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El Topo


Other than the computer I don’t spend much time staring into screens.

I’ve never owned a television and haven’t shared a house with one since 1982 – unless you count the brief periods I was couch-surfing at friend’s places. When I’ve seen television programs in doctor’s waiting rooms or in the homes of others I am reminded of the very good reasons I have for not owning one.

It’s been over twenty years since I went to the cinema, though I’ve had several awful movies inflicted upon me during long bus and plane journeys despite doing my best to ignore them.
El Topo 0
But three or four times a year I download a movie or TV series from the internet and watch that. It is almost never anything contemporary – usually an old art house movie I’ve heard of that intrigued me.

I have a particular fondness for horror.

Not suspense or schlock horror that has you gripping your seat and sweating. Proper horror. The stuff that disturbs you profoundly and keeps coming back to unsettle you for years. Usually, to gain such an effect it cannot be completely unrelenting. There must be some exquisite beauty to provide contrast.

So far the most horrible movie I have ever seen is Elem Klimov’s 1985 war movie Idi i Smotri (Come and See) in which a young boy joins a partisan unit and encounters the 15th Einsatzkommando as it goes about its genocidal business in the Byelorussian hinterland. You can read the complete plot in its Wikipedia entry but that will give you little hint of the full horror of this movie. Watch it yourself if yoEl Topo 3u really want to be upset.

A few nights ago I watched the Alejandro Jodorowsky 1970 western El Topo (The Mole) and while it’s not in the league of Idi i Smotri it probably makes the top five horror movies I can remember seeing and is the bleakest western by a long shot.

What is most challenging about El Topo is its visuals.

Its frequent, realistic depictions of violence and massacres would make it disturbing enough but it is Jodorowsky’s use of deformed, mutilated and stunted actors that unnerves you, in much the same way as Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks’ but even more in your face. The use of male voices for two female actors also serves to keep the viewer off balance while the nightmarish ‘El Grande Pueblo’ is a town from the darkest recesses of the mind of Kafka.

The contrasting beauty comes partly from the desert landscape in which it was shot but primarily from the fact that the El Topo 2murderous journey of the eponymous shooter is actually a spiritual journey. The ‘Master Gunmen’ he kills are not only masters of their weapons and their bodies, they are masters of four different mystic traditions. In killing them through trickery El Topo not only commits murder, but sacrilege.

There is plenty of humour throughout the film, albeit very dark, but I don’t think I cracked a smile much less laughed. Almost from the opening frames to the final slaughter I just sat there stunned.

Jodorowsky himself plays El Topo and perhaps the weirdest part of a very weird movie is when he displays his outstanding mime skills while begging from the perverse residents of El Grande Pueblo. Jodorowsky trained with Marcel Marceau and developed several famous routines for him.

Guardian critic Steve Rose has described Jodorowsky’s work as “Sergio Leone, Luis Buñuel, Hieronymus Bosch, and Buddha, with their Kool Aid spiked for good measure”. His symbolism, like his violence and sexuality   El Topo 4, is laid on with a trowel. There is nothing at all subtle about El Topo. But it is very powerful and very unsettling.

For the past few days images from the movie keep coming unbidden into my head and I suspect that will be the case for the rest of my life.

If you’ve got a sick mind and want to make it even sicker I can heartily recommend what John Lennon once claimed was his favourite movie, El Topo.

From → mysticism

One Comment
  1. Horror movies were more like passion for me some time ago….I still find them Interesting than any other genre ! Though I have not seen the movies you mentioned….I guess they would be the time pass for this weekend !


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