Writing about Mulholland Dr. recently, I began with an explication on the film’s wonderful arbitrariness, its cluster of contrarian images and sounds which existed for no reason other than to bemuse and titillate, to enrage and befuddle, and to please David Lynch. I then spent most of the review coming to terms with the fact that my opening paragraph, all praise for Lynch’s film existing for the sake of itself, wasn’t really fair: the director’s 2001 anti-film does nothing simply for the sake of itself, for it had more to say about film as an object of corporate culture and voyeuristic gaze than any film of its decade. It is not an arbitrary film; it is replete with intentional, textured meaning, and it is a masterpiece of commentary on film as object of invention and sociology.
I write this because El Topo is a film of textured meaning that may or may not be intentional, but it is absolutely arbitrary. In fact, arbitrary may be the only thing it is. Symbols and symbols abound, and the sterling cinematography wholly unique to ’70s filmmaking can’t but mean something in itself, but none of the film’s meaning is specific. It seems less a product of director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unquiet attitude than an intensely zealous, eager, limber Pollock-esque paint spewing onto the canvas of our minds. It’s a deeply subterranean film, where every image is only meaningful in the context of our interpretation of it, and where interpretations aren’t so much more or less valid as they are the result of whatever cup of coffee you had that morning.
Admittedly, El Topo is also a rather strange project for a midnight film. Filmed in Mexico and released in 1970 by Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky, El Topo first made its rounds in the seediest parts of the nocturnal, vampiric early New York City international midnight scene before being taken up by forward-thinking critics like Roger Ebert and stumbling its way into a national prestige conversation. From one angle, El Topo is the perfect midnight film: elliptical, willfully odd, challenging, genre-flipping, temperamental, lurid, and filled with blood as thick as human hate. On the surface, the visuals jump out as something dangerously close to satire of Leone, and Leone was all the rage among the types of youthful spirits who would go out of their way to view a film where a black-suited cowboy rides into and out of various locations not so much to kill with intent but simply to show off. This sort of arch critique on genre cinema can’t but signal a midnight classic.
Yet, midnight cinema is almost always at its best and brightest when the audience is being evoked as a communal entity, and this is absolutely not something El Topo has any investment in attempting. For one, its sauntering, placid tone, whereby crimson pops only as an invasion of the film’s normally chilly, wandering tone, doesn’t inspire communal excitement. Secondly, and more importantly, it is a resolutely personal film, a work where symbols don’t inspire cheerful social calls and bold declamations but rather internalized reflection and mindful implosions of the brain. Jodorowsky’s baroque not-quite-musings on Christianity, Buddhism, the Spaghetti Western, sin, storytelling, and the dirtiest, foulest regions of the kitchen sink don’t so much seem pinpoint as “prismatic” (a word Roger Ebert wonderfully uses to describe this film, incidentally), shooting out into the hearts and minds of each viewer and coercing them to layer their own meanings into the artwork.
There is, at some level, a Cinema of Attractions quality to El Topo. We watch because Jodorowsky always has something around every corner that we can only see in the world of cinema. Pertinently, El Topo is heavily invested in making the act of watching about as pleasurable and astoundingly transfixing as humanly possible, not only through placing unexpected, contrarian images on screen, but by placing them on screen lovingly. Jodorowsky clearly adores his images, and each shot seems like a passion project of him falling in love with film over again. His cinematography is beyond comparison, totally at odds with the muddy gruesomeness of so many early ’70s films and given a sort of crystalline clarity and beauty that lets each solitary component of every frame crackle and sizzle. There’s an almost pop art quality to the high-contrast blending of images, with the hugely lateral tans and blues of the omnipresent sand and the lonely horizon invaded by the painterly reds of blood and our protagonist’s charcoal black upright frame. Each image is a fever dream, capturing impenetrable emptiness sitting side by side with populated activity. If you don’t find anything beneath the images, Jodorowsky makes certain they work on their own.
Thus the arbitrary quality of the film. Everything in it seems perfectly placed for Jodorowsky’s purpose, but for the life of me I can’t quite utilize any facet of the word “purpose” without conceding that purpose here implies nothing much more than “to induce meaning in an audience”. I can go on about the double-dealing Christianity of the film, positioning its Man With No Name pastiche hero as a Christ figure in a tactile desert that seems less like a real place than a limbo of the mind. I could go on about how the aimless narrative and highly episodic structure recalls television episodes or dreams and subtly mocks the Leone ethos while also respecting it more than any film since then (there’s an absolutely adoring pastiche of Leone’s famous The Good the Bad and the Ugly standoff where each cut doesn’t so much hit like a ton of bricks as draw attention to the arbitrariness of the editing). I could talk about how the loopy lunatics of the set pieces engulf mythology from around the globe and throw them haphazardly into a Spaghetti Western for the sake of it.
However, none of these intellectual themes are the ethos of the film, for it has no ethos other than “now wouldn’t it be interesting to put this image up on the screen next to this image and see how people react?” That is the point of any film, and too often, you, I, and everyone we know, is guilty of demanding specific intent from the mind of the director. Sometimes the act of placing things on screen for the viewer to create meaning is forgotten, especially when we auteurists feel the need to prod around in the realms of “what was the director thinking when they put this specific image in this specific place on screen?” I don’t suspect Jodorowsky intended each image to correspond to anything in particular, but he knew that each image would provoke meaning in audience members. Sometimes, for all this film’s rambling nature, that’s enough, and few films capture that sense of “just for the sake of it” recklessness quite like El Topo .
Update upon another viewing in 2017:
Is El Topo pointless then? Or rather, is it depoliticized? Or is chaos and ambiguity political and purposeful in an age of order? Simultaneously earthy and beyond the grave, the characters of El Topo do not effuse logic or purpose or even desire, but they do implode with the chaos of uncertainty, of the crushing weight of their totemic status as archetypical figures bounded by unclarifiable laws of desire and need and want they are unable to do anything about. They wander through a mass of centrifugal emptiness, never for or to or from anything; such liberal teloses hold no sway in this anti-rationalist mindspace that reveals, conclusively because of how vague and inconclusive it is, how arbitrary various masculine desires are. Or rather, how a life governed by the compulsion to complete goals is so often defined through the runaway assumptions of capitalist conclusiveness where one finishing line is the starting pace for an even faster act of running in circles. Most Westerns create male spaces of desire, empty and virginal worlds ready to be deflowered by a male character’s conquering, ordering phallic motion through space linking the edits and giving reason to this world. A contrapuntal riposte, there’s nothing to fill up in El Topo, nothing to complete, no oasis of purpose to stretch thinly across the randomness of the world in hopes of masquerading. In this sense, if the film dodges conventional meaning or any normative point, it also explodes the oppressive certainty of a social order which bounds and demarcates meaning to that which can be conventionally construed through only that order’s logic.