Saturday 18 August 2007

El Topo (1970) Alejandro Jodorowsky

I've waited a long, long time to see this film, which has been kept from release by issues between the man who made it it, director Alejandro Jodorowsky, and the owner of the rights, Allen Klein who was John Lennon's manager. Finally they have come to an agreement and it, along with The Holy Mountain and others have been released in a powerful box set. My wait is over. So, having read so much about this film, I finally get to see it. What's it about? Well, from what I've read that will be the applicable question when I finish it too.

We open with a rite of passage. El Topo has ridden into the desert with his seven year old son, so that he can become a man by burying his first toy and his mother's picture. He's clad all in leather and wouldn't seem out of place in a spaghetti western, while his son is naked. They then discover a village where everything and everyone has been massacred, from the people to the horses, leaving a river of blood down the main street. Back in the desert, they come across a trio of sexual deviants busy practicing their respective fetishes and they're fool enough to try El Topo on. He's a gunfighter and a very quick one, it seems, though he seems to speak in one word sentences.

There's a lot of mysticism, ritual and symbolism in this film though I certainly don't recognise the meaning of all of it. Some of it is blatantly obvious, such as one of the remainder of the men responsible for the massacre blowing his nose on pages from the bible at the Franciscan mission, or the perverse suggestivity of bandits thrusting lizards between their legs. Much of it may just be plain bizarre, with what seems like no regard for taboos or restraint, though it's often far from inappropriate. Scenes like the one where a bandit walks alongside a long line of prisoners facing away from him towards a wall and shoots them at random without even looking at them are sadly and shockingly believable.

Just as with Santa Sangre, there are things here that you've never seen before. In how many films can you see naked monks being ridden like dogs and whipped with cacti? How many have armless men carrying legless men on their backs, working symbiotically to climb ladders and braid ponytails? How many have mystical gunfights within a corral full of dead bunnies? How many have the lead character comatose for years while cared for by incestuous crippled dwarves? How many have a rape scene where the perpetrators are six scary old women and the victim a young virile black guy? How many have boxing matches with barbed wire wrapped gloves? How many have religious services that involve russian roulette and end with dead children? That's not to mention the skinned and crucified goat, bareback lesbian whipping and the hallucinogenic dead insect sucking. And everything else.

What surprised me most was how this is so ostensibly a mystical film set in a western framework, yet it adheres far more closely to the eastern format. Picture the powerful fighter learning first that there are masters beyond his ken and then learning their skills from them through hardship and dedication. That sounds far more like a kung fu film than a western, but it fits here with guns and the desert and violent bloody altercations.

It's also a metaphor for cinema itself, especially the rivalry between independent cinema and the mainstream. The very title and name of the main character, El Topo, fits that: the mole tunnelling out of the darkness and into the sunlight, if only for a short time where it is blinded. I'm sure the whole scene with the elderly women and the black guy could be seen as an attack on the treatment of minorities by Hollywood during its golden age. Simultaneously they as the Women's Decency League or whatever it's called could equate to the Production Code. Or maybe I'm just reading far too much into it, but this film really invites that sort of thing.

I'll really need to watch this with the commentary on. This is entirely Jodorowsky's vision, both as writer, director and lead actor: he plays El Topo and puts himself through no end of torment in the process, including shaving himself bald. Obviously this meant a huge amount to him, and it shows on the screen. I don't understand all of this and may never understand all of it, even after the commentary, but I'm not sure that matters. This is a visual masterpiece, completely unique. To still stand that way after a further 37 years is pretty astounding.

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