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El Topo video

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Jodorowsky DVD boxset


El Topo
cast: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Mara Lorenzio, and Jacqueline Luis

director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

120 minutes (18) 1970
Tartan DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 4/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
It is easy to get caught up in the appraisals of Alejandro Jodorowsky, particularly as there is so little feature film work to go by. Each film is blast upon blast of images, designated to shock and astound. My initial exposure to the filmmaker was through the fantastic Santa Sangre in 1990. It was how many met his work. I fell heavily for everything related to the film and clamped my fingers around anything on Jodorowsky at the time. As per usual, I became distracted by work, love and other sub-cultural astonishments; there is a world of such to occupy any and every one of us, after all... and it's a world not getting any smaller. Met only in part previously, viewing the complete El Topo (aka: The Mole) for the first time now, there is disappointment.

It is not the disappointment of a build-up of anticipation over the many years; I no longer suffer those expectations and excitements. I may not have seen the film before but the imagery is popular, the story common knowledge and it feels all too familiar. By robbing it of some surprise I might have lost something in the experience but neither do I believe that to be the case here. Fans will try and push the spirituality of El Topo to the fore, some level equal importance to the surreality, excusing the film its base crudities and fumblings, but I will not. It is an exploitative film that reeks of desperation, a need first and foremost to shock and 35 years on it might still be distasteful but it has been eclipsed by the average Channel 4 and Channel Five entertainment or documentary. I am not even going to attempt to list all of the bad behaviour; I will leave that to others to clap their hands excitedly over that. El Topo knocked people down and ran them over in the 1970s because it was a catalogue of visceral extremes the likes of which were still rare.

Pink Flamingos equally impressed, and when I rented the film out in the early 1980s and took it to a punk house we didn't make it to the end. We never got to the dog-shit canapés because the punk house griped repeatedly at how atrocious and inept it was. When they complained about the dancing arsehole I knocked the film off in protest. Denied the disgusting remaining behaviour the punks sat in shock and tried to persuade me to put the cassette back in the VCR but I refused, and as I was 16 and a couple of months away from my own first VCR I didn't see the end of the film before returning the tape to the shop (I only recently caught the finale).

John Waters was unrepentant, unpretentious, honest. He has a great sense of humour and jarring imagination. His observations - not all of them appalling but always amusing or bemusing - flood out of him onto the screen. This is what we saw in Jodorowsky in Santa Sangre in 1990, too. In El Topo the mission statement is to move from one shock to the next, most of them depleted of their original effect today, which, at over two hours, overpowers the story being told. It is an unfunny cabaret of the grotesque, not half as clever as it pertains to be, let down further by some dull camerawork, shoddy makeup, and cheap set d�cor. In 1990 the music weekly Sounds screamingly headlined an article on Simon Boswell as 'wanker' but his music for Santa Sangre was evocative, whereas the soundtrack of El Topo is of a sombre lacklustre dissonance. It is an under-whelming experience.

Jodorowsky takes the lead role of the wandering cowboy dressed in black; an image he admits was cribbed from an Elvis Presley movie. Travelling with his naked boy son, in a scene that draws on comparisons with the Lone Wolf And Cub films, the kid is told that his childhood is past and that he must bury his first toy and his only image of his mother in the sand. This is Jodorowsky's own son and the toy and picture are genuine, the director replicating his own abandonment and upsetting his own child in the process. They find a town, the scene of a massacre. There is a river of blood and disembowelled donkeys clutter the street alongside the intact bodies of the dead townsfolk. Incredible images but untrue images.

The blood spatters on the church front ring false, paint not blood splashes like that. The identical disembowellings of the burros contradict the complete corpses of the human victims. Filmmaker and fans alike will summarily dismiss every false note in the film on the grounds that this is a surreal odyssey, but I am not having any of it. These are mistakes. This is carelessness; this is clumsiness. The small group of bandits slaughter whole towns without protestation, defensive action or retaliation. A single bandit is allowed to walk down a wall and pick villagers off without anything so much as a glance given back at him. It is the start of a puerile fantasy of overindulgence and should not be mistaken as anything more than that.

El Topo takes up a woman and deserts the boy to monks. She persuades him to rid the desert of three master gunmen. Boldly for a western he becomes less heroic as this is only possible by cheating his opponents. He is not the greatest gun and as he overcomes each desert master his character sinks further until he is a shell of himself, betrayed by a second woman with a bullet fired into his gut. He is rescued by a conclave of outcasts disfigured by inbreeding and is trapped in stasis for many years. Awakening, he determines to relieve them of their entombment in a mountain by creating a tunnel for them. This takes time and he and a beautiful accomplice of stunted growth form an abysmal clown act to raise money for the endeavour.

The nearby town is horrendously debauched, the fat and ugly ruling elite taking slaves and ending lives on a whim. The bleak outcome that the success of his tasks results is under the tone of the film predictable as the tunnel is completed and the hoards of disfigured mountain dwellers fall upon the town to be gunned down by the dreadful able-bodied citizens. El Topo's son has since found his father, intending to kill him, but instead accompanying him first in his fundraising and tunnelling. The son ultimately clothes himself in his father's original attire and inherits El Topo's pregnant chiquilita.

Jodorowsky chortles at his own misbehaviour on the DVD commentary though he has already gone some way towards an allowance of this as a man not above embarrassing himself as he has done in taking the lead role, moving from hero to cheat, coward, clown, victim of abuse and blunderer. It is a bold film with brave performances but having been forced to take the lead role meant that the film is visually clumsy and slapdash. Some of the best ideas, such as the defenestration of a big man, who slowly moves across the screen in medium shot, the camera panning with him as he clutches his bloody groin, would be reproduced to greater effect in Santa Sangre when there would be more time to concentrate on the filmmaking process. Costumes were borrowed from a local theatre company and he enthuses too much at his own brilliance in details like a headband bullet belt. Don't get carried away, Alejandro. Sound effects are good and so are many of the lead performances but ultimately it is Jodowosky's infantile introduction of ideas, their rendering on screen and his selfish maltreatment of the non-actors that overtake El Topo and relegate it to a less than stimulating experience.

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