I was chatting to a work mate yesterday about Jodorowsky, and mentioned probably his best known film, El Topo. He’d never seen it, and asked what it was about.
“Well,” I said. “It’s sort of a Western…”
That was my first mistake. Like The Incal, El Topo wears genre like a disguise, fooling the casual reader into starting the journey, and then dropping the weirdness on them.
El Topo, as the trailer makes clear, is not a Western. It’s closer to a vision quest, an allegorical journey towards self-discovery and reincarnation.
The story, such as it is, is the tale of a deadly gunfighter, a man without feelings or empathy for his fellow man. A creature consumed by pride. When he is asked by one of his victims what right he has to do what he does, he replies simply, “I am God.” Heavily bearded and dressed entirely in black leather, he is an unstoppable force, monstrous and deadly.
He goes into the deep desert to defeat four other gun masters. His pride spurs him on at first. The woman that accompanies him wants him to be the best, and as the quest and the tasks become more arduous she pushes him to continue.
But as he defeats the last master, he realises that he has made a terrible mistake, and that he cannot murder his way to redemption. Bereft, abandoned by the woman, his old persona stripped away, El Topo is finally ready to begin his journey towards enlightenment.
El Topo was released in 1970 to high acclaim and high controversy. The first New York screening was introduced by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and a New York Times review gave it such high praise that the critic was replaced in a storm of opprobrium in the letters page. It’s a highly divisive film, strangely paced and edited, intensely gory, deeply allegorical. There are no straight answers, no easy fixes. The world of El Topo is brutal and absurd, cruel and arbitrary. People suffer for existing in the same world as their tormentors. Violence, the key to resolution in most Hollywood films, is shown in El Topo to be a dead end, a busted flush. There will always be someone out there with a bigger gun.
It’s easy to accuse Jodorowsky of self-indulgance in El Topo. He wrote and directed the film, starred in it and wrote the music. That accusation is valid. It’s a singular vision, and the director himself will cheerfully admit to it. It’s crammed with his obsessions and a unique visual style. This makes it hard to watch at times. But it also means that El Topo is filled with moments of astonishing beauty and power, and it continues to resonate long after the credits have rolled.
I struggle to recommend this film, for the same reason that I always demur around Tarkovsky’s work. It would be very easy to dismiss El Topo as arty bollocks, and I can completely get that argument. It’s not a subtle film. It’s perhaps not as clever as Jodorowsky thinks it is. But it’s always honest and heartfelt, and never dull. I think I’ll still have a problem to sum it up simply.
But I’ll never make the mistake of calling it a Western again.