FILM IN PHASE SPACE EPISODE 4
“The mole is an animal that digs tunnels underground searching for the sun. Sometimes his journey leads him to the surface. When he looks at the sun, he is blinded.”
In the version according to Jodorowsky, the midnight-movie magus, comic-book artist and tarot enthusiast influenced by Sergio Leone, Tod Browning and Luis Buñuel, El Topo is a bizarre. trip festival of occult psychedelia, visuals, nude dancing and violence. Shot on a fairly large budget in Mexico, It began its American existence as an underground cult object, playing midnight shows in New York for six months.
El Topo consists of two distinct parts united by the central role played by the film’s eponymous character. In the first part, he appears in a bizarre Zorro-like guise, dressed in a slightly homoerotic black leather cowboy suit and hat. The West is peopled largely with corpses of men and animals and the survivors are gross, obscene caricatures who follow phony gospel-mongers and practice slavery. After the death of his first incarnation, he emerges seated in a Lotus position, his hair and beard dyed in white, his eyes made-up with black eye-liner.
Jodorowsky lifts his symbols and mythologies from everywhere: Christianity, Zen, discount-store black magic. He makes not the slightest attempt to use them so they sort out into a single logical significance. Instead, they’re employed in a shifting way, casting light on life and death, redemption and rebirth, myth and religion, jealousy and revenge, violence and pacifism, heroism and villainy, the real and the imaginary, the rational and the irrational, rampant egocentrism and spiritual salvation (including a phallic-shaped, circumcised boulder among the never-ending dunes that ejaculates life-giving water and semen when a woman caresses it), Buddhist koans, references to the Bible and to Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha,
El Topo is and “Acid western” both a Western and an “Eastern,” a drama and a comedy, a profound allegorical meditation and a slapstick farce. It’s an “art house masterpiece that undermines the Western’s dichotomy between the good and bad.
The real drama was not whether the “Injuns,” or mobsters, or delinquents, or Reds would destroy the American way of life — because they couldn’t — but rather, who was going stop them, the cops or the docs, the soldiers or the scientists? And by what means, force or persuasion?
The film has also an undercurrent of absurdity, as if each meaning, once analysed, would prove to contain its own contradiction. No child can wholly discard one parent for the other, no rational education neglects the value of playthings, no rider travels naked if there’s a long journey ahead. The film tells us that the mole is a creature which digs through the earth in search of the sun, only to be blinded when it comes to the surface, but it just not true.
With its bizarre characters and violent, bloody events, use of maimed and dwarf performers, and heavy doses of Christian iconography, Eastern philosophy, sexual symbolism, and Freudian imagery, the film fits the Comte de Lautréamont’s contradictory surrealist metaphor of “the chance encounter, on a dissecting table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella.” Indeed, an umbrella figures prominently in El Topo’s opening scene, as it does in the work of Magritte.
“The Surrealists went prospecting for the latent meaning of movies, “the sexual spot” that heralded the return of the repressed. Epicureans of detritus, they uncovered treasurers of poetry and subversion in the bargain basement of cinema.”
Salvador Dali, René Magritte, and Max Ernst in painting; Louis Aragon and Lautréamont in poetry, André Breton’s Manifesto, and surrealism’s cinematic acolytes, Luis BuñueL. Even using that stringent definition, El Topo is clearly in the surreal tradition.
Following the degree of violence within the movie, such as duels, violent subjugations, rapes and bizarre symbolic ceremonials removed from the superficial conventions of modern existence we can see that Jodorowsky’s surrealism is not of the Bretonian type, however, but bears a resemblance to the work of Antonin Artaud, a member of the original Surrealist group who was expelled after opposing the movement’s political association with the French Communist Party.
As the name of his manifesto suggests (‘The Theatre of Cruelty’), Artaud assigned cruelty a fundamental role in the newly envisaged art:
“Without an element of cruelty at the foundation of every spectacle, the theater is not possible”
Jodorowsky stars as the black-clad horseman, cousin to the journeys in Tolkien, “Stranger in a Strange Land,” “Easy Rider,” certainly “2001,” and most obviously to the goalless, introspective missions of Eastwood’s Man with No Name. Riding through the desert with his son Brontis, who is completely naked except for his hat symbolizing the natural state protected by the power of the father underlining the film’s Freudian theme of self-actualisation through parricide.
El Topo carries not a lance but an umbrella, while the diminutive Sancho Panza behind is clutching a teddy-bear and a framed picture of his mother. It is time, the boy is told, for childish things like toys and mothers to be put away and for him to become a man. Father plays a flute for the burial, and they ride off to meet the world, umbrella still hovering bat-like above them
El Topo sweeps grandly on its way. The child’s first lesson is a vision of hell, a scrubby Mexican street after a massacre, bodies everywhere, disembowelled animals, vast pools of blood from which strange colours of sunlight are reflected, men hanging like sides of meat, and an electronic cacophony of scavengers on the soundtrack. The child learns either pity or pragmatism, take your choice, when handed a pistol to finish off a dying man, and is then carted off to learn the lesson of vengeance as his father tracks down the bandits responsible.
El Topo encounters three sexually deprived thugs given to raping shoes, lizards etc. After performing obscene acts on the powerless Franciscans, including stripping them of their clothes and riding on their backs while spanking them with cactus plants, the four thugs notice a beautiful woman fetching water from a near-by well.
They surround her and start performing wild sexual gestures. But a single sentence pronounced by the woman, her name is Mara– “the colonel said he’d kill anyone who touches her” – suffices to drive utter horror and submission into them, demonstrating that they are, after all, subjected to a higher force, whose ruthless efficiency is enforced through the mere mentioning of a name.
Once again, Jodorowosky opts for a monotonous organ melody to accompany the scene of a ritual that stands between a sacred ceremony and a cheap mime show.
The woman enters a cone-shaped brick structure in which we see the colonel, dressed in nothing but red boxer-shorts, lying on a mat on the floor. He seems like a helpless baby, relying on the physical assistance of the woman to walk across the room, but her absolutely subservient position is demonstrated by her kissing the feet of the colonel.
The arrogant might of the colonel seems to grow as his dressing up is progressing to the final touches of eyeliner, wig and lipstick representing an uncanny hybrid between holiness and raw power, is symbolized in a scene in which the half-dressed colonel stands underneath a large Crucifixion.
EL TOPO AS MULTI-RELIGIOUS FIGURE
El Topo is a religiously hybrid figure. At different stages of the film, he pronounces words or carries out actions that could be associated with a variety of religious traditions, but this fluidity should not be regarded as an indication of evolution. The first explicitly religious statement El Topo makes in the movie is his response to the defeated colonel’s question “Who are you to judge me?” the bandit leader asks, confronting his Nemesis.
El Topo, it seems, considers himself to be God. Although it is tempting to link this statement to the Old Testament imagery of El Topo’s subsequent religious transformations, in the interview Jodorowsky points out that the source of this dialogue is to be found in the Sufi poet Al Hallaj.
This revered Islamic mystic was executed by the authorities for infamously pronouncing the same words as El Topo, but his followers recognized that Al Hallaj had reached a state of such spiritual perfection that God himself was speaking through him.
El Topo, assisted by the colonel’s thugs who have lost any respect or fear of him, removes their leader’s toupee, and then strips his entire costume in a single comical move, thus reducing him to the state in which he was originally seen lying on the floor of the temple. In an act of ultimate humiliation he castrates the colonel, who then runs off and shoots himself in shame. The colonel’s subjugated wife runs after El Topo, pushing his son to the side.
After El Topo abandons his son Brontis to the Franciscans by telling him that this will teach him not to depend on anyone. He is seen instantaneously changed into a Franciscan robe, indicating his transformation into an individual protected by but also subservient to a higher symbolical order embodied also in a dark enclosed space.
THE FOUR MASTERS
She informs him that she will only love him if he succeeds in killing the four masters of the desert. They have each reached mystical perfection in gunslinging which leads El Topo to try and defeat each of them by any means possible.
El Topo finds water in the desert by shooting the top off a rock, and he finds food by digging up turtles’ eggs and bring forth a source of water from a stone. The imagery is certainly biblical, yet the location of the eggs under Mara’s spread legs and the sprout of water from a phallic stone add certain sexual undertones.
At one point, Mara touches a phallic boulder and it magically spews out semen and life-giving water.
“The stone is an exact replica of my own penis. That’s El Topo’s sex!”
He bestows an orgasm upon her. El Topo’s ritual orgasmic rape of Mara, after which she is able to find eggs herself and drinks water from a penis-shaped stone, definitively takes the events outside of traditional Christianity and into the arena of fertility cults.
After a while she too becomes capable of these homely miracles.
The very idea of a journey to face the Four Masters of the desert can be seen as an original combination of Hellenistic (Jodorowsky points out the significance of Alexander the Great and the Odyssey) encountering lions, lambs and white rabbits.
These four Masters, a splendid quartet of vaguely Taoist eccentrics, have to be defeated by a succession of tricks. These four meetings involve wise and mystical dialogues between the Masters and El Topo: “The deeper you fall, the higher you get”; “Perfection is losing yourself’; “To lose, you must love”; and “Too much perfection is a mistake.” In violent Sam Peckinpah fashion. He buries one rival under a mound of dead rabbits.
THE FIRST MASTER: HINDU
The First Master is a quicker draw than El Topo, but our hero tricks him and shoots him dead. Mara then kills The Double Man — two men, one without arms, on the bottom, and the other, without legs, strapped on top — the First Master’s servant.
Soon afterwards, Mara sees her reflection in a pool and, like Narcissus, falls in love with herself. She even looks at herself in a mirror while making love to El Topo. El Topo shoots the mirror and puts the broken glass in his pocket.
After his first victory, El Topo and Mara meet a second woman, a whip-cracking, horse-riding lesbian dressed in black, with a husky male voice, who guides them to each new rendezvous.
THE SECOND MASTER
As part of his scheme to defeat the Second Master, who is preoccupied with his mother, El Topo places the broken glass beneath her foot. When she cries out in pain, the Second Master is distracted and El Topo kills him. He takes a copper ashtray this Master made and puts it under his shirt.
THE THIRD MASTER: PRE-COLUMBIAN
Jodorowsky also demonstrates a reverence for pre-Columbian American civilizations:
“The Third Master is a Mexican Master. In every Western ever made, the Mexican is always the outlaw, the bad guy. In my picture, the Mexican is a very wonderful man, because Mexico has a very wonderful culture.”
Later, the Third Master shoots El Topo in the heart, but the bullet hits the ashtray and El Topo slays that Master too.
THE FOURTH MASTER: ZEN
The Fourth Master catches El Topo’s bullets with a butterfly net and flings them back at him. To show how unimportant death is, he takes El Topo’s gun and shoots himself dead.
After completing his mission, our hero is crazy with guilt about his killings, so he destroys his gun and retraces his journey as if to do penance. However, as he approaches the two women, Mara and El Topo’s uncanny double who joined him in the course of his journey who have bonded with each other, he learns that they do not approve of him anymore:
At this point, he is challenged to a duel by the Woman in Black. He refuses to fight her and is shot four times in the places of Jesus’ wounds. Mara fires the fifth shot, riding off with the Woman in Black in an erotic embrace.
The second half of the film takes place twenty years later.
After sucking on a hallucinogenic beetle and undergoing a symbolic rebirth, El Topo awakes in a community of dwarves and deformed outcasts who live underground. These mutants, worthy of Todd Browning’s Freaks, believe El Topo is some kind of god.
Having survived his redemptive execution, El Topo has cast off his black leather chaps and guns and become “reborn” as an unarmed monkish-looking figure in pale-colored Buddhist robes and with a shaved head. They inform him that they have been put there by the townspeople many years ago, leading to their deformations through incestuous reproduction. They believe that he will free them one day.
More specifically the contrast between enclosed, dark, underground areas associated with the recesses of the human mind on the one hand and the infinite extension of the naked, barren and eternally sun-lit desert on the other. Although El Topo is locked in a brutal and permanent struggle with his environment, it is clear that the location of the ultimate battle is within his own head – just like for the mole.
He decides to liberate the cave dwellers by raising money to buy dynamite and thereby help them escape from their subterranean cavern. Eventually, a tunnel is dug (hence the title, El Topo ) and the cave people flee their prison and go into town. Seeking atonement for his wasted past life and becomes a clown begging for money.
He performs little skits (including making love in public) with one of the dwarf women (who becomes his wife) for the amusement of the depraved and sadistic citizens of a nearby Old West town, ruled by a corrupt church, whose icon is the-eye-in-the-pyramid symbol found on the back of the dollar bill, part of the Great Seal of the United States.
“I’ll tell you a little secret, but don’t tell anybody. It’s on the dollar bill. I think it’s a perversion of knowledge. Because if you take a sacred symbol of Atlantis, or whatever, and put it on the dollar, this symbol becomes a very terrible symbol: an economic symbol. But I used it in the film as a symbol of guilt: the eye says: ‘You are guilty, you are guilty’. Yes. A guilty society.”
The inhabitants of the town participate in a perverted collective delusion justified by the authority of the symbol. The religious ceremony of this institution can be read as a metaphor of the moral bankruptcy of spiritual institutions in a society dominated by hypocrisy.
Soon, a new young priest comes to town, a cleric who joins his parishioners in games of Russian roulette in search of “miracles.” The ‘believers’ are ecstatic in their repetition of ‘God will protect us’ until the priest starts handing out a revolver for a game of Russian roulette. The new pastor is the son El Topo abandoned many years before. The young man now wants to kill his long-lost father but decides to postpone his revenge until the underground dwellers are freed.
Several ‘believers’ take the gun and attempt to shoot themselves, but every time they emerge victorious, followed by the enthusiastic response of the audience — “A miracle”
The game ends tragically with a little boy grabbing the gun and shooting himself, after which the crowd disperses in panic and the priest states that “the circus is over”. Brontis pulls down the sheet with the eye symbol, revealing a cross behind it.
Finally the village promptly massacre all of El Topo’s friends in a scene that “rhymes” with the early scene riding through a bloody town. He is repeatedly shot himself, but he is not harmed by the bullets. Ignoring his wounds, he returns to his vengeful gunslinger ways and annihilates many of the perpetrators, while the rest flee for their lives.
He must also face his son again, who is now a grown man. Brontis emerges dressed in El Topo’s original Zorro-suit. Clothing thus indicates the symbolic order of meaning and power in which the subject operates, a crucial element without which the individual is ultimately reduced to impotence.
At the end of his journey, dressed like a Buddhist monk, Jodorowsky douses himself with gasoline and sets himself on fire. The image is similar to those Buddhist monks protesting the war.
El Topo’s son and dwarf girlfriend survive the bloodbath and make a grave for his remains, which becomes a beehive. The dwarf girlfriend gives birth to a child at the same time as El Topo’s death, and the son, now dressed in El Topo’s gunfighter duds, the dwarf lady, and the infant ride off on a horse in the same way that El Topo and his son did at the beginning of the film.
It’s not so much a full circle as a spiral, in keeping with Jodorowsky’s affection for the theories of Gurdjieff. Thus, the first half of the movie resembles a Spaghetti Western, albeit a surreal one, while the second act is a love story of redemption, rebirth, and re-death.
Jodorowsky himself stated that “El Topo is a library … of all the books I love. He also acknowledged the influence of Jean-Luc Godard, Luis Buñuel, Sergio Leone, Erich von Stroheim, and Buster Keaton. As such, it is a staggeringly visionary work that “samples” dozens of often paradoxical artistic inspirations: Zen, Eisenstein and pantomime (Jodorowsky studied with Marcel Marceau), Antonin Artaud and Russ Meyer, Beckett’s Theater of the Absurd, Jean Cocteau’s surrealism, and MAgic SHows. Moreover, El Topo is part Jean-Paul Sartre, C. G. Jung, Wilhelm Reich, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Lao-Tzu. It uses both the Old Testament and the New Testament.
For some viewers, there are far too many philosophical references, Jungian and religious symbols, parables, geometric configurations, epigrams, in-jokes, and abstruse images.
You can ask me about any symbol you like. I know the meaning of every symbol there is. So do you, because the meaning of every symbol is recorded in your brain cells.
What unites all of Jodorowsky’s religions is their esoteric nature, which is contrasted to the visceral presence of earthly institutions.
I ask of film what most North Americans ask from psychedelic drugs. The difference being that when one creates a psychedelic film, he need not create a film that shows the visions of a person who has taken a pill; rather, he needs to manufacture the pill.
More importantly than that, however, Jodorowsky points out that the movie is not the representation of a psychedelic experience, but rather the pill that would create a psychedelic experience in the viewer. The structure of the film acts as that element of external stimuli that, along with sensual and intellectual interpretative mechanisms of the human mind, combine to create the psychedelic experience of watching El Topo.
“I believe that each image of the film is an imprint. I can’t give the entire body. You have to form it. Each film must be a sample of the entire universe, as each grain of sand is a sample of the entire beach.”
The film begins with Brontis’s ceremonial entrance to adulthood, marked by El Topo’s request to dig his teddy bear and the image of his mother in the sand. In the subsequent shot, we see El Topo and Brontis riding off in the background, behind a close-up of the mother’s photograph only half-buried in the sand, thus indicating that Brontis’s suppression of his mother’s memory has only been semi-successful.
A) THE SECOND MASTER
The Second Master, who initially defeats El Topo by shooting his revolver from his hand, explains that the cause of his defeat is El Topo’s self-obsession: “You shoot to find yourself, I do it to shoot. Perfection is to lose yourself, and to lose yourself you need to love.” The Second Master adds that he has succeeded in dissolving his ego by completely submitting his self to his mother: “What I do and say is ordered and blessed by her. I hate all that is mine, because it distances me from her divine presence.”
However, the Second Master’s obsession with his mother is also the cause of his downfall, as El Topo secretly throws shards of a broken mirror in front of the mother’s feet. Tending to her injury, the Second Master forgets about El Topo, enabling El Topo to shoot him from behind.
B) THE OLD WOMAN
After El Topo’s reincarnation in the cave, he is led to a very old woman. He participates in a ceremony in which the old woman and El Topo suck on a scorpion-like insect, followed by a scene in which we see him emerging from the old woman’s womb.
And what does it all mean?
In so much as it means anything, it is about that circular, spiralling journey. In his end is his beginning, and his son’s beginning. El Topo is ultimately engaged in a battle without an end:
When you struggle internally in life, and you triumph and are freed from your problems, you become faced with a greater problem: the problem of the entire universe. Right? In other words, you are never liberated from the weight. You increase it. When a mystic reaches a god, he realizes that there is a greater god. And he has to work and work. It’s endless. El Topo is endless.”
It is possible to imagine an endless chain of El Topo’s reincarnations, inevitably ending in his realization of the futility of his efforts. The universe whose imprint El Topo represents is an endless spiral in which enlightenment consists in the realization of the essence as a constant flux rather than a particular stable state of mind or external affairs.
Artaud insisted on the superiority of the theatre for the achievement of the effects he envisaged. In ‘The Theater of Cruelty there is a wider Surrealist concern with a fundamental reformation of art in general, which is perceived as decadent and lacking in true spiritual energy.
Jodorowsky’s work, in accordance with Artaud’s ideas, is far removed from psychology and concrete politics, aiming instead to use art to encourage a spiritual engagement with the underground forces of which would result in an alchemical conception of enlightenment as a continuous conversion of darkness into light.
“A mass audience that trembles at train wrecks, that is familiar with earthquakes, plague, revolution, war, that is sensitive to the disorderly throes of love, provided these ideas do not come to them by way of costumes and an overreified language which belong to dead ages, ages that will never be brought to life again.”
The explosion of galaxies is violent. A comet falling on Jupiter making seven big holes is violent. The birth of a child is very violent. Someone passing away… it’s immense violence… Life is violent; the circulation of blood, the heart beating, all this is violent. But there are two types of violence: creative and destructive. I am creating art.”
As the alchemists, obsessed with the problem of matter in classically Gnostic terms, sought methods of changing one kind of matter into another (higher, spiritualized) kind of matter, Jodorowsky seeks to create an alchemical arena that operates on the flesh as much as on the spirit.”
What Artaud and Jodorowsky share is an earnest admission of their limitations for political actions as individuals, combined with an insistence on the mutual independence of art and politics.
IF YOU ARE GREAT EL TOPO IS GREAT
If you are great, El Topo is great. If you are limited, El Topo is limited.”
It should be understood as a comment on the state of mind required for the possibility of an alchemical transformation in the viewer whereby instinctual, unconscious thought is rendered serviceable for both psyche and society.