El Topo (1970), or Honey, Did You Put Mescalin in My Orange Juice This Morning?

1 01 2009

The Only Acid-Trip Western?

Happy new year, everybody! Hope you rested up from the party last night, because I’m about to destroy your thought processes with my first review, El Topo!

Now, a number of film genres have fallen by the wayside in recent history: the midnight film, the psychedelic head-trip film, the fearless experimental art film. These types of films were bold, edgy, shocking, and thought-provoking. During the sixties and seventies, when these genres were at the height of their popularity and prowess, going to a theater on a Saturday night was almost a communal gathering. People gathered at the gate betwixt Saturday and Sunday begging for enlightenment from the silver screen, and movies like Eraserhead, EquinoxA Clockwork Orange and others were out changing the face of cinema and the mind of the audience. But how many movies fit into all of those genres and more? How many movies are a psychedelic-experimental-religious-midnight-foreign-western? Just one, my friend. El Topo…

The movie stars director, writer, composer, production designer (!), and costume designer (!!) Alejandro Jodorowsky as El Topo, or The Mole en ingles. He is a wild-west gunfighter who, at the beginning, rides around the Mexican countryside with his naked son. They stumble upon three odd bandits (all bandits are odd in this movie) who try to challenge him. He is superior, and they are destroyed. The last one left alive tells him that it was The Colonel who asked them to kill him. Who the Colonel is is never fully explained; just a rich fellow with more odd bandits at his disposal than I could ever hope to obtain. This sets off a series of events that leads El Topo to a bloody trail that goes far beyond The Colonel, far beyond his son, and far beyond himself. He finds things, covets them, and destroys them; whether the destruction is his own doing or the visage of his own maligned destiny is for the audience to decide.

This movie is strange. If you are not up for following a director on a series of tonal snipe hunts, look somewhere else. There are no normal people in this world. Everybody has either a WTF back-story, an off-kilter idiom they live by, or a physical deformity. Two henchmen really stand out: one has no arms, so on his back he carries another henchman who has no legs. Together I guess they make about 1.6 people, and they are only in the movie about 1.6 minutes. It seems as if everyone who is not El Topo is only there to serve as a visual road-marker for the audience. “Hey, remember in the first five minutes, when those bandits road those Franciscan monks bareback, spanking them with chunks of cactus to make them go faster? That was cool, dude…”

The acting is fantastic for a western. People take everything so seriously despite it’s Fellini-esque abstract qualities.  And I feel a western, no matter how bizarre, needs a modicum of severity, seeing as real life in the 1800’s had very ill humor due to the circumstances. The music is also a great mix of generic western spur-jangling tunes and hypnotic eastern sitar droning. You’re at once attracted and repulsed by the character, so the soundtrack serves as a warning to let you know that the man is about to become a jerk or a saint.

It is all very mysterious. The movie is saturated with quasi-religious imagery; crosses, the Eye of Providence atop the unfinished pyramid, and stigmata. El Topo is any and every main character from The Bible; you want him to be Jesus? Moses? Lazarus? God? Derek, the infamous thirteenth apostle? The movie lets you decide. It all culminates to make this a deeply religious movie if you like the symbolism of holy books but can’t be bothered to read them. If you want it to mean something, it won’t. It doesn’t mean anything, and honestly that’s fine. I like that it’s message isn’t cohesive because you can put any philosophical spin on it you want, and you will always be somewhat right.

So in the end, what does it all mean, these series of seemingly random scenes that converge and make a movie? Who knows, who cares? It is a great film with evocative imagery and obsessed motives for its own existence. It should be hailed as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, midnight movies, and should be watched again and again as long as you have an eye for exotic cinema. I give El Topo 81/2 missing limbs out of ten.

See you tomorrow, where we discuss the Anthony Quinn and Jack Palance film Barabbas!