which are glaring to anyone who cares about cinema. Fando y Lis drew heavily from Bunuel and Fellini, as well as numerous books with a quest/journey theme. El Topo suggests a collaboration between Bunuel, who blazed the trail for him, but did so with far more intelligence, skill, and wit and Sergio Leone baked on peyote and grass, swigging rotgut tequila and pouring over comic books, religious tracts, tarot cards, self-help guides and old westerns.

In the opening scene, Jodorowsky and his son (played by his actual son Brontis) ride through the desert. Jodorowsky, as Topo, is dressed all in black and looks more like a decadent rock star than a gunslinger, while his son is naked. He tells his son that he’s a man now and directs him to bury his teddy bear and mother’s picture. They ride through a town whose inhabitants have been slaughtered, possibly meant to remind viewers of Vietnam or the Manson murders, battle three gunmen and then defeat the dandyish, sadistic colonel responsible for the slaughter. Topo’s showdown with the colonel takes place on a stone-tiled circle, which is clear rip-off of the climactic gunfight from The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, an infinitely more stylish, ironic, sardonic and cinematic film.

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Topo abandons his son to the town friars, picks up/saves a hot hippie chick and then goes back to the desert to defeat a series of “masters” in gun duels. The best involves a guru-like figure attended by a man with no arms and a man with no legs. He wins, usually by treachery, forces himself on the girl (Jodorowsky claimed he actually raped the actress) and meets another girl, clad in black like him, who has a S&M whip fight with the first girl. Then they make out. The two women, now lovers, betray him, shoot him as he strikes a blatantly Christ-like pose and leave him for dead. Can’t trust those women is a great message for a supposedly radical film.

The final third of the film finds Topo, years later, living in a cave with a group of inbred outcasts/freaks. He shaves his head and goes through some kind of Matrix-like rebirth process. He and a literally little woman collect money in the local town, a racist, religious, violent cesspool of slavery, executions, sexual depravity and savage boxing matches. Topo is some kind of peaceful monk now. He reunites with his grown son and they build a tunnel to let all the freaks out and into the town, upon which they are massacred in a scene that is probably meant to evoke Kent State or any number of student protests. Jodorowsky was in Mexico City in ’68 when there were student riots and police crackdowns and his first film was banned, so he was familiar with the atmosphere, but his films, for all their shallow provocations, are apolitical. He’s the anti-Godard in that way, wanting you to get lost in the story rather to think about the film as a film or to engage with it politically and intellectually. He doesn’t want you to question, he wants you to believe.

The dwarf woman has a baby, he arrives in town too late to prevent the killing of his people and then, like so many Western heroes who have renounced violence only to be forced to employ in one last time, Topo takes up a gun and single-handedly wipes out the entire town like some kind of mystic, hippie angel of death. It’s a much less effective version of the apocalyptic bloodbath in The Wild Bunch. This is the dark side of the counterculture that sees violent revolution as the only solution and ritualistic violence as somehow cleansing or redemptive. Jodorowsky is both savior and destroyer. He then, in the most explicit Vietnam reference, douses himself in gasoline and lights himself on fire like the Buddhist monks. His son, now dressed like him, and the dwarf woman ride off into the sunset.

As Jodorowsky, who seems incapable of a reasonable, measured statement says, “El Topo is endless.” As with many trip/head/cult films, El Topo is at least interesting to look at and full of what the hell strangeness, but despite its pretentions to depth and importance, it’s a film with little meaning, something the tag line unintentionally reinforces, “What is all means isn’t exactly clear.” And for all its veneer of avant-garde credibility, it’s a remarkably conservative, even reactionary, film that glorifies masculine violence as much as any dumb action movie, doesn’t trust beautiful women and exalts its god-like hero. The considerable violence may be graphic, but it’s neither shocking nor radical, with just as much in common with Dirty Harry as Artaud. Bunuel’s surrealism challenged both powerful institutions like the church and state, as well as human nature, while El Topo caters to its “with it,” stoned audience and cares more about looking cool and aggrandizing Jodorowsky than anything else.

The Holy Mountain
did not duplicate the midnight success of El Topo and Jodorowsky didn’t make a movie for years, returning in 1980 with a children’s movie about an elephant called Tusk, which flopped. He was attached to Dune for a while, with Orson Welles and Salvador Dali to star, but it never materialized. He did some comics with the French artist Moebius, taught classes and made a sort of comeback in 1989 with Santa Sangre, starring his son. He is cult director whose time has come and gone, the underground equivalent of those aging gunfighters in a changing West. Perhaps his most significant cultural contribution in recent years was marrying Marilyn Manson, a huge fan of his, and Dita Von Teese. Supposedly he’s working on a new film, which would be his first in two decades. As long as there are teens and college students with a yen for psychedelic music, philosophy 101, drugs and vague ideas about mysticism and spirituality, he will always have an audience.

by Lukas Sherman
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