Trick or Treat
By Jeff Reichert
Dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky, Mexico, 1970
If cinema’s highest, most proper calling is as the ultimate repository for images, dreams, and mad, unkempt visions, then El Topo could well be argued as the most quintessentially cinematic film ever made. If we also ask of our films that they hold a mirror directly up to the consciousness of their creator(s), revealing varied quirks, idiosyncrasies, ideological and spiritual beliefs, than, again, El Topo may be nearly unmatched. If, of course, you’re one who prefers a general sense of narrative cohesion, more allusive than overt employment of spiritual imagery and narratives, and a little less batshit crazy, then El Topo could be amongst the least pleasurable experiences you’ll ever have in a theater. I’m totally befuddled as to how such a truly outré piece of work wound its way to the generally more staid New York Film Festival, and I grow even more confused trying to imagine the audience’s response—will the Lincoln Center confines be enough to convince the assembled of El Topo’s worth as capital-A Art? But given that the film’s been largely unavailable for legal reasons for years except via bootlegs and Japanese laserdiscs (a true rarity in a sea of pretenders), new prints are a gift to those folks who can get off on this sort of unmitigated strangeness.
El Topo is probably best and most easily described as cross between Sergio Leone and Siddharta with shards of Christian iconography and surrealism tossed liberally into the mix. The titular El Topo is a hirsute gunslinger dressed in black traveling the desert with his (naked) young son, Brontis, on horseback. Initially the pair ride aimlessly, but a chance encounter with a small town razed by marauders, inhabitants mutilated and on display in gruesome fashion, leads them on a quest of vengeance. It isn’t long before they catch a handful of the culprits who point them on to the ringleader of the crimes, and after a bit of comically gruesome gunplay, El Topo bests the bandits, humiliates their leader (the effeminate “Colonel”) through castration, and frees those held hostage by the criminals—most principally four monks wearing bowler hats and the mysterious woman Mara. El Topo isn’t so strange up until this point, perhaps a little baroque, and obviously evincing more zeal than experienced craftsmanship, though the film does have a physicality that’s raw and sensuous in equal turns—Jodorowsky knows how to film bodies in the sun. It’s compelling stuff, though, unhinged in the manner of Luc Moullet’s A Girl Is a Gun, which is to say that it actively defies narrative logic while trudging steadfastly through conventional genre iconography to keep audiences in the vicinity of moorings.
It’s only after his initial triumphs and Mara’s challenge to best the Four Master gunslingers that things really go through the rabbit hole and, in some ways, the less I say about what actually happens the better—a full description, as in the 1971 A Book of the Film El Topo (which I found in a used bookstore in Philadelphia and have seen nowhere since), makes the film sound like nonsense, which it most decidedly isn’t. To describe in depth the various miracles the gunslinger performs in the desert (water from a stone and the like), the various quirks of the Four Masters El Topo challenges or the circumstances around a pile of burning, actually dead rabbits would to ruin much of the fun. It does bear mentioning that a little over two-thirds of the way through the film, El Topo realizes the limits of his own physical powers and the depths of his narcissism (earlier in the film he intones “I am God” as he doles out death to various bandits), sacrifices himself to a literal crucifixion by bullet, taking the five wounds of Christ from the woman in black, only to be reborn as a Hare Krishna–looking protector of a group of meek and crippled outcasts confined to a cave on the outskirts of a bourgeoisie saloon community. What follows up until the finale is Todd Browning worthy—the “freaks” eventually find freedom and descend upon the horrified inhabitants of the town.
To be sure, this isn’t the dime-store surrealism of Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, or the playful whimsy of Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep, even if in many ways El Topo is an exemplar of a path that died out late in the acid-Seventies and from which both of these contemporary filmmakers are drawing from. I refuse to call El Topo “nonsense” even in the face of its utter ridiculousness and self-indulgence (some would call that ample evidence the film is only so much gibberish) as, I do believe the film is built on some kind of internal logic. The other half of the book on El Topo features a lengthy interview with Jodorowsky that beings with this inscription:
“This interview was done in one sitting. The reader must read it in one sitting. And then take a shower and try to forget it. If he cannot forget it, he must open a window and stick out his hand and wait for a bird to build a nest in it and lay three eggs. And then he should pull his hand in violently and crack the eggs on his forehead. If the reader is not ready for that experience he should not eat this book.”
Not ready for the experience myself, I’ve never finished the entire interview, but as proof of my devotion to El Topo, I’ve been carrying around for years a VHS cassette of a dubbed version from a rare Japanese laserdisc that my father gave me, doggedly showing it to anyone I can. Another Reverse Shot writer has reported to me of working in a video store and seeing customers drop hundreds of dollars in cash as a deposit for an El Topo rental. Such is the film’s strange appeal, which, I think goes beyond the simple collector’s instinct to catch on to the impossibly rare. I actually wish there were more films like El Topo in circulation. Sure, some of them would be utterly laughable disasters like The Fountain (though in truth, I do find El Topo a somewhat mirthful experience at points), but when visual culture lacks imagination, culture at large has a problem Alejandro Jodorowsky might be able to help out with.