A gunfighter, who calls himself God, rides around with his son dispensing justice. After he avenges a horrific massacre, he takes up with a woman who says, to prove his love for her, he has to find and kill the four Great Masters. Leaving his son with a community of monks, he sets off on his quest, but each Master is harder to kill, another female joins the two and God feels less and less satisfied with what he is doing…….
After Fando And Lis, there was little doubt in my mind that Alexandro Jodorowsky’s next exercise in cinematic weirdness, El Topo, would be pretty incredible, or at the very least pretty mind blowing, and I was right. Much like Fando And Lis, it initially received a very limited release amidst much controversy about it’s violence, but then John Lennon happened to see it and, singing it’s praises, ensured that it got a fairly major worldwide release by convincing a producer friend of his to distribute it. It became a huge cult success in the US and became the archetypal ‘Midnight Movie’. The counter-culture movement of the late 1960s was starting to die down and even in a way sell out, so El Topo, which was very spiritual and certainly had a ‘hippie’, element to it, but balanced this out with a while load of nastiness, cynicism and questioning of those ideals, seemed perfectly timed on it’s release. Afterwards though, producer Allen Klein basically ‘buried’ the film after a fall out with Jodorowksy and for many years it was very hard to see, at least in anything resembling a decent print.
El Topo, despite being probably even odder, is actually quite different from Fando And Lis. It moves away from the Performance Art element of the previous movie and presents a far more obviously allegorical tale, all in the setting of a Spaghetti Western, a very popular genre at the time and one that Jodorowsky felt would be perfect to present his ideas. At first it does just seem like a very bloody Sergio Leone-esque film, right from it’s opening of ‘God’ and his son in the desert slowly, on horseback, approaching the stump of a plant, and there ‘s even a gunfight in a corrida. Quite soon though, when we are presented with men shooting at women’s shoes on rocks and chained monks being freed by their captors who then ride them like animals, it’s obvious this is something quite different! About two thirds of the way through it seems to become a different film altogether, changing it’s setting to a bizarre town filled with eye symbols and a race of deformed people living underneath it. The basic plot is that of a violent man who ‘changes’ into a peaceful man, but if that sounds simple, the handling certainly isn’t, with Jodorowsky presenting us with a baffling load of symbolic imagery, much of it seeming to allude to various religions. Some of it seemed fairly easy to assimilate, with for instance the four Great Masters appearing to all practice different philosophies, so perhaps this is partly a parable of the rise of Christianity what with the main character calling himself God? Much of it though just remains obscure on a first viewing, but I think Jodorowksy put a tremendous amount into what he presents. If we ‘get it’, fair enough, but if we don’t, in a way that’s even better, Jodorowsky seems to be saying “here are the images and ideas I’m feeding you, some may be kind of familiar, many though won’t be. What does it all mean to you?
I get the feeling that the film is very much in support of Buddhism, but as said before this is no simple exercise in peace and love, it’s absolutely packed with bloody scenes and the amount of red stuff used is quite extroardinary. Everywhere people are gorily shot, sliced, slashed, even castrated, and in this movie even children and animals get it. There’s an especially revolting shot of a real ram hanging on a wall with only the skin and fur on the head remaining, and I must admit I didn’t much enjoy a scene where a huge number of rabbits are shown dead and dying. They look far too realistic to be fake and, considering that the overall point is hard to discern [unlike in, for instance, Cannibal Holocaust], I think the director went too far here in killing tons of animals to help create his art. Not all of the gore is that convincing, and some of it consists of a quick cut to the ‘aftermath’, rather than the actual ‘event’. The actual action scenes are rather clumsily filmed, as if they were the least important aspect of the movie. Which they probably are. Considering the amount of violence I was surprised that the sex is very tame and I must say that, as with Fando And Lis [and Santa Sangre], the women aren’t very well treated in this movie. Jodorowsky also seems to be fascinated by ‘freaks’ and people with disabilities, and interestingly they are usually treated better than everyone else in the films. This guy just loves putting his obsessions on film, and defies the audience to either like it or lump it.
Jodorowsky himself plays El Topo and to be fair none of the acting in this movie is much good but does it really matter? El Topo’s editing is at times strikingly similar to that of Nicolas Roeg with some seemingly random but actually very clever cutting from images to other images, and in the way that often you’ll see the aftermath of a scene, then flash back to see what led to that moment, in fact I think the directors share similarities in their style and outlook. I was still reminded of Federico Fellini and Luis Bunuel at times, but Jodorowsky is a crazy, berserk talent like no other. There’s a primal, unfettered feel to his filmmaking, he doesn’t want you to understand or even like, he wants you to experience, presenting images and ideas which bypass the normal areas of the brain. He once said “I make films the way Americans use psychedelic drugs” and he does seem to film and even think in a way that few other filmmakers dare or even want to do. For that, I can forgive him his self indulgence and any aspects that I have problems with.