El Topo

El Topo
Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Screenplay: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Stars: Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo), Jacqueline Luis (Small Woman), Mara Lorenzio (Mara), Paula Romo (Woman in Black), Brontis Jodorowsky (Son of El Topo, as a boy), Robert John (Son of El Topo, as a man), David Silva (The Colonel), Ignacio Martínez España (Armless man), Eliseo Gardea Saucedo (Legless man), Héctor Martínez (Master #1), Juan José Gurrola (Master #2), Víctor Fosado (Master #3), Agustín Isunza (Master #4), Bertha Lomelí (Gypsy, Mother of Master #2)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1970
Country: Mexico
El Topo Blu-Ray
El TopoAs chronicled in J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Midnight Movies, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo became an almost immediate counterculture sensation after its commercial debut at midnight on December 18, 1970, at the run-down, 600-seat Elgin Theater in New York City. The film ran at the Elgin continuously thereafter, seven nights a week, for the next six months before the distribution rights were purchased by ABKCO Records executive Allen Klein at the behest of his star client, ex-Beatle John Lennon, who was a fervid admirer of Jodorowsky’s quasi-mystical, enigmatically artsy spaghetti western. Thus, El Topo became both a cultural lightning rod and a bona fide cult hit less than a year after Jodorowsky, a Chilean of Russian descent who had spent the previous decades shocking and awing audiences with his subversive antics on stage, had first arrived in New York with a print of the film tucked under his arm.

Since that time, the aura around El Topo has grown and waned and grown again, partially because it was kept out of commercial distribution for three decades (although not out of bootleg circles) owing to a feud between Jodorowsky and Klein after the director backed out on a multi-million-dollar adaptation of the sadomasochistic bestseller The Story of O. It is not hard to see why the film became such an immediate counterculture hit at the dawn of the 1970s, a decade that produced some of the most memorable of midnight movies, including John Waters’s 16mm gross-out Pink Flamingos (1972), Jim Sharidan’s campy rock musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and David Lynch’s avant-garde freakshow Eraserhead (1977). All of those films were in some way or another spawned by El Topo’s unexpected success, particularly the manner in which it cut across different demographics, eliciting equal levels of exhilaration among drugged-out hippies, well-read cinephiles, New Agey hipsters, and various Hollywood celebrities (although most mainstream critics like The New York Times’ Vincent Canby were underwhelmed). Nevertheless, El Topo, which was Jodorowsky’s second film following his low-budget debut Fando y Lis (1968), was the right recipe at the right time; its mixture of genre revisionism, religious mysticism, and shocking visuals felt new and wild and meaningful, at least to those who wanted to see it that way.

Like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which had earlier captivated counterculture audiences with its LSD visuals, enigmatic narrative, and heavy use of symbolism, El Topo is precisely what you make of it. Open-minded (and often stoned) audiences saw all manner of myth, metaphor, and meaning in Jodorowsky’s bizarre, meandering saga about a lone, black-leather-clad gunslinger wandering through a desert, battling four master warriors, dying, and then being resurrected as some kind of robed savior-figure seeking to liberate an underground colony of dwarfs and cripples. Jodorowsky, who played the title character himself, was given to all manner of entertaining hyperbole and hot air in discussing the film in interviews, describing it at one point as “a question for sainthood” (unlike Kubrick, who refused to discuss the meaning behind his film, Jodorowsky was always happy to wax poetic about his intentions, even if he frequently contradicted himself). Perhaps the most telling is his declaration that, “If you’re great, El Topo is a great picture; if you’re limited, El Topo is limited.”

On the one hand, such a statement is pure nonsense, especially the way it insulates the film from critical evaluation by dismissing any kind of scorn as a reflection of the critic’s intellectual and spiritual limitations. This is not to say that never happens, but to make such a blanket statement reflects less about the film than it does about Jodorowsky’s overinflated ego (although it could be all a part of the filmmaker’s multi-layered “performance” as a radical artist). Yet, there is something to that blanket statement, because films like El Topo remind us in a particularly acute manner how all works of art are reflections of both their creators and their audiences. We bring ourselves to each film we watch, and we become part of that experience. Not surprisingly, half the audience got up and walked out of the initial screenings of El Topo at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, but many more sat and were riveted by the film’s undeniably impressive imagery, which contrasts intensely felt landscapes (mostly deserts and mountains) with even more intensely felt forms of violence, sadism, and cruelty.

For all its pretensions toward mysticism and enlightenment, El Topo is most powerfully experienced as a particularly grueling depiction of the depths of human depravity and potential for cruelty. Not surprisingly, Jodorowsky was heavily influenced by surrealism and Antonin Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty,” which could be seen in the Panic Movement, Jodoworsky’s Parisian theater outfit that shocked audiences in the 1960s with “happenings” like the four-hour Sacramental Melodrama (1965), which at one point involved Jodorowsky dressed head to toe in meat and slapping naked women with headless geese. El Topo is a thoroughly violent film, very nearly obsessed with images of death and its aftermath, which makes it a peculiarly moral film, even if its morality is often of the reactionary “eye for an eye” variety.

Within the film’s opening moments, El Topo finds himself in a small town that has been massacred, with bodies strewn about and hanging from the church rafters, a literal river of blood running down the main street. Later, we are witness to thugs humiliating a quartet of monks, two women dueling with bullwhips, and a town that revels in a wide range of decadence and cruelty that is none too subtlety reflective of the various historical sins committed by the United States (slavery, prostitution, political corruption). Jodorowsky seems to take particular relish in the exaggerated use of blood squibs, a then-new special effect that had been pioneered by Arthur Penn in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Sam Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch (1969). Having worked as a successful cartoonist, it makes sense that Jodorowsky would be drawn to the potentially cartoonish nature of cinematic bloodshed, and he plays it for both shock and laughs, often at the same time. Many a body is shot in El Topo, and they all bleed copiously, suggesting that, for as much as Jodorowsky is enthralled with spiritual ideals about enlightenment and transcendence, his most coherent statement is to remind us of the frightening fragility of the human body.

El Topo Blu-Ray

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
  • Spanish DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • Spanish PCM 2.0 stereo
  • English PCM 2.0 stereo
  • Subtitles English, French, Spanish
  • Audio commentary by writer/director Alejandro Jodorowsky
  • Video interview with Jodorowsky
  • Photo gallery with original script excerpts
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • DistributorAnchor Bay Entertainment
    Release DateApril 26, 2011

    After being pulled from distribution 30 years earlier, both El Topo and Jodoworsky’s follow-up The Holy Mountain made their (official) DVD debuts in 2004. Now, seven years later, we have both films on Blu-Ray in full 1080p high-definition transfers taken from the original negatives under Jodoworsky’s supervision. The first thing viewers who have grown accustomed to worn-out old prints and bootleg discs will notice is the intensity of the colors. Jodoworsky was heavily influenced by comic books, and it shows in the garish hues in both films, whether it be the startling red of the river of blood in El Topo or the kaleidoscopic rainbow tunnel of The Holy Mountain (although the colors appear slightly more muted than the DVD editions, which looked too bright to my eyes). Both films also benefit greatly from the increased detail, which brings into sharp relief the nuances of the films’ impressive cinematography and production design (some of the more grotesque elements of the films, including actual animal carcasses, are all the more grotesque now). Skin tones appear more natural than they did on the DVDs, and the images are all-around superior in terms of balancing digital noise reduction with maintaining a filmlike appearance, thus bringing these films about as close as one could imagine to their original theatrical presentation (El Topo is presented in the proper Academy aspect ratio while The Holy Mountain is presented in the Technirama aspect ratio of 2.35:1). Both films also feature excellent, newly mixed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel surround soundtracks. They are replete with creative and disturbing sound effects, and the musical scores, which are an eclectic mix of electronic sounds, classical orchestrations, and human voices, sound rich and full.
    The supplements that originally appeared on Anchor Bay’s DVD of El Topo are also included here. We have a screen-specific audio commentary by Alejandro Jodorowsky (which is in Spanish with optional English subtitles) that is pretty much exactly what you might expect from him: At times engaging and insightful, at other times ridiculous and silly, and sometimes just rambling and almost incoherent. He is extremely open about his techniques and ideas, although some of it you have to take with a grain of salt (are we supposed to believe that he really tied himself to the cinematographer with a belt throughout the production in order to dictate how the camera moved?). There is also a seven-minute video interview with Jodoworksy, a photo gallery that includes excerpts from the original script, and the U.S. theatrical trailer.

    Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Anchor Bay Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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