El Topo: A Beyond Bizarre Review

MARCH 10, 2007

(This blog was started on Sunday, March 4)

“Destroy me. Depend on no one.”

El Topo, 1970

“Too much perfection is failure.”

El Topo, 1970

Hey There,

Just letting you know, this is a movie review. I love movies, and I love writing about them, so I may start doing more of them here, or maybe I’ll create a third blog. I don’t know. For now, I’m gonna just review this sucker and see how it goes.

Okay, first off….what the Hell is “El Topo?” Well, I learned last night that Topo is the Spanish word for mole. “El Topo” is also a film directed in 1970 by Alejandro Jodorowsky, a Chilean born director who made his directorial impact in Mexico and later France. His very un-Spanish last name, Jodorowsky, is due to the fact that his parents were Jewish and of Russian desent. A little needs to be said about Jodorowsky here: he made his directorial debut in 1968 with “Fando y Lis,” which debuted in Aculpulco, Mexico. His movie led to riots that were so violent, he had to be smuggled away from the debut in a limosine. Two years later, he directed “El Topo,” which I saw last night.

Here’s the trailer:

I decided to see “El Topo” on a whim: I had nothing to do, and perusing around the Internet, decided to check what Midnite Movies were being played at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline. Turns out, it was “El Topo.” Here’s what the review said, provided by the The New York Film Festival:

“A fascinating collision of Sixties avant-garde theatre, Latin American symbolism, European radical cinema and the furthest reaches of the movie western, EL TOPO chronicles the exploits of a master gunfighter and cosmic mystic (played by director Jodorowsky himself) as he sets out to do battle with four sinister, sharp-shooting rivals.

John Lennon himself declared the film a masterpiece, and the rest was history: Jodorowsky’s became an international cult classic and was one of the key works to establish the concept of the “midnite movie.” Now lovingly restored, El Topo feels no less provocative than when first released, but today also evidences a kind of multi-cultural fusion that puts it far ahead of its time.”

Okay….so maybe it sounds a little different. But it also sounds kinda cool, too, right? Right??? Well, it was something for me to do. I asked both my roommates if they wanted to go with me: both refused, and one threw in the comment, “Greg, you’re a strange guy.” Well, it turns out, I may be a little strange at times…but I’m not nearly as strange as “El Topo.”

This movie was, without question, THE STRANGEST, MOST BIZARRE MOVIE I HAVE EVER SEEN. WITHOUT QUESTION. I mean, I’ve seen some strange movies before, some that I’ve loved, some that I haven’t….but for the life of me, I can’t think of anything stranger than “El Topo.” Which is why I feel obligated to write about it.  [Footnote. See bottom of page}.

Okay….where to start. I showed up at the theatre at about 11:50pm to meet and great with all the wierdos, loners, hippies, and general eccentrics who had shown up to watch “El Topo.” It always makes me feel better when I show up to something like this: on the way there I was thinking things like “Wow, I am such a loser, I have no life,” and “I hope I don’t see anyone I know, so I don’t have to explain to them that I’m seeing some Mexican cowboy/magic movie at 11:50pm on a Saturday night by myself.” But upon showing up, and seeing the other viewers present, I started thinking things like, “Wow, I’m actually kind of  normal,” and “I’ll just buy these Sour Patch Kids and pretend to be normal so people don’t think I’m crazy!”

The movie was being shown in the second floor theatre, to which I had never been. I have to say: it was really, really cool. It’s small enought so that you felt like you were watching it in someone’s living room, but big enough so that it was an actual theatre. There wasn’t a bad seat in the house. Coolidge Corner…you rock.

And then the movie started…and for the next two hours, well, I really don’t even know what the Hell happened. But I’ll try to give a brief plot synopsis: (SPOILER WARNING: IF YOU REALLY WANT TO SEE “EL TOPO” SOMETIME, I’M GOING TO GIVE AWAY PARTS): A man riding through the desert with his seven-year old son, who is naked at all times, comes across a town that has been brutally massacred (and when I say brutal, I mean brutal: this movie is not for the faint of heart). After tracking down some thieves, he eventually finds who is responsible: a man known simply as “The Colonel.” He tracks down the Colonel, who is living in a monastery with his henchmen. The henchmen keep the choir boys as sexual slaves: the Colonel himself is a Napoleon-like figure who keeps a young woman prisoner in his church. She dresses him up as Napoleon before he goes anywhere, and he likes to taunt her for her sexual attractiveness. He lets his henchmen treat her as a really strange sexual object (emphasis on the word “strange.”) Well, everything’s well and dandy for The Colonel and his boys until El Topo shows up with his son to avenge the death of the townspeople (and a lot of horses too).

In a scene reminiscent of the final duel in “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly,”, El Topo challenges the cowardly Colonel to a duel, and shoots him. He then proceeds to stand over The Colonel, and, in front of a very large crowd, perform a public castration.

I have to say: my first ever public castration scene on the big screen was, well, uncomfortable. (Note: the actor was not really castrated.) After the Colonel dies, the woman decides to accompany El Topo, who’s kind of a stud.

At this point, Topo abandons his son for the woman, telling him as he leaves: “Destroy me. Depend on no one.” Its very good advice for life actually: that’s why I posted it above. The son is left with the choirboys, who no longer have to be homosexual sex slaves for bearded bandits. Topo and his woman travel to the desert, where she tells him she will leave him if he does not defeat the four masters of the desert (turns out: there’s four mystical gunmen in this here desert). One by one, he meets the masters, who are superior to him. Upon learning this, he decides the only way to “succeed” is to cheat the masters, and he does, killing the first three after getting some good general philosophical advice. I actually liked all of the masters: one lived with his mom and a male lion, and his mom ended up being a bird or something. My personal favorite was the third master, who lived with about 500 rabbits and played violin. The rabbits die upon Topo’s arrival, and after killing the master, Topo remarks “Too much perfection is failure.”

It should be mentioned at this point that after killing the first master, a second woman appeared in the desert to hang out with them, and despite the fact that she was very attractive and naked half the time, she has a man’s voice (literally, some Spanish dude voiced over her lines). It should also be mentioned, there’s a lot of nudity in the desert. And there’s also a lot of weird, weird stuff going on.

Getting back to the story: Topo eventually finally finds the fourth master, who is about 400 years old, has really bad teeth, and laughs at everything. After the fourth master defeats Topo mentally, Topo says he will take his life: at which point the master laughs and takes his own life, exclaiming “What does my life mean to me? You have not won; you have failed.” After the master kills himself, Topo realizes his massive mistake: instead of taking the wisdom needed from these men and befriending them, he listened to his girlfriend instead and killed them all (all the while his girlfriend was getting it on with the other chick in the desert).

Topo, distraught, returned to all of the corpses to find hellish scenes: he finally made it back to the corpse of the first master, biting into his rotting flesh and gurgling it everywhere. It should be mentioned: the flesh had turned into honeycomb.

Topo eventually found his girlfriend, who was proud of him; but he was pretty distraught and disgusted with the whole deal. It didn’t matter, because the woman with the dude’s voice shot him anyway, and they left him for dead.

But the story doesn’t end there…while lying unconscious, an underground civilization of deformed mutant-like outcasts take his body to their city. There, he sleeps for 50 years, until a girl taking care of him accidentally wakes him. She takes him to “the old woman”, who is said to understand the meaning of El Topo’s presence. Upon meeting the old woman, they each eat the insides of gigantic beetles, which seem to affect Topo mentally, causing him to start frantically making love to the 90 year old woman.

It’s at this point of the movie that I forgot I wasn’t on hallucinogenic drugs.

Anyway…El Topo was asked to dig them out through a tunnel (hence the title “The Mole), so that they could live among real society. He scoped it out with his new girlfriend, who was a a little deformed herself (from the incest, we learn), only to find that the little town at the bottom of the mountain was just as crazy as ever. Sexual slave trades were an everyday occurrence, as were murders and other societal qualms. Topo, looking at this situation, decided: “We must beg.” So they started their own business as street performers, which was, well, just as weird as everything else in this movie.

Eventually, Topo finds his son, who is a minister in town (and something of a gunslinger of himself, at this point): his son swears to kill him. But when they tell him they’re trying to free an underground society of inbreds, he agrees to wait to murder his father. In the meantime: he joined their traveling street show, making it a trio.

(Warning: I am about to give away the ending):

In the final scene of the movie, Topo finishes digging his tunnel, but despite telling the inbreds to wait (because “the villagers are not ready”), they charge down the mountainside. The villagers, seeing the various cretins and freaks coming their way, mow them down with high-powered rifles. At the same time as this, Topo’s girlfriend gives birth to his son on the mountainside.

Topo, once again becoming the fabled gunslinger he once was, murders the entire town. Then he lights himself on fire with gasoline, monk-style. After all this, his son sets out with his girlfriend and baby. And after he is buried, his corpse turns into a honey-producing bee-hive.

So, there you have it: the strangest movie I have ever seen. Did I like it?: yah, I kind of did. There was some great comedy, enhanced by a wise-cracking crowd. Now that I have seen it, I’m glad I have the memories. If I’m ever at a party and someone brings up “El Topo” or Jodorowsky, I can show off my knowledge. Hey, so can you. Plus, there’s really no feeling like being in a movie theatre, and realizing that you are watching, without question, one of the strangest films ever made.

There used to be a clip on YouTube of  a bunch of old ladies in lingerie raping a young male servant, but, alas, it is no longer available.

So, to sum it up: I recommend El Topo. At the time this was written (2007), it was only available on grainy VHS, but it has since become available on DVD, along with his other films Fando y Lis (1968), Holy Mountain (1973), and various short films that he made.  I strongly recommend Holy Mountain, which is equally weird, but has a fantastic ending.  Fando y Lis is like watching a more shoestring budget, black and white version of weirdness.  Jodorowsky directed a few more films, including a film for children set in India.  In the mid-1970s he was given the go-ahead to direct Frank Herbert’s Dune, but it fell apart in pre-production (there is some fascinating reading on this on Wikipedia).  He has written several comic books, and today specializes in the art of Tarot cards.  He is one of the world’s experts on Tarot readings.  For interesting reading, I will again suggest his Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alejandro_Jodorowsky.

I’ll leave you with some quotes:

“Most directors make films with their eyes. I make films with my cojones.” Alejandro Jodorowsky

“I ask of cinema what most North Americans ask of psychedelic drugs.”
Alejandro Jodorowsky

“Through the desert, a mysterious gunslinger goes on a quest to become the best gunslinger. On this mystical encounter, he encounters one increasingly bizarre character after another. Though conceived to pay homage to various Italian Westerns, it can be best described as Fellini directing a Catholic Western while soaring high on LSD. There’s never been a Western more surrealistic and apocalyptic.”
El Topo Review, Source Unknown

Until Next Time,

Greg

[FOOTNOTE: Since seeing this film, I have indeed seen a film equally as weird as El Topo: that would be David Lynch’s first film, Eraserhead. Eraserhead was just as flabbergasting. I feel that while El Topo focuses more on visual weirdness, Eraserhead is a much more audio involved movie, with strange noises throughout. August 2010]

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One thought on “El Topo: A Beyond Bizarre Review

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