11/15/10

Thanksgiving with Alejandro: El Topo (1970)

Hello and welcome back to the second course of Thanksgiving with Alejandro. Today we will be feasting on his second film, El Topo. Now last week I had a spot of trouble getting through the artsy and vaguely pretentious film Fando y Lis, but this week I had no such trouble. I had long heard of El Topo’s reputation as one of the seminal midnight movies, but as so many things go, I figured it wouldn’t live up to everything I had heard about it. I was dead wrong. I spent two hours being enthralled visually, having a few laughs, and yes, still scratching my head a bit. It is kind of a wonder that El Topo ever even made it to a cult circuit. Had not Ben Barenholtz booked the film at midnight in his theater The Elgan, John Lennon wouldn’t have seen it there, and Beatles manager Alan Klein wouldn’t have ever distributed the film across the country. With only a few minor things happening differently, I might not even be talking about Alejandro today. The fact that El Topo did reach its audience, well, if that’s not something to give thanks for, I don’t know what is.

The film begins with the gunfighter El Topo (Alejandro Jowderowky) and his son (Brontis Jowderowky) traveling across a desert where they find a whole town brutally massacred by the corneal and his band of outlaws. After tracking down the perpetrators, El Topo leaves his son in the care of a band of monks and convinced by Mara (Maria Lorinzio), the coronal’s former slave girl, He sets out on a mission to defeat the four greatest gunfighters and become the best. He accomplishes his task only to be betrayed by Mara and a mysterious woman in black (Paula Romo). A group of deformed people living underground who nurse him back to health takes in the wounded gunslinger. When he awakes, he forsakes his old life promising to deliver his benefactors to the surface even if it means degrading himself before the cultish townsfolk that live above.

Getting right to the heart of the matter, there is a very easy reason that El Topo worked for me better than Fando y Lis, despite all the arty, symbolic scripting and visuals, El Topo does have a narrative thread. Taking cues from both classic Westerns and Spaghetti Westerns, Sam Peckinpah’s ultraviolet shooters, Fellini’s art house, and   El Topo is the freakiest of the “acid” Westerns (a sub-genre that also contains movies like Four of the Apocalypse and Zachariah), but one portion of the film which is either overlooked or dismissed is the humor. There is both biting satire (generally of religious or conservative groups) as well as some downright absurdity. To me it brought to mind everything from Chaplin’s sly political comments to Monty Python’s zaniness (the Pythons were the favorite of another Beatle, George Harrison). As often as I was shocked, disturbed, enthralled, and confused, I found myself smiling and laughing at the film’s sharp humor.

The film is rife with symbolism, and it leaves itself open to a wide array of interpretations. However, I think that El Topo could suffer greatly from overanalyzing. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar or as Roger Ebert so expertly summed up, “If you have to ask what something symbolizes, it doesn't.” Jowderowky definitely had something to say about religion, politics, and once again gender politics, but I think it is way too easy to get caught up in overhanging the minutia and miss out on the larger themes in the film. It would also leave precious little time to enjoy how stunning El Topo looks. Rafael Corkidi, who also shot the similarly beautiful Fando y Lis, worked with Jowderowky to create a world both inspired by the Western genre and still part of the art world. Similarly, the soundtrack by Alejandro and Nacho Mendez contained a definite nod to Morricone and traditional “Western” music with a twist thrown in. I also could not think that El Topo’s flute playing as being similar to the Harmonica’s eponymous instrument in Once Upon a Time in the West.

As if penning the script, directing the film, and writing the music wasn’t enough, Alejandro does a fabulous job in the lead role of El Topo with my only gripe being the sudden and jarring change in appearance of the character. Perhaps I was focusing too much on some other portion of the film, but it did leave me momentarily confused. Maria Lorinzio and one time actress Paula Romo both deliver great performances that were more expansive than women in Jowderowky’s first film were though their roles suffer from his unsavory characterization of women. The real stars of the film were the people who had only a few lines. From the armless man with a legless man strapped to his back to the scoundrel Corneal to the hordes of townsfolk, El Topo is packed to the gills with fantastic small character performances. Each of the gunfighters he meets (Martinez, Gurrola, and Fosado) also provide excellent performances in some of the strangest and most symbolically interesting moments in the film.

Overall, I didn’t just end up liking El Topo. It has quickly become a film I intend to watch many times in the future. Balancing the artistic flourishes with a conventional narrative and, let’s face it, gunfights, makes the film move along at an entertaining clip. At the end of El Topo, unlike many other art house films, I didn’t feel stupid because the film was as much Sergio Corbucci as Stan Brakhage. Well, that about wraps it up for the second (and slightly delayed) entry into Thanksgiving with Alejandro. I will be back in just two short days with my next review, the 1973 film The Holy Mountain.

Bugg Rating 

3 comments:

  1. The Lady In The Car With Glasses And A Gun (circa 1970)November 15, 2010 at 7:47 PM

    I think it might have been even better if the film hadn`t been booked as a midnite movie because now its cult status would be perhaps a hundred times greater than it is simply because no-one would have ever seen it EVER !!!. I was just thinking though how bizarre and odd it must have been for people who went to see it on opening night (December 18th 1970) and through the rest of the week in the lead in to Christmas that year, just imagine coming out of the movie theatre at 2:AM literally on Christmas morning having just seen "EL TOPO", that would have been so surreal and strange. Brilliant reveiw by the way.

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  2. I really need to watch this again. I only watched this once during high school when i was digging the weird.

    Sante Sangre is still his best but El Topo on pure surrealism is awesome.

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  3. Davis j. borderline urinary incontinenceNovember 16, 2010 at 4:46 PM

    "El Topo" is bizarre but "The Holy Mountain" is even more bizarre believe me. Prepare yourself Lightning Bug, prepare yourself.

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