Saoirse’s Cult Corner #8: El Topo (1970)

In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here. 

This fortnight we continue the deep dive into the career of Alejandro Jodorowsky to tie into the fabulous new Arrow Video release.

Today we talk about the second film actually on the boxset, acid western El Topo. 

The marketing of this film has this line, ‘El Topo is not a western’, yet the first thing Jodorowsky says in his commentary for El Topo is that he wanted to make a western because he wanted to make a film that everyone would enjoy after the flop that was Fando y Lis. Then again the next thing he says is that he tried and failed to make a normal movie and that I totally agree with, and that’s kind of why I love it.

Part of why Jodorowsky’s first triptych, Fando y Lis, El Topo, & The Holy Mountain are so famed is that the progression across the three movies is just so satisfying. You start off with Fando y Lis, a movie with a lot of ideas but very little execution, and you end up with The Holy Mountain, his undisputed masterpiece, and El Topo is a beautiful meeting in the middle. Whereas Fando y Lis felt incredibly freeform, the beauty here is that while it is totally unpredictable it has a structure, a really clear and intended one, even when the story is going off into dazzling surrealism or these strange places that you’d never predict, you always know exactly where you are and what’s happening both philosophically and structurally.

El Topo begins with the most strange and dazzling title credits that explain what a mole is, (you really have to see it for yourself), ‘the mole’ being what El Topo means. It’s a creative use of title, in that the rest of the story has absolutely nothing to do with moles. Alejandro Jodorowsky plays our lead who is called El Topo who does do some digging but that’s not until the last act. The rest of the movie is very much concerned with a sort of spiritual shootout if that makes sense. El Topo has to travel from place to place, hunting down and murdering the four gun masters of the desert, (here we see the Jodorowskian trope of a grand quest again). They are dispatched very stylishly until things go askew in an absolutely jaw-droppingly interesting way.

The first thing to note about El Topo is its absolutely fabulous sense of style. This is Jodorowsky’s first of two genre efforts, (the other being his horror/Giallo Santa Sangre), and they are two of his best and most visually striking efforts, even if The Holy Mountain ultimately beats them both on both fronts. It’s especially pleasing after the last column entry, Fando y Lis which did feel distinctly student filmy. There’s no real attention to style in Fando y Lis, the whole thing feels very thrown together. Especially coming out of the panic theatre movement, a lot of it feels random and episodic, (although Jodorowsky always has a deeper meaning at heart, even on something more frivolous like The Rainbow Thief). Fando y Lis is definitely a film made by someone who does not yet know what they’re doing in the medium in which they are doing whatever that is. El Topo on the other hand has buckets of style to make de Palma or Leone blush, (seriously de Palma, make a western, you’d kill it). It’s not just Jodorowsky’s signature surrealism either, he knows how to put together a solid set-piece. So many of Jodorowsky’s other films feel like sensory and emotional overloads instead of stories per se, but this not only has a frankly brilliant central narrative, (whilst still being so sensory and emotional centrally), but he tells it with such panache for visual storytelling and a coherence of vision that just wasn’t there in Fando y Lis. It is a delightful leap forward for Jodorowsky that should inspire any aspiring filmmaker, especially any aspiring artistic filmmaker, because it just shows you can make your scrappy low budget movie on whatever you have, and still make something so polished afterward, and that’s a valid path.

His use of imagery and worldbuilding is also astonishing. Seeing Alejandro Jodorowsky marching across the desert with a beard to make Jesus turn green dressed like a hitman priest is a sight to behold. Even in this obscure Argentinian art-acid-surrealist-western, the director himself, who is hardly a prolific actor, immediately constructs himself, in just his second movie, into easily one of the most iconic gunslingers in the whole of western history. His use of setting not only sends up classic spaghetti westerns like The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly but adds a distinctly organic flavor that feels so Jodorowsky, and so Mexican as well. That’s the beautiful thing about a lot of Jodorowsky’s imagery, landscape is so important, environment is so important. His horrific imagery often works best when it feels like the horror at the core of it is seeping up out of the fucking soil. At one point El Topo does actually become trapped under earth and not only does this scene totally expand the world of the film, but it also adds so much of the film’s political and philosophical commentary, and makes the film take so much more of a delightfully Jodorowskian tone, his character transformation works into the film the mythic archetype for himself that he’s so fond of and allows him to incorporate his pet themes of acceptance, self-acceptance, and mime.

It’s not like I can philosophically extricate this film from itself as I have done with other films I’ve written about here, I was kinda drunk and exhausted when I watched it and just not in the best frame of mind to analyze it and give it a proper reading, so I won’t try. What I can say about El Topo though, is that it marks an exhilarating leap forward in Jodorowsky’s career, and sets him up beautifully for the artistic heights of The Holy Mountain. I have no grand thesis, I have no philosophical musings, it just made me happy.

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