El Topo, Blu-ray (1971/2007/2014)

El Topo, Blu-ray (1971/2007/2014)

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Cast: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Brontis Jodorowsky
Studio: Abkco Films 1027-9 [7/7/14]
Video: 1.33:1 (4:3) 1080p HD color
Audio: Spanish or English dubbed DD 5.1 & 2.0
Subtitles: English, Spanish, Brazilian, Portuguese, French
Extras: Commentary track by Jodorowsky, Other commentary tracks, Interview with Jorowsky, Theatrical trailer, Photo gallery, Original script excerpts
Length: 124 minutes
Rating: ****

This is the second film from one of the most controversial filmmakers ever. I am not reviewing his first black-and-white effort, Fando Y Lis, because it’s a mess, but El Topo has been such an edgy underground cult film and this is such a fine restoration, that I felt I had to start this survey of Jodorowsky’s films with it. (This is the same Jodorowsky at the center of the recent documentary Jodorwsky’s Dune, which we reviewed back in July.) El Topo began the whole Midnight Movie phenomena of the 1970s (which my own shorts were part of) and was premiered in the U.S. only thru the efforts of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Other major supporters of Jodorowsky were Dennis Hopper and Marilyn Manson. There was an almost 30-year battle between the film’s original distribution company and Jodorowsky which prevented most from seeing the film until it’s first Western release in 2007. This is a beautiful Blu-ray restoration.

Since I had already seen El Topo in the ‘70s, I watched it with the terrific recent feature commentary track by Jodorowsky himself.  His fascinating abilities as a talking head or reconteur are what make the Dune documentary a success, and one learns all sorts of things about the making of El Topo listening to his commentary. (Unfortunately the actual soundtrack is mostly gone and there are no English subtitles for its sporadic dialog, only captions for Jodorowsky’s Spanish—he’s Chilean.)

Among them: The Mexican film authority at the time did not allow feature films to be made, only shorts, so El Topo is four half-hour shorts put together, each with titles of their own. When it was such a success, the Mexican government began allowing feature films for showings outside Mexico to be made. For the opening scene of El Topo (The Mole), where some awful bandits have killed everyone in a village, Jodorwsky got a bunch of Mexican women to play dead and lie around outside. He told them all not to move. Unfortunately he forgot to tell them he was done after he filmed the scene and they continued to lie there for four hours, some of them suffering heat stroke. He was wearing his black leather outfit as El Topo and they were fearful of him because of that. He also picked up many of his actors in his daily life, including people he’d just met, such as an airline stewardess. He didn’t even know the name of the woman who played the female lover of El Topo in the middle of the film. She was high on LSD the entire shoot and disappeared afterwards. Some fans speak of the strong hallucinatory quality of the entire film.

Jodorowsky had little conception of what American cowboys really were, but decided to do his film as a Western because he knew that was popular with audiences. His amazing creation mixes classic Americana with avant-garde European approaches such as Zen Buddhism, the Bible, his Taro-card-reading interests, and a bizarre allegorical story of El Topo’s (his own) strange path to self-enlightenment. It opens with the black leather-clad cowboy roaming the desert with his naked five-year-old son behind him on the horse. It draws on all three of the major religions of the world and seems to fit into Joseph Campbell’s myth structure. Among other things, El Topo has to kill the four best gunslingers so he can be the master, and he learns an important lesson from each. There a sort of second act that is 15 or 20 years later, after El Topo has been shot up by his female counterpart (dressed like him), has been taken care of in a cave by some misshapen men and a dwarf woman. He now dresses as a monk and after putting things right in a terrible Western town (by killing everyone), he douses himself with oil and sets himself afire like the image of the Buddhist monk on TV at the time.

Jodorowsky dubbed in all the sounds after shooting, feeling that made the film more of a work of art. Working on a shoe-string budget, he created many special effects very simply and effectively, such as standing on a bunch of chairs for a high vantage shot instead of using an expensive crane. He has the bandits be homosexuals and there is an abusive rape scene suggested with El Topo and his female. There’s a lot of blood and gore of humans and animals, but different from a violent American Western or gangster movie. It’s more like the cutting-edge films of Bunuel (there’s even a bandit with a ladies’ shoe fetish, as Bunuel had), Goddard or Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. Jodorwosky talks about Americans watching horrible scenes of violence on the news but being shocked by the violence of his artistic films. Still El Topo is sure to be not only perplexing but offensive to many viewers. It is basically about a human being finding himself, but many will see it as completely demented.

—John Sunier

 

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