From its John Lennon-approved, nearly fanatical following in the 1970s during midnight screenings to its various bootlegged incarnations and forever-announced, never-materialized sequels (at one point starring Marilyn Manson), Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo remains an enduring cult-film experience. Its countless visions, fervid enough to burn in the memory even when not making a lick of sense, suggest a solitary get-out-of-my-system salvo, with the Chilean-born director frantically cramming everything that shaped his churning psyche into his single stab at cinema. Yet reckless phantasmagoria was always Jodorowsky’s style: Fando y Lis had already laid out joyously saturated obscurantism as the method to his madness, just as The Holy Mountain and Santa Sangre later on proved that there was plenty more where that came from. The filmmaker’s absurdly sundry background—poet, playwright, cartoonist, circus performer—unmistakably colors the wanton fertility of his work; surely not that much weed was needed during the film’s original Elgin Theater run for viewers to undergo personal epiphanies, particularly since virtually every shot seems to traffic in multiple meanings.
Accordingly, El Topo opens with a passage that could be an existential journey for one’s soul or a spoof of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western: The bearded, leather-clad gunfighter El Topo (Jodorowsky himself) and his young son (Brontis Jodorowsky) ride through the desert and into a hamlet of bloodily decimated people and animals. From then on, it’s a winding, spiraling road of evil bandits, mystical foes, and whip-cracking dykes, spiked with indelible, inexplicable imagery. The hairy outlaws fondle and kiss their dainty Franciscan prisoners, and at one point a monk is arranged in angelic close-up with blood for lipstick; the woman El Topo has rescued (Mara Lorenzio) hugs a cock-shaped bolder amid the unending dunes, and water promptly ejaculates from it; a community of rabbits dies off from the hero’s vengeful vibe, while the old mother of one of the Masters of the Desert cries distorted bird chirps as she steps on broken glass. Bullets provide the stigmata for the hero’s nutty crucifixion midway through, and the movie’s second half finds El Topo as a bald-headed Holy Fool, reborn in a cave full of extras from Tod Browning’s Freaks before emerging into the most corrosive send-up of the American western since Jean-Luc Godard’s Wind from the East, a hilariously decadent frontier Sodom where Russian roulette is played in church for “miracles.”
With its druggy wanderings and inscrutable reveries, El Topo would be part of the revolutionary, post-’60s movement of Glauber Rocha’s Antonio das Mortes and Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie if its private mythology didn’t belong so obviously to its maker’s acid subconscious. “I am God,” El Topo at one point intones, and Jodorowsky completely means it: Playing deity in front of and behind the camera, the director uses film as a direct pipe into his own mind, and the bursting valise of ideas, images, and sounds that results is a veritable blur of ridiculous and sublime (and ridiculous-sublime) moments that defy ordinary readings while inviting (demanding, really) audience involvement via active interpretation. Whether one takes it as a staggeringly visionary work or a sadistic circus procession making an opportunistic grab for every artistic base (Buñuel and Zen, Eisenstein and pantomime, Antonin Artaud and Russ Meyer), there’s no denying the immersive being of the film. Scarcely less than 2001, El Topo is designed to exist as much on the big screen as within the mind of the viewer, where it can live or die according to whether it connects personally. It is no accident that the hero’s trajectory, mirroring the viewer’s, leads equally to enlightenment and to the apocalypse.