Monday, August 10, 2015

El Topo (1970)

Running Time: 125 (extremely surreal) Minutes

Directed: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Staring: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Brontis Jodorowsky
Mara Lorenzio
David Silva

Plot: "In this surreal Western, avant-garde filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky uses allegory and religious iconography to tell the story of a gunfighter, El Topo (Jodorowsky), who wanders the desert on an odyssey seeking enlightenment. But first, he must defeat four master gunfighters and dig a tunnel to free a colony of deformed underground dwellers from their dark confines." - Netflix

"What the hell was that?" - Me after watching El Topo.

I should warn that this trailer does include some disturbing (NSFW) images. 

How I discovered it: No idea.  I have been vaguely aware of this film's existence for quite a while.

It does appear in my copy of 1001 Movies you Must See Before you Die.

It is also in 101 Cult Movies You Must See Before You Die.

I probably picked it up in one of these two volumes.

Memorable Moment: Where do I begin?
  • El Topo and his naked young son riding through the desert.
  • Our "hero" facing one of the gun masters in a landscape covered in dead rabbits. 
  • The cavern filled with deformed/mutilated men, women and children.
  • A religious ceremony in which its practitioners play Russian Roulette.  
  • The occupants of the cave mentioned above breaking free and running to the nearby town only to be slaughtered.
  • El Topo returning to the four gun master's graves to find that they have been turned into bee hives. 
  • The hundreds of examples of seemingly random religious/philosophical/political symbolism that bloats this movie. 
I just can't decide.

Background: El Topo was considered one of the first "official" midnight movies.  It was almost exclusively screened at 12AM. 

This was Jodorowsky's debut feature, but he had already worked for years as a theater actor and playwright.  He was one of the founding members of the Panic Movement in 1962, in which he explored how terror, violence and humor could be combined.

This was apparently one of John Lennon's favorite movies, and he helped it find distribution.

"There's not enough art to justify the sickening reality of Jodorowsky's artistic method. The meaning of the film is not to be found in the mystical camouflage of the gunfighter-turned-guru-and-martyr (for what, one wonders?...), but in the picturesque horrors and humiliations" - Gary Arnold.  The Washington Post.  

The film has been made a part of Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" series.   

Who Should Embrace It:  I honestly can't think of a single person who I would recommend this movie to without adding, "Just so you know, it gets really unsettling."  This extra caution isn't just because of the violence.  Taken by themselves, there aren't many images that are much more extreme than what you would find in your early Tarantino movie.  What made this movie really hard to watch was that it was impossible to predict when the audience would next be faced by a grotesque image.  Most mainstream films follow at least some kind of formula.  El Topo is a seemingly random parade of violent/sickening/surreal images that are often completely unpredictable. 

My first reaction is that fans of Eraserhead would enjoy this film.  There is literally no other film that is more mainstream that I could compare this one to in terms of tone.   Almost every shot in the film contains symbolism.  As far as I (and many other critics) can tell, there is no overarching theme to these symbols.  Instead, Jodorowsky reached into a grab bag of tropes from The Bible, classic philosophy, Freud and the war in Vietnam and scattered it throughout the film.  Some people have praised him for this, others have just found it nauseatingly pretentious.

At the end of the day, I would suggest this film to anyone who has a strong stomach against violence (including violence against animals) and who wants to see a movie unlike anything they have ever seen before or ever will again.

Connections To Other Works:  While this is not a direct connection, there is a documentary entitled, Jodorowsky's Dune which presents what may have been created if the director of this cult film had directed the film adaptation of Frank Herbert's masterpiece. 

For years there were rumors of a sequel being in the works with Marilyn Manson apparently being involved.  

Supposedly, this was a strong influence on the movie Rango.

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