Wednesday, November 15, 2017

El Topo (Mexico, 1970)

"You are seven years old. You are a man. Bury your first toy and your mother's picture." 
(The first line uttered in the movie, from El Topo to his son.)

My, they did make strange movies once upon a time, didn't they? And this is undoubtedly one of the strangest — or, at least, the least decipherable. Of course, much of what can be deciphered is both platitudinous and sometimes even rather, well, out-dated if not sexist, supercilious ad condescending, so it is actually to the movie's advantage not to think too much and, instead, to simply enjoy this freaky film for what it is, or at least comes across as: an indulgent, acid-induced and visual spaghetti western art film with overt intellectual pretensions and delusions of grandeur.
But then, it is grand poetry; but at slightly over two hours in length, it is also sometimes bad poetry. It would be true to say that among other things El Topo reveals is that when done right, or with the proper magic, bad poetry can be as incredibly mesmerizing as good poetry. Much like Ginsberg's Howl, El Topo is far from perfect, but has the power and position and influence that come with being the first of its kind: the underground hippie art movie that thumbs its nose at the mundanity of movie product and wholly concerns itself with the artistic expression and intention of the movie's maker. Its repercussions can still be felt today: from David Lynch to Tim Burton to Gore Verbinski to Darren Aronofsky, its influence can be found everywhere, if often, by now, as but the influence of its influence. (Incomprehensible art films have been around much longer than El Topo, or course — see: Last Year at Marienbad [1961 / trailer], for example — but El Topo has hippiedom written all over it.)
Rest assured, the movie has a message. Indeed, El Topo probably has a good dozen messages, and nary a scene goes by in which the viewer cannot help but think, "Hmm, that probably means something." The symbology presented is so diverse and taken from so many places and cultures and sources that is almost comes across as if the filmmaker sat down with a copy of some book, possibly entitled "Dictionary of Symbols" or "The Symbology of Dreams", and then proceeded to work as  many as possible into a script for a western.
And while that might sound like the resulting movie cannot be much fun, or at least not very enjoyable, the opposite is true. El Topo is indeed a piece of art, and it can be enjoyed as such; but like truly good art, one need not know what makes or made it great for it to be enjoyed now. (One need not know how van Gogh's art affected art, for example, for one to enjoy his art.)
At the same time, a new level of enjoyment has also begun to slip in at the sides: El Topo, perhaps the first of the "Midnight Movies" and a true cult film classic, has developed some big wrinkles and a lot of grey hair. Visually, it still works, but damn if director / scriptwriter / lead actor Alejandro Jodorowsky doesn't often come across like a cankerous and homophobic and misogynist and egoistical old fart. (Jesus! Did we just describe the perennial golf-player living in the White House?) Thus, now one might well find oneself giggling at things that were once extremely serious. Or about which the filmmaker was at least extremely serious. But then again, perhaps he wasn't — perhaps the seriousness which seems to run throughout the movie is in itself an intellectual joke, one missed at the time.
Still, it can only be a decision of the director that no matter what he does, the main Man in Black, "El Topo", always seems to make the wrong decision. Or, at least, the decisions he makes always seem to lead to negative results. (Jesus! Did we just describe that moranic golf-player again?)
The plot is a free-flowing mishmash of events that almost appear circular by the movie's end: perhaps it is not the same El Topo that rides off in the last scene, but the visual similarity to the El Topo that begins the movie is so obvious that the concept of the circular nature of life is clear enough.
Within the visual structure of the spaghetti western — the movie makes use of the sets of 1968's Day of the Evil Gun (trailer) — El Topo (director Alexandro Jodorowsky) rides through the barren landscape with his naked son (Ah! Innocence! Freedom! Youth!), whom he subsequently dumps for a woman, La Mujer (Mara Lorenzio). Despite the fact that he can make her see fireworks — and make phallic-shaped rocks spurt water — she goads him into killing the four mystical gun masters to prove his love and, when he succeeds, dumps him for the mysterious Woman in Black (Paula Romo). (As we all know, women are fickle, evil creatures and the downfall of all good men.) At which point director Alexandro Jodorowsky pulls out all the stops in regard to his penchant for the kind of people once known as "Freaks" and the movie suddenly metamorphoses into, basically, a second acid western, this time about redemption, though a form of continuity is maintained by El Topo's presence and the eventual appearance of his now grown son (Brontis Jodorowsky).
Visually, the movie kills it. Less successful are some of Jodorowsky's dated and sexist concepts: pretty women, bad; homosexuality, a reflection of moral degeneracy; rape, a viable way to make a woman orgasm. Likewise, Jodorowsky's total disregard of animal life is off-putting: if you see a gutted horse, you know it was gutted for the movie, much like the masses of purty, white wabbits were willfully poisoned so they could function as stage props and symbols. And he's even gone on record that his rape scene is actually a real rape, something that hardly endears either him or the movie. Who knows what he is like today, but he was, in his heyday, obviously one hell of an asshole. (But then, so was Leni Reifenstahl [22 August 1902 – 8 September 2003] probably, and everyone still ohs and ahs at her technical masterpieces Triumph of Will [1935] and Olympia [1938], which arguably supported innumerably more tragic events. And let's not even get started on some of today's suddenly disgraced top film producers...)
Author Steven Schneider includes El Topo is his book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, and indeed the movie is so unique, so out there, that it is a movie that anyone who claims to really like film should see. It is, on the whole, a laughable, bizarre, bloody, violent, religious, irreligious, funny, sexist, sexual, unsettling, ridiculous, incoherent, pretentious, egotistical, masturbatory, political incorrect, critical, visual, intellectual, adolescent, allegorical and any-dozens-of-other-adjectives experience. Well worth seeing, in other words, even if you end up hating it.

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