Movie Review - El Topo
Updated: Mar 12, 2023
I’ve been dragging my feet on this one.
It doesn’t have anything to do with the movie, per se…it’s just that…well, when you walk into a movie that has the reputation of El Topo, known far and wide for polarizing its audiences and you walk out of it going “meh”…it tends to make the spider sense tingle.
And I even sat and watched it twice! Hell…and the second time I took notes, like a real honest-to-goodness movie reviewer.
It didn’t help…and I’m likely not going to use them. Okay…maybe a little…
The movie itself can be summed up within its opening credits, where a voice-over tells us that “The Mole digs tunnels under the earth, looking for the sun. Sometimes, he gets to the surface. When he sees the sun, he is blinded.” I mean, that’s it right there. You can ponder that for about 5 to 10 minutes (15 if you’re really slow) and blam, you’ve got the movie’s message: Sometimes achieving your ultimate goal can have catastrophic consequences. But the movie goes on for another two hours, beating this point home. Now, the way that last sentence sounds, let me come out and say that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Jodorowsky’s visual style is both bold and appealing. The guy really doesn’t shy away from anything…sexuality, gore, the things that most directors look away from and call it “artistic”, no, Jodo gets right in there and gives you an eyeful. Now, that said, this ends up being both a positive and a negative, as there isn’t a subtle note throughout the entire movie. The themes of descent, rebirth and tragic end are all there…and all ramped up to 11. And I have to admit, sometimes I think it would’ve been more effective for me if he’d turned it down a notch from time to time. I like to discover things in a movie, peel back the layers. Instead, with El Topo, it’s more like listening for and deciphering certain sounds within a cacophony. That said, the element of the movie that is most hurt by this lack of subtlety is the satire. This movie is poking fun at aspects (if not the totality) of American culture…and while it has the effectiveness of looking at yourself in a funhouse mirror; you point, you laugh, you take in the absurdity, but then you move on to the next ride or attraction.
The story is divided into four parts: two parts pertaining to the descent, the other two dealing with rebirth and the tragic consequences of the main character’s enlightenment. The movie opens with El Topo and his naked son…well, okay, I was going to say it starts off with them finding an entire town massacred, but it actually starts off with El Topo telling his son to bury his first toy and the picture of his mother, since he’s seven and thus, now a man. So, is this opening scene a depiction of “putting away childish things”…or does that happen later when El Topo leaves his son with the monks and takes the woman with him instead? Up to you, dude. That’s the thing with El Topo…and why I’m not going to give any sort of point by point breakdown…everything in this movie is subject to interpretation. But back to the massacre, this sets El Topo on the path to find out who did it…which leads to shooting…which leads to a castration scene then to the aforementioned leaving the son with monks while El Topo takes off with a woman. The woman proves to be the Lady Macbeth type…egging El Topo down the path of his own…well, I wouldn’t say destruction…let’s say damnation. The remainder of the first part and all of the second deal with El Topo finding and defeating 4 different gunslinging “masters”…each with a different lesson. Killing each one, while a success in learning their lesson, is also a failure as El Topo is very aware of his descent. By the end of part 2, Mr. Subtlety has the woman shooting El Topo…with wounds matching those of the stigmata. What possible imagery or meaning could he be trying to evoke there, the reviewer said, the world may never know. (And yes, I know sarcasm doesn’t translate into text really well…but that sentence should be obvious!) Moving on to the rebirth section of the story, parts 3 and 4, here we see El Topo reborn amongst the freaks hidden away in a mountain. Thus, his new mission becomes unifying the hidden weird with the normal people outside. Boy, who of us nerds here haven’t had that delusion, eh? Still, in investigating the town outside the mountain, here’s where our bold-faced satire comes in and, seriously, it is ALL ratcheted up to 11. Hell, even that’s too modest…let’s say 15. You have to admit, though, Jodo covers most of, if not all, the bases: slavery, puritanical views of sex and sexuality, voyeurism/spectators to bloodsport, the wealthy’s…ahem…infidelity with ‘the help’, the abuses of law, the perversion of religion…and I think that’s everything in my notes here, but again, due to the highly interpretive nature of the film, you might not see these or you might see something different. This culminates with the return of El Topo’s son, now a man clad as his father was at the start of the film and with El Topo himself achieving what he set out to do, setting the freaks loose upon the town…only to have the normal people shoot them all dead. This causes El Topo to snap, gunning down as many as the normal folks as he can before finally completing the tragedy and opting for self-immolation. Given the time the movie was made, one must take into account a similar event occurring in protest to the Vietnam War (not the releasing of freaks, just the self-immolation). Again, that’s just the short-short version. There’s plenty more in there…but the mileage on this film is WILDLY variable. What I saw will not be what you see…or, maybe it will…it depends if you’re a like-minded asshole!
The cultural…or counter-cultural…impact of this movie cannot be denied, nor can it be overstated. This is the first “midnight movie”. I guess then I could blame it for The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the high school trauma associated with it…but I won’t. Instead, while certainly it was not the first cult movie ever, it did open the doors to see cult films in actual theatres with, gasp, like-minded assholes! If anything, this may in fact be the “big bang” moment for cult film. From this moment, the idea of a late night screening of a film that might not…scratch that…will not appeal to a mass audience began to gain traction. That aside, while surrealism isn’t a foreign concept to film, Jodorowski takes it to its nth degree, or at least the nth degree that it could reach with the filmmaking tools at the time. If we go all biblical on this, one could say that Jodorowski begat David Lynch (kind of an interesting connection, as the shared thread of Frank Herbert’s Dune is there)…and I’m sure the lineage continues. But it was the popularity of those midnight showings back in the 70s that placed this as the forebear of future surrealist cinema.
Okay, enough of the intellectualism. You’re here for my opinion. Meh. As an amateur student of cinema, I’d say that you have to at least check it out. As a fan of Jodorowsky, the man, I’d say definitely get the DVD just so you can watch the interview with him about the making of the film and its impact on not only culture but on him as well (“There was a good benefit for me making El Topo…I fuck a lot of women! I fuck all the women I want!”) But the movie itself? I can see WHY it’s so polarizing…but I can’t say that it pushed me strongly in either direction. I don’t hate the film, I think it has some good things to say and it says them in a very unique and interesting way. But I didn’t find it to be this rapturous experience that some advertise it to be either. So, yeah, check it out to see what all the hullaballoo is about and so you can tell your artsy friend that yes, you’ve seen it, but after that…meh.