My fourth trip into the mind and works of Alejandro Jodorowsky, this is, unsurprisingly, another thoroughly surrealist film masquerading, in some fashion, as a western.
As stories go, there is technically one, as always with his films, but it’s a rough and loose one and is, in some ways, inconsequential. This isn’t strictly true, for there’s meaning behind everything in his works, but the events themselves are, in some manner, irrelevant–it is only the meaning behind them that matters. Still, to sort of underline the point by actually naming the effective run of things, we have Alejandro himself (this time credited as Alexandro, I don’t know why he can’t pick one or the other himself…) as “El Topo,” who is a gunfighter beginning the movie with his son Hijo (Brontis Jodorowsky, presumably Alejandro’s son) riding naked with him on horseback. They wander into a town which has been mercilessly slaughtered–eviscerated donkeys, contorted bodies, red pools and bloodied sand litter the streets. El Topo asks a dying man who did this, and the man begs to be killed. Finding no answers here, he comes to a group of bandits and asks again, this time discovering it was perpetrated by “The Colonel” and his men.
If this were a plain western, this would be establishing the villain of the piece who would be pursued throughout the rest of the film. But it’s not. Instead, we see the Colonel to the conclusion of his “arc” and move on in less than an hour. Now El Topo has abandoned his son with monks and takes a power-hungry woman with him, who demands that he best four master gunfighters before she will love him. Once again, we are not at the final arc, but I will leave the rest to your imagination or future viewing.
There’s little to be said insofar as plotting and acting; they aren’t really, as I say, the point. We’re seeing the ideas, philosophy and perception of Jodorowsky–each of the four masters espouses some metaphysical technique that proves and enables their mastery and reptuation. The first does not allow bullets to harm him; when shot he barely bleeds, and bears wounds from past bullets that should have been fatal. He’s also blind. The second has strengthened himself by building copper objects until he has gained immense dexterity and nimble fingers, able to manipulate extremely fragile objects now without damaging them in the least. He shows the difference between El Topo’s desire to destroy and find himself through shooting, and his own desire to disappear and minimally impress his actions on the objects and people he affects. The third espouses the qualities of perfection, of choosing the heart over the head. The fourth tells El Topo what it is to always win; when you have nothing to lose of any value, when you don’t even have anything to fight with, you are inevitably winner.
We see that he does not immediately have the skill to best these fighters, but the demands of the woman with him lead him to take sidesteps into glory in besting them, which we see as detrimental to his own self-worth, even as she enthusiastically encourages this. All of it leads to a final change in El Topo’s perception of the world as a whole, and the final arc deals with his new way of seeing things–his rebirth, both metaphorically and almost literally.
As someone who rather notoriously hates David Lynch’s obscure, pretentious films, it’s surprising how much I like Jodorowsky’s work, though I think it’s easily explained by the fact that Jodorowsky more clearly knows where he’s going with everything throughout (I recently read that Lynch, apparently, does not even understand his own films…) and is intensely passionate about the ideas he’s conveying. Everything is placed very specifically and clearly with a meaning in mind. This meaning is not always clear to the viewer (it seems I should watch these films again with his commentary to find such things out) but it’s clear that there is meaning. Nothing is too obscure to be recognized as a symbol, and it feels out its place, even if the specific meaning continues to remain a mystery. The “sense” of the film, despite the lack of logic and oddity and definitively surreal nature, adds up to a distinct whole. You feel satisfied, as though Jodorowsky has definitely told you something, that you at least understand on a subconscious level, even if you aren’t necessarily able to put it into words.
As with The Holy Mountain, it’s worth noting that Jodorowsky has absolutely no qualms about violence, and even fewer about dead animals.