Friday, February 6, 2015

Before I Die #536: El Topo (1970)

This is the 536th I've seen of the 1,162 films listed in the "Before You Die" series that I am gradually working my way through.

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Surreal. Bizarre. Violent. Occasionally upsetting. And completely engaging.

The name Alejandro Jodorowsky became known to me a few months ago, when I watched the documentary Jodorowsky's Dune. From the descriptions of his earliest films, I knew I was in for a wild ride with El Topo, his first feature movie.

My main fear was that the movie would be so bizarre and incoherent that I would simply write it off as incomprehensible nonsense and struggle to get through it. Such was far from the case.

The movie follows the story of the title character, El Topo (meaning "The Mole" in Spanish), a stoic man in black leather who at first is wandering the Mexican desert with his young son, righting the brutal injustices that he finds on his journeys. He eventually abandons his son to Christian monks, swapping him for an adult female companion, and goes on a quest to impress her by slaying the four most feared gunfighters in the desert. What follows is a literal and figurative trip of self-discovery, violence, death, and rebirth that defies simple description.

I  have to give credit to my video store guy, Miguel, who summed up much when I returned the movie and we talked about the meaning of it. Miguel said, "I'm not totally sure of everything Jodorowsky meant with the movie, but it clearly meant a lot to him." Perfectly stated. Through a dense and sometimes confounding tapestry of surreal imagery and allegory, there is a certain skewed coherence to it all. There is a grand, mythical quality that speaks to the creator's vision.

This early scene in the film speaks of the prevalent violence,
but also the careful construction of the sets, shots, and use
of brilliant colors to tell the story.
The more obvious symbolism comes early in the film, when I took some of the cartoonishly brutal and evil villains to represent the social ills of Mexico (or maybe Chile, Jodorowsky's home country), either in the 19th century or even 1970. As the tale moves forward (and backwards and sideways), the mystical metaphors and images, as well as the social commentary, become more elusive and open to many interpretations. This is where I found enjoyment in the viewing experience, and where I ultimately agree with Miguel - I can't say that I was always able to glean just what Jodorowsky was trying to say, but it is quite clear that he was saying something. Those messages that I did receive were interesting and thought-provoking, at the very least.

One of the most pleasant surprises of the film was the beauty of the images. Even during the very visceral, violent parts of the movie, the framing and editing speaks of a director who was well-steeped in the techniques of masters like Sergio Leone (a highly appropriate influence, given the gritty Western setting). Employing a variety of creative angles, strange and vibrant constumes, and atypically gnarled and scarred actors, the movie is a feast for the eyes.

El Topo truly is unlike anything else I've ever seen. While this can often be a non-commital response to a piece of art, with this film I mean it as the highest complement.

And so, 536 films seen. 626 to go before I can die...