“Credit the sixties for giving us the acid version of strip, jazz and now the Western,” I assume was the opening line of many an El Topo review had there been edgy online publications like Cinemaholism in 1970. Alas there wasn’t. And so it was now, in 2017, certainly overdue but not quite too late, that somebody had the opportunity to open with those precise words. And if it were up to me I’d go one further except modern time constraints prevent me from doling out more puns.
As much a byproduct of the sixties as a flag-bearing institution, Jodorowsky crafts a manic opening sequence befitting a master of surrealist cinema. A black-clothed horseman rides into a village whose streets flow with rivers of blood and animal carcasses, with lynch victims hanging from the rafters of its church. In tow is an unwitting companion, a naked boy. His son presumably, for there were no allegations of pedophilia leveled at the film. They’d just burried the boy’s dead mother’s last remaining artifacts in an impromptu ceremony at her unmarked grave. Next the man implores the boy to shoot a dying man, frees a blonde from a Colonel captor and his indigenous minions, performs a centerstage castration on the perp in a bullpen before leaving the boy in the custody of a Christian mission and taking the woman as his new companion. So far so good except the symbolism—no sooner than a hint of narrative begins to form—proves too muddled to pass as surrealism.
Effectively a film of two distinct parts—essentially the laziest narrative trope a writer could pen—mean El Topo fails categorically in its intended mission. Unless that mission was merely to shock and offend. But part of my limited, young brain, fed early on heavy gaming and a minimal literary intake, failed to see past a story unfolding not unlike the Labors of Heracles. Unfurling in the mold of stages in a video game, I saw a little of the tale of the Phoenix and subsequent reinvention. But then again, you could just as easily chalk that up to an interest in astrology from Jodorowsky. Scorpio star sign? Almost. And what of Surrealism? While not the genre nor the movement expert, I’m halfway equipped with the knowhow to realize it is more than aimless expression. An aimless narrative, yes. Not here. Just a renegade drifter dispatching four “elemental” bandits across a mystical desert plane who may or may not be mutually wary of one another. The setup midway was engrossing but scarcely for its substance elsewhere. Even when intended for the eye, I found myself straining for focus amid choppy stylings in what ultimately amounted to little more than segmented servings of erratic imagery. Blocking and mise-en-scene were conspicuously absent in large swaths.
Doubtless a journey of self-discovery, and we see him transform from possible widower/kidnapper, to avenger, philanderer, hero, savior and a messianic figure bedecked in a burlap robe, reclaiming the family man role he once occupied at last. This charts a vast arc between materialistic hedonism and pious minimalism when—and this is to drive the point bluntly—he takes a mestizo midget as his wife and holes up among her coven of similarly-statured exiles. That he went from a near menage-a-trois au soleil with two gorgeous pieces of European tail, to holding congress in a piss-drenched subterranean alcove with a pygmy signifies more than the tragic end to a cultivated fortune and sturdy machismo, according to one deluded madman. It would coincide with an altruistic paradigm shift for the unnamed gunman. Except I’m supposed to look past the ethnic makeup of the film’s characters and not think that the film is more a subliminal indictment of his home country than an arcane piece of abstract cinema? What’s tragic is to see the gilded history of one country reduced to comic book archetypes filled by no-name actors and a peerless landscape go underutilized in the process. Even worse, I can’t get enough of the haywire antics. I’m just incapable of explaining what I enjoyed in El Topo as clearly as why I disliked it. Just don’t call it esoteric.