Sunday, February 15, 2009

EL TOPO (1970)

Give me a movie theater and here's a double-bill I would program: Alejandro Jodorowsky's western and Mel Brooks's. I mean no insult to either film, but I think that showing El Topo and Blazing Saddles together would illustrate two different ways to send-up the western genre. Brooks works in a satirical mode typical of his creative roots in the 1950s. He highlights the absurdities of the genre relative to some base notion of reality, with race relations as a reference point. Jodorowsky opts for the reductio ad absurdam, an exaggeration of genre tendencies past the snapping point. Neither director means to belittle the western. Brooks's film is not quite the labor of love that Young Frankenstein is, but neither is it a by-the-numbers genre putdown like Spaceballs. Likewise, Jodorowsky has no axe to grind against westerns, but uses the motifs of the spaghetti subgenre in particular to address more personal issues.

So how can I call myself a cult movie fan and only be watching El Topo for the first time today? To be honest, I didn't trust the film. It has always carried an air of pretentiousness about it, and I feared that its vaunted symbolism would prove rather banal. It seems too much like something made as a cult film on purpose, though Jodorowsky can hardly be accused of that even when he boasts of inventing cult (or at least midnight) movies. He didn't schedule it for a midnight showing at the Elgin theater; John Lennon did. I may also have held the period against the film, assuming it to be some kind of a "drug" movie that's meant to be appreciated only by the stoned. When it came down to it, I thought it would be boring, despite all the descriptions I'd read of it, simply because Jodorowsky seems to take himself so seriously. But Ed Wood was pretentious, too, so what harm was there in giving El Topo a chance finally, especially since the Albany Public Library had just acquired the Anchor Bay DVD? If I claimed to chronicle the wild world of cinema, I owed it to myself, my followers (I'm not pretentious, am I?) and casual readers to take the measure of this famous film.

Jodorowsky himself is El Topo, the mole -- a westerner with a small son who goes about naked. On the boy's seventh birthday, Topo orders him to bury his favorite toy and his mother's portrait in the desert. They then ride into a massacred town, and Topo takes it upon himself to avenge the peasants on the killer gang. He confronts a crew of eccentrics, each with his odd hobby, and from there goes after the real ringleader, the Colonel. He conquers that villain's enclave of decadence and claims his enemy's kept woman, kicking his naked boy into the dirt. Man and woman (he calls her Mara) try to make a living in the desert. After he rapes her, the woman can do as he does, digging fruit out of the sand and drawing water from a stump or rock by shooting it. She then gets the ambitious notion that Topo should be a "winner." He can do this by defeating the four masters known to dwell elsewhere in the desert. Each practices a form of spiritual or esoteric wisdom, but Topo takes down three of the four. The fourth defeats him by shooting himself, proving that there is really nothing to take from him and thus nothing to win. Traumatized by this revelation, Topo is left for dead by the mysterious whip-wielding woman (who talks with a man's voice) who had joined the journey, and who now administers the wounds of Christ on him with bullets while stealing away his fickle girlfriend. He is rescued by a tribe of deformed people who live in a deep cave. He endeavors to dig them a tunnel so they can leave their cave permanently. To do so he raises funds by playing a clown with his new friend, a dwarf woman, in the nearest town. The New World Order has apparently taken over there, since the eye in the pyramid is everywhere. And now I understand why conspiracy theorists worry: slaughtering or merely branding and enslaving peasants is the local sport. Ugly women impose themselves on a black man and accuse him of rape, earning him a lynching. All the building signs are in English by the way -- hint, hint. While Topo labors away, a new stranger disrupts the NWO by intervening in a faith-based Russian Roulette game. But that's just a distraction from his real business, which, he being Topo's long lost son, is to kill him. Topo requests a reprieve so he can complete the tunnel project, only to renege on the deal by immolating himself Vietnamese-monk style after the townsfolk massacre the escaping freaks and he massacres the townsfolk. Let me illustrate:

I have spared you detailed descriptions of many of the activities of the characters in the film. It's up to all of you to see those and figure them out for yourselves. I will say that much of it struck me as an illogical extension of the increasingly surreal actuality of the spaghetti western genre. An early scene in which a killer slices a banana into bite size pieces so he can skewer each one for individual snacks somehow reminded me of the absurdly tedious business of the gunfighters during the opening credits of Once Upon a Time in the West. It's all outrageous, yet trivial at the same time. And the odd abilities of gunfighters or masters are not far removed from the increasingly specialized killing or shooting techniques of the actual spaghettis, which were by this time often spiraling off into mythic extremes. Jodorowsky's Panic movement seems to have elaborated intellectually what the spaghettis had generated more or less spontaneously. The difference is not really that great, unless we insist on analyzing all the imagery. But I'm not sure that will do much more for us than tell us what's going on in Jodorowsky's head, and I don't know if the genuine effectiveness of his powerful imagery can be explained fully by that sort of analysis. The man himself will gladly elaborate on that aspect of his art, as I learned from watching the brief English-language interview on the DVD, but I'd rather give him credit for getting beyond himself in this legitimately visionary film.

As far as art direction goes, El Topo fully lives up to its reputation. It's a riot of excessive imagery, from the simple immensity of the desert to the literal animal vitality of certain scenes, as when the Colonel emerges from his pyramid-like lair and is followed out by an outburst of dozens of pigs, or the swarm of rabbits in the compound on one of the masters. At first I was anachronistically reminded of Circle of Iron, but it soon became clear how pale an imitation of El Topo that silly film was. The film it ended up more like to me was Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, a similarly iconographic but rather less bloody film by Sergei Parajanov. Both films are about putting archetypal strangeness right in front of the camera to express some sort of primal message. The messages we can take or leave, but El Topo, at least, is a terrific film to at least look at -- unless you're disturbed by deformities (the makers of The Crippled Masters must have taken inspiration here) or human ugliness in general, or lots of bloodshed. But if you can stand all that, you can stand at least one viewing of this historic film.


Rev. Fred Phantom said...

Beautiful! I always love reading reviews on this film because it's such an odd film to "review". I too only recently discovered this film and Jodorowsky's other films (about a year ago). EL TOPO now stands as one of my all time favorite films--#4 on my list of 50 personal favorites...yes, I have a list.

Samuel Wilson said...

I envy you your organization, Rev. How often does that list get updated? In any event, I agree on the near impossibility of an "objective" review of El Topo apart from praising its pictorial quality. Alas for me, an art gallery in Albany is playing The Holy Mountain this week, but my work hours won't let me get out to see it.

Rev. Fred Phantom said...

Not very often, believe it or not. The top 3 have been in place for over 10 years now. lol

Most recent additions to the top 10 are El Topo and an Austrailan film called, Bad Boy Bubby.

Samuel Wilson said...

I've heard good words about Bubby but it hasn't crossed my path yet. I guess the very top of most people's lists remain consistent. Hasn't Citizen Kane topped the Sight & Sound poll for something like fifty years now?