In a cold medicine-induced stupor, I recently decided to watch a little movie called El Topo (1970). It is infamous for a number of reasons, one of which being that it is frequently credited as the movie which started the midnight movie craze, which is arguable yet perhaps also probable. In its release, El Topo was shown 7 days a week, frequently to sold out shows, at The Elgin (a NYC theater which also featured midnight showings of Eraserhead, Night of the Living Dead, Pink Flamingos, etc. etc.). Due to a feud between the director (Alejandro Jodorowsky) and the film's distributor, a proper release onto video was never given to the movie until 2007. Before then, the movie was considered "lost" by many. Accordingly, I'd assume that many people have not even heard of it; I hadn't until happening upon it a few weeks ago. After having watched it, I have to admit that I need to force out the words to describe it, because none naturally flow.
The film follows a man in black, known only as El Topo (or, "The Mole"). Just by the look of him, you know not to mess with him - he's also got a naked child with him, apparently his son...right. The initial scene has El Topo riding a horse with this child through the desert. They stop and El Topo tells his son (still nude, by the way) that he's now a man (i.e., 7 yrs. old) so he must bury his first toy and a picture of his mother....right. The boy complies and they ride off, only to be ambushed by a group of 3 banditos who are various levels of insane. He dispatches of them and goes off the find their boss and the rest of their gang, who have taken over a Franciscan monastery where they are keeping a woman and the surviving monks as sex slaves............................right.
That was maybe the first 30 minutes of the movie. I did watch the whole thing, but I don't think I need to describe any more scenes of the movie. There is a lot of violence, a lot of sexuality, many actors with actual mental and physical disabilities, and scenes involving all three. Again, I did watch the whole thing, and that's because I was honestly transfixed. I was surprised that for all the bizarre subject matter, the direction was rather good. The cinematography was fantastic. All the music was spot on. Overall, it was a seamless movie, even though I could still see all the seams.
At the end of the movie, I was faced with two questions: What was that? and Why was it?
The answer to the first question, put as simply as I can: El Topo is an allegorical story of a man searching wherever he can for spiritual fulfillment. The scenes that make up this story are at various times random, engrossing, perplexing, frustrating, sickening - and they are all appropriately reflective of a man seeking peace in a world where it often seems hidden. And here we have the answer to the second question: this movie seems to have been a labor of love and an exercise in self-exploration by a man who is or has been earnestly drenched in that very same seeking, namely Jodorowsky.
El Topo is filled with scenes and images that I will not soon forget, and while there is a narrative at work, it often feels like a collection of bizarre moments, almost like Un Chien Andalou. Unlike that particular film, though, I get the distinct impression that every scene in El Topo exists for a purpose - they are not a hodgepodge. Still, even with this impression, I did not glean a ton of specific meaning from the movie. The symbols are looking at themes of religion, gender, sexuality, violence, fathers, mental health, philosophy, self-discovery, wealth, society, and still more. I am sure that if one spent time intently watching and thinking about this movie, you could uncover much of Jodorowsky's intentions. What I'm unsure of, though, is whether that would be time well spent. But that's the give & take with avant garde movies. I'm almost always glad that I've watched them because they stretch film as an artform to show the extent of its possibilities. However, they are usually taxing to watch and understand, and of questionable benefits for the audience (besides being killer fine dining conversation-starters).
I'm glad I watched it.
I will watch it again.
I do recommend it, though not to everyone.
For now, I just need a shower.