El Topo, written and directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky, translates to The Mole, and there’s some business at the top of the film about a mole digging into the earth to find the sun, only to be blinded when it dug upward to discover the real sun. So, there’s a compelling argument to be made that the first half of the film, which concerns the titular, black-leather-clad cowboy (Jodorowsky) facing a series of enlightenment masters in surrealist battle, is essentially a travel through the director’s own metaphysical underground. It’s not a perfect summation, but nothing could possibly encapsulate Jodorowsky’s bent western in any unfettered manner, which is all the more fitting when you’re talking about a film that ostensibly birthed the concept of the “midnight movie.” Indeed, if any film should luxuriate in images of a woman suggestively fingering and licking the innards of a cactus or a dictator getting dressed and prepared in a stone teepee, it’s El Topo, and if nothing else can be said about this unique work, it’s that it never misses a chance to put the image of a seeming non sequitor in the place of verbal exposition.
An experimental theater director who studied under Marcel Marceau and had received accolades from Jean Cocteau for his early work, Jodorowsky deployed his second feature as a set of four short films, despite the fact that the film’s narrative progression is not considerably convoluted; the short-film excuse was used largely as a way to duck around union stipulations. The film itself is one of radical spiritual violence marked by a leftist class-warfare ethos that often emerges through myriads of symbols, but the film rarely feels as if it’s indulging in any digressions. As the eponymous gunslinger roams through villages ridden with disease and the dead, and then those ruled over by greedy bandits, there’s a sense that everything is in its right place, which isn’t always to the film’s benefit. Jodorowsky’s wanderer goes about castrating a tyrant, abandoning his child, taking up with the tyrant’s love slave, and spawning an apparition of his feminine side before facing his four enlightenment masters in bloody stand-offs, none of which ever comes off as feeling like an act of true transgression.
This can be at least somewhat explained by the fact that the cowboy never outwardly suffers much, nor does he face genuine humiliation, a particular facet that was addressed in Jodorowsky’s subsequent film, The Holy Mountain. Humiliation does come for El Topo in the film’s second movement, which occurs some 100 years after he faces the four masters, but he’s no longer the violent, masculine gunslinger. Rather, he’s now a goofy beggar and man of the people who performs in town with his midget lover, attempting to raise funds for the poor and the destitute to join the privileged residents of the town. The town is characterized as a beacon of opportunity and enlightenment, but also as a den of despair and sin where one can still purchase slaves, execute black and Hispanic men without excuse, and force lovers to fuck one another for sheer grotesque amusement. Here, the resurrected El Topo comes to confront the forces of socioeconomic fortune and corruption, not to mention his grown son, who’s become a monk.
Jodorowsky’s targets are not hard to spot, nor are they in any way unique or nuanced, but the way that he approaches them is utterly singular to his brand of structured storytelling and makes for often hypnotic, slow-burning sequences and scenes of fiery outrage. Rarely does Jodorowsky set up a shot that doesn’t invite perusal, and the director’s ideas concerning performance are nothing if not interesting; Topo’s rape of the tyrant’s love slave was reportedly unsimulated, and the casting of the role of Topo’s son with his own son offers its own disquieting questions. The general oddness of the film’s themes, theories, and imagery might make Jodorowsky seem wily and uncontrolled, but his abilities as a filmmaker cannot be dismissed. Budgeted at around half-a-million bucks, El Topo uses color, sound, and setting with a gleeful sense of invention, and the film’s elusive counterculture message was enough to grab the attention of John Lennon; it also was enough to get Jodorowsky laid for the glut of the 1970s, according to the Chilean director.
To some, El Topo remains something of a dubious endeavor, as naïve in its way as it is wise. As ludicrous and egomaniacal as Jodorowky often comes off, I’m tempted to take him at his word, and there’s undeniably something sincere about Topo’s quest through his inner desert and the struggle he faces when he emerges from the darkness. It’s perhaps because Jodorowsky balances so carelessly between creating spiritual art and succumbing to total artifice that his film seems to sprout and show off new feathers every time one revisits it.
Anchor Bay has done a not-quite-exemplary job bringing El Top to Blu-ray, but seeing as the film was only available in a lousy DVD transfer for years (and a dreadful VHS transfer before that), it's best to look on the bright side. Detailing throughout is remarkable, especially in facial close-ups and, in the film's second half, the western town where the eponymous wanderer works and entertains. Colors look very nice: Notice the bright blue sky, the gushing blood from gunshot wounds, and the greens of the oasis where El Topo and his lady frolic and rest. The problem here mainly comes from the sanitized look of the picture, which is clear but lacks any layer of grain, giving it a very processed feel. On top of this, there are numerous moments of specks, black lines, haloing, blocking, and other visual imperfections. These things don't impede the viewing experience, but are negligible nevertheless. The audio is similarly solid, but not even close to where fans of the film might wish it would be. To be fair, this has more to do with the making of the film than with Anchor Bay's transfer. The dialogue, sound effects, and music all sound clear and loud enough, but the way they seem separated in the mix might make them hard to accept for first-timers. Overall, however, this is about as good as one could expect from such a low-budget production from a decidedly experimental director.
There are only two major extras worth considering but they are both generous and fascinating. The first is a great commentary track provided by Alejandro Jodorowsky, who offers some insights into his sprawling symbolism but largely speaks about the production of the film, the film's reception, and his personal theories on filmmaking. To say that some of his pronouncements come off as pretentious and egotistical is putting it lightly, but Jodorowsky's passion is infectious and hugely entertaining. This is paired with a six-minute video interview wherein Jodorowsky looks back at the film and its reception. It essentially works as an addendum to the commentary, but the sight of Jodorowsky, older, wiser, and sporting a thick head of white hair, is worth the time. A photo gallery, a trailer, and script excerpts are also included.
Spiritual violence, class warfare, and plenty of mysticism go into Alejandro Jodorowsky's desert-set whatsit, now readily available in a solid transfer, thanks to Anchor Bay.