‘El Topo’

Visionary cult movie back from wilderness


A lot of times you’ll see movies that a look a lot like all too many other movies you’ve seen before. Odd-couple buddy cops, one last heist, boy meets girl who hates him at first, the “chosen one” heroic quest, band of dysfunctional misfits who learn to pull together and triumph . . .

Every now and then, though, along comes a film that resembles nothing, an entirely singular work of inspiration. One such movie, on revival this month, is Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “El Topo” (“The Mole”), the cult classic from 1970 that was pulled from distribution for decades.

Jodorowsky’s film — best described as a kind of mystical spaghetti-Western- cum-psychedelic exploitation flick — was one of the original midnight movies, playing to acid-tripping freaks and assorted lowlifes at NYC’s Elgin Theater at late-night screenings until John Lennon and Yoko Ono saw it — several times — and directed Lennon’s manager, Allen Klein, to cut a deal with the director.

Klein did so, opening the film to a wider audience, and financed another (“The Holy Mountain”) before his abrasive personality clashed with the director’s ego over an aborted adaptation of Pauline Reage’s sadomasochistic classic, “Story of O.” In revenge, Klein pulled Jodorowsky’s films from distribution, and they remained unscreened and unavailable even on video/DVD for more than 30 years.

El Topo
Director Alejandro Jodorowsky
Run Time 125 minutes
Language Spanish (subtitled in Japanese)

Well, “El Topo” is back, in a pristine new print, and if it’s showing its age a bit — being very much a part of the Woodstock-era hippie counterculture — it’s also wildly creative and insanely brilliant enough to command respect. Contemporary cinemagoers may want to put a bullet in their head when they realize that the best this generation has, when it comes to the bizarre, are the juvenile antics of Harmony Korine.

Jodorowsky, born in Chile in 1930, wound up in Paris in the ’50s, where he worked with Marcel Marceau’s mime troupe and developed a fascination with Surrealist Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty. (An early, proto-performance-art theater piece by Jodorowsky had a wormlike “pope” preaching under a chicken nailed to a cross.) After going on a world tour with Marceau, Jodorowsky stayed behind in Mexico, where he became involved with a local Surrealist group making underground comics and films, and studied Zen and koans with Ejo Takata, a monk from Kyoto’s Horyuji Temple.

All those influences would wind up in “El Topo,” which Jodorowsky wrote, directed, starred in, and composed the score for; it plays like some sort of unholy fusion of the most outlandish aspects of Frederico Fellini, Sergio Leone and Luis Bun~uel, laced with enough (sac)religious and metaphysical allegory to keep even a whirling dervish’s head spinning for weeks.

The story focuses on a wandering bearded gunslinger named El Topo (Jodorowsky), dressed all in black leather and carrying a black umbrella, an iconic figure who resembles Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name as channeled via Doors singer Jim Morrison. Traveling with his young son, the gunslinger encounters some vicious bandits who have massacred the people of a village. After killing the bandits and castrating their leader, he rides off with a young woman (played by Mara Lorenzio) whom the outlaws had kept as a slave. Typical of the film’s rampant symbology is that Lorenzio’s character is also named Mara, the same name as the demon that tempted Gautama Buddha with visions of seductive women.

Mara convinces El Topo to embark on a quest to find and defeat the Four Masters of the Desert — mythical gunslingers with legendary powers — upon which El Topo will emerge as the greatest. They are soon joined by a mysterious woman in black — with a man’s voice — who offers to guide them through the desert to the masters. After dueling all four, El Topo is betrayed, left for dead, and rescued by a subterranean community of deformed outcasts. Further violence follows when he tries to help his new comrades escape their prison.

This is not a film for the faint of heart or mind: Images, both disturbing and beautiful, will linger in your memory forever. There’s the imposing “double man” — an armless torso on the bottom with a legless man strapped to the top; a Russ Meyer-esque bullwhip duel between Mara and the woman in black, which ends with the woman erotically kissing Mara’s flayed back; and a gun master who catches bullets in a butterfly net and who ends a duel by killing himself, to show how unimportant life is, a Zen move if ever there was one. Then there’s the intensely trippy soundtrack, comprising such niceties as the electronically enhanced sound of screeching rats.

Asked whether audiences should be high when watching the film, Jodorowsky once replied, “Yes, yes, yes, I demand them to be,” but it’s not clear whether he was referring to drugs or just speaking figuratively. One suspects he’s an adherent of Salvador Dali, who once boldly stated, “I don’t do drugs; I am drugs.” As per Artaud’s idea of the Theater of Cruelty, Jodorowsky sought to fashion a taboo- busting spectacle that would exorcise the spectator’s criminal and erotic obsessions and shock them out of complacency. The director described his style as “alchemical theater,” employing a mix of transgressive sex, bloody violence, religious allegory and outre humor; it remains a potent cocktail some 40 years on.

One critic attacked the film back in the day by noting “one is simply left with a series of questions with no answers.” That may well have been Jodorowsky’s point. This is the one and only cowboy flick to pose as a koan.

“El Topo” screens daily at 10:20 a.m., 12:45 p.m. and 8 p.m. at Shibuya’s Human Trust Cinema. A DVD of the new print is also available with English subtitles.