El Topo, a mystical outlaw clad entirely in black, leads his naked child to the wasteland, where borderland towns have been wiped out by marauding thieves and the puddles are red with blood. Father tells son, “Today you are seven years old. Now you are a man. Bury your first toy and your mother’s picture.” The cult audience that tapped into the hallucinatory surrealism of Alejandro Jodorowsky was composed of midnight-movie freaks and counterculture intellectuals, stoned hippies, and avant-garde artists. But I discovered El Topo somewhat differently, not as an adult seeking either a movie as part of my LSD experience or as an apostle of Gurdjieff and Eastern spirituality. Instead, I stumbled upon El Topo as a child not much older than El Topo’s and was transported to a wild fantasy realm. Children can tap into that surrealist dream logic very easily, since they can run around a playground and transform the jungle gym into a spaceship and sticks into swords. When El Topo shoots a rock in the desert and water spews forth into his girlfriend’s mouth, the child may not comprehend the sexuality of that image, but they nevertheless accept it.
The cinema of Jodorowsky is an anarchic playground of ideas. Its extreme vision of testosterone-fueled quests for knowledge, blood-soaked “theater of cruelty”-style violence, and freaks and outcasts as the ultimate heroes. LSD may have helped a certain audience tap in, but a case should be made for El Topo as more than a cultural artifact from the psychedelic era. At its core, it is a story of one man’s quest for sainthood. Much like the allegorical fiction of Flannery O’Connor, the hero’s evolution toward spiritual grace is paved with ridiculous cruelty and suffering. “Grace changes us,” she explained, “and change is painful.” One of the stronger characters roving through Jodorowsky’s desert landscape is this idea made flesh: a man with no legs is carried in a harness by a man with no arms. Through helping each other along, together they face the world. Jodorowsky’s admiration for this pair is never greater than a scene where they must work in unison to climb a stepladder, and his sense of pathos never clearer than when they are cold-bloodedly gunned down.
How fitting, then, that El Topo opens like a western, that genre where frontier justice has its own rules. But shortly after introducing El Topo and his son riding into the desert, the genre rules start to bend into fantasy. Callously abandoning his son to some traveling monks, instead opting for a nubile young woman as his companion, our anti-hero travels “in a spiral” across the sands in pursuit of the four great masters of pistol dueling. One by one he encounters them, and each seems unstoppable: the first is a blind, long-haired young guru whose body is impervious to bullets; the second a caravan gypsy whose hands are so powerfully trained he can juggle pyramids made of toothpicks delicately placed together; the third is a Mexican farmer who only needs one shot because he never misses the heart of his victim; and the fourth is an ancient hobo with no clothes or possessions other than a butterfly net that sends bullets whizzing back at his opponent. Before their duels, El Topo sits and converses with each, sometimes playing music with them, while his petulant girlfriend berates him with hostilities like, “I want to be with a winner! Do whatever you must! Cheat!”
With each duel, El Topo concocts an elaborate trick to defeat the master, which fills him with disgust. Each of them is a delightful magician, with a vivid larger-than-life persona. Their dialogue sounds like New Age spiritual therapy. “You shoot to find yourself,” one instructs him, “I shoot to disappear. Perfection is losing your self.” Another reflects that he has learned not to fear death anymore, which has made him a dangerous enemy. Again, El Topo plays out as if it were a children’s fable, with useful life lessons cloaked in the form of wizards and a hero’s quest. Lest it all feel like portentous babbling, Jodorowsky cuts away to El Topo’s two girlfriends fighting it out with a bullwhip, the victorious one licking the other clean with her tongue. And even that, in a strange way, makes sense in the Jodorowsky universe, which is frankly nestled in the realm of the male id. As fellow artist-provocateur Andrzej Zulawski once said of his own shrieking psychological nightmares, “I make the films about what is torturing me, and a woman serves here as a medium.” Indeed, once El Topo defeats the masters, his two women shoot him full of bullets (that replicate stigmata wounds) and ride off into the sunset together.
The story continues in a bold new direction as cripples and dwarves emerge from the rocks to drag El Topo’s lifeless body into their underground cave, where he sleeps for 20 years. Upon awakening, he shaves his head and beard and transforms himself into a monk-like guru for the freaks, falling in love with an appealing dwarf and vowing to dig a tunnel between their mountain enclave and the neighboring frontier town. But if we are to remember anything from the start of the movie, most humans have not undergone a passage into sainthood and are unlikely to welcome a hoard of monstrosities into their community. El Topo opened as an epic of Western violence and climaxes as a tale of Eastern sacrifice. Jodorowsky clearly adores the freaks as being something unique and special, and that a distortion of a human being is only rendering something ordinary into an extraordinary new shape. And as they march inexorably toward their tragic conclusion, El Topo himself achieves a kind of grace. Reunited with his son (Robert John), who had been raised by monks and has become a kind of alter ego of his father, dressed entirely in black and ready to ride out into the desert for his own vision quest, our hero is able to make his final statement to the world. It all ends in a cleansing fire, harrowing yet also righteous as a protest against intolerance.
Anchor Bay has compiled The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky as a thorough box set including key early works from this master of strange cinema. If I linger on El Topo more than the others, it’s because of all his films, this one remains a stand-alone work that moves beyond the influence of his mentor Luis Buñuel and the pop-art surrealism of his performance-art troupe The Panic Movement. His theater company deliberately attacked the bourgeois and deliberately went out of its way to destroy and offend (the memorably grotesque climax of one of their shows had Jodorowsky emerge from a giant vagina surrounded by naked women covered in honey as they threw live turtles into the audience). El Topo retains the potency of those images, yet rather than an assault on a moralistic value system (or good taste) it plays out like one man’s vision quest. If it feels personal, it’s maybe because it is patently autobiographical in its portrayal of Jodorowsky asking, “Who am I? Where did I come from, and what the hell am I doing here?”
El Topo is the center of the trilogy of feature films Anchor Bay provides (and it’s a shame they could not include his later masterpiece, Santa Sangre). The other works are interesting curiosities in their own right. Fando y Lis feels like an extension of his Panic work, which could translate to some viewers as an excuse for self-indulgent nonsense. The young hero Fando (Sergio Klainer) carries his whining girlfriend Lis (Diana Mariscal) on his back through what might be a post-apocalyptic world of burned-out city streets and the surrounding mountains and valleys, populated with lecherous old women and blood-sucking vampires. Lacking a coherent plot as they search for the Lost City of Tar, Fando y Lis is a series of happenings, and those willing to endure its heavy-handedness and long stretches of tedium will find rewarding—or at least outlandishly bizarre—pictures.
At one point, live pigs get snatched away, one after the other, from Lis’s vagina. Some of the quieter moments, though, are more affecting, like when Fando paints his name all over Lis’s naked body, then the two of them paint their names all over the walls. In 1968, one could drop out of college and have a nervous breakdown with the R.D. Laing excuse that this was the only sane response to an insane world. If you ever wanted to know what the mescaline-fueled ‘60s were like, maaan, Fando y Lis is the head trip to go on. For better or for worse, Jodorowsky’s commentary is almost more fun than the movie. His hyperbole includes a vivid description of the riot his movie caused at the Acapulco Film Festival, where he had to be whisked away hiding on the floor of a limousine to avoid getting lynched by the raging masses.
Ever the bombastic storyteller and egomaniacal hero of his own life, Jodorowsky practically thought of himself as a mystic guru after the midnight-movie success of El Topo and, using production funds partially secured from John Lennon and Yoko Ono, proceeded to take his cast and crew through three months of Zen, Sufi, and yoga exercises, living communally, and reading the I Ching. Thus began his third major film, The Holy Mountain. The first hour of the film is almost pure visual storytelling, with virtually no dialogue. A thief (Horácio Salinas) has been crucified in the desert, and after being rescued by a dwarf who revitalizes him with a joint, he ventures into a nearby totalitarian regime where storm troopers execute dissidents in the streets with birds flying from their open wounds. He joins a unique traveling circus where the conquest of Mexico is reenacted by hoards of costumed lizards and frogs. It’s not long before he discovers himself imprisoned within a hall of mirrors and surrounded by plaster versions of Jesus Christ.
Lest we drown in the sheer volume of outrageous images, The Holy Mountain settles comfortably into the Thief’s mystical re-education within the multicolored fortress of The Alchemist (played by Jodorowsky as an all-knowing guru in flowing black robes). Together they lead a metaphysical task force of the “six most powerful people on the planet,” each corresponding with a different planet and a different card in the Tarot deck, to traverse to the Holy Mountain and unlock its secrets. Moving into the territory of a Peter Greenaway list-making, Jodorowsky stops the tale of the Thief to create short films depicting each of the six interplanetary leaders and their worlds, satirizing among other things the pretentious artistic community, the dehumanized industrial work force, the lazy bourgeois, and the rigid police state. After gathering together at a round table and pushing all of their money into a ritualistic fire, this elite team traverses over land and sea.
Operatic in scale, with extravagant costumes of sacramental robes and larger-than-life sets that are structured like massive prime-colored churches or pyramids, The Holy Mountain is overwhelming in its scale. Next up for Jodorowsky would have been a production of Frank Herbert’s Dune, and this gives a taste of what sort of megalomaniacal avant-garde undertaking this would have looked like. One’s critical faculties start to erode under the joyful onslaught of allegorical sights and sounds, and you get the sense that Jodorowsky pushed in this direction as far as anyone would let him go. It was five years before he made another picture, and that one was artistically compromised by producers and movie stars, then another 11 years before he came back with his personal, powerful, bloody, and beautiful Santa Sangre.
But in the case of this filmmaker: the smaller the output, the heavier the dose. The Holy Mountain and El Topo are cinema of the extreme, rejecting normal modes of storytelling in favor of something primal. In defying naturalism, Jodorowsky glorifies and celebrates the power of the imagination. It’s not for everyone, but those willing to take the plunge into his madness have films so uniquely original, so bursting at the seams with images of the fantastic, that having them all so beautifully compiled on DVD will allow them to revisit his gloriously mad world whenever they like. When daily life grows too oppressive, we can be reminded that dreams and illusions are, in their own way, as real as our own blood.
Anchor Bay has an excellent track record distributing cult and genre films, and ABKCO's restoration is extraordinary, with superb transfers for El Topo and The Holy Mountain. I doubt these films looked as clean or colorful during their theatrical release. Fando y Lis has the occasional specks and signs of wear and tear, but even that one has crisp blacks and solid whites. The mixes for El Topo and The Holy Mountain are superb in terms of clarity and tone, with no recognizable distortion. Fando y Lis is a little rougher around the edges, but again seems to have been cleaned up considerably for release.
In addition to the restored films, when it comes to extras this elegantly presented box set is overflowing with riches. There are two separate DVDs containing the full soundtracks of El Topo and The Holy Mountain, and a DVD for Jodorowsky's long-lost directorial debut La Cravate. This amateur work has its own charm, told entirely in mime against what are obviously painted theater flats. A young woman owns a shop where she has a collection of human heads, each with their own personality. When she tires of one lover, she removes their head and replaces it with another, depending on whether she wants to be with a thug or a poet. Though Jodorowsky hasn't discovered what to do with the camera at this point besides create proscenium arches around avant-garde performers, allowing them to do their thing, one gets a taste of his acerbic sense of humor.
Jodorowsky's full-length commentary on Fando y Lis is in English, but his accent is quite thick and subtitles are recommended. He provides a useful perspective on how his taste for the fantastic developed (watching Zorro and Flash Gordon on television as a youth), and how he studied philosophy and psychology in college but grew more interested in expressing himself through marionettes. This eventually led to his work in mime and with the theatre community. According to Jodorowsky, who loves to spin a colorful tale, the script for Fando y Lis was one page long and the loose, improvisational style was based on his vague recollections of directing surrealist Fernando Arrabal's full play on the stage. Jodorowsky's commentary gets worked up into full steam when he proclaims that "The local villagers in the nearby town wanted to kill me!" or "I hated him!" or "I married that woman.she has a beautiful body that got eaten by mosquitoes in that cemetery.After we married she became evil!"
Also on the Fando y Lis DVD is a thorough feature length documentary about Jodorowsky entitled "La Constellation Jodorowsky," where the maestro discusses his film work, comic books, theatrical experiments, and his forays into group therapy. In addition to clips from his films, there is rare archival footage of his outrageous plays, numerous sketches from his proposed Dune project, interviews with Peter Gabriel, Marcel Marceau, and graphic novelist Moebius about their experiences with the filmmaker and depiction of his self-help session where he has a young man create a family tree using fellow audience members. On the El Topo DVD is an animated short where Jodorowsky enthusiastically describes the meaning of each card in the Tarot deck.
Jodorowsky's commentaries for El Topo and The Holy Mountain are in Spanish, and he goes in-depth about the heavy religious symbolism in the films, as well as his personal associations with the characters and their search for meaning. As an elderly man with white hair, he comments on how interesting it is to look back at himself. He doesn't speak nostalgically, saying he never would have killed all of the animals that he did (several rabbits were dispatched for one scene in El Topo) merely for the sake of cinema. As always, the tone is cheerfully bombastic and exaggerated, saying that he found one of El Topo's girlfriends wandering around the city after taking 500 hits of LSD and that he never learned her real name. Ever quotable, he praises Godard as a huge inspiration before saying he himself is not an intellectual but someone who makes movies with his cojones. "Godard has one testicle," he cackles, "I have three!" When discussing The Holy Mountain, he defends the radical shift from an operatic world of sets to the more naturalistic world of woodlands and rivers saying that the movie is headed toward "truth" and his explanation of the final shot, where the camera pulls back to reveal the film crew, is committed and articulate about his artistic intentions even though the image has become a cliché of postmodern cinema. Not just a prankster with a gigantic ego, Jodorowsky's knowledge of Tarot cards and all manner of Eastern and Western religions is incredibly vast, and he pinpoints specific allegories and criticisms within his work. And when discussing working with his children in films or with handicapped actors, he lacks false sentiment as much as he lacks prejudice.
There is a quick on-camera interview with Jodorowsky on the El Topo DVD where he speaks about his experiences on the midnight-movie circuit and the invaluable support of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. He discusses his troubled distribution history with partner Allen Klein, with whom he had a contentious feud that held up the video rights of his films for 30 years, and how they buried the hatchet now that they are older and wiser men. Always one for good copy, he also says that the benefit of being considered a "mystical" filmmaker during El Topo's release was that he was able to "fuck any woman I wanted! I fucked all the girls!" Of course, in the morning they would realize he was just an ordinary man.
The films of Alejandro Jodorowsky will blow your mind.