El Topo ★★★★★

The New York Times contacted me today for background about my review of El Topo that was published in the L.A. Free Press on April 23, 1971. They provided me with a scan of the article, and I'm reposting it here. Maybe 43 years later its verbiage is a little embarrassing; but I stand by what I wrote back then. How often do we get an opportunity to view what we thought about films through the prism of the far past experience? Let this be a lesson for all you younger reviewers on letterboxd...chances are in the far future you might be confronted with your writings, since nothing on the internet is truly ephemeral...just the way that nothing in print ever was.

'EL TOPO' HEROIC MYTH

There's this film around, and it's pretty amazing stuff, you better believe it. It's called El Topo, which means "The Mole;" and it was made in Mexico by a man named Alexandro [sic] Jodorowsky. El Topo is a creature that thrives in the darkness. But, if per chance he is exposed to life-giving light, he is struck blind. In essence, the film is a myth about gods (or maybe even Gods); but it is really the finest job of translating the heroic fantasy to the screen that has ever been done.

The only way to talk about this film is in superlatives. This is no hack foreign film. Done with simply amazing technical competence, the color photography and visual effects are among the best ever seen - and that includes the best Hollywood efforts (which are so often empty of anything except good photography.)

But the greatness of this film surpasses the purely technical. Summarizing the plot wouldn't do it justice, because we are talking about a black religious (or perhaps antireligious would be more like it) myth. It plays like a weird amalgamation of a Roger Zelazny novel, Homer's Odyssey and the Bible as it might really have been lived. Zelazny writes sweeping epics of titanic struggles between god-like entities. (The conception of this film falls midway between Isle of the Dead and Lord of Light.)

The hero of the film reminded me of Jehovah, the anthropomorphic God of the Old Testament. Certainly the quest that he goes on to defeat the four great masters of the universe in turn in order to prove that he is the greatest master of all (and which takes up the first half of the film) is worthy of a God. But this is not our universe that this takes place in. I'm not sure that it is possible in print to do justice to a description of the world of this film. It's a place which superficially is like the Old West hallucinated on an acid trip. In addition there is an underground world peopled by freaks dressed in mufti, who have deified the hero and charged him with digging a tunnel out of their bleak world and up into the acid-fantasy world above.

It's all indescribably weird, and totally convincing. I don't think I've ever seen a film where worldly images were so well done. In fact, superlative imagery is one of the things about the film. Scene after scene Jodorowsky surpasses anything Fellini (who is no slouch at producing magnificent, if usually meaningless, images) has ever done. Really, it's incredible. Anybody who has seen Ken Ishikawa's Fires on the Plains knows how strong stark visual imagery can be when it's done at its best. In El Topo the imagery is equally strong and memorable - only it's done in color, which is infinitely harder to make real.

This is a strong film. There is far more gore in its long, but swift-paced two and a half hours, than there was in Bonnie and Clyde. But this is a myth, remember. I think if the Bible were ever portrayed realistically, it would be bloodier than any film we've had. But El Topo runs RED, with castrations, beheadings, shootings, and mass murders which make the Sharon Tate scene look like kindergarten fare in comparison. It can be hard stuff to take. At the screening I saw the film at, with a pretty hip and experienced audience in San Francisco, some people couldn't take it. But all the gore, death and destruction serves a purpose in a primitive religious myth. And I think the effect on modern audiences is liberating: breaking down barriers of civilized conditioning and reaching places in our souls which are rarely touched.

This film is full of set pieces: countless short trips which are done with brilliant imagination. Each of the duels with the four masters of the universe is such a trip. Each different, each titanic. The one that stands out is the Zen Master who has so mastered the art of controlling his body that he can make bullets pass through the empty spaces between his flesh. Our hero has to best him in a shoot-'em-out.

The film is also filled with unique and far out freaks. It seems as if the minor characters must number in the thousands - and all of them are really weird. Like the amazing assortment in the Satyricon, only here it all coheres and serves a purpose to set up the different Universe we see as so real. One character stands out in this literal army of novel creations: two deformed men functioning as a symbiotic pair - one with no legs who sits astride the shoulders of another with no arms.

And for all the fact that the film is such a visual masterwork, it also works entirely in terms of psychological undertone and meaning. I don't think anyone is going to get through this film without feeling at gut level that the human condition has been illuminated at the highest level. The characters are supernatural entities; but there is metaphor aplenty to us and our world. Practically the entire gamut of degenerate human activity is explored. From the ultimate in sadism, to the most brutally frank Lesbianism and homosexual eroticism I've seen outside of the pornos. But it's quite well done, not at all pornographic, as it's done purposefully to illuminate larger themes. Everything hangs together in this grand conception.

Like that other great mythic film of our times, 2001: A Space Odyssey, El Topo can lay claim to being the greatest film ever made. It's not going to be to everybody's tastes. There are some things man was not meant to know. But if you can take the gore and the acid-bummer strangeness, this is the most rewarding film you'll see in a long while. Let's hope some distributor picks up on it soon, so that we can see it here in Los Angeles. Remember that title, El Topo, and watch for it.

Ken liked this review