Acid Westerns: El Topo (1970)

"El Topo" is the original Acid Western; Pauline Kael coined the word to describe the movie, and she wasn't being especially complimentary. It was a fitting title, as the film is legitimately hallucinogenic, a perverse and troubling vision of extreme sadism in a metaphoric Wild West. It's a trip, and, for a lot of viewers, a bad trip.

Filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky was a product of avant garde European theater, having cofounded the Panic Movement in Paris in 1962, drawing influences from Luis Buñuel and Antonin Artaud. The company's productions were deliberately, purposefully provocative, especially borrowing from Artuad's Theatre of Cruelty, which sought to shock audiences with the goal of purging destructive feelings from their subconscious.

Jodorowsky brought all this to "El Topo," which is deliberately grotesque and unsettling. The film is really a series of metaphoric set pieces, generally built around extreme acts of cruelty: We see a massacred town, the streets piled with dead children and horses with their stomachs torn open; we see a black slave sexually assaulted and then lynched; we see young monks stripped naked and sexually humiliated.

The film is especially thorny nowadays, as much of Jodorowsky's sense of the grotesque now seems dated and mean without purpose. He frequently swaps out men's voices for women's, and vice versa, as well as having characters cross-dress. We are no longer shocked by the spectacle of it, but by the strangeness of Jodorowsky finding this grotesque rather than liberating; it feels transphobic. He also makes extensive use of actors with visible disabilities, and while the film is sympathetic to these characters, it is hard to shake the sense that they were selected for their shock value.

But the film is not just grotesque. There is a genuine, remarkable beauty to much of it. I once heard Guillermo del Toro discuss his visual sensibilities, and he explained that he is Mexican, and Mexicans can't take two objects without making them into a shrine. Jodorowsky, born in Chile and working in Mexico, seems to have the same instincts.

Jodorowsky was and remains a visual artist, mostly creating comic strips, in one instance with the superb French artists Mœbius. Jodorowsky has a genuinely visionary sense of environment and composition. More than anything, it is "El Topo's" visuals that feel trippy. He has John Ford's love for the profound beauty of the Western landscape, coupled with his own eccentric sense of satire and caricature. Even when the frame is full of gore, the film is often both gorgeous and fascinating.

There is a story to "El Topo," and, despite some critical whinging, it isn't that hard to follow. There are three acts that follow the adventures of a black-clad gunslinger, played by Jodorowsky himself. In the first, he finds a murdered village and hunts down and kills the responsible part. In the second, he duels with four mystical gunmen in the wilderness, each of whom is better than he is, each of whom he defeats through trickery. In the third act, the gunman renounces his violent past and seeks to help a group of disfigured people trapped in a cave; when they are slaughtered by religious extremists in a nearby town, the gunman takes revenge.

Much of it feels iconic and apocalyptic; it is hard to imaging the George Miller didn't draw inspiration from "El Topo" for his most recent "Mad Max" film. There are some puzzling interstitial scenes that feel lifted from a more abstract art film, but "El Topo" came out in 1970, when there had already been a whole decade of those sorts of films, so critics shouldn't have puzzled as much as they did.

Nonetheless, the film received, and sometimes still receives, critical pillory. I don't expect it is the film's trippiness that offended the critics, but instead its seemingly needless cruelty. Like other Acid Westerns, "El Topo" is set in an amoral wasteland where violence is frequent and without reason. Similarly, it is a film without a hero: the black-clad gunslinger is frequently just as cruel as the people he guns down, and the only thing that differentiates him is that he seems to feel a little bad about it afterward.

And that might have been tolerable, but "El Topo" also presents itself as a profound mystical inquiry, with each of the desert gunmen representing a different cultic tradition, and with the gunman taking on a Christ role. Had the film simply been nihilism, or had the film's amorality been played for entertainment rather than disgust, I think critics might have been more forgiving. The fact that it presents itself as a religious analog was just too much.

It found a cult audience, mostly among the stoners who hung out at The Elgin theater in New York, where it became the first American midnight movie, screening every week. But John Lennon was also a fan, and pushed for a larger distribution deal. Kael complained that the film just tosses out symbolism, hoping that the audience will gather them up and find them profound. I don't know if this is a fair criticism — I think Jodorowsky actually did know what he was symbolizing — but this works in cult films.

Cult films generally exist in a vivid but incomplete universe. They hint at more, but those hints are abstract and open to a variety of interpretations. Cult audiences enjoy investigating the universe of the cult film, revisiting it to take in new clues, and building their own theories about what might fill in the gaps in the storytelling.

I think this is completely valid. It can be done poorly, as in the television show "Lost," which increasingly failed to suggest that there was more meaning that was worth exploring, but it can also be done well, as in the films of David Lynch (who also seems inspired by Jodorowsky), where being a fan of his work sometimes feels like joining a mystery cult.

"El Topo" is a difficult film, even for those with a taste for this sort of cult storytelling. Jodorowsky wasn't kidding around with his desire to shock audiences, and mace this film after a decade or more of practicing his brand of the Theatre of Cruetly; he made "El Topo" with an extremely practiced hand. As a result, while the film is never dull, it is frequently agonizing to watch.

And, in the end, I'm not sure it does what Artaud promised. I have seen it twice and do not feel like the film stirred and purged that many unconscious emotions, but instead mostly worked on very superficial feelings of horror and disgust. When I found myself moved by the film, it was during the few moments of genuine compassion or tenderness. And these might have been sharpened by the film's sadism, but they are also undermined by it; the moment I started to experience something profound, I was dragged away from it by more cruelty.

But, then, audiences who responded to this film went back and saw it many time, frequently under the influence of drugs, and I suspect that changes the film dramatically.

It may be an unreasonable demand that in order to properly appreciate "El Topo," I should both get high and travel back in time to the Elgin and see it for four weeks in a row, but interesting art gets to make interesting demands.


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