Before he became a filmmaker, Alejandro Jodorowsky, worked as a novelist, studied to be a mime and worked in theatre. His work is deeply ingrained in the surrealist art movement, in both aesthetics and ideology. He wanted to make a film adaptation of Dune, starring Orson Welles and Salvador Dali, which would be scored by Pink Floyd. He has enviable cojones.
El Topo’s greatest virtue is its ability to express ideas and theme through imagery. This is also the film’s downfall, as not all the images created have lasting impact… many of them seem and this really removes from some of the film’s stronger commentary on religion, culture and genre. This is perhaps the greatest downfall of surrealist feature filmmaking in general, as often the filmmaker is unable to sustain or maintain the level of adrenaline or shock that is central to the ideology’s spirit. Though some of the randomness is essential to surrealism, it has to work within a kind of dream and nightmare logic.
The film’s opening act, perhaps it’s most memorable and most discussed is also its best. The imagery is fresh, both familiar and foreign. It evokes ideas from classical westerns, the massacres of films, like The Searchers, that happen off screen, and hang over the rest of the film in suggestion rather than in graphic depiction. Similarly, the physical massacre happens before the film begins, we are witness only to the aftermath. Almost more central than the protagonist’s struggle and anger towards this event, is the lasting images of pools of blood. It is like life itself melting away, both disappearing into the sand, and evaporating into the heat. Death surrounds the characters and though contextually the deaths are unnatural, the point remains that death is not only about the earth but the air we breathe.
Double images are central to the surrealist aesthetic ideology. It is not an artistic movement motivated by abstraction in the sense that later expressionism is, but rather the idea of mystery; representative images that have multiple and often conflicted interpretations, that often challenge the conscious mind. Religious imagery within the film operates best under these circumstances, as it takes advantage of spirituality as a channel of the unconscious rather than the conscious mind. That the images of Christianity lie beyond the realms of intellectual understanding; they are constructions the pre-date their maker, images that inspire specific and strong emotions that even non-believers can interpret “appropriately”.
The image of the dead goat strung up like Jesus on the cross for example. It is an unmistakable image of sacrifice and death, but it is ultimately a symbol of vulnerability. It expresses so completely the delicacy of the human body, and therefore the delicacy of human life. The body is exposed, pulled to its limits, the center; the heart, unprotected. The image is twisted, perhaps less as a commentary on Christ itself, but the image of Christ. We have to understand, that so much of our pervading ideologies and cultural/social persuasions are motivated and driven by the power of an image. An image of a swastika probably reveals stronger emotions than a text describing the events of the holocaust. The image is not representative, but it is ingrained. We do not even question its meaning, our feelings, or its form… it is un-attachable from events and suggestions, and we almost fail to see a reason to try to deconstruct its meaning. The image of the goat in place of Jesus, is meant to verbalize the carnality of Jesus’ exposure itself. It is not an asexual image, as disturbing and even blasphemous as that suggestion may be… the very nature of that kind of physicality is sensual on many levels. If we look throughout art history, similar compositions are used in both structures and painting to express ideas and feelings that are confronting and vulnerable. Sexy is not the word I am looking for, but physical. It is all about the physicality of our existence; it’s all about the body.
When El Topo transforms, gaining a kind of new body… this is significant. Though I personally think tonally and aesthetically the film begins to lose ground, narratively it is not only a natural progression of ideas but an essential one. The rejection of the physical strength and appearance of the first body, to a weakened, pale and insignificant one reflects an act of sacrifice and humility. We are ruled by the body, if we weren’t, we would not succumb to sin or evil. If we strip away the beauty or more “extremely” the flesh… then we are only left with the spirit. One has to be willing to sacrifice that in order to achieve any kind of salvation. We have to eliminate the fear of the death of the body in order to find any kind of peace.
Even if revenge is never really revenge, I wish it were a little more interesting. I wish comedy was a little more funny. I wish the film was able to have confidence in the strength of its images, to be less drifting, more to the point. The narrative is strong, if not overblown. Brevity is the language of the soul; brevity would have condensed the power of a single image, and made an interesting film a great one.