Cult Classic

Experience the movie that is to the Western what Norway is to spinach

In the distant future when space elephants rule the underwater amusement parks where the last remaining humans are bred for their salivary secretions, some lonely talking dog or god will take it upon himself to reconstruct what was once glorious about this abused and degraded planet.

And I have no doubt that dog or god will watch El Topo, and he will say, "Oh, this is why the humans lived and struggled and died. Now I understand." And he'll be lying, because nobody actually understands El Topo.

But that's OK, because it's the cult film that defines the genre. More symbolically loaded than Un Chien Andolou, trippier than Meshes of the Afternoon and as violent and strange as Sam Peckinpah bottoming for Guy Maddin, El Topo is to the Western what Norway is to spinach.

The story begins with the gunslinger El Topo and his inexplicably naked son riding through the desert. After the ritual burial of a plush toy, they enter a town that is actually painted red with blood. Rivers of it flow underfoot as a gang of socially maladjusted ne'er-do-wells assassinates anyone who looks vaguely perpendicular. The outlaws dress in feathers and fringe, rape some men and women, and do things so terrible that Alberto Gonzalez would have trouble excusing them.

After El Topo sends his bare-assed little boy to disarm the bad guys, he finds a survivor, a woman he names Mara. He then goes on a mission to defeat the legendary Four Master Gunmen.

This is where things get weird.

Naked women sit in a puddle, holding an umbrella and regurgitating colorful pills. Two sand-covered people lick each other while looking in a mirror. There are midgets and portents of midgets.

El Topo searches out the master gunmen, desert-dwelling mystics who look at killing and sixguns the way Buddhists look at nirvana and tea sets. One of the gunmen sits in a pen surrounded by hundreds of white rabbits. Another has a butler composed of a man with no legs strapped to the back of a man with no arms. A third lives on a gypsum plain with a chained lion. And the last has no gun, using only a butterfly net.

And for some reason, El Topo keeps having sex with lesbians.

Then there's some betrayal, and El Topo must live underground with bug-eating mutants, and then more stuff happens, but this time, the stuff is dark and disturbing and dressed in lace and fur and Masonic imagery.

Writer/director/star/probable deity/costume designer Alejandro Jodorowsky (pbuh), who also made the cult hit Santa Sangre and the cult comic book The Incal, has tremendous artistic chops for a guy who is so clearly high. With a tiny budget and an excess of creativity, he makes minimal sets in the middle of nowhere that are far more mind-blowing than anything that Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg or Chris Columbus ever conjured out of their vast storerooms of computer imagery, cynicism and greed.

El Topo is visually stunning without resorting to special effects of any sort. The effects come, rather, from Jodorowsky's ability to imagine scenarios that are so odd that they remain fresh nearly 40 years later. Even more impressively, he creates these scenes out of dirt, sticks, sand and pure psychic filth.

Any number of interpretations of El Topo have been put forward since its initial release 37 years ago: It's a religious allegory, with El Topo representing Jesus or Buddha; it's a dream; it's a commentary on the relation between Western-style violence and Eastern-style mysticism; it's an acid trip; a Freudian nightmare; a stone that looks like a penis that somehow got projected on the mind of an intergalactic giant and then beamed into theaters by the whirling of cosmic truth particles.

Like everyone who's watched it, I have a theory as to what it means, but interpreting the film isn't the point. Or maybe reading an interpretation isn't the point. It's so cinematically rich that it simply must be seen.

And for years, this was a near impossibility. Low-quality bootlegs have floated around, and on rare occasions, a ratty old copy made its way into a midnight screening, but now a beautifully restored 35 mm print is available and touring the United States, or at least the parts of it that deserve good cinema.

So if you love art and inventiveness, or if you want to see what's possible at the outer reaches of narrative filmmaking, or if you're incredibly wasted, you should really go see El Topo. Then, someday, when your grandchildren sit on your knee reading holo-stories about patriotic penguins, you will smile and think back on the scene where the blood-drenched lovers laugh and cry and slaughter the handicapped, and you'll be arrested and sent to thought prison, and you will be happy.

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