In celebration of the release of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s new film Endless Poetry on July 14th, we’re continuing our week-long Jodo-party. For this installment, I’m thrilled to share film critic Danny Peary’s essay on El Topo, which was originally featured in his beloved Cult Movies book, provided here courtesy of Peary and Workman Publishing. The book and its two follow-up volumes defined the concept of cult movies and served as the gateway into the darker, crazier corners of cinema. Long out-of-print, essays from the books are now featured in a series of themed ebooks. The following essay appears in Cult Midnight Movies, available wherever ebooks are sold.
I wanted to share this essay for multiple reasons. One, Peary is just a fucking brilliant writer and an essential voice in film criticism. Two, to show just how difficult it is to put to words the mania depicted on screen in a Jodorowsky film. And, three, because it helps keep my wild love for Jodorowsky in check. He’s not above criticism, and no one offers such criticism as expertly as Peary. Read on for yourself and see if you agree.
1970 Mexico ABKCO release of a Producciones Panicas film
Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Producer: Roberto Viskin
Screenplay: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Cinematography: Raphael Corkidi
Music: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Editor: Frederico Landeros
Running Time: 125 minutes
Cast: Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo), Brontis Jodorowsky (Brontis as a child), Mara Lorenzio (Mara), David Silva (the Colonel), Paula Romo (the Woman in Black), Jacqueline Luis (the Small Woman), Robert John (Brontis as an adult).
Synopsis: El Topo rides through the desert with his seven-year-old son Brontis. He tells Brontis to bury his first toy and his picture of his mother in the sand because he is now a man. They ride into a town where there has been a dreadful massacre. El Topo guns down several of the men responsible and castrates the leader of the bandits, the Colonel, who then commits suicide.
Mara, the Colonel’s woman, pushes Brontis aside so she can ride away with El Topo. Brontis is left behind with the town’s monks, never to forget his father’s rejection.
El Topo and Mara make love in the desert sands. She tells him that he should prove himself “the best” by killing the Four Sharpshooter Masters who live in the desert. They go in search of these Masters. A Woman in Black who is physically attracted to Mara follows them. The First Master is a quicker draw than El Topo but El Topo tricks him and shoots him. Mara kills The Double Man—two men, one without arms, on the bottom, and the other without legs strapped on top—who was the Master’s servant.
Mara sees her reflection in a pool and falls in love with herself. While she makes love to El Topo she looks at herself in a mirror. El Topo shoots the mirror and puts the broken glass in his pocket.
The Second Master is totally preoccupied with his mother, with whom he lives. Before the two men draw, El Topo places glass beneath the mother’s foot. When she cries out from pain, the Second Master is distracted. El Topo kills him. He takes a copper ashtray the Master made and puts it under his shirt.
The Third Master shoots El Topo in the heart, but his bullet hits the copper ashtray. El Topo kills him.
The Fourth Master catches El Topo’s bullets with a butterfly net and flings them back at him. To show El Topo how unimportant death is, he takes El Topo’s knife and stabs himself. El Topo, feeling guilty because of the tricks he played on the other Masters, goes crazy. He retraces his journey, at last breaking through the walls of the First Master’s octagon home, and frees some doves. While he stands on a bridge, the Woman in Black shoots him in his hands and feet as if he were being crucified. Then she shoots him in the side. He falls, thinking he will die. The Woman in Black and Mara go off together.
El Topo wakes up more than twenty years later. He no longer considers himself a god. He is now a humble man doing penance for his sins. He has been cared for by a Small Woman who loves him. They have been living in a closed-up cave with other mentally feeble, deformed dwarfs who have been banned by those in the town. El Topo, with a shaved head and dressed as a monk, and the Small Woman go to the sinful town, where slaves are killed for sport. They perform mime routines and use the money they earn to help them dig a tunnel that will free the dwarfs. They are forced to make love in public. The Small Woman becomes pregnant. El Topo asks her to marry him, but when they arrive at the church they find a grown-up Brontis instead of the priest. Brontis swears to kill his father but agrees to wait until the tunnel is finished. After nine months the tunnel is completed and the dwarfs rush into town. They are massacred by the townspeople. El Topo is also shot but refuses to feel the pain. He kills everyone in town. Then he performs self-immolation. The Small Woman gives birth. She, the baby, and Brontis ride off into the desert.
If you’re great, El Topo is a great picture; if you’re limited, El Topo is limited.
Significantly, El Topo became the first major midnight movie when it played at one a.m., six nights a week at the old Elgin Theater in New York, beginning in December 1970. There was little publicity connected with the screenings, but El Topo thrived because of word-of-mouth and ended up staying at the Elgin for six months. The film was initially handled by Douglas Films, a local concern, but Beatles manager Allen Klein—at John Lennon’s instigation—purchased distribution rights for his ABKCO Films and booked it for successful midnight engagements throughout America. For college students, acid freaks, and movie enthusiasts into head pictures (films that are confusing but mentally stimulating), the controversial El Topo became the event picture of the year. But while it attracted a great number of repeat viewers who thought it a masterpiece and its Chilean-born director-writer-star Alejandro Jodorowsky an absolute genius, more people left the theater irritated by the picture’s ambiguity, numbed by the great amounts of graphic violence (including the killing of animals), and/or complaining that they had just sat through “a goddamn Jesus film.”
El Topo is the kind of picture from which a narcissistic director-writer-star like Tom Laughlin might have gotten his inspiration. It is about an egotistical man (“I am God”) who ends up completely humbled (“I am not a god. I am a man”), but 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. To give an example of Jodorowsky’s lack of humility, for the scene in which Mara hugs a rock and is squirted by a stream of miracle water/urine/semen that bursts forth, Jodorowsky writes* in the script: “The stone is an exact replica of my own phallus: thick, not very long, but with a voluminous head. That’s how I am. That’s how the rock is. That’s El Topo’s sex.” (That’s Jodorowsky’s ego.) Dennis Hopper was a big fan of El Topo. I suppose Jodorowsky’s use of abstract images had something to do with it. And Sam Fuller wrote he liked it because of the amazing diversity of material from which Jodorowky drew. Jodorowsky stated that “El Topo is a library . . . of all the books I love.” He also admitted the influence of films made by such figures as Jean-Luc Godard, Luis Buñuel, Sergio Leone, Erich von Stroheim, and Buster Keaton (whose action often takes place in front of a stationary camera). Because of the film’s peculiar content, I imagine other fans of El Topo would have included young Jung scholars, members of Jesus cults (do they go to movies?), perhaps Jews for Jesus, students of Zen, and the creators of David Carradine’s silly old one-aphorism-per-minute TV series Kung Fu.
It is an impossible picture to categorize, but if pressed I’d group El Topo with such better, more coherent films as Luis Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert (1965), George Stevens’s telling of Jesus’s life, The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964), Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), Fellini Satyricon 1969), and Glauber Rocha’s Antonio das Mortas (1969), which has a bounty hunter who is heavier than, but resembles, El Topo. Each of these films contains some of the plot and visual elements found in El Topo: a quest/mission, spectacle, ritualistic violence, a desolate landscape, and allusions to history, myth, religion, and culture. El Topo borrows from these films, but it is one of a kind. For one thing, Jodorowsky, who is a prolific stage director, is greatly indebted to theater for the style and content of the picture. He borrows freely from passion plays, miracle plays—what begins as a quest for enlightenment and moral and physical perfection ends up with El Topo achieving spiritual salvation and sainthood—the Theater of Cruelty, the Theatre of the Absurd (particularly Beckett), surrealism (a la Cocteau, in both theater and film), mime (Jodorowsky studied with Marcel Marceau), and even magic acts. Likewise, Jodorowsky takes from artists and poets. Moreover, El Topo is part Sartre, Jung, Reich, Neitzsche, and Lao-tsu (the Chinese philosopher who usually is credited with founding Taoism about six hundred years before Christ). It uses the Old Testament, the New Testament. It is about Moses, about Christ, about a Zen disciple, and, to make it really confusing, about Jodorowsky. There are, in fact, far too many references, Jungian and religious symbols/artifacts, parables, geometric configurations, epigrams, and in-jokes, and too much obscure imagery for anyone but Jodorowsky to know what is going on. It’s as if prior to writing and making his film Jodorowsky made a long list of items he wanted to allude to: films, books, poems, symbols, etc. But rather than cut his list, he was determined to use everything and began inserting his visual references to varied sources whether they worked in the film’s context or not. Nor did it matter to him if viewers would know what he intended. For instance, when Mara and El Topo wash in a pool, are we expected to agree with Jodorowsky that “Mara and El Topo are like two gigantic hands entering a wash basin” and that “perhaps they are the two hands of Pontius Pilate”? And how are we supposed to look at a Master and realize he “contemplates the spiritual center of his body”?
The film is most interesting at the beginning, when avenging angel El Topo rides into the town where hundreds of people have been massacred and kills off the scoundrels responsible. We at least understand what is going on. Ditto when El Topo rejects his son and rides off with Mara (perhaps Eve?). But the picture goes in the wrong direction when El Topo enters the desert and takes on the Four Masters. This quest to “be the best” by killing the Masters was not El Topo’s idea to begin with but Mara’s; so I am confused by his motives for pursuing a goal which, as far as we know, has never been important to him. (Mara assumes the role of the traditional hen-pecking woman who forces her man to be more ambitious than he is—and causes his breakdown.) These four meetings—talks and gunfights—seem to go on forever, and while the dialogues between the Masters and El Topo are meant to be wise and mystical, they come across as empty and simplistic. I can hear such trite lines being said to and by David Carradine’s priest on kiddie show Kung Fu: “I don’t try to win but to gain perfect control”; “The deeper you fall, the higher you get”; “Perfection is losing yourself”; “And to lose you must love”; “You don’t fear death anymore. That’s why you’re a dangerous enemy”; and “Too much perfection is a mistake.”
Some of the action sequences are exciting. Too often they are gratuitous. The same can be said for the “sex” scenes. Much of the camerawork is excellent and eerily conveys the mystical, holy world Jodorowsky wanted to attain; but too many of the visuals and camera setups call attention to themselves. At least amid all the carnage and religious fervor, there are a few bits of funny absurd comedy, as when one of the Colonel’s men washes his face with his glasses on, or when it turns out the fourth Master has a pole for a house. (However, I am not sure Jodorowsky meant this pole to be taken as humorous.) There are good, even stunning, things in El Topo—it is obviously made by an intelligent man who is a talented filmmaker from a visual standpoint. But it is just too unwieldly. It reminds me of college days when you didn’t have enough time to do projects for every course so you handed in the same one to several classes. El Topo makes you wonder if Jodorowsky didn’t take a number of unrelated subjects one semester and then out of desperation make the one film which could be handed in to any of his professors (Masters). That may explain why it is overloaded with the sum total of Jodorowsky’s knowledge/learning. It should be an impressive film, but it falls flat because it lacks clarity. As Pauline Kael stated, that this film has impact doesn’t make it art. My aphorism: that this film is beyond our comprehension doesn’t make it profound.
*All Jodorowsky quotes in this article are from his book El Topo: A Book of the Film (Douglas/Links 1971). The book contains an annotated script and a long Jodorowsky interview.
Endless Poetry opens at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in New York and at the NuArt in Los Angeles on July 14, 2017. It will expand to other major markets nationwide on July 24, 2017.