The first thing that needs to be said about El Topo is, it has its longueurs but it’s a lot of fun. I had always been led to believe that this ‘metaphysical’ western, reportedly bursting with weird imagery and extreme violence, was ‘difficult’. In the end, I think there’s a danger of talking up ‘difficult’ into ‘inaccessible’, which it certainly isn’t. What El Topo certainly has been is unavailable. Applying the equation, ‘cult’ equals ‘reputation’ over ‘availability’, El Topo must score pretty highly. But there’s a danger, after such a long time in limbo, and with so much ink spilt in the meantime, that the freight of expectation could become something of an albatross.
How do you pitch El Topo? The original tagline plumps for zany and freakish: ‘See the naked young Franciscans whipped with cactus. See the bandit leader disemboweled. See the priest ride into the sunset with a midget and her newborn baby’. All of which you will indeed see Ã¢â‚¬â€ though I’m inclined to think the bandit leader, having been de-wigged and stripped to red silk boxer shorts, is actually castrated rather than disemboweled. At any rate, the tagline may be one way of selling the film, but it hardly does justice to the way slapstick merges seamlessly into dispassionate cruelty. And none of this explains where the ‘metaphysical’ side comes in. The dialogue does feature an element of explicit philosophising, but the mise en scÃÂ¨ne seems if anything more important: vivid events, whether philosophical or silly, or both, are set against the same vast, empty and indifferent landscape. In the opening frames, a heat-blurred black spot gradually comes into focus out of the blazing expanse of desert. Once in the foreground, the bearded gunslinger clad in stylish black leather, punctuated by a less obviously heroic black umbrella, dismounts and bids his naked 7-year-old son bury his childhood Ã¢â‚¬â€ in the form of a teddy bear and a photo of his mother. So the solemn and the ridiculous are intertwined from the start, and this is key to Jodorowsky. If the film has anything as simple as a moral, it is arguably that El Topo has to learn to accept the ridiculous with humility. Presenting the film as either chin-scratchingly intellectual or trashily sensational misses the point of a very personal vision that marks no such distinction.
The first half of the film charts El Topo’s fall, which dates roughly from the moment he grandiloquently proclaims, ‘Soy Dios’, by way of justification for castrating the colonel. Taking oneself for a god may be a natural hazard of riding about in the desert in black leather avenging the downtrodden, especially when the opposition is so flatteringly mediocre. The problem is not just that El Topo has come to believe his own PR: he has also done too good a job of impressing the seductive but demanding Mara (Mara Lorenzio). She first persuades him to desert his son to the Franciscans, and then insists he must prove himself by defeating four ‘masters’, a succession of mystical hermit gunslingers. As he is not in fact God, he has to do so through low trickery rather than skill, cheered on enthusiastically by the results-obsessed Mara. But El Topo is tormented by the superiority of his opponents even in death, and repents at the very moment of success. At this point Mara transfers her affections to El Topo’s rival in love, the mysterious and sexy woman in black (Paula Romo), who promptly shoots loser ex-boyfriend in the belly. Left for dead by these dreadful harpies, he is found by a passing band of midgets and dragged away on a litter.
In the second half, he awakens years later under a mountain where the midgets (the deformed outcast offspring of incest, imprisoned under the mountain by the wicked townsfolk) mistakenly revere him as a god. By this point he is a dead ringer for Matthew Barney in Cremaster 3, with white candy floss hair, doll-like rouge and powder make-up, and an outsize nappy. Once restored to his senses and apprised of the plight of his new people, he embarks on a Mosaic quest to tunnel a way out for them. In the meantime, with the help of a lovely midget played beautifully by Jacqueline Luis, he earns money by clowning for the vicious, hypocritical folk of the town at the foot of the mountain; not an easy gig, given that they hunt and brand slaves for entertainment and worship the all-seeing eye from the Great Seal of the United States.
Viewed in terms of allegory, the film is quite moral, even religious. And it is the allegorical structure that feeds speculation over the film’s ‘meaning’: the two halves, as is often remarked, could correspond to Old and New Testament; each of the ‘masters’ teaches El Topo a valuable life lesson; the film ends with a sort of redemption, and a holocaust from which only a woman and El Topo’s two children escape. On the other hand, you might just as well say this last element is reminiscent of The Alamo. In any case, the ‘allegorical’ aspect is as much formal and aesthetic as anything else. As in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, or classic Japanese children’s TV series Monkey (Saiyûki) for that matter, baroque monads remain patiently seated in their pavilions in the midst of a wasted landscape, waiting only for the fated challenger to happen along. The sheer lack of context makes them uncanny. There is nothing to suggest how, for example, the second master and his fortune-teller mother Ã¢â‚¬â€ chubby folk swathed in furs and accompanied by a lion Ã¢â‚¬â€ can subsist in the meantime in their hollow of bleached-out clay. The third master’s bunny farm is likewise less symbolic than visually redolent of discomfitingly improbable life.
These ‘metaphysical’ encounters also follow on from, and may to some extent be punitive replays of, the burlesque first encounter with the bandits. El Topo’s hubris is to declare himself God when all he has done is overcome a band of cackling murderous cretins straight out of Spaghetti Western. All-too human, these small-time incompetents display their grotesquely misplaced sensuality by slavering over ladies’ shoes amongst the desert scrub, dancing romantically with monks (before riding them bare-back with cactus whips) and, a little later, barking and begging like dogs for a taste of a real lady (Mara). The bandits foreshadow the town of the second half of the film. There, desire lost in the wilderness has likewise been forced to expose itself as makeshift fetishism, all the more monstrous for being carried out on a civic scale. Only a collective perversion can enthusiastically embrace a religion based on Russian roulette as a legitimate form of Christianity. The town dignifies its worst excesses with a morality summed up in the puffed-up grimace of respectability worn by the matrons of the community (probably superannuated whores), whether checking up on their husbands in the saloon in the guise of the league for decency, or applauding the torture and murder of slaves. There is perhaps another, less ‘metaphysical’ and less discussed, context at work here; Mexico’s role in the scramble to carve up the Americas, and its violent entanglement with the USA in the lawless prosecution of its ‘manifest destiny’. I found myself at some points thinking of Cormac McCarthy’s ultra-violent and sort-of metaphysical Blood Meridian, and wondering what Jodorowsky might make of it. Brutish figures decked out in outlandishly ill-assorted costumes Ã¢â‚¬â€ each garment the document of a murder Ã¢â‚¬â€ would do him very well. But in the end I think Jodorowsky would want something with more kindness and a little bit of clowning thrown in. There is some fairly brutal violence in El Topo. There are also landscapes of crystal-bright unnerving desolation. And there are some rather sweet and silly moments. All of this, mixed up but somehow cohering, is what makes Jodorowsky.