El Topo (1970)

A combination of exploitation film, spaghetti (well, maybe chili con carne given its origins), art film and quest for enlightenment, El Topo is either the greatest movie you’ve ever seen (me) or complete bullshit that seems to go on forever and ever (Becca).

El Topo and his son are traveling the desert when he instructs his son that he is now a man and must bury his first toy and a photo of his mother. The naked child — either symbolizing purity or just a lack of wardrobe budget — rides with our protagonist as he walks through a town that has been decimated.

The black-clad gunfighter finds those responsible and destroys them, including castrating their leader, the Colonel. Rescuing that man’s woman, who he calls Mara, El Topo learns of four gunfighters that cannot be defeated. He abandons his son and goes with her on a quest.

From here on out, it’s a mix of religious and sexual interplay as well as gunfights that grow more and more mystical. There’s also a no legged man riding a no arms having man, a master who can catch bullets in a butterfly net, a dude who can stop bullets with his body, a woman who sounds like birds when she screams, hundreds of dead rabbits, people spontaneously going up in flames and their graves secreting honey and bees, and so much more. Throughout each gun battle, El Topo grows weaker as he must rely on trickery instead of skill. Each win feels more like a loss, particularly as Mara becomes more demanding and grows fonder of the unnamed woman with the voice of a man who has been riding with them.

El Topo visits the sites of each of his four battles and is shot numerous times by the woman as he crosses a bridge. His body is taken by dwarves and mutants as the first part of the film ends. Becca was sure this was the end of the movie and I didn’t have the heart to tell her that there was much, much, much more to come.

Our protagonist has been born again as a Christ-like figure who has meditated for at least 20 years in the caves of an inbred group of mutants. He is now cleaned and shaved as he promises to return them to the light (the mole, who El Topo is named for, constantly claws its way to the sun, but is then blinded). To get there, he and his new bride, a dwarf woman, must beg and be part of a series of skits that take advantage of them, climaxing with them being forced to make love in a room full of the town’s men.

And this town — it’s covered with Illuminati imagery, worships guns, takes slaves and destroys them to the cheers of an adoring crowd. It also feels a lot like America.

Of course, El Topo’s son is now a monk in this town and when he and his bride attempt to marry, he tries to kill his father for leaving him behind. He agrees to spare the old man’s life until he frees his people.

Finally free, the mutated cavepeople run to the town, thinking it is their salvation. Instead, they are massacred and El Topo is shot numerous times. Remembering what he learned from the gun battles, he rises and kills every single one of them. Then, he sets himself on fire (“I kind of figured this would happen sooner or later,” said Becca) as his child is born. His grave also releases honey and bees as his sons and wife ride on into the distance (there was once hope of a Sons of El Topo movie with Marilyn Manson as the star, but it has not happened. There was, however, a comic book, which will be released in the US in December of 2018).

El Topo has inspired legions of fans, from John Lennon (who championed the film and had Allen Klein, manager of The Beatles, buy it and show it nationwide at midnight screenings, then produced the follow-up The Holy Mountain) to David Lynch, Dennis Hopper, Gore Verbinski (citing that debt in his animated film Ringo), Nicolas Winding Refn and Suda 51, whose video game No More Heroes has a similar plot about finding and destroying the best assassins in the world.

A midnight movie staple for years, El Topo disappeared in the 1980’s and 90’s, as Allen Klein would not give up his rights to the film. I searched for years, as Heads Together (a long lost and lamented rental store in Pittsburgh) had the only copy in town, one that was constantly checked out. This was 1994 — nearly pre-internet and not the time when you could easily stream or order and film. It wasn’t until another sadly lost shop, Incredibly Strange, opened in Dormont that I was able to get a copy of the Japanese laser disk release. Since then, I’ve acquired the blu ray of the film, which makes it totally convenient to view at any time.

You can imagine my excitement when the movie was playing a midnight show at Row House, a theater in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood. Before the film, the owners and programmers of the theater sat on stage and apologized for showing it, as they had just learned of the rape scene in the film and that Jodorowsky had claimed in past interviews that it was real (to be fair, he’s also said that it was consensual and that he penetrated her). This scene lasts around 30 seconds or less of screen time and shows no actual sex. I’ve read tons of books on the film and watched it so many times over the years and never really dealt with this controversy myself.

They said that they debated not showing the film — keep in mind before this talk, they did a trivia contest to give away tickets, which is kind of darkly humorous that they would put something that was quite literally trivial before such a big discussion and announcement — then said that they decided to show the film and donate its proceeds to a charity that they literally could not remember the name of. Then, they talked about future movies coming to the theater and couldn’t remember much of next month’s schedules other than Tokyo Tribes, which was described with the world rap more than five times.

At the risk of sounding like an asshole, this whole affair came off as handwringing and hand washing at the same time. If the theater had an issue with this, they should have not shown the film. Upon further research, no one is sure whether or not this scene is an actual rape. In interviews, Jodorowsky has been given to mania, saying things that any normal person would think is insane, such as using his proposed Dune to create a prophet and actual drugs on celluloid. I’m not giving the man a pass in the interest of hero worship (full disclosure, I am a fan of several of his movies), but the actress that played Mara (Mara Lorenzio) supposedly couldn’t be found to be paid and was on LSD for most of the production (this doesn’t suggest consent, just setting up that the film was shot during very different times). She did, however, make an appearance in the documentary Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream where this was not discussed.

I will share that years after making the movie, Jodorowsky felt that he stole of some son’s childhood by making him take part in such a violent film. He flipped the opening of the film and had him dig up the teddy bear and a photo of his mother and told him, “Now you are 8 years old, and you have the right to be a kid”.

I don’t think this absolves him of whatever happened in this film. But the whole incident with the theater has left a bad taste in my mouth. I feel like they should have offered refunds (I wouldn’t take one), but instead by giving proceeds to charity, they took that choice away. They still advertised the movie up until hours before it went on with no mention of this controversy. And I overheard one of the people on stage mention that he’d never seen the film, only having seen The Holy Mountain and was interested to see what it was all about.

Again — I’d have more respect for them if they took an actual stand and didn’t show the film. It just felt like they were absolving themselves of it and almost challenging the audience to witness an actual rape if we wanted to stay and watch it. I realize that we’re evolving and changing as a society and I feel that it’s a great thing. And I can’t really collect my thoughts and properly express them here — I’ve tried — but it just all felt messy. And I guess that’s how these things are. The whole way that the affair was conducted didn’t give me any faith or trust in Row House as a theater, to be perfectly honest.

Sorry for the soapbox, but I had a lot to get off my chest. So what can we learn from this film? Well, “too much perfection is a mistake,” is a good start. I also learned “moderation in everything, even in moderation” from a fortune cookie last week. So there’s that.

I’ve also learned that the more I try and go out and experience film with others, I’m reminded that thanks to blu ray and my high def TV, I often feel a lot better just watching them at home. That’s what dooms most second run and boutique theaters, the apathy, along with the fact that I can spend money on a blu that’s equal to my ticket and get a better experience at home. Theaters should be selling that something extra and giving you more — again, a soapbox and I want to see these places succeed.

PS – The group they claim to have donated to was PAAR, Pennsylvania Action Against Rape. It’s one of the oldest rape crisis centers in the country and a totally worthwhile charity. It’d have felt a lot more genuine and honest if they could have remembered their name and told us something about them then stumbled through a speech that certainly needed nuance and actual notes.

I also understand that men have traditionally been horrible to women and this behavior could certainly have happened. The truth isn’t completely sure here and it’s a very difficult issue to maneuver. I just wanted to call out that I felt it was handled in a ham-fisted way and that there are better ways to handle such topics. I’m not justifying the actions of the filmmaker or the words he’s said (or changed over the years).

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