"Too much perfection is a mistake."
I have no idea how to go about reviewing El Topo, and really, that's part of the reason why I love it as much as I do. Dialogue is sparse. There
is no exposition whatsoever. Virtually none of its characters are given a name. The film unspools like some kind of fever dream, veering away from logic or any sort of vaguely coherent narrative. Whenever it seems as if El Topo has blazed a path for the rest of the film to march down, that scenario might be entirely wrapped up in a few minutes to make room for something new. The voices of its male characters are often dubbed by chain-smoking women twice their age and vice versa. Alejandro Jodorowsky prefers to tell this story entirely through its visuals, seizing hold of distorted lenses, extreme angles, match cuts, some of the most visceral violence yet witnessed at that point on the silver screen, and an intense fascination with grotesque and deformed human figures. Forbidden sexuality, graphic violence, Christian iconography, Eastern philosophy, the purity of nature, love, lust for power: virtually every shot throughout El Topo lingers on the collision of two or more of those. Half the film is a Spaghetti western with a book on Zen Buddhism in one hand and a fistful of peyote in the other -- revolving around a gunslinger (Jodorowsky) who's seduced into killing the desert's four spiritual gun masters. The second half is an existential romance with a dwarf, pitting a long-imprisoned, inbred society of mutant morlocks against a town that's seemingly prim and proper on the surface yet revels in slavery and celebrates faith with rounds of Russian roulette in church. Whatever conceptions you have of what a film ought to be, El Topo shatters them. You're not meant to comprehend it; the experience is the thing.
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Though the phrase 'Midnight Movie' generally brings camp and schlock to mind, El Topo is the film that's largely responsible for starting the craze, and it's anything but artless. Jodorowsky knows the playbook any film is supposed to honor, and he goes out of his way to break as many rules as he can. Part of the allure is that Jodorowsky is overflowing with ideas. Any other filmmaker would choose one or two of those avenues and sculpt them into a neat, tidy narrative, while Jodorowsky opts instead to explore them all. The result is inspired insanity, with every shot delivering something strange, wonderful, and unerringly unique to gawk at. Jodorowsky also takes care to balance the graphic violence and religious undertones with a smirkingly surreal sense of humor. There isn't an unintentionally funny moment to be found. It's kind of pretentious yet doesn't take itself too seriously -- how impossible a combination is that? In the first few minutes alone, El Topo -- a gunslinger draped in black leather -- walks through the blood-drenched carcass of a desert town with a naked little boy, navigating his way through a maze of corpses. Afterwards, the score shifts to circus oompah music, a bandito sniffs and eventually fellates
one of a large assortment of woman's shoes he has laid out, and then uses those shoes for target practice. Another bandito whips out a sword and starts slicing up a banana. A third arranges nuts on the ground to resemble the shape of a woman, dry-humps it, and then devours her. I haven't even gotten to the point where these same grizzled bandits start dancing and making out with monks, strip them bare and ride the holy men like horses, and smear blood on their faces like lipstick...or the man with no legs who piggybacks onto a man with no arms, each completing the other.
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Despite what you may think, El Topo isn't strange merely for the sake of being strange. It's a visual reflection of an emotional impulse, and it truly does mean something, even if that meaning is only immediately apparent to Jodorowsky. It's never El Topo's skill as a gunfighter that gives him the upper hand against the Masters, and every hurdle he overcomes proves to be more of a defeat than it is a victory. The experience ultimately transforms him into something unrecognizable, and those gifts...those wounds...remain intact even as El Topo shifts gears into something else altogether: largely abandoning an individual's search for enlightenment in favor of a love story/social commentary. This being El Topo and all, "social commentary" involves an eight year old kid blowing his brains in church and a small army of grotesque inbred mutants trying to claw their way out to rejoin civilization.
It seems like such a wasted effort to try to put El Topo into words, but the best way I can try to describe it is the halfway point between The Wild Bunch and the Star Child sequence in 2001: unrepentantly violent, visually entrancing, emotionally evocative, intriguingly abstract, and...well, batshit insane. Not surprisingly, I love it. El Topo is teeming with compellingly grotesque imagery, a curiosity about the spiritual, philosophical, and sexual, as well as twelve or thirteen different movies' worth of wonderfully odd concepts. There really is nothing else like El Topo, and no matter what you walk away thinking about it afterwards, this is a film you desperately need to experience. Highly Recommended.
I knew what my expectations were for a fiercely independent film lensed more than forty years ago, and yet there really isn't any trace of grain whatsoever throughout El Topo. Whatever level of digital noise reduction was applied, it seems to be modest, though. El Topo isn't saddled with the smeary, waxy, artificial appearance that's usually part and parcel with excessive noise reduction, and detail and clarity certainly don't take a hit:
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Although tighter shots such as the one above never fail to impress, fine detail isn't nearly as striking when the camera eases back. The palette reflects what Jodorowsky describes in his audio commentary, skewing towards muted earth tones so the vivid reds of the blood better stand out. Though this Blu-ray disc is clearly minted from the same master as the DVD from a few years back, contrast has been flattened and its colors have been dialed down. Perhaps Jodorowsky was unhappy with the more vividly saturated DVD release...? Then again, the audio commentary dates back to that DVD as well, so I have no idea. Damage and wear are light, limited to a few tiny flecks and an occasional brown vertical line in the center of the screen.
It's just that I can't shake the feeling that I ought to be seeing more of a natural, filmic texture here. I look at shots like this and wonder what it is that seems so off about them...if there really is an issue or if it's just me being unreasonable. I'd certainly still point to El Topo as a terrific looking Blu-ray disc, but it's lacking that extra gleam that separates a great presentation from an extraordinary one.
El Topo spans both layers of this BD-50 disc, and the image is pillarboxed to preserve the film's original aspect ratio of 1.33:1.
There really isn't any shortage of lossless and uncompressed soundtracks on this Blu-ray disc. The default track presents El Topo in its original Spanish, remixed to 5.1 and in 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio to boot. The remix is respectful. The cry of the wind is constantly bellowing in the surrounds, and a few cracks of gunfire also find their way to the rear channels. Otherwise, the mix is rooted up front, where it delivers some effective directionality such as the creaking of dangling corpses as El Topo walks through a massacred town. The low-end is not surprisingly all but non-existent, only briefly making an appearance to reinforce the clatter of hooves and the snarl of a funeral pyre. No intrusive hissing or pops ever mar the experience. The fidelity really isn't that remarkable -- somewhat muffled and dated -- but it also sounds like the tape is unspooling right in front of me. The audio's in fine shape but just sounds limited by the original studio recordings.
Also featured on this Blu-ray disc are a pair of PCM 2.0 tracks -- one in Spanish and the other dubbed into English. Subtitles are offered in English, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, and French.
- Interview (7 min.; SD): If you don't have the time to listen to his audio commentary or would just prefer
to hear him speak in English, Alejandro Jodorowsky breezes through some of the main talking points again in this seven minute interview: the role John Lennon played in establishing El Topo as a midnight movie, the melding of imagery both beautiful and horrific, reveling in the monsters in his "genetic imagination", and how his uneasy relationship with his father greatly influenced the film. Jodorowsky has a gleefully impish presence that's immediately engaging, quipping that he has no idea whether or not El Topo is a "good movie" and laughing about some of the, uh, added perks of being a cult cinema icon. The interview is heavily windowboxed and has been upscaled from a very low-resolution source.
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- Audio Commentary: "Godard has one testicle; I have three." Later, he chats about a friend of his who'd routinely insert his penis into grilled chicken before serving it to his guests. He explains why he hasn't eaten a dish with rabbit in it for thirty years and how he really wasn't all that great of a mime. So...right, it probably goes without saying that Jodorowsky's commentary track for El Topo -- conducted in Spanish and subtitled -- is about as unconventional as the film itself. This is a very candid conversation, as Jodorowsky freely explains just how deeply El Topo draws from his own life and his search for solace in a number of different religions. He also discusses how El Topo was funded with post-dated checks and how its lean budget and lack of commercial aspirations impacted production. Jodorowsky makes it a point to contrast El Topo with more commercial American fare, railing against the toxic influence he sees in producers, distributors, and even many actors. Psychology and spirituality are frequent touchstones, and he points out how they shaped many of the characters throughout the film. There are so many highlights I desperately want to point out, but I don't want to spoil this commentary for anyone, and Jodorowsky tells it better than I could besides. Well-worth taking the time to explore.
- Photo Gallery (4 min.; HD): This really slick montage pans and zooms around marked-up script pages, press clippings, and Polaroid-style snapshots.
- Trailer (4 min.; SD): A theatrical trailer rounds out the extras. It's encoded in high-def but has clearly been upconverted.
The Final Word
El Topo defies description. This is a film that knows what the rules of cinema are and willfully shrugs off most every last one of them: daring, inventive, unrepentantly strange, and never less than visually entrancing. Despite its disinterest in traditional logic or a coherent narrative, El Topo is still a visceral and emotionally resonant experience. I have no idea whether or not you yourself will enjoy El Topo as much as I do, but I can promise that you'll have an intense reaction one way or the other. This is a film that's worth taking the time to mull over and discuss...that is so bursting at the seams with ideas and metaphors that it demands to be experienced more than once. Highly Recommended.
A Few More Screenshots...