The wind whistles in the distance as a scary cowboy in black rides through the desert. And for some reason he’s holding an umbrella. As he gets closer and steps off the horse we see he has a little boy with him too, naked except for a hat and a pair of mocassins. He hands the boy a teddy bear.
“Son, you are 7 years old. Today you are a man. Bury your first toy and the photo of your mother.”
The boy does as the man says. In the foreground we see the half-buried portrait of the friendly looking mother poking out of the sand as this crazy duo rides off toward the horizon. The opening credits tell us we’re watching EL TOPO. And that opening is the most normal and straight forward part of the movie.
What I’m trying to say is, John Wayne isn’t in this one, Kevin Costner isn’t even in this one. This is not your father’s western. Unless your father is a pervert who enjoys peyote, which he probaly is, so actually this probaly is your father’s western. Whatever the case, I’m sure it’s stretching it to even call it a western. There are hats, horses, guns, bandits, etc., but… remember when I reviewed David Cronenberg’s CRASH, I said it was like the Shannon Tweed movie that would only show on Videodrome? This is in that same universe, you switch the channel to some twisted mutant version of AMC in the middle of the afternoon and this is the western they’re showing.
In case you haven’t heard it yet, I have good news for you fans of director Alejandro Jodorowsky (or eltopians as I call you). As you know, after John Lennon called EL TOPO a masterpiece Klein financed HOLY MOUNTAIN and ended up owning both. But he and Jodorowsky had some kind of falling out, so Klein never released the movies on video, while Jodorowsky called Klein a “gangster” and gave prints to pirates to get them out there. I figured we’d never see these on legit DVDs unless one of them died. They probaly should’ve settled this a long time ago with a knife fight at Stonehenge or on top of a pyramid or something. But there must’ve been something in the tarot, because the two have finally called a truce in their blood feud. They will be releasing EL TOPO, THE HOLY MOUNTAIN and FANDO Y LIS as a box set through Anchor Bay next May. They’re gonna be packed with extras too, there’s even deleted scenes on HOLY MOUNTAIN! I don’t know about bloopers. The price isn’t too bad either, fifty bucks for three movies. I already have FANDO from when it came out a while ago (looks like the same extras), but the other two are easily worth $25 to me.
While we wait for that some new prints of EL TOPO and HOLY MOUNTAIN are slowly crawling around the country. Matt A. was kind enough to email and remind me they were hitting Seattle’s Grand Illusion theater this month, so I’m not gonna miss it. The Grand Illusion is a tiny theater run by volunteers. The walls are covered in red velvet and the ceiling has shiny dark brown tiles like giant chocolate squares. The screen is so small if I stood up next to it and spread my arms out I could probaly touch both sides, but it’s almost more fitting to see EL TOPO in a weird little place like this. The pseudo-mystical quality of this movie combined with its near-disappearance makes it seem almost religious. I had to see light shining through this film.
In his email Matt made an argument for El Topo (played by Jodorowsky himself) being a badass. I can understand that because this guy definitely has a cool outfit, kills alot of people and wins at least 5 highly competitive duels. In fact he’s so bad that a pen full of bunnies dies just from being near him. And he’s got the attitude. When his girlfriend tells him she won’t love him unless he kills the 4 masters of the desert, he agrees to it without skipping a beat. He doesn’t sleep on it, he doesn’t ask for a half an hour to run some errands before he goes, he doesn’t even take a breath, already he has accepted and is leaving on this mission of killing four people. “In order to find the masters we must travel the desert in a spiral.”
But as I concluded way back in VERN TELL’S IT LIKE IT IS #27 when somebody else suggested EL TOPO for my international badass studies program, “He is not a Badass in my opinion. He is some kind of skinny yoga dude.” Despite the satanic black outfit there is something just not convincing in his face, he looks a little too hippie, a little too goofy. That’s why it makes perfect sense when, by the end of the movie, he has transformed like a butterfly into a shaven-head street performer, literally a clown. At the end his now grown up son wears his black outfit from the beginning and looks much more convincing in it.
Not to take anything away from the movie though, because I really think this is a masterpiece. (ooh, daring statement there, agreeing with the dude from the Beatles. Way to go out on a limb, Vern.) It is so full of little weird details that it’s almost hypnotic. Like there’s one scene where people are talking, and it’s a fairly standard shot, and then all the sudden I notice there’s a spotted owl nailed to a table in the background, and its head is perfectly tilted to the side like Jesus on the cross. I don’t know what that means, but holy shit.
The violence makes you think Peckinpah, the killing-the-masters storyline makes you think Shaw Brothers, but the world of the movie is some surreal nightmare symbolic version of the real world, a little bit Fellini, a little bit Burroughs. At the beginning he comes across the scene of a massacre – somebody impaled on a pole, dozens of dead kids and disemboweled animals laying around a knocked over wagon. He goes looking for the perpetrators and finds 3 pervert bandits. We know they’re perverts because one guy’s sucking on a shoe, another guy makes a crude picture of a naked girl on the ground with (pebbles? berries? grubs?), then mounts it and starts eating its face. I never seen Gene Hackman pull that one in a western.
(By the way, one of these three freakos is the guy who directed LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE. I think he’s the shoesucker, but I’m not sure.)
These degenerates lead my man Topo to a colonel who has a woman as a slave, and this is where we start to see Jodorowsky’s obsessions that will lead to HOLY MOUNTAIN, the craziest movie I’ve ever seen. There is a long scene showing this fat colonel’s poor servant systematically making him up, putting on his clothes, applying his wig, etc. By the end of this process he’s got this elaborate getup and he goes outside to offer the “leftovers” of his woman to some assholes he calls his “dogs.” (But he calls them that in a degrading sort of way, not in a DMX sort of way.) That’s when El Topo shows up.
In punishing this colonel, El Topo shoots off his wig, strips off his clothes, cuts off his balls, basically undoes everything the servant did to him. He shows how a guy like this is nothing underneath, he’s just a rapist with some fancy clothes and makeup to make him seem important, and once all that’s gone the guy just shoots himself.
Alot of villains in westerns will have a stable of women they mistreat. But the dogs up the ante and have four kidnapped priests they use as playthings. Obviously you feel bad for these dudes, but it’s a little bit of an attack on the church too because despite being men of the cloth they sport pervy smiles while watching the violent retribution taken against their attackers.
The movie continues in this western-from-Hell direction for what could be feature length, but after El Topo kills the four masters it suddenly takes… well, not a left turn, I would have to say an illegal U-turn. El Topo gets shot, some kids and disabled folks appear out of nowhere and carry him away on a stretcher made of branches and leaves. It almost seems Biblical. Suddenly, El Topo wakes up a generation later, buried in a cave, sporting makeup and a goofy poof of blonde hair. (woulda been cool if this sort of thing happened in one of the YOUNG GUNS pictures.)
El Topo meets a pretty young dwarf who explains that her people are stuck in this cave because it’s too hard to climb to the exit, and most of them are deformed from all the incest. So he realizes that it’s his purpose in life to go to the nearby town, earn some money and use it to build a tunnel and rescue the cavedwellers. For some reason it never occurred to me until watching it this time that that’s why he’s El Topo, the Mole, because he digs a tunnel. (Duh.)
This last part of the movie is the angriest and most surreal part. The movie leaves El Topo for a little bit to show what life is like in this town, which I don’t think has a name but does have a pyramid with an eye on it for its flag. Hideous old ladies in fur coats buy slaves, brand them, get pampered by them, then falsely accuse them of rape and clap politely as they are executed. Despite this lifestyle the hypocritical bitches call themselves the Women’s Decency League, and they inspect the nearby establishments for signs of immorality. Little do they know their husbands have secret sex clubs in the cellar. The women are shipped in in crates.
By this time El Topo has completely abandoned his violence, his outfit, his hair, his previous personality, which shows where Jodorowsky’s mind is at. This movie is about enlightenment. Maybe the violence earlier was a fun time at the movies, but this is obviously supposed to be an improvement in his life when instead of killing people he spends his time making people laugh, earning money and working hard to help the outcasts. The ending is completely fucked up and horrible, yet optimistic (like DAWN OF THE DEAD or the New Testament). I like to think the next generation has a shot. His son is dressed just like he was at the beginning, but he already shows signs of being more enlightened than his father was, like when he tears all the flags down from his church, leaving his religion pure. Unlike the rest of his congregation, he really believes (you will have to see the movie to understand how this can be explained through the religious use of Russian roulette). And at the end of the movie he sets off with El Topo’s dwarf girlfriend who is not only the mother he never had, but the mother he buried in the desert. He doesn’t have his teddy bear, so there is some ambiguity, but I still got high hopes.
Actually I am cheating a little there because I got an inside track on what happens next. Years ago I actually got the chance to read a script to SONS OF EL TOPO, the probaly-will-never-happen sequel that Jodorowsky was trying to make in the ’90s. I didn’t get to keep a copy, I had to give it back, so no I can’t loan it to you. I was really excited to see it as a movie, but I didn’t expect the script to be a good read. Jodorowsky’s movies are so crazy and visual, they’re not really about plot and dialogue, and who knows how much comes up on the set and never was on the page. Plus, sequels are never as good as the original, and the guy hadn’t made a movie in years and years, and to make matters worse I was told it was translated from French into English (and French isn’t his first language)!
But you know what? It was fucking spectacular. The movie, at least at that time, would’ve been about El Topo’s two sons, Abel and Cain. I can’t remember if it makes it clear whether this is the grown up son and the baby son who are at the end of the first movie, or if there is another son closer to the baby’s age. El Topo’s wife has just died (I also can’t remember if this is the little person he met in the cave) and the sons have to bring her to bury on an island next to El Topo. (I’m not sure if his grave was moved after the first movie or if that place is now an island. [okay, there is alot I don’t remember here, sorry].)
The thing is, El Topo’s grave is surrounded by all kinds of treasures and riches, and all the bandits want to steal it. But they have learned from experience that if they set foot on the island there will be earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and shit. It’s not worth it.
But now his wife is dead, and his wife was a saint. And as everybody knows, if you have the flesh of a saint with you, you can step on the island safely. So that’s why transporting the body is a big deal. Because she’s a saint her body smells like flowers, so all the bandits in the land follow the scent and try to steal the body. At one point they actually get it and tear it up into tiny pieces so they can all get on the island.
But Abel and Cain, who of course hate each other, work together to try to protect the body and their father’s grave. At the beginning of the movie Abel is completely evil and Cain is virtuous, but they slowly trade roles over the course of the movie. Also one of them, Cain I think, has a badass pet hawk.
That’s about all I remember, but man it was good. Jodo’s getting old, but this script definitely showed he still had it, at least back then. It was full of his kind of bizarre ideas and creepy twists on universal themes, but also built masterfully to an exciting climax. I thought the guy had left our plane and just sits around reading tarot cards all day, but writing this script he knew what the fuck he was doing. I hope he gets a shot at making another movie, whether it’s SONS OF EL TOPO or something else. (I always thought it would be funny if he sold out and made a MISSION IMPOSSIBLE or something, but there’s no time for that anymore.)
As for this new print of EL TOPO, it looks great. I mean there were still specks here and there, the telltale signs of a real movie on real film. It was not some flawless work of digital alchemy, turning poop to gold like in the opening scene of HOLY MOUNTAIN. But it looks way brighter and clearer than I’ve ever seen before, and it was subtitled, which was nice even though I like the English dubbed version I’m more used to. Also, no blurring of the pubic hair like in the Japanese VHS release. I don’t know if the DVD will look like this or better, but it’s at least going to be the best version ever available. I can’t wait to see what HOLY MOUNTAIN looks like. I’m getting kind of enlightened just thinking about it.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.