Thursday, September 4, 2008

#59: El Topo


El Topo
Directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky
Written by Alejandro Jodorowsky
Released April 15, 1971

Since it has long been one of the most famous (and oft bootlegged) midnight movies, I watched Alejandro Jodorowsky's psychedelic Spanish language Western El Topo at midnight. Unfortunately, I also watched it completely sober. I'm guessing this is the kind of thing that was made for heavy users of LSD.

You know how movie posters are typically used to sell you on a movie, or hint at what you might see when you plunk your ticket money down?

See the naked young Franciscans whipped with cactus. See the bandit leader disemboweled. See the priest ride into the sunset with a midget and her newborn baby. What it all means isn't exactly clear, but you won't forget it.

For any other movie, this description might make me think, "What the fuck?" For El Topo, this might be the most sense you're going to make out of the picture. Within the first ten minutes, you watch a cowboy in black (the main character, played by Jodorowsky himself) make his naked 7 year old son bury his favorite toy with a picture of his mother, a soldier cut up a banana with a sword, another man make out with a woman's shoe, and that same 7 year old boy shoot a man and put him out of his misery at the scene of a literal bloodbath.

Oh, but it gets more weird. Lest we forget the scene where the four criminals dance and kiss their imprisoned monks. Or the part where the cowboy ditches his son and takes a bizarre trip to the desert with a woman he saved. Or the armless guy carrying the legless gunslinger. Or the part where El Topo is forced to have sex with a dwarf in public.

You know, just another day at the movies.

Hands down one of the strangest movies I've ever seen, El Topo is some kind of absurd series of paintings come to life. It's not that the "plot" is confusing or hard to follow. It's just a completely strange and singular vision, like a spaghetti Western directed by Salvador Dali. Symbolism, sex, religious iconography and splashes of yellow, pink and Technicolor blood. It's the kind of thing you have on in the background at a party to give the whole thing a creepy, surreal vibe.

If you've got a few hours and the kind of patience needed to ponder or diagram the underlying meanings behind the visions in El Topo, this is an easy film to recommend. It left me with an odd feeling; I can't say I particularly enjoyed it, but it was so different from anything I'd ever seen that I felt like it had earned my respect. Have you ever felt that way at a museum or gallery, when you can't take your eyes off a painting so disturbing or "ugly" that you almost marvel at its ability to get under your skin? There's undeniable craft and thought put into this work of art, but it's nothing you'd ever physically take home with you (mentally, however, you'll never be able to let it go).

If that sensation sounds completely foreign to you, avoid El Topo at all costs.

For more on El Topo:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Roger Ebert's DVD review perfectly encapsulates why this is such a hard film to sum up, and why my review tonight seems like a laundry list of imagery and not much else.
- Buy the DVD.

A trailer for El Topo:


sh said...

One phrase I think neither you nor Ebert used (and which may be applicable; I'll revisit this idea after I've seen the film) is "vision quest."

I'm adding the film to my queue (but have also added it to my Amazon wishlist based entirely on Ebert's and your reviews) and will report back.


sh said...

Many months later . . .

I just finished watching this film and am happy to report that I enjoyed it very much. I am sticking by my use of the phrase "vision quest" for reasons that include T.S. Eliot, Modernism, Ebert's review, David Markson, the desert, encyclopedias/epistemology, and also Post-Modernism (aw hell, let's throw ontology into the mix as well). I'm sorry I don't have the time or energy to go into all of this in detail, but let me over-simply say that Modernism was/is highly concerned what we see, and Post-Modernism with how we see. El Topo seems to ride the line between Modernism and Post, continually swapping one kind of vision quest for another.

If you'd like to discuss this further (assuming you can even remember having watched this movie), please email me as I'm not sure I'll remember to check this space.

I hope you're still watching movies, even if you're writing less frequently.