AKA The Mole (literal translation)
“Q: You’re creating this story right now.
A: Yes, this very moment. It may not be true, but it’s beautiful.”–Alejandro Jodorowsky in “Conversations with Jodorowsky”
DIRECTED BY: Alejandro Jodorowsky
FEATURING: Alejandro Jodorowsky
PLOT: El Topo, a figure dressed in black and carrying his nude son on horseback behind him, uses his supernatural shooting ability to free a town from the rule of a sadistic Colonel. He then abandons his son for the Colonel’s Woman, who convinces him to ride deep into the desert to face off against four mystical gunfighters. All of the gunfighters die, but El Topo is betrayed, shot, and dragged into a cave by a society of deformed people, who ask the outlaw turned pacifist to help them build a tunnel so they can escape to a dusty western town run by degenerate religious fascists.
- El Topo is considered to be the first “midnight movie,” the first movie to be screened in theaters almost exclusively after 12 AM. Although the heyday of the midnight movie has past, it was a clever marketing gimmick that stressed the unusual nature of the film and positioned El Topo as an event rather than just another flick.
- El Topo was famously championed and promoted by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
- Due to an acrimonious dispute over ownership rights between Jodorowsky and Allen Klein, the film was withdrawn from circulation for 30 years, during which time it could only be seen on bootlegged VHS copies. The scarcity of screenings vaulted El Topo‘s already powerful reputation into a legendary one. Jodorowsky and Klein reconciled in 2004 and the film had a legal DVD release in 2005.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: El Topo is a continuous stream of unforgettable images; any frame chosen at random inflames the imagination. My personal favorite is the lonsghot after El Topo kills third master gunfighter, where his body lies bleeding in his own watering hole while the rest of the landscape is littered with rabbit corpses. The iconic image, however, is El Topo riding off on horseback with a naked child sitting behind him, holding a black umbrella over his head. This image is particularly representative because it shows not only Jodorowsky’s gift for composition, but his penchant for shamelessly borrowing from other sources of inspiration: the concept is pinched from the most surreal moment of Sergio Leone’s classic Spaghetti Western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In the first scene, a man clad in black carrying an umbrella rides through an endless desert waste. Behind him in the saddle is a male child, naked except for a cowboy hat. The man stops his horse by a lonely hitching post in the sand, ties the umbrella to the post, and hands the boy a teddy bear and a locket and a photograph. The man says, “Today you are seven years old. You are a man. Bury your first toy and your mother’s picture.” He pulls out a flute and plays while the naked child follows his instructions. What makes El Topo weird is that this is the most normal and comprehensible thing that happens the film.
Trailer for El Topo
COMMENTS: In Judges 14, Samson (the Hebrew version of Hercules) is attacked by a lion in a vineyard. With God’s divine help, he rips the lion apart limb from limb, leaving the body where it falls. He returns three days later and finds that bees have built a hive in the carcass of the lion; he scoops honey out of the lion and eats it. Later, he poses a riddle to thirty Philistine men, promising each a new suit of clothes if they can guess the meaning of the phrase, “out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.” The Philistine men cannot solve the riddle until Samson’s new Philistine bride tells them the answer after wrestling it from him in the boudoir. Samson is so enraged by her betrayal that he kills thirty innocent Philistine men, takes their clothes, and gives them to his wife’s friends to pay off the bet.
Twice in El Topo, we see bees building hives in corpses, just as the Old Testament bees made a home in the carcass of the lion. Both uses of the image come at a crucial time in the film. The first appearance is in the climax to the first half of the movie. After he has finished his trials with the four masters, and feels that he has lost his soul, El Topo comes across the body of the first master in a shallow grave, covered by a beehive. In despair, he grabs the comb and smears the honey all over his mouth and black beard. The image also appears in the final shot in the film. After El Topo immolates himself at the climax, his ashes are covered by a swarm of bees.
If you think there is a mighty significance to this prominent, powerful and recurring image that helps unfold El Topo‘s mystical meaning, then you are falling into Jodorowsky’s trap.
The image of the honey in the lion is a startling one. It’s composed of powerful elements: a beast, a corpse, bees, and cloying sweetness. It’s paradoxically sensual, sparking conflicting impressions of the stink of decayed flesh and the stickiness of honey. It’s just barely plausible that bees might choose to nest in a dead body, though no one that we know of has ever seen such a sight. It’s a magnificent, broad image of good coming from evil, life coming from death, but it the vision is extra-powerful because it’s weird. It’s a startling, out of place, gratuitous episode, nestled inside a story that’s already startling and out-of-place: a revenge fantasy (we can halfway hear Samson muttering “this time, it’s personal” under his breath just before he collapses the pillars in Dagon’s temple) about a divinely ordained mass-murderer contained inside a religious text. The image of the honey and the story of Samson feel like something incorporated into the Old Testament from an older, prehistoric mythological source; a story that was just too good to be left out of the chronicle, a dream too powerful to not be divinely inspired.
El Topo is filled with “honey in the lion” moments; in fact, the whole movie is a succession such moments. El Topo digging up eggs in the desert. An armless man carrying a legless man. A warrior who fights with a butterfly net. A church where the services consist of games of Russian roulette. Jodorowsky is attracted to such images not because they are meaningful, in the sense of “adding up” to an overweening mystical vision, but because they feel meaningful. He’s more interested in the mysterious effect these images have on the viewer than in teaching the audience a philosophical lesson. These “honey in the lion” moments constantly poke through El Topo‘s narrative, like fragments of ancient texts that were just too good to be left out, too powerful to not be divinely inspired. El Topo is a scripture without a dogma.
Choosing to set his fable in an endless spaghetti western wasteland was a stroke of genius on Jodorowsky’s part. Sergio Leone had already established this legendary West of supernaturally proficient gunfighters as a mythical, dreamlike landscape, a place where modern audiences were willing to surrender disbelief and expecting to encounter demigods and monsters. Jodorowsky took Leone’s land of myth and exploded it into a billion pieces, transforming it from a desert of legends into a wasteland of mystical, psychedelic splendors. Furthermore, by placing his European art-house surrealism on a populist genre canvas, the director obliterated director the line between “low” art and high art, pissing off hoighty-toighty NYC film critics to no end. Jodorowsky also cheekily includes shameless exploitation movie elements—abundant nudity and gore, lesbian kissing, sexual depravity, freaks and animal abuse—to rub salt in the snobs’ wounds. These graphic excursions drew the grindhouse phantoms, stoned hippies, and drive-in patrons in droves, uncouth patrons whose presence helped convince the most stuck-up critics that El Topo was beneath notice. Jodorowsky managed to sneak classic surrealism past the guardians of ivory tower intellectualism, reaching the people directly, and thereby created a marketable genre for future pop-surrealist directors like David Lynch.
Jodorowsky is also masterful in laying out the simple plot so that we always know exactly where we are going in the story, even though much of what we see on the screen makes no literal sense. El Topo completes three quests in the film: first, he hunts the monster who turned a desert town into a river of blood. Then he challenges each of the four master gunfighters in turn. Then he seeks to build a tunnel to save the cripples from a pitiful existence in the sunless cave. This simple structure keeps us grounded, provides a narrative thrust that satisfies us, and most importantly allows us the opportunity to soak up the bizarre imagery Jodorowsky conjures up without getting bored or so confused that we give up entirely.
All this is not to say that El Topo is a perfect film. Some complain that El Topo tantalizingly appears to, but ultimately doesn’t, make sense. This criticism is simply a way of saying the director perfectly achieved his objective, but the critic doesn’t believe that the goal was worth pursuing. On the other hand, charges of pretentiousness and narcissism have legs, and the self-important feel of the opus ruins it for some. Some object to the perceived exploitation of the real life crippled and deformed “monsters” in the film, but a much stronger objection is that some of the animals in the film were subjected to needless cruelty; two birds are killed onscreen, and one can’t help but have doubts about how the numerous corpses of donkeys, rabbits and other creatures that litter the film were acquired. The now-elderly Jodorowsky has recently apologized for his treatment of animals in the film, explaining that “at the time, I thought cinema was sacred,” therefore justifying the sacrifice of a few animals for his art.
The most serious artistic criticism, however, is that the second half of the film (featuring El Topo as an enlightened pacifist monk) isn’t nearly as involving as the first half (featuring El Topo as a flawed spirit of vengeance and ambition). This causes the film to end in a slight downward trend, rather than a climax.
Some are obsessed with discovering the meaning of El Topo, as if it’s a Masonic text hiding profound secrets that can be deciphered by manipulation of its symbols. Jodorowsky himself contributed to this fallacy by issuing a script with annotations that explains his inspiration for some of the images in the films. For years, I didn’t want to glance at this book, because I was afraid it would blow away the fragile beauty of El Topo‘s mystery in winds of a terrible coherence. As it turns out, the annotated screenplay, like the director’s commentary accompanying the DVD, only confirms the wonderful randomness of the movie. Jodorowsky will depict a miracle lifted from Exodus 15, followed by a reference to Jungian archetypes, followed by a parable taken from a Buddhist monk. These are references to mystical texts arranged haphazardly, not the building blocks of a consistent theology. None of the ideas Jodorowsky borrows flow in a logical progression from one to the next; they are arranged in a pastiche, as they occur to him. In the movie itself, he doesn’t clue in his audience on his own private interpretations of a scene. How are we supposed to know that the woman who rides with Mara and El Topo is his anima, or feminine side, and that Jodorowsky secretly believes women are ultimately attracted to what they find feminine in men? What could it add or subtract from the impact of the film to know that?
In the end, any private interpretation of El Topo Jodorowsky holds are his business, not ours; it’s just trivia. He leaves us free to find our own meaning in it, or to find none at all. Because what could Jodorowsky have intended to say that could be more powerful than the vista of endless unrealized possibilities that he introduces to us? If you can’t find the meaning in El Topo, then you have found El Topo‘s true meaning.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“A spaghetti Western in the style of Luis Buñuel, and tinsel all the way. The writer-director-star, Alexandro Jodorowsky, plays with symbols and ideas and enigmas so promiscuously that the confusion may be mistaken for depth. He has some feeling for pace and for sadistic comedy, but the principal appeal of the movie is as a violent fantasy-head comics.” -Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (contemporaneous)
“Reviews of ‘El Topo’ tend to be infuriating because their authors, myself included, fail to make coherent sense of the film and are reduced to laundry lists of its ingredients. ‘These quests,’ I wrote in my original review, ‘supply most of the film’s generous supply of killings, tortures, disembowelments, hangings, boilings, genocides, and so on.’ Evocative but scarcely helpful. The film exists as an unforgettable experience, but not as a comprehensible one.” -Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
“It is about an egotisitical man (‘I am God’) who ends up completely humbled (‘I am not a god. I am a man’), but it is itself among the most self-indulgent, narcissistic films ever made. This is a shame, because its self-congratulatory, pretentious nature makes one overlook its few moments of cinematic brilliance… There are, in fact, far too many references, Jungian and religious symbols/artifacts, parables, geometric configurations, in-jokes, and too much obscure imagery for anyone but Jodorowsky to know what is going on.”–Danny Peary, Cult Movies
IMDB ENTRY: El Topo (1970)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST: ABKCO Films’ plot summary
Roger Ebert interview with Jodorowsky – 1988
Roger Ebert interview with Jodorowsky – 1989
“I Am Not Normal” – Guardian interview with Jodorowsky
El Topo homepage at The Symbol Grows (Jodorowsky fan site) The rest of the site is definitely worth perusing for Jodorowsky fans.
Alejandro Jodorowsky Speaks out After Museo del Barrio Calls off Retrospective – Forty years after the fact, Jodorowsky says he regrets a publicity stunt in which he claimed to rape his lead actress
DVD INFO: The legitimate 2005 release of an El Topo DVD was the event of the millenium for weird movie fans. The film is included as part of the 5-disc set “The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky,” which also includes DVDs of Fando y Lis and The Holy Mountain along with the audio CD soundtracks of El Topo and The Holy Mountain (buy). It contains the original trailer for the film, limited stills, and a short documentary interview Jodorowsky on the film along with a commentary track by Jodorowsky. Oddly, the film is cropped rather than letterboxed, although clips shown in the documentary footage are in widescreen.
The single disc release by Anchor Bay (buy) appears to contain all the same features, except that I have no confirmation of the director’s commentary.
4 thoughts on “7. EL TOPO (1970)”
First, I want to say that I am surprised that there have been no comments on “El Topo” considering its cult following. (See Peary, ‘Cult Movies,’ (Dell, 1981).
Secondly, I saw it back in the 80s or 90s at the sadly now-defunct Ken Cinema in San Diego which should be declared a local historical site by the city.
I don’t recall the two birds killed on screen, but the animal carcasses strewn about just somehow did not seem real to me at the time, but I guess your information is correct. Perhaps the carcasses were borrowed? I don’t know. I DO recall reading Pauline Kael’s review where she moaned about it in 1971, writing some like: these aren’t made of plaster–NOT in Mexico! Anyway, she was contradictory in that three years earlier, Kael praised Godard’s “Weekend” which did feature much more graphic and indefensible cruelty. Or perhaps she had by then undergone a change of heart?
More recently, Se~or Jodorowsky has come out publicly apologizing for the dead animals as well as for parading his young son (at the time) son Brontis, nude as he appears in the film and the “rape” comment that he gave in an interview back then about one of the non-professional actresses.
As much as I love Pauline Kael for her intelligence and inimitable prose, I think she was prone to make snap judgments based on factors outside of the film itself. I don’t think she really cared that much about animal abuse or other exploitation elements. She liked Godard because he was an elitist and intellectual like her. She immediately pegged El Topo as a drug movie (or a “head movie,” a term that never took off but should have) and Jodorowsky as a middelbrow hippie. I believe her differing opinions come down to pure snobbery, which she excelled at (and, frankly, she made being a snob cool).
You have both misremembered what Kael said about the animal killings in Weekend. From Going Steady, p. 141:
“But then Godard shoves at our unwilling eyes the throat-cutting of a pig and the decapitation of a goose. Now when people are killed in a movie, even when the killing is not stylized, it’s generally O.K., because we know it’s a fake, but when animals are slaughtered we are watching life being taken away…And, because we know how movies are made, we instinctively recognize that his method of jolting us is fraudulent; he, the movie director has ordered that slaughter to get a reaction from us, and so we have a right to be angry with him. Whatever our civilization is responsible for, that sow up there is his, not ours.”
Thanks for tracking that down, Bitcher. Kael expresses my opinion on the matter perfectly. And I also agree with her that while the animal killing is a flaw, it doesn’t detract from “Weekend” being an impressive achievement.