The Reeler


December 13, 2006

El Topo

Jodorowsky's restored cult classic a singular experience to be had, not a story to be followed

Chilean-born filmmaker and famed graphic novelist Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo is often cited as the first "midnight movie," a slight misnomer since many offbeat and Z-grade flicks were broadcast on late-night TV with ironic host commentaries throughout the '50s. It would be more accurate to say its unorthodox word-of-mouth release in 1970 brought the countercultural phenomenon of wee-hour screening events to the theatrical circuit; now you know who to blame for all the goth kids dressed like trannies and doin' the time warp. For decades, El Topo has gone largely unseen (beyond the occasional bootleg or laserdisc import) after former Beatles manager Allen Klein picked it up for distribution on John Lennon's counsel and mercilessly shelved it later. Bygones be what they may, a vibrantly remastered print is officially here to introduce new generations to its mystical, baffling mayhem (a New York engagement begins tonight at IFC Center).

From the Mexican desert horizon he rides, the eponymous leather-clad gunfighter (Jodorowsky himself, once a mime who studied under Marcel Marceau), wielding a matching black parasol and a naked child companion (played by his son, Brontis). "The Mole," as his name translates, proclaims his 7-year-old a man when he half-buries his favorite toy and mother's photo in the sand, then saunters like a high plains drifter into a town that has been wholly massacred. He seeks vengeance upon the responsible colonel, has him humiliated and killed by his own posse, then leaves his poor nude son with some monks to get sunstroke while he rides off with the villain's mistress. End of Act I -- just in time before the plot veers off the highway of penetrability with Tod Browning's Freaks locked in the trunk, exploding in a transgressive heap over the avant-guardrail. Think of this as the pastel-bright hippie grandfather to David Lynch's hipper gloom-child Inland Empire, more timpani and brass than Nina Simone and Beck.

But El Topo at least resembles a genre: If you squint your eyes, it's a brutal spaghetti western featuring homicidal bandito rapists howling with laughter and the mysterious anti-hero who inevitably rids them of gallons of their own fire-engine red marinara. Now open your peepers, drop a tab of LSD in each, and maybe you'll be ready to find enlightenment in the rest of Jodorowsky's pseudo-linear dreamscape, which dips its imagery in a bloodbath of groovy tarot psychedelia, surrealism that's Buñuelian in iconography and Fellini-esque in its clownish asburdity, plus tokens of spirituality both Christian and Zen Buddhist. By the time the on-screen Jodorowsky has learned from and annihilated four "masters," joined forces with a lesbian gunslinger (La Topa?), and is entirely shaved in a cave (thus, looking exactly like Klaus Kinski as Woyzeck), audiences will have also been subjected to dwarf amputees, graves of dead rabbits, vaginal cactus fruit, socialite women buying slaves like cattle and, yes, a skinned goat strung up like a crucified man. Is there any wonder why Marilyn Manson asked this provocateur to officiate his wedding last year?

Just as it was nearly 40 years ago, El Topo is an aesthetic experience to be had, not a story to be followed, but is it singularly wild enough to stand out in this increasingly overstimulated digital age? It certainly isn't as potent of a shocker as it was then -- a work better respected than adored or dissected, but that isn't to discount Jodorowsky's perennial powers: His follow-up and quantifiably alien masterpiece, The Holy Mountain, makes the aforementioned Lynch film seem creatively lazy by comparison and will be touring the states with El Topo in weeks to come. If that's not exciting enough, both films will be on DVD next spring, so you can finally watch with enough privacy to break out the bong.

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