Wednesday, July 4, 2007

El Topo (1970)

Where do you even begin? Championed by John Lennon and shown for a month straight at midnight, it's not hyperbole to say that Alejandro Jodorowsky's EL TOPO is the progenitor of the fabled "Midnight Movie."

After languishing in limbo for 30 years along with the rest of his films due to a dispute with his producer (and Beatles manager) Alan Klein, the major work of Jodorowsky is finally presented in a beautiful DVD box set, completely remastered and ready to launch its singular view of insanity on an unsuspecting world.

Two days later I'm still woozy.

EL TOPO is a quest for enlightenment wrapped in a Western that's sat in the deserts of Mexico under the boiling sun for too long, fever-dreaming of the blood and semen spilled in the name of wisdom. It's a hyper-violent LSD trip featuring naked monks being ridden bare-back, a duel in a rabbit pen, an underground village of deformed little people, and the single most erotic eating of a piece of fruit captured on film. It's also, at its heart, a desperate attempt by one man to capture the feeling of his quest to attach meaning to his life, and it's no mistake that the title character (translated as "The Mole") is played by Jodorowsky himself.

The opening scene plays as iconic as anything in Sergio Leone's oeuvre: El Topo, the mysterious man in black, rides up to a pole in the middle of the desert holding an open umbrella with a small naked child clinging to his back. The child crouches down and, while the man plays a small recorder, buries his teddy bear and a picture of his mother, the man in black's wife. El Topo gazes at him. "You're seven years old now. You're a man."

Their collective past buried, they ride off, the picture of the mother not quite covered in the foreground: no matter what, you can't leave the past behind.

So far so good, right? Sounds like it's shaping up to be some type of Sergio Leone-style western...but then the pair arrive at a small Mexican village. The dead bodies of adults and children lie strewn in the streets next to the bloated remains of the farm animals. Men hang from the rafters of the church. And as mentioned earlier, strange things are being forced upon the poor surviving monks...

It's here that the film takes one bizarre turn after another, as what was once a film loosely anchored in the Western genre becomes unhinged as a search for experience, and meaning. Jodorowsky makes use of a large array of symbolism, including crucifixes, pagan sacrifices, and more modern symbols: one town has had all its Christian imagery replaced by banners of an eye in a pyramid:

Although the film can at times look like a mess, Jodorowsky impresses a sense of consideration to every scene, whether it's the death of a bunch of rabbits at El Topo's approach or the entire last third of the film, where El Topo, in an effort to free an underground town of incestuous mutants (yes, you read that right), takes to the nearby town as a street mime, performing slapstick routines in an effort to dig a passage from the underground town to the village. he does this with his new love, one of the aforementioned little people.

By the time EL TOPO finishes, you've basically seen something that, for better or for worse, you're probably never going to see again. It's easy to just see this as a "midnight movie" for the geek crowd to cheer and yell at the screen to. But Jodorowsky embodies a deeper sense of purpose to the collection of images in EL TOPO, and as much as you want to shrug it off as exploitation, the craft and vision refuse to hide behind such simple definitions. I can't say I loved EL TOPO; I can't even say for sure that I'll ever see it again. But for something completely different, and done with an uncompromising eye, EL TOPO is a pretty exhilarating experience.

* Despite my positive review for this film, I DO NOT condone any of the acts in the film, with the possible exception of the mime routines. Oh yeah, and the flute playing while the naked chick swims in the water. Totally condone those two pieces.

** I also didn't mention the guy with no arms who had a guy with no legs strapped to his back. Man, that was INSANE!

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