el topo

10 06 2007

Alejandro Jodorowsky (1970)

While it is thoroughgoing bonkers, don’t be put off by the film’s mental reputation. There is a logic to the narrative, albeit an elliptical, right-angled unlogic. In many ways, it follows the conventions of the Western, but filtered through the unconscious of a child, or a madman.

El Topo, a black-clad gunslinger, crosses the desert with his young son and avenges the massacre of a town by some giggling, scuzzy bandits led by a powdered Colonel. He leaves his son with monks and returns to the desert with a woman who will only love him if he is the best gunfighter. So he takes on four master gurus of the gun to prove himself. Shot and left for dead, he is revered as a god by a group of deformed exiles trapped in a cave. Upon waking from his coma, years later, El Topo decides to dig a tunnel so the cave-dwelling freaks can be free. To finance this effort he and his dwarf lover entertain the corrupt citizens of a nearby town. Predictably disaster and death are never far away, in an apocalyptic climax that would have had even Peckinpah scratching his head.

Many Western conventions and tropes are present, but often skewed, exaggerated and rendered abstract. The central figure is a black-clad Man With No Name. Outlaws are filthy, lascivious and bestial. Authority figures are corrupt: The Colonel is vain andmegalomanical, the town Marshals are obese sadists (and homosexual predators). The townsfolk are incestuous, slavedealing degenerates.

What’s worse is the townsfolk commit the ultimate sin of hypocrisy. The women of the town call themselves the “Decency League” but appear in the mise-en-scene of the bordello, enslaving, molesting and then sentencing black servants to death. The menfolk live in fear of the women but conceal an orgiastic speakeasy. The local preacher leads the crowds in games of Russian Roulette, which is to him a show rather than a religious service.

By contrast, El Topo, a stone killer, is an honest man. He avenges the massacre of a village with no personal motive for gain. Later he takes up the cause of the freakish exiles as a shot at personal redemption for his duplicity in killing the gunfighting masters.

Peckinpah would have approved of the portrayal of women: hypocritical grotesques or beautiful, seductive betrayers.

The characterisation of the guru-like gunslingers of the desert gives the film a spiritual angle that sets it apart from the nihilism of the spaghetti Westerns El Topo closely resembles, giving it the feel of an Asian fairy tale. There’s a messianic subtext as well: the Colonel asks El Topo “Who are you to judge me?” and gets the reply “I am God.” He shows the power to bring forth water from the desert, a power he bestows on the woman after ravishing her.

After defeating the masters, El Topo cries out “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me? “, only for the women to inflict the stigmata upon him in a gunfight.

But later, when he is revered as a god, he denies it. “I am just a man” he says. A man near impervious to bullets, but yet a man.

It’s no surprise that Jodorowsky went into comics later. The desert setting, oblique dialogue and grotesque characters lend the film an otherworldly, post-apocalyptic aesthetic. El Topo himself is a visual treat, whip thin in black leather and hawk-like eyes.

There’s a delight in visual detail like a bandit wearing three ever-smaller sombreros, or the graphic design simplicity of the eye symbol on the church, or El Topo’s incongruous umbrella. The character of the Double Man is pure visual audacity: a man with no arms carries a man with no legs on his back, thus forming a whole being.

The Mole. A tale of man becoming a god of the gun. No surprise he loses his humanity and must earn it once again. No surprise it ends in fire and flame.




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