Wednesday, 21 May 2008

El Topo (Mexico, 1970)

A black-bearded gunslinger possessed of mystical powers rides across the desert with his naked, seven-year-old son clinging to his back. Happening across the aftermath of a massacre, he urges the boy to commit a mercy killing before resolving to hunt down the bandits responsible for the slaughter. Finding them holed up at a Franciscan mission where they pass the days spanking monks and pretending to be dogs, he delivers justice by castrating their colonel. Then, he callously abandons his child and rides around in circles until he has found the magical ‘four great gun masters’ (the most unremarkable of whom seems to sleep on a sand dune and can catch bullets in a butterfly net) and challenged them to a series of showdowns.

Later, our hero – presumably the titular El Topo – is murdered and reborn a god to a subterranean race of inbred beetle eaters. To raise funds to free his newfound followers from their underground incarceration, he finds work as a tap-dancing clown in an anarchic city where black people are branded like cattle, cross-dressing churchgoers play Russian roulette to prove their faith, and he is forced to publicly make love to a midget. After this, he becomes the agent of a miniature apocalypse, survives a full-on assault from a firing squad, and inadvertently unleashes a cripple stampede.

I promise it’s even stranger than it sounds. Adored by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and considered almost sacred by stoners and students (not that those are mutually exclusive classifications), Alejandro Jodorowsky’s absurdist Western is a definitive cult film and possibly the weirdest movie it’s worth watching.

Bashing Eastern imagery against Christian iconography in a way that’s both sacrilegious and reverential, offsetting the intellectualising with sex and sudden violence, and filtering it all through the sensibility of a Spaghetti Western, Jodorowsky creates in El Topo an cinemascape of staggering, if incomprehensible, beauty. Ideas are everywhere: scabrous assaults on organised faith are presented alongside endorsements of Christian teaching and handpicked pearls of Asian philosophy; fragments of mysticism and mythology supplement post-Freudian probing of basic sexuality; and discussions of destiny collide with parables about self-determination. There’s even, apparently, a bit of autobiography – Jodorowsky claims his father was so afraid of turning into a homosexual he only once touched the infant Alejandro: when he carried his six-year-old son on his back across several kilometres of sand.

There’s always an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ quality among admirers of any film as obtuse as El Topo. Buoyed by Jodorwosky’s boast that ‘If you’re great, El Topo is a great picture; if you’re limited, El Topo is limited’, there are those who claim to see in it a cohesive satire of all spirituality that practically reveals the meaning of life. Equally, there are those who dismiss the whole thing as a slapdash headtrip, and still others who attack it for being, at times, indecipherable and, at others, too transparent. Perhaps I’m just limited, but I tend to think they’re all missing the point.

Though the film’s message – if it has a central message – is never clear, it is never supposed to be. The main character is, for much of the movie, adrift in an unlikely universe in which he finds no unifying faith or obvious purpose, and it’s the perilous uncertainties of forming your own philosophy in an environment where anyone can pick whatever they like from whatever they find on a belief system buffet accessible to all that is seemingly Jodorowsky’s theme. We’re living in an age, he argues, without many easy answers – and we’re watching a movie that reflects that.

Nevertheless, El Topo is occasionally over-earnest – but this can’t be held against it either. True, some of its attacks on the evils of unchecked capitalism and American concepts of racial integration range from the unsubtle to the unbelievably obvious, but they are delivered in such an unusual way they never seem tired. What’s more, these unsubtle sections are necessary oases amongst the inscrutability – we need a little obviousness to help us engage with a film that could otherwise be un-involving.

And, while it might seem unlikely from a summary of the plot and its theological implications, El Topo is certainly involving. It is a searing, amazing, alarming experience; the more you watch it, the more you want to watch it, and the more you are rewarded for looking beyond the films at the local Odeon or the popular choices in Blockbuster. If you like a film to resemble at least one other you’ve seen, and aren’t fond of the unfathomable, then El Topo isn’t for you. If, however, you fancy seeing the eccentric extremes to which imagination can be stretched on a cinema screen, there is no better film in the world.


Libby said...

This is by far the strangest western--ever. We watched this in my "Cult Cinema" class last fall, and I couldn't believe what I was watching...nor could I follow some of it. Nice review thought.

Bob Juch said...

I saw this probably six times in the early 70s at the University Theater in Palo Alto. Images from it are burned into my memory still.