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El Topo


One of cinema's most peculiar peliculas

Rod Lott April 13th, 2011

David Lynch has made a few masterpieces, but "Eraserhead" isn't one of them.

eltopo

I say this to note that just because a film is a cult classic doesn't make it good, and his debut — a "hit" only by midnight-movie standards of the early '70s when filmgoers had their mind expanded by more than what was happening onscreen — is more weird than wonderful, although visually interesting.

From that same era, Alejandro Jodorowsky's "El Topo" is another. There's no denying the Mexican surrealist Western's influence on independent film, but wow, is it a self-indulgent mess. For a film that sets itself up to be so allegorical and important, it is wildly uneven; the tone veers from Sergio Leone to Benny Hill. In doing so, The Man with No Name becomes The Man with No Point.

OK, OK, so Jodorowsky has a point. But damned if I know what that is. You’re not supposed to bury your metaphors under so much pretension that they remain lost.  

Yes, I know John Lennon loved the movie so much that he got behind its domestic release, but that holds no sway with me. The superstar also thought walking in public without security was a good idea.

Writer/director/composer Jodorowsky also fronts “El Topo” — translated as “The Mole” — as the title character, roaming the desert with his young son (Brontis Jodorowsky, the filmmaker’s real-life offspring), à la “Lone Wolf and Cub.” El Topo believes himself to be God, albeit one who separates a man from his member, and brutally rapes a woman. As El Topo sets out to defeat four enemies, the picture becomes at times a literal freak show, with a legless man and other disabled and deformed people, including children; sex with a little person while others cheer on; smearing blood on a woman's exposed breasts; a boy dying by playing Russian roulette; and so on.

It is at turns disturbing and delirious, sick and skit-based, arty and asinine, goofy and gross. Tired of my alliteration? Good. Now you know how I felt watching this two-hour-plus epic on nothing stronger than ibuprofen and Icy Hot for my aching back. Maybe that's my problem: How high must one be to overlook its faults? I will admit I was captivated by some amazing, visionary shots — even those depicting disease and famine — but what they comprise is far from lucid.

Look at it this way: Picasso could paint like nobody's business, but I bet he couldn't compose a symphony; Jodorowsky is fine in all respects except the one that plants the seed: that of scripter. Besides, I question the judgment and sanity of anyone who exploits his own 7-year-old child by having him be completely naked for the duration of his role.

The shock of that is part of the film’s overall allure of the forbidden; seeing things we've never seen before is all too often confused with brilliance in the art world, no matter the medium. I suspect many more dislike “El Topo” than are willing to admit, for fear they'll be branded a pariah of little intellect. I invite those who haven’t seen it since they dropped acid during its underground run to catch it again, now that it’s out on Blu-ray (in a rather vibrant print) and see if it is still the work of awe they once thought.

Also making its simultaneous Blu-ray debut is Jodorowsky’s 1973 follow-up, “The Holy Mountain,” but haven’t I slaughtered enough sacred cows for one day? Let my own evisceration begin ... —Rod Lott


 
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