Friday, January 22, 2016

El Topo

1970's EL TOPO is without question one of the strangest movies I've ever seen.  It was released during an era of great cinematic experimentation, when even Hollywood was green lighting all sorts of anti-Establishment tracts.  Films distinguished by brutal lampoons and way out fantasy sequences.  EL TOPO is two solid hours of surreality, of unchecked artistic freedom.  I  kept wanting to applaud it for its audaciousness, but enjoying it was another matter.  I might save you the trouble of watching this film (you're welcome) by merely attempting to describe it - no easy task.  It is absolutely only for those with open minds and adventurous tastes.  A one-of-a-kind experience that follows up each unusual scene with something even more unusual.   Some moments are unbelievably silly, as when a trio of bandidos drop a balloon on the ground in front of their rival and watch (and listen to) it deflate.  Others are just plain weird, sometimes graphic.

Many artists - from John Lennon to Roger Waters - have sung their praises of EL TOPO.  It is obvious that directors like Terry Gilliam and David Lynch have been influenced by it.  I have no reservations in stating that Alejandro Jodorowsky is a talent with which to reckon, a man with a very particular vision.  I have not seen his other films, but I did catch the documentary JODOROWSKY'S DUNE which recalled the director's failed efforts in the 1970s to mount an adaptation of Frank Herbert's celebrated novel.  Before that, there was a large gap in my film knowledge; I had not even heard of Jodorowsky, though I was aware of one his later movies, SANTA SANGRE.

The writer/director, who also plays the title character has fashioned a tale that begins promisingly and intriguingly, then gets lost.   He has much on his mind, concerns about religious hypocrisy, mainly.  His targets are not merely Christians but Buddhists and maybe even Zoroastrians.  Students of theology in fact may get the most out of this movie, though it's highly unlikely to be screened in any formal settings where they may congregate.  Many will be appalled and grossed out by the plethora of gore and odd sexual elements.  An example: a woman with a man's voice offers another woman a part of a cactus that has been split open, resembling a vagina.  They proceed to lick it.

Jodorowsky will, of course, explain the necessity of such a scene.  How even the most seemingly indefensible moments have a purpose and some Meaning.  If I watched the film a dozen times I'm sure I could begin to make connections and "see" things I hadn't before, even if I hadn't eaten the brown acid.

Thankfully, when a man castrates himself we're spared a close up.  But there is a pile of stones that resembles a penis, with a fountain of water spurting upwards.  There is mutilation of humans and animals.  A club specializing in orgies where a man and his dwarf girlfriend are invited to participate in a mock "wedding night".   Many, many people are shot throughout the movie. There are several instances of sustained weird and annoying sounds (chants, the baaaing of sheep).  The violence erupts every few minutes.

EL TOPO begins with the mysterious titular character as he roams the desert with his naked young son, Hijo. On a quest for something.  El Topo tells the kid to bury a picture of his mother, to transition into manhood.  They journey into a river of blood, that of the unlucky inhabitants of a Mexican town ruled by a corpulent, evil Colonel.  After the despot is slaughtered, El Topo will ride off with the Colonel's slave woman who he dubs, "Mara". The boy is left behind.   Mara will convince her savior to go to kill four famous gun masters, each of whom represents a particular philosophy.  The movie itself has chapters like "Psalms" and "Armegeddon".

Later, after El Topo is doubled crossed and left for dead, the Western gives way to something that kinda resembles a romance, though the disturbing imagery gets even worse.  The central character awakens to find he is being revered as a a type of god.  From this point, EL TOPO's perversity becomes uncontained, over the top.  Some scenes work, particularly the Russian roulette during a church service; your points are loud and clear, Alejandro.  But other scenes are far more oblique, especially when the narrative brings El Topo's grown son (now a monk) into the fold

EL TOPO, for all of its faults and excesses, is too bold and thoughtful to dismiss, but also too messy to recommend.  I guess the film can be taken as "weird for weird's sake", the way some do with Lynch movies.  But the digging required to unearth Jodorowsky's points is truly up to you, as is whether the energy to do so may be better spent elsewhere.

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