Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, January 19, 2015

Director Report Card: Alejandro Jodorowsky (1970)

2. El Topo
The Mole

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s goal as a filmmaker, which he has repeated frequently, is to make movies that will have the same effect on the audience as psychedelic drugs. He strives to make, not merely entertainment, but experiences. With “El Topo,” the director came the closest to realizing this vision. When the film was screened at midnight in New York’s Elgin Theater, to a packed house of stoned hippies and weirdos, Jodorowsky finally found an audience susceptible to his ideas. “El Topo” became one of the earliest midnight movies, a true cult classic that included figures as divergent as John Lennon, Peter Fonda and Roger Ebert among its cult. The film’s mixture of spaghetti western tropes, intense violence, strange religious satire, bizarre imagery, and far-out spiritual and philosophical concepts made it unlike anything that came before or since. It remains Jodorowsky’s seminal work.

As in “Fando y Lis,” Jodorowsky builds a simple story from which he hangs countless heady ideas and unbelievable images. “El Topo” follows the titular gunfighter who wanders into a massacred town with his naked son. After killing the banditos there, he sets out on a quest to defeat the four great gunfighting masters of the deserts. Prodded on by an avarice woman, the Mole wins each duel by cheating. Through his journeys, El Topo is transformed, becoming the hero to an underground village of deformed humans. Like the mole, he digs a tunnel for his new friends to escape. Yet the world remains violent and cruel, forcing El Topo to revert back to his old ways.

The primary theme of “El Topo,” a movie which discusses a multitude of concepts, is the quest for enlightenment. El Topo begins the film as a violent man, a gunslinger that’s quick on the draw. He travels the desert, doling out justice and vengeance as he sees fit. He’s not a man with a purpose, aside from where his journey takes him. By seeking out the four masters, El Topo is attempting to find meaning. He fails, each time, and is destroyed. Only then, after loosing everything, is he reborned as a peaceful man. Even then, El Topo struggles, his past returning to haunt him in unexpected ways. The path to enlightenment is a tangled one. The film’s achingly human protagonist makes mistakes, complicating his own journey. To make it clear that “El Topo” is a story about someone coming to a spiritual conclusion, Jodorowsky cast himself as the titular character. “El Topo” was a journey for its filmmaker too.

Jodorowsky builds upon these idea in the setting of a spaghetti western. “El Topo” has been described as an acid western. One of those movies that freely mixes the weather-worn tropes of the western with psychedelic flashes and hippy philosophy. In its first third, “El Topo” functions like a highly irregular western. Like the Man with No Name or Django, El Topo rides into a town in trouble. Littered with dead bodies, the town is ruled over by a cruel general and his gang of psychotic bandits. Like many spaghetti westerns, “El Topo” freely mixes political and religious satire with bullets and cowboy hats. The bandits execute the innocent town folks, in a way that brings WWII execution squads to mind. More of the goons torment the local monks with homoerotic routines, striping them nude, writing on their asses, and riding them like animals. Like many spaghetti westerns, “El Topo” is also extraordinarily violent. Bright red blood explodes out of bodies with an intense furiosity. Hundreds of dead bodies hang from ceilings. A man slashes his own throat, throwing up gallons of blood, before plummeting off a tower. After defeating his gang, El Topo castrates the General who then blows his brains out with a shotgun. In these early scenes, “El Topo” feels like a particularly intense spaghetti western but doesn’t step outside of the boundaries of the subgenre.

In its next portion, however, the film becomes a wildly different creature. By introducing the four master gunfighters, “El Topo” explicitly communicates its philosophical ideas. The first master, a soft-spoken hippy wearing only a loincloth, approaches life from an entirely subjective perspective. He doesn’t believe death to be real, so he doesn’t believe he can die. His total commitment to subjectivity allows bullets to pass through him. The second master uses total discipline to give him complete control over his fingers. His absolute control over his hand allow him to handle delicate wooden sculptures without crushing them. He also believes in the power of love, doing everything with his mother, believing this makes him a fuller human being. The third master lives with a field full of rabbits, which perish and die when evil is around. His expert aiming is a result of him trusting his heart over his head. The last master has no possessions and is completely free of all desires. He bounces El Topo’s bullets back at him with a butterfly net. Jodorowsky uses the gun fighting concept merely as a way to present different spiritual concepts.

How El Topo reacts to each of the masters reflects on his lack of growth as a person. He cheats each time, setting traps for each man. He digs a pit for the first master, leaves a spike on the ground for the second master’s mother, and blocks the third master’s bullet with a tin plate. These victories don’t make him feel any better. After gunning down the first master in cold blood, El Topo screams towards the sky in agony. By the time he reaches the third master, he is actively questioning his journey. He continues ahead anyway, assuming he’ll learn something after it’s over. He learns something all right. He discovers the hollowness and hatefulness of his life style.

El Topo is accompanied on his quest by a woman, Mara. The two’s bizarre relationship is one of the hardest things about “El Topo” to grasp. After rescuing her from the General, El Topo abandons his own son to follow Mara's whims. While out in the desert, he rapes her, pulling her cloths off, dragging her across the dune. Midway through the film’s middle section, the two are joined by another woman. This woman speaks with a man’s voice and dresses in clothes similar to El Topo’s. After being whipped by Mara, the two women fall in love. This is illustrated during a sequence where the new woman cuts open a cactus, licking the insides suggestively. Eventually, the women betray El Topo, shooting him. So what does that mean? Considering a woman eggs on his self-destructive journey and then leaves him to die, it’s possible Jodorowsky is satirizing sexist ideas, even parodying the casual misogyny of the western genre. Yet it also difficult to read “El Topo” as a feminist text. It’s probably the most problematic aspect of the film.

The second half of “El Topo” is entitled “Psalms” and feels very different from the western-influenced first half. El Topo awakes in the underground cave, where the deformed inhabitants have worshiped him for decades. In that time, El Topo’s beard has grown long, his hair wild, his body dressed in white robes. This is some obvious Jesus symbolism. I don’t even think Jodorowsky was audacious enough to cast himself as a Christ figure. If anything, Jodorowsky is parodying heavy-handed symbolism like this. Instead, this transition precedes a rebirth, which is literally shown when Jodorowsky crawls between an old woman’s legs. He shaves his head, dressing in the robes of a simple monk. El Topo finds a new purpose in life, determined to shovel a way out of the cave, so the deformed populace can be free. El Topo becomes his namesake, the mole, digging through the rock. Having been through the hell of the desert, the film’s protagonist is finally free to recreate himself into a more noble person.

This leads to one of the oddest portions of an exceedingly odd film. Outside the mountain is a place referred to as the Big Village. The film spends a lot of time focusing on the strange decadence of the town. Slaves are hunted through the streets, their bodies branded with the town’s symbol. Nude hookers arrive in wooden boxes, kept in a huge underground brothel. Hideous old women, some of them with men’s voices, force themselves on the slaves, claiming things happened the other way around. The slave is then hanged in the streets. The obese town sheriff defecates in a golden commode after spending the night with three boys. The church services involves a game of Russian roulette. The town’s symbol is the Masonic all-seeing eye, positioned in a pyramid. What is the meaning of this choice? It’s hard to say. Is Jodorowsky aligning the decadence of the village with the American dollar? Is he mocking the Masons Abrahamic beliefs? Or was the symbol chosen just because it was easily identified? This is just one of the mysteries of “El Topo.”

Another topic floating around inside the film’s brain is fatherhood. In the beginning, El Topo commands his son to bury his teddy bear and his mother’s picture, saying he’s a man now at the age of seven. At the end of the first act, after running off with his woman, El Topo abandons his son. The boy, seen only in the nude up to this point, is suddenly clothed in a monk’s robe. When father and son meet again, years later, El Topo’s son is a man of the cloth questioning his faith. After helping his father’s newest mission, the son begins to wear his dad’s old clothes, his cowboy hat and leather chaps. The film ends with the son, now truly a man, dresses as his father, riding into the desert. The son inherits the father’s legacy. How does this reflect upon the film’s primary theme of enlightenment? Again, there is no clear answer.

“El Topo” ends on a powerful image. The freaks under the mountain escape, marching on the village with their twisted, malformed bodies. They are met with machine guns, mowed down. Enraged, El Topo picks up a rifle again and guns down everyone in the town. This was doubtlessly a cathartic image for the counterculture crowd that ate up “El Topo” in 1970. The finale trades in the same transgressive imagery as Todd Browning’s “Freaks.” Except in “El Topo,” the freaks get their revenge on the society that rejects them. The outsider tears down the culture that torments him. It signals an end of El Topo’s redemptive path but makes for an explosive finale.

“El Topo” ends on another iconic image, with the hero immolating himself, in a moment that purposely brings to mind Quang Duc’s suicide. This opens up “El Topo” as a politic film. The movie’s bountiful religious symbolism allows it to be interpreted from that angle as well. If you buy El Topo as a Christ figure, he’s as dark as one can be. Some even choose to read “El Topo” as a film about film, being about underground cinema’s symbolic journey to the mainstream. (And then, perhaps, destroying it?) This frames the choice of naming the main character and the film after a mole in a different, obvious light. Because “El Topo” is so full of life, energy, and esoteric ideas, it can be interpreted in countless different ways by every person who watches it.

Most importantly, this is a Jodorowsky’s film and is, thus, built on unforgettable images. When he guns down the bandits in an early scene, there is a quick flash on the screen of their faces splattered with blood. The General’s men taunt the woman by positioning dead iguanas between  their legs. She dresses the General inside a strange, stone dome, its walls covered with Catholic iconography. While traversing the desert, El Topo and his female companion bury themselves in the sand, rising up like undead zombies. He shoots a stone, causing water to spurt up from underground. She pulls egg shells from the sand. The first master is accompanied by two men. One has no legs, the other has no arms. The armless man carries the legless man on his back, the two becoming whole together. The second master has a lion chained up next to him, for some reason. After killing the last master, El Topo runs screaming through the dunes. A grave of rabbit pelts burst into flames. He pushes down a stone wall, a crucified goat nailed to the side. He pulls up a bee’s nest, rubbing the yellow honey on his face. Some of it makes sense, some of it doesn’t. It’s all definitively Jodorowsky and utterly unforgettable.

“El Topo” is a far better constructed film then “Fando y Lis.” The camera work is more self-assured and smoother. On the remastered DVD, the film looks great, the desert stretching on forever in the wide-screen frame. The sound design is intentionally abrasive at times, showing the same mastery of the format that Jodorowsky had on his last feature. The music is surprisingly lyrical. Take, for example, the lovely melody that plays after the General’s castration. Though its hard to judge the acting when a film is as wild as this one, the performances are strong, especially Jodorowsky himself as the title character. You’d never guess that he was a director first and a performer second. It’s notable that, when begging in town to gain money to help carve the tunnel, when can see the director show off his clowning and miming skills.

For years, “El Topo” was unavailable due to issues with the rights holder. This granted the film a mysterious, forbidden air. When it was finally unleashed on the public again for the first time in three decades, it blew the minds of a whole new generation. “El Topo” has been called an experience. It’s an allegory, a metaphor, a collection of random ideas jammed together into a hodgepodge whole. If a film’s greatness is valued on its ability to be unforgettable, then “El Topo” must surely be one of the best. [Grade: A]

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