Too Much Perfection Is A Mistake: El Topo (1970)

When I discovered during my initial research that there was a sub-genre of revisionist westerns referred to as acid westerns, I knew that at least one of these works would need to be included in my blog this month.  At first I was unsure which direction to go with this as many of the "acclaimed" acid westerns seemed to merely be a film that blows the lid of the styling of the spaghetti western, while providing a critique of the sixties, so to a degree films like Easy Rider and Sam Peckinpah's works would make the cut.  However, I by chance alone glanced at my Alejandro Jodorowsky box set which was collecting dust on my DVD shelf and remembered that he had made a film called El Topo, for which I had managed yet to catch up with at any point.  Upon brief research I realized that in some circles El Topo is considered the greatest moment in the acid western, a completely fresh appropriation of the spaghetti western excess, paired with a hero's quest for identity.  In one full and wild stroke, Jodorowsky manages to make a work that is a harsh reflection of the problematic nature of authority within the context of sixties Mexico, while creating a film that aside from being a western, is also a passion play, a coming of age tale, a spirit quest and even a horror film to varying degrees.  I have often considered that no director could pickup the revolutionary narrative workings and trenchantly surrealist film making style of the great Luis Bunuel, without it appearing contrived or pretentious.  I am now fully willing to afford an exception to Jodorowsky.  Prior to seeing El Topo I was only familiar with his works Fando Y Lis, and what is considered his master work Santa Sangre.  About fifteen minutes into El Topo I realized that I had discovered my new favorite work by the director, and a new found faith in the possibilities of truly surrealist film making. There are a lot of moments with El Topo that are visually challenging and baffling, which at first glance appear to be completely incoherent and detached from one another, yet something happens in the films "second" act that makes the absurdity become poetically realized.  Between bouts of uncontrollable laughter and moments of truly cringe inducing visual offerings, I wish every filmmaker cared about their work with as much compassion as Jodorowsky proves to, even if it all seems tied to some terribly troubled parental figures.  To Jodorowsky the western, and all of cinema, only serve as a brief respite from reality, and even in that moment of escapism, reality must be acknowledged in all its glorious brutality.

As noted the film is decidedly divided into two sections, although the title cards lifted from biblical references such as Genesis and Psalms, do little to clearly delineate the separation, an even more so induced by clear setting shifts.  Nonetheless, the first half focuses on the travels of El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky) as he takes his naked son through the Mexican deserts in the search of four accomplished gunmen, along the way meeting a group of bandits who have recently taken it upon themselves to pillage a Franciscan monastery with the hopes bedding a girl with whom their leader is currently sleeping.  El Topo emerges to destroy these various members, as well as the general with the intent of taking the woman and leaving his son to live with the remaining monks.  After this abandonment, El Topo takes on the four gunmen, each having their respective eccentricities and quirks, like one man believing that he has perfected a way for his body to prepare for any incoming bullet, while another believes his raising of rabbits and handcrafted gun have led to his own perfection that assures each bullet will be a fatal blow.  The last one, indeed, refuses to fight El Topo, but in a moment of genius El Topo convinces him to take his own life, thus affirming him as the master gunslinger of the area, yet, his reign is cut short, when he returns to the woman he has taken, only to be gunned down by another female lover she has undertaken in El Topo's repeated absence.  All of this, of course, only captures the first half of the film, the second considers the experiences of El Topo, now awaken in an underground cave with paled skin and whitened hair, only to discover himself the demigod of a group of deformed persons living in the cave, completely castaway from a wealthy and decadent village living above the ground.  Recruiting the help of a dwarf woman, for whom he adores, El Topo begins a plan of digging out a tunnel, while begging for supplies to expedite the process, with the hopes that upon escape the crippled and deformed individuals can simply integrate into the city.  Meanwhile, the city is visited by a traveling monk who instantly dismisses their life of cultist excess, hoping, instead; seeing a possibility in helping the underground colony, yet when he realizes that El Topo is his father, it is drawn to attention that the monk is indeed his abandoned son, who vows to kill him upon the completion of the tunnel.  Yet when the tunnel is completed, El Topo flees with his followers to the city, only to be gunned down in the moment, while his dwarf lover gives birth to a child.  El Topo's son the monk now rides off with the new child, and a near duplication of the film's opening shot occurs, suggesting an absurd and futile cycle.

El Topo is so many amazing things wrapped into a surprisingly taut two hours.  One could walk away from this film and debate it as a psychoanalytic nightmare of abandonment, or as one of the most introspective considerations of Jesus Christ's last days and to a heavy degree be correct.  What Jodorowsky does within El Topo is take the very lose strictures of the revisionist western and use them to set into motion a deeply focused critique on any form of oppression humanly imaginable.  This is key, because one of the biggest issues I find myself struggling with as I go through this marathon is the decided denial of otherness with the western genre, sure, women, persons of color and native populations receive screen time within the genre, but it is quite often purely for narrative continuity and done so with forced subservience on their part.  El Topo rejects all authoritative figures within this text, whether it be a general who dons his costume much in the same way that a drag performer would don their wig and makeup.  In this moment it is quite possible that Jodorowsky wants to suggest that the only difference between a person in power and a peasant is the garb worn, the authoritative signifiers such as a medal or plumed hat becoming useless once removed.  The same could certainly hold true for the foolish looking sheriffs in the town of the second act, whose badges, while felt, nonetheless, represent the law, therefore, allowing them to exact law as they see fit, even in their incredibly violent and prejudiced manner.  Other examples of this occur in regards to religious figures, bourgeois women and even in the character of El Topo, who must struggle with his gender privilege while traveling with the woman in the first act, just as he repeatedly fails to reject his demigod status throughout the second act.  All of this expands nicely to consider the eye within the triangle cult symbol that seems to exact ultimate authority over the narrative.  The panoptic gaze of this eye causes even those in the most oppressed of situations to accept their role, out of a fear that this ever present element of surveillance will capture their slightest divergence from preordained roles.  Indeed, it is only the underground community who is unaware of this cult-like fear, yet when they emerge from their cage to the light of realization, unlike Plato's allegory where enlightentment is achieved, here in the disparate world of El Topo death comes synonymous with "seeing the light."

Key Scene:  While there are easily tons to go with, I was partial to the sand and sex scene, it is cinematically profound and challenging both on a compositional and theoretical level.

This boxset is a wonderful item, unfortunately, in the recent bluray upgrade it managed not to obtain all the films.  As such, for expense reasons I would suggest going with the single disc bluray, although the DVD boxset does include soundtracks.

1 comment:

  1. Nice writing on a truly bizarre film. I really love the soundtrack that comes in the box set, and the fact Jodorowski himself composed them.