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El Topo (1970)

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Writer: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Starring: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Sometimes you have to go back into the past, and into a different language to find a movie which does something really well. Technology opens up possibilities for us, but unfortunately too, it can have the capacity to become a crutch and so take options away from us. Jodorowsky manages to do a lot with very little, by paying a great deal of attention to background sounds and music.

Images like this, with the screeching of crows in the background.

Images like this, with the screeching of crows in the background.

El Topo is a Mexican Western set on a post-apocalyptic (maybe) landscape. The plot is divided into three parts. The first introduces our gunslinger traveling with his son by horse. He comes across a town in which everyone has been killed. Throughout these scenes there is a heavy dose of aggravating, bleating, repetitive sounds occasionally contrasted by circa 1950’s cartoon music. I actually had to turn the sound down in order to keep from wanting to kill myself. The entire feel works toward making you uncomfortable (in the extreme). You literally want to jump out of your own skin. Pools of blood and lifeless desert landscapes. Long, drawn out scenes of El Topo traveling by horse with his son. The sound of the horse’s feet, repetitive aggravating sounds, and dusty desert sand. This is your landscape. Lifeless and piercing. Your desire? To escape. But El Topo lingers and takes his time and throughout this, your blood pressure begins to rise. Mercifully, there is a point to this. El Topo is attempting to uncover who killed the townsfolk. As it turns out, it is a man known only as ‘The Colonel’. Meanwhile there’s a guy drinking out of a woman’s shoe and then caressing his face with it, while another guy lines up women’s shoes for target practice. Another guy is arranging stones in a special way so as to look like a naked woman; then he kind of lays on top of it and eats “her” “face”. Then they kind of ride up on El Topo and scream in his face just aggravate him, tugging on his beard. Now, the bleating of goats. One of he Caballeros blows up a balloon. He sets it on the desert sand and lets it squeal out its air. It takes about 30 seconds. But when that irritating sound finishes, you can still hear the bleating of goats. It is a mercy. A pleasure. This is so much better than that fucking balloon. The next scene, which features a waltz, is much more disturbing. It features Cowboys on Monks (literally). I won’t go into detail, but it’s trigger warning material.

At any rate, the first part of this movie is all about El Topo’s confrontation with the Colonel and the events that lead up to it.

Enter, the second part. El Topo has dumped his son with the monks and taken on a female companion. In a page straight out of Paradise Lost, she is the quintessential narcissist. She asks El Topo if he loves her. He replies begrudgingly, yes. She says, ‘well, I do not love you’, and demands that he defeat the four master gunslingers of the desert. With his quest clear, he begins his journey.

Look at how centered I am. Namaste, motherfucker.

Look at how centered I am. Namaste, motherfucker.

Despite El Topo’s overt Christian imagery, the movie at this point takes a rather Eastern turn. The first gunslinger, as it turns out, is blind. He tells El Topo that he does not try to defeat or out-draw his opponents. Instead, he has created the ‘perfect space for bullets’. His body is a veritable temple to them and instead of offering them resistance, he allows them to pass through the vacant spots of his flesh. El Topo is discouraged, but his companion urges him on. Use trickery. Cheat. Do whatever you must, but kill him. Of course, El Topo succeeds and its on to the next one. This guy is wearing a fur coat in the desert. I don’t fucking know why. Philosophically, he tells El Topo that he cannot lose because nothing he does is for himself. He does this for ‘her’ – his mother. He has mastered his art as a form of precision. You do not destroy indiscriminately like a bomb, but precisely. He makes all manner of delicate things. He shoots the gun out of El Topo’s hand. There is a lion wandering around the scene. His wife sits in a chair. Again, El Topo uses trickery to defeat him.

El Topo in each case manages to use the gun master’s philosophical certitude against them. He exploits in each case the philosophical failing of each master’s system. Too much perfection is a mistake. It is predictable. Exploitable. Three masters down and El Topo is undefeated. But the fourth manages to use El Topo’s own strategy against him. And though he does not die, his motive, to win, is frustrated. He is defeated.

Part three sees El Topo undergo a change of heart. He no longer yearns to be the greatest gunslinger in the Mexian desert. He finds himself underground in a cave. El Topo literally means ‘the mole’ – and that is what he becomes. His companions have been deformed from inbreeding, they cannot escape the cave in which they have been trapped. El Topo makes it his mission to free them. To what extent he is successful is a matter best left to the viewer.

In many ways, the spiritual desolation and frustration of trying to bring things into some kind of meaning predicts movies like The Departed, but Jodorowsky does exactly what his character does. He knows what you as a viewer want and he consistently frustrates it. He gives you a tale of a great gunslinger, then he takes it away. You want a story of redemption? Ok, I’ll give you that, but now I’m going to take it away. In many ways I think El Topo succeeds at bringing to the view the same kind of existential desolation that movies like The Departed strive for. In the end El Topo does it better.