There is a cliché I want to see retired, no made illegal – the cliché of comparing something edgy to something bland by claiming ‘Such-and-such is like (insert bland item here) on acid’. The only exception would have to be El Topo, which really is a ‘Western on acid’. More specifically, this is a spaghetti western on a heavy dose of surrealist artist Luis Buñuel, author Herman Hesse and general 1960s esoterica.
It’s obvious why this, the original midnight movie, was embraced by the likes of John Lennon, Dennis Hopper and Timothy Leary. It’s a violent, brutal, confusing, occasionally fascinating and allegorical film. Alejandro Jodorowsky infuses the violence of Peckinpah, the style of Leone and the eroticism of Arrabal. Jodorowsky not only writes and directs, he also plays the title role (which translates as ‘The Mole’), a mysterious black-clad gunfighter who claims to be God travelling through the desert, initially with his naked seven-year-old son and eventually with two beautiful women.
This film has a very strong flavour of Buñuel particularly in the use of religious themes and stylised absurdity. I think the profoundest parallels may lie in L’Age D’Or (1930). To be sure, the ride has moments where sex, violence and landscape are constructed with poetic surrealism. After entering a massacred village, and riding through corpses and carnage, El Topo finds a sole survivor. El Topo then hands his gun over to his son, instructing him to put the man out of his misery. El Topo frees a woman from a despotic colonel whose henchmen have also enslaved and abused a group of Franciscan monks. He strips the colonel, humiliates him and forces him to shoot himself. He later confronts several ‘masters’ of the desert, including one he covers with dead rabbits and a blind one who is an incredibly fast shooter.
It had to be a true labour of love for Jodorowsky to complete it. As with many self-possessed artists, the very compulsion that drives a project can manifest in self-indulgence. He has after all cast himself as the lead – a powerful avenger, worshipped by women, with not-so-subtle ‘God’ allusions. Each biblically-titled chapter is constructed episodically, each with the thematic equivalent of a punch line, meant to further highlight the moral preceding it.
Its actual release date not-withstanding, El Topo still predates both The Wild Bunch (1969) and Easy Rider (1969). Filmed over the course of nearly three years, the filmmakers twice were stranded for weeks without supplies or money. This film began production in 1964/65, and wasn’t completed until 1968. It was originally set for release in 1968, but was further delayed by distribution problems.
An ongoing dispute between Jodorowsky and producer (and one time Rolling Stones manager) Allen Klein not only delayed the original release, it continues to affect distribution. The only version I was able to get on home video was dubbed into English with Japanese subtitles at the bottom of the screen. It seems most available copies of El Topo are grey market dubs taken from Japanese laserdisc. Be prepared for a potential loss in picture quality and the odd Japanese convention of intentionally blurring out all pubic hair. So for full effect (and pubic hair), it is best to try to catch the rare theatrical showing.
Home video technical limitations aside, seeing El Topo in a cinema screening also avails you to discussing it with others. Reactions to the movie are all over the map. Many don’t like the film. Many find it too pretentious, too disturbing, too violent, too sacrilegious, too scattered. It may be wise to reserve opinions until viewing Jodorowsky’s other well-known feature Holy Mountain (1973) as well. Holy Mountain is lesser known, but commands as much respect among auteurs and fans, and is often described as ‘science fiction on Acid’. See a theme here?.
And so calling El Topo ‘A Western on Acid’ can be both praise and criticism, remembering that acid can distort your perception to such a degree that even the back of your hand can fascinate you for hours. As to whether it’d be interesting for others to watch you do it, is the subjective determination viewers bring to films like El Topo. Most agree it is art regardless of opinion or interpretations.
Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Writer(s): Alejandro Jodorowsky
Runtime(s): 125 minutes
Soren McCarthy, Cult Movies In Sixty Seconds: The Best Films In The World In Less Than A Minute, Fusion Press, 2003.