El topo

El topoSynopsis: It was the landmark cult film that began the whole Midnight Movie phenomena of the counterculture crazy 1970s. El Topo was the most talked about, most controversial quasi-Western head trip ever made, transforming the way risk-taking audiences, seeking mainstream Hollywood alternatives, watched edgy underground films. Classic Americana and avant-garde European cinema sensibilities meet Zen Buddhism and the Bible as master gunfighter and cosmic mystic El Topo (played by writer/director Alejandro Jodorowsky) must defeat his four sharp-shooting rivals on an ever-increasingly bizarre path to allegorical self-enlightenment and surreal resurrection.

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El topo 8.0

eyelights: the fable-like quality of the picture. the plot. the visual style of the film.
eyesores: the dramatic metamorphoses of El topo. the slapsticky elements in the second half.

“The mole digs tunnels under the earth, looking for the sun. Sometimes he gets to the surface. When he sees the sun, he is blinded.”

‘El topo’ is the second film by cult icon filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. It is a peculiar western that has its hero transform from a hard edged Clint Eastwood-esque antihero into the target of a woman’s vanities and then into a man seeking redemption by freeing a group of social outcasts. It was a massive underground hit and is considered the first midnight movie, the one that started a ’70s movement.

I was surprised by the film. After having seen ‘Jodorowsky’s Dune‘ and ‘Fando y Lis‘, I expected something much more abstract – far out, even. But, although ‘El topo’ has a fable-like quality due to its imagery and various settings, the core story is relatively straightforward and easy to comprehend. It is not necessarily a standard Hollywood film, but it’s more accessible than you’d think.

I rather enjoyed it, even if I found the main character, El topo, impossible to comprehend. I really enjoyed him in his initial form, and particularly loved his look, which was all-black, with a leather jacket, pants and boots. Covering his long, shaggy hair and a large beard, was a black hat, of course, and he strapped leather bands around his hands in makeshift gloves. He was pretty cool-looking, bad ass.

His attitude was equally bad ass, merciless. He wandered the land with his son, naked under the blistering sun, and brought him into the desert for him to bury his first toy and a picture of his mother, telling him that he was now a man and had to let go of childish things. The boy was just seven years old. Then he would take him to the most ghastly places, the first of which is a blood-soaked town filled with cadavers.

He found a lone survivor, begging El topo to put him out of his misery, and he put a gun in his son’s hand for him to take care of business. And, when he got attacked by a few eccentric bandits, he masterfully killed them. Then he hunted down the man who sent them and humiliates him in front of his men and the Franciscan monks that they had besieged. Again, he’s merciless in exacting vengeance, his own brand of justice.

But then he meets a woman and decides to leave with her and not his son. He then proceeds to letting her talk him into dueling four gunmasters merely to satisfy her ego – he even stooped so low as to cheat in most cases. And, when he finally gets rid of his last opponent, the woman betrays him and leaves with a woman that had been following them around – who promptly shoots him multiple times and leaves him for dead.

This last bit left me incredulous. Why would a man who played by his own rules until now suddenly succumb to a woman he barely knows? Why would he take in everything that she says, get influenced by her like that? And why would his code get so corrupted that he would cheat just to satisfy her desires? This made no sense to me, but his behaviour would actually get even less rational in the second part.

After being left for dead, a band of mutilated and deformed men and women take him in their underground lair to heal. He would actually be in a coma for at least a generation. When he wakes, he is made up and his hair and beard have turned yellow. He looks like a mad prophet. He is tended to by a dwarf woman who would henceforth become his companion – after he shaves his beard and hair right off.

Suddenly, the man who was so bad ass, not only looked like a cretin, he acted like one too. Taking it upon himself to save these underground dwellers, he decides to go begging for money so that he could raise the funds to dig a passage from their abode to the nearest town. To do this, he performs these slapstick routines for passers-by, collecting money in the process. It’s a pathetic spectacle.

I didn’t buy into the transformation, at least not as presented. A man as callous and cold as the one we initially met would not have had the impetus and ability to go do his side-show tricks. He would have found another way to raise funds or to help out – if indeed he would even have gotten to this point so quickly in the first place. Even a hard criminal who finds religion has a difficult time adapting to new habits.

Be that as it may, I did enjoy the principle of it, of showing a hardened killer trying to find redemption and, in so doing finding death instead. I loved how that tied in with the opening narration about the mole (which is what our protagonist is called, actually). This informed my viewing and helped me appreciate what was transpiring even if it didn’t make sense to me entirely. I could see what the aim was.

It also helps that ‘El topo’ is filled with fascinating sights, even if they were sometimes grotesque – it created a fantasy world, turning the story into a sort of fable. And since fables aren’t realistic, it absorbed my incredulity somewhat. The beautiful landscapes also tapered my criticism somewhat, because I was busy admiring what I was seeing. Too bad it was framed in a 4:3 ratio instead of 2.35:1

As for the grotesque imagery, Jodorowsky managed to make it all look slightly surreal – thus, giving us a step of remove from it. The bloodied town littered with bodies (with an impaled man on a tall stake), the courtyard full of dead or dying rabbits, the crowd of mutilated and handicapped men and women, …etc. – all of these sights were shocking, if not devastating, and yet also awe-inspiring.

The audio track also had a surrealistic quality to them, by virtue of the fact that the sound effects and dubbings were often pretty shabby. It was weird to hear sometimes, though, because the foley work didn’t match the actions or they didn’t blend into the picture – sounding very much like overdubs. The strangest was when characters’ voices were of the wrong gender altogether; I didn’t know what to make of that.

If there’s anything truly disliked about the picture though, it was how it devolved into comedy for a bit, as El topo and his midget lady friend did their slapstick routines. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around the notion that the man who was so grounded in himself and clear on his purpose could transform into this mockery. It made me wince to see this man, who was really a shadow of his former self.

But, otherwise, I really savoured this unusual tale of justice and redemption. Its message was unclear to me, in that it cynically destroyed a man who sought to better himself, proving his efforts wasted. Was it trying to say that fighting one’s destiny, one’s very nature is a futile effort? What about its comments about “the trappings” of relationships? Does Jodorowsky display a distrust of women? I couldn’t figure that out.

And yet, ‘El topo’, for all its inscrutability, for all its grotesquery, is an utterly unforgettable motion picture. Sometimes it doesn’t have to make sense to make its mark. In fact, by teasing the brain instead of spoon-feeding everything, perhaps this is what gives the film some longevity. I will want to re-experience it with a more informed perspective, I will want to watch it and try to put the pieces together.

No wonder it was a sensation at the time and remains a cult classic to this day.

Date of viewing: May 10, 2014

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