Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Writer: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Cinematographer: Raphael Corkidi
Producer: Juan López Moctezuma, Moshe Rosemberg, and Roberto Viskin
by Jon Cvack
This might hold the record for the longest I’ve ever owned a DVD without watching it. I can’t even remember when I bought this thing, but it was after getting deeper into Luis Buñuel’s filmography that my motivation to explore more surrealistic films began to dwindle. Facing only scraps on Netflix and Amazon (seriously can’t believe I’ve exhausted the Netflix “classics” section after only starting it a few months ago), I figured I’d turn to some long overdue unwatched DVDs from my collection, putting on El Topo at around midnight while sick with one of the worst colds I’ve ever had, turning it off within minutes when the graphic images began to play.
Days later I returned to it, and once you get past the absurd intro of the cowboy El Topo (played by Jodorowsky himself) and his butt-naked adolescent child, as they traverse the desert, coming across town that’s been slaughtered, with pools of blood collected in the streets and bodies everywhere - it's actually kind of interesting. El Topo kills those responsible, discovering an enslaved woman Mara (Mara Lorenzio) who he abandons his son for at a local mission, before heading to kill four other gunmen who have been slaughtering other villagers and priests in the most grotesque ways imaginable. Along the way they meet another dark-clad unnamed femme who helps him and Mara kill the men, then shooting El Topo which leads to a second act that’s something out of The Temple of Doom ('84), involving a bunch of physically and mentally ill people trapped within a mountain, unable to escape, who greet El Topo in great enthusiasm and thus start another journey that I don’t really feel like describing as when you’re talking about a piece of surrealist filmmaking, words really become meaningless in trying to paint a picture.
While I was expecting a bunch of bizarre nonsensical scenes, I was pleasantly surprised to see an overall coherent story, intercut with surrealistic imagery. At its core is the classic revenge story western, and I’d bet all my suggestive fruit that Tarantino drew inspiration from the story, as aside from the plot, this is an extraordinarily violent film, leaving me struggling to think of any others from the period that could match its level (Night of the Living Dead ('68) and The Wild Bunch ('69) come to mind, but they are tame by comparison). Another story it reminded me was and that just wouldn’t leave my mind is Stephen King’s "The Dark Tower" series.
I struggle for what to discuss as I think that my issue with surrealism is the infinite interpretations of meaning. While art allows subjectivity, surrealism takes it to the extreme. I don’t have any problem with an objective meaning, as if the meaning is interesting and profound enough it will stick with people, allowing the grand beauty of art to shine; in which it’s about the reaction to the experience, rather than disagreeing with what the experience means. While I’m sure many surrealists have specific purpose behind their work, I always hear them asking me what I think about it when pressing them on a particular moment or scene. Is El Topo about fascism, the American Western Myth, religious persecution, some historical event I’m ignorant of, or simply the stream of conscious musing of Jodorowsky? I have a feeling that there is no ultimate answer to much of it; that it’s an instantaneous creation, born from the subconscious and placed within a more or less coherent story.
Perhaps it’s because I also just finished "Finnegan’s Wake" the day before yesterday and tried to finish the supplemental "Skeleton’s Key to Finnegan’s Wake" (which doesn’t help) is making me all the more frustrated on pieces of this sort. El Topo isn’t even all that abstract, as like Dali, Jodorowsky at least places it all within a very reasonable set of limitations and constructs. But many surrealist films, like many from Bunuel or Last Year at Marienbad ('61), are far too open ended, where like "Finnegan’s Wake", the text is reserved only for those who are most passionate to solve them (if they can). I admire anyone who has the patience to do it, but it’s when they declare that it’s some of the greatest work, simply because they took the time to figure it out, while no regular or even avid fan would ever do the same. I compare it to music, in which there are some songs that many can agree are perfect, and yet each listeners has a unique experince to the material, often which could never be put into words. Watching and reading some this experimental work is like being unable to agree on what song is even being heard.
BELOW: Great little mini-doc on the film from the book "Midnight Movies"
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