915 (56). El Topo (1970, Alejandro Jodorowsky)

screened Saturday February 23 2008 (at 10AM) on Image/Abkco DVD in Weehawken NJ

TSPDT rank # IMDb Wiki

Screening #1: December 2006, IFC Center – opening night premiere of a new digital print restored for the upcoming Abkco/Image Entertainment DVD supervised by Jodorowsky. Yoko Ono scheduled to introduce the film but pulls out for fear of her ex-chauffeur stalking and threatening her. That was about as much excitement as the evening had to offer, as by a third of the way into the film I had nodded off. Despite the heapings of noisy gunfights, sodomy and lesbianism, my brain cells instinctively powered down in reaction to the overbearing presence of what it deemed a gratuitous display of shock cinema. Or perhaps it was the pseudo-philosophical babblings of characters who lulled me into a defensive slumber. When I finally awoke to the sound of an entire village being wiped out mercilessly by a shotgun-toting monk, who then consummated the film in a climax ripped baldly from Vietnam war newsreels, I assured myself that I hadn’t missed much…

Screening #2: 10 a.m., sitting on my bed in a cold tranquil February morning. This time I don’t fall asleep, and what’s more, I’m taken in by the film’s swagger, its audio-visual abundance, the way its execution rendered its conceptual gimmickry into real moments and tactile sensations. In the days and weeks that follow, I try to make my peace with the film.

I compile the webliography as with all my Shooting entries, and in doing so I glean through a wide swath of opinions, high and low, past and present. Through the writings of J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenabum I gain an appreciation of the signifiance of the film in spawning midnight movie culture and the cult of adoration surrounding the film from insomniac headtrippers, as well as the backlash that followed. The film’s attributions being a profound door to transcendental enlightenment for the drug culture of a past era seem to burden its present reputation, as more than one critic dismisses the film as pastiche gibberish – even Hoberman, who tripped with Jodorowsky in Mexico, seems sheepish about extolling the film. But for me, seeing it in the sober daylight, I think it’s an indelible achievement in cinema-as-automatic writing.

What had changed for me between screenings #1 and #2? Could the vagaries of my own viewing state account for the difference? It’s frightening to think, let alone admit how much one’s own tiredness and mood can affect their response, but that’s the human truth of it. Still, I think a movie like El Topo seems particularly susceptible of triggering an unpredictable response – there’s something I still can’t put my finger on.

I keep trying to break the film down into pieces I can understand. I’ve tried my hand at a video essay to elucidate what I feel is the film’s essence, but I have neither the time nor the talent to arrive at anything that, say, a Peter Tscherkassky could do with another film. I’ve settled for something a little more banal and perhaps cowardly for a video essay – asking other viewers for their opinion…

Screening #3: Midnight screening in NYC. In trying to defer to others under the pretense of understanding the “midnight movie” phenomenon, I stand outside the theater lobby and interview patrons. I even observe people’s reactions during the screenings to gauge what they laugh and gasp at. (Why would anyone laugh at a line of peasants being arbitrarily executed?) I don’t find much of a connection with what others are saying and what’s going on in my head, but how could I expect to when all that connects us is a film that is open to any variety of responses? All I’m really left with is my own response to contend with.

Still my opinion is one somewhat founded upon reaction to others. On many levels it’s a film that’s easy to ridicule, perhaps too easy: its flagrant borrowing of Biblical and mythical tropes, its misogyny, its P.T. Barnumesque exhibitionism of human freaks and gross-out effects all feels obvious. But something about this blatantness is what is behind the brilliance of the film, that it does function on multiple levels – the obvious and the sublime. There’s a certain frequency the film attains at points that feels singularly uncanny and just right if you happened to be tuned in. It’s chiefly in the insistence of the montage, how it keeps bombarding you with images, cuts, flashes, each scene proclaiming “let there be…” with sanctimonious bombast. It’s pretentious, yes, and it may amount to nothing in terms of meaning, but as a flow of imagery, its sensuality is insistent until it becomes indelible.

I arrive at this – a film’s worth is ultimately in whether it lives and breathes in your presence. I can’t deny that El Topo is a living film. Even in its ample depictions of violent, bloody death, it oozes with life.

Want to go deeper?

By far the most valuable resource on the web concerning El Topo can be found on Subterranean Cinema, a delightfully eccentric and bountiful resource for rare and underground media. The site offers a full transcript of the film’s script and a lengthy interview with Jodorowsky, both originally found in the out-of-print El Topo: A Book of the Film. The site also has mp3s of both the Apple soundtrack and recordings for the film by the group Shades of Joy, as well as audio sounclips from the film.

Full synopsis provided by Abkco Films

Jeff Werner pays tribute to the four masters who face El Topo in the first half of the film, with screen shots and complete dialogues spoken by the masters.

View the original trailer:


Ben Barenholtz, the owner of the Elgin, first saw El Topo at a private screening at the Museum of Modern Art. “Half the audience walked out, but I was fascinated by it,” he recalls. “I thought it was a film of its time.” Barenholtz knew his audience. He figured that the midnight showings during the week – 1:00 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays – would attract hipsters, encourage a sense of “personal discovery,” and stimulate word of mouth. On all three counts, his instincts were sensationally correct. El Topo premiered on the night of December 18, 1970, and ran continuously, seven nights a week, through the end of June 1971. There was practically no advertising, not even a poster, aside from an usher’s crudely drawn sign outside the theater – and for most of the run, no mention of the film in the daily press… El Topo was doing turnaway business and virtually subsidizing the entire theater. “Within two months, the limos lined up every night.” Barenhotz remembers. “It became a must-see item.”

– from Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman, Midnight Movies, Da Capo Press, 1983

By 1971, the counterculture had lost the euphoria of the late sixties and was beginning to experience a dissolution into the sullen privatism of the 1970s. In this light, the messianic revenge fantasy that El Topo offered was a complex one – directed against both an evil social order and a faltering spiritual authority.

– Rosenbaum and Hoberman, Midnight Movies, pp. 98-99

Repeat the mantra “far fucking out” all you like but to fully appreciate the thing that is El Topo you’d have to have been there 36 years ago, in the wee hours of the morning, stoned out of your gourd, in a run-down theater on lower Eighth Avenue. Even then, I assure you, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s magnum opus was less kabbalah than cowabunga—albeit a triumph for theater owner Ben Barenholtz.

It was Barenholtz who spotted Jodorowsky’s Mexican whatsit at the Museum of Modern Art in late 1970 and booked the film for midnights (1 a.m. on weekends) because, as the single ad in the Voice put it, it was “too heavy to be shown any other way.” Unlike midnight movies before or since, El Topo played seven nights a week. Its astonishing word-of-mouth success was dependent on a demographic of hippie-boho druggies with cheap rents and no cause to wake up early for work. People like me…

El Topo
photo: courtesy Abkco

Although I vastly preferred Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns to Jodorowsky’s peyote variant, I saw El Topo twice—was this movie really as stupefying as it seemed? (Those were the days of acid fascism.) Indeed, El Topo was still packing them in when the film was bought that summer by John Lennon’s manager and yanked in advance of a full-scale Broadway opening, where it flopped. Big-time.

J. Hoberman, The Village Voice

During its months of mid-night screenings at the Elgin, Alexandro Jodorowsky’s “El Topo” became a secret rite of some importance in New York City. It won what not even the most fashionable success at the East Side art houses has won, genuine followers who depended not on advertising and not, God knows, on influential critical opinion, but on their own needs and their own unaided enthusiasms. Those followers—I’m not sure I’d want to call them just an audience—have also earned a modicum of fame. And some of them, the kids in capes and wide-brimmed hats, the “El Topo” freaks, re-materialized the other night for a sneak preview at the Forum where, yesterday, their movie began its long-awaited full-scale commercial run.

With its circular patterns of change, with its black-suited, black-haired hero who dies halfway through and is reborn underground, a blond man in white loincloth, with its main events in large part derived from the Bible and its image of man as his own self-sacrifice, “El Topo” resembles not so much a well-made fiction as a prophetic book.

It is also full of tests and riddles, and in looking for a fancy comparison, Borges, like Blake, comes too easily to mind. One admiring reviewer calls it, disarmingly, “a work of incomprehensible depth.” But it is more nearly a work of incomprehensible breadth, and I am not persuaded that Jodorowsky, any more than the rest of us, altogether knows what he is about.

He has made his film a Western of sorts and he has put in more phony gore than maybe 20 years of “The Wild Bunch.” Critics have complained that the gore looks unreal, though disgusting. But surely the unreality is its point. It is a part of the self parody that controls the style of “El Topo”—to the end that the idea of castration or immolation or decomposition, or whatever horror you will, looms larger than the fact (but not the feeling) and thus supports the essentially intellectual ambitions of the film.

Roger Greenspun, The New York Times, November 5, 1971

For all the furor El Topo is neither a cathartic masterpiece, as its disciples believe, nor a con job, and Jodorowsky is neither messiah nor mountebank. There are scenes of brilliance in El Topo, followed by sequences of unwieldy pretension. The film is by turns comic and profound, hysterical and pompous, fully complex enough to deserve more than a simple yea or nay.

Cluttered almost to the point of chaos, El Topo often flounders in a deluge of religious and pseudoreligious symbolism, of parables, epigrams and jokes. There are plentiful stylistic reminders of other film makers, notably Bunuel, Welles and Sergio Leone. One of the film’s more vigorous fans wrote that Jodorowsky’s library has “thousands of volumes covering every imaginable subject.” El Topo almost appears to contain at least a fragment from each, so that it has the look at times of a richly illustrated concordance. But many of the references —like much of the symbolism—are never assimilated, which only serves to make the film forbidding and unwieldy.

Jodorowsky’s is perhaps a prodigious, certainly a prodigal talent. What is most bothersome is not his chaotic cosmology but his coldness. He is so obsessed with allegorical meaning that El Topo misses any kind of full human resonance. It is instead a vivid if ultimately passionless passion play.

Jay Cocks, Time, June 28 1971

The movie may seem bewildering, however, because the narrative is overlaid with a clutter of symbols and ideas. Jodorowsky employs anything that can give the audience a charge, even if the charges are drawn from different systems of thought that are — *as thought* — incompatible…. Well, of course, you don’t need erudition to draw on matters religious and philosophical that way — any dabbler can do it. All you need is a theatrical instinct and a talent for (a word I once promised myself never to use) frisson. Jodorowsky is… a director for whom ideas are sensuous entities — sensuous toys, really, to be played with. By piling onto the Western man-with-no-name righteous-avenger form elements from Eastern fables, Catholic symbolism, and so on, Jodorowsky achieves a kind of comic-strip mythology. And when you play with ideas this way, promiscuously — with thoughts and enigmas and with symbols of human suffering — the resonances get so thick and confused that the game may seem not just theatre but labyrinthine, ‘deep’: a masterpiece.

Pauline Kael, quoted from this El Topo fansite

He’s an exploitation filmmaker, but he glazes everything with a useful piety. It’s the violence plus the unctuous prophetic tone that makes El Topo a heavy trip… Jodorowsky has come up with something new: exploitation filmmaking joined to sentimentality – the sentimentality of the counter-culture.

– Kael, quoted in Midnight Movies p. 97

In my review when the movie opened, I wrote: “Jodorowsky lifts his symbols and mythologies from everywhere: Christianity, Zen, discount-store black magic, you name it. 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, prismatic way, casting their light on each other instead of on the film’s conclusion. The effect resembles Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land,’ and especially Eliot’s notion of shoring up fragments of mythology against the ruins of the post-Christian era.”

I still agree with that and do not think the symbols add up to a conclusion. But now having seen more of Jodorowsky’s work, I think Jodorowsky’s method is not without a purpose. What is El Topo seeking in the desert? Why, he is seeking symbols, images, bizarre people and events, with which to fill the film. The ceaseless shocking images on the screen, are what made “El ‘Topo” an underground hit in one New York theater for months in 1970. Not the story, not the performances, not the stars (Jodorowsky himself plays El Topo and the child is his own son). The images. John Lennon and Yoko Ono saw it, loved it, and convinced Beatles manager Allen Klein to buy and release it. The film went on to play all over the world and engender countless interpretations. Jodorowsky encourages such speculation by titling sections of the film after books of the Bible (“Psalms”), and making El Topo perhaps a Christ figure…

Reviews of “El Topo” tend to be infuriating because their authors, myself included, fail to make coherent sense of the film and are reduced to laundry lists of its ingredients. “These quests,” I wrote in my original review, “supply most of the film’s generous supply of killings, tortures, disembowelments, hangings, boilings, genocides, and so on.” Evocative but scarcely helpful. The film exists as an unforgettable experience, but not as a comprehensible one.

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1970 midnight cult hit from Mexico, which made quite a few waves in its time, is an extravagant hodgepodge of hand-me-down surrealism, mysticism, Italian westerns, theater of cruelty, and Buñuel–more enjoyable for its unending string of outrages than for its capacity to make coherent sense… This was the first genuine midnight-movie hit, and if you’re looking for pure sensation with intimations of pseudoprofundity, this is the place to go.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader

It is certainly the case that [Jodorowsky’s] vision is self-centered and inwardly focused, leaving no place for the collective exploration of consciousness that is at the heart of surrealism. He has no political or social awareness other than what emerges from a personal, messianic quest for an ill-defined justice, and there is a complete absence of dialectical tension in his work, which simply follows a trajectory of personal transcendence and growth… Jodorowsky’s engagement with the world is eclectic and self-satisfied, rather than rigorous and questioning. Within the framework of what he sets up, too much remains unexplored for us to be entirely satisfied with his films.

El Topo most particularly resembles Glauber Rocha’s 1968 film Antonio das Mortes, of which it seems almost to be a narcissistic re-telling, with all of the gutsand content of the original taken out. Rocha’s film was also overly eclectic in the elements it cast into its brew, but it did have a firm grounding in Brazilian folk traditions that provided it with a framework which is entirely lacking in El Topo.

Michael Richardson, Surrealism and Cinema, Berg, 2006.

With its druggy wanderings and inscrutable reveries, El Topo would be part of the revolutionary, post-’60s movement of Glauber Rocha’s Antonio das Mortes and Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie if its private mythology didn’t belong so obviously to its maker’s acid subconscious. “I am God,” El Topo at one point intones, and Jodorowsky completely means it: Playing deity in front of and behind the camera, the director uses film as a direct pipe into his own mind, and the bursting valise of ideas, images, and sounds that results is a veritable blur of ridiculous and sublime (and ridiculous-sublime) moments that defy ordinary readings while inviting (demanding, really) audience involvement via active interpretation. Whether one takes it as a staggeringly visionary work or a sadistic circus procession making an opportunistic grab for every artistic base (Buñuel and Zen, Eisenstein and pantomime, Antonin Artaud and Russ Meyer), there is no denying the immersive being of the film. Scarcely less than 2001, El Topo is designed to exist as much on the big screen as within the mind of the viewer, where it can live or die according to whether it connects personally. It is no accident that the hero’s trajectory, mirroring the viewer’s, leads equally to enlightenment and to the apocalypse.

Fernando F. Croce, Slant

The pseudoreligious plot—Jodorowsky himself plays a mysterious black-clad horseman who rides into the desert with the frequently nude Mara (Lorenzio) to kill several “masters” and thus be redeemed—was a subject of much half-baked dispute in its day. Don’t waste your time with that. El Topo will always be about its torrents of vibrant red movie blood, its sapphic clinch between two scratch-happy wild women, its climactic rampage of freaks and lepers. The movie’s lure is sensual and unflagging; that’s what makes it, for all its arty absurdity, the last great movie of the 1960s. Does none of this interest you? Poor thing.

Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York

If you’re stone cold sober, it comes out a charmingly slapdash assemblage of mostly extraordinary – though sometimes idiotic – images and setpieces, culled seemingly indiscriminately from the planet’s more lurid myth systems: Christian, pagan, pre-Columbian, you name it. There is a tenous narrative logic – in which Jodorowsky himself, dressed in cowboy black, must gun down four desert-dwelling killers – which gives the film a measure of watchability. But it’s hardly deep.

Andrew Pulver, The Guardian

Depending on our individual knowledges, a film can be many things to many people – although, granted the 30-year long battle over the distribution rights with Beatles manager Allen Klein, El Topo has tended to be many things to not so many people. To reduce this film to any one particular path or trajectory would negate both the ambition and the intentions of Alejandro Jodorowsky, Chilean actor, director, writer, mime, poet and psychomagician. He wrote, directed and starred in a magpie film, drawing on genres of film and systems of thought which are seemingly incompatible. Stepping back from the immediacy of these structures, Jodorowsky incorporated them all into a heroic depiction of what film can do.

Perhaps that is what constitutes the danger of this film. It is not the staged brutality, the violence or other transgressions apparent in this film. Nor is it the misogyny or the violence against animals. The maiming and murdering of inbred cripples is not the taboo in this film. These are all things that elicit laughter from the midnight audiences – that turn the film into satire or comedy. What made El Topo subversive enough to be deemed illegal in several countries was precisely the confusion between genres and modes of thinking, the incomplete allusions to allegory and myth, the heteroglot centres, the inclusion of the marginalised. The patchwork of El Topo does not merely consist of parts of old maps sewn together, it is a new form of geography.

Sarah Snider, Culture Wars

Jodorowsky’s spectacle is at times little more than an incoherent parade of religious ideas and spiritual salves torn from one religious context after another. Like much of the cultural fodder smoked by 60s hippies, and the fabu soulfads marketed by today’s nouveau-granola gurus, the film suffers from existential dilettantism: To use Jodorowsky’s language, it wants to bed every religion, every godhead and divinity, without committing to any.

Tirdad Derakhshani, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Now it’s true that Jodorowsky is tough on women. Some would even argue that he’s a clear-cut misogynist who views the female as festering and wicked, only capable of tricking men and then using their failing feminine wiles throughout the rest of their sad, sexually repressed life. But for every act of abuse, for every slap in the face, or tableau where overweight grandmothers draped in lingerie strut and fret like fools, we have characters who try to countermand that image. The dwarf girl, who helps El Topo after he is mortally wounded and left for dead, represents the one area that Jodorowsky tends not to mock—the maternal instinct of a caring woman. Throughout the second act of the film, when our hero goes from sinner to savior, desperate and willing to do anything to build that tunnel, the little lady by his side is grace and giving personified. Jodorowsky was obviously influenced by Fellini and his Satyricon-era style. Human oddities, disfigured and disturbing in their limbless, twisted deformities, are prevalent in the director’s work and, if you were to ask him why, he’d probably say, “They are interesting to look at, no?” In fact, a great deal of what he does as a filmmaker exists solely because it looks good locked in a timeless frame of celluloid.

Bill Gibron, DVD Verdict

EL TOPO is essentially three films in one: a bloody revenge story, a mystical journey in search of life’s answers, and a tale of redemption in the face of a repulsive society and a damaged family member. On first viewing, it may be a tough film to warm up to. The first 30 minutes introduce a visually stunning and brutally violent western, but this facade is quickly ripped off to expose a spiritual core with layers more beautifully revealed in repeat viewings.

Casey Scott, DVD Drive-in

It really bogs itself down and takes an almost Tarkovsky approach, as in, “Look at this landscape. Isn’t it important? LOOK AT IT!! LOOK AT IT SOME MORE! THIS IS IMPORTANT, GODDAMMIT!” Not that I have anything against (what I’ve seen of) Tarkovsky, just saying the with Jodorowsky, it doesn’t work so well. “Yes, yes, I’m looking at a desert. Yes, the boy just threw his mother’s picture away. Yes, how moving. Oh, there’s the picture again.”


Other reviews:

Jeffrey Anderson, Combustible Celluloid: ‘The effect is almost like that of a child, making up a story as he goes along, letting his imagination carry it and logic be damned.”

Anton Bitel, Eye for Film: “There are now many movies with more sensational thrills and more hallucinatory effects, but few could claim to have as many ideas.”

Stephen Thomson, Electric Sheep: “Presenting the film as either chin-scratchingly intellectual or trashily sensational misses the point of a very personal vision that marks no such distinction.”

Neil Smith, BBC Movies: “Without the aid of mind-expanding narcotics though, El Topo can’t help looking laughably ramshackle, the combination of bad dubbing, shoddy camerawork and over-the-top performances making it pretty much unwatchable by modern standards.”

Digital Retribution: “It’s boring, reaches a sort of satisfactory climax about half-way through before lumbering and lurching to the end, having already made its point and moreso, never achieves more than a ponderous pace and is pretty much the ultimate triumph of style over substance.”

Jeremiah Kipp for Flipside Movie Emporium: “Each image, while clearly showing the lack of a substantial budget, retains a strong impact because of the startling attention to detail and composition, the resonance of Jodorowsky’s world, which feels fully realized through in its evasiveness.”

Pablo Vargas, The Spinning Image: “An unsuccessful dream movie is that in which its logic lays on unjustified excesses and disregard for an audience.”

Claire Veryard, Britfilms: “As for entertainment value, imagine combining the weirdest bits of ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’, ‘Shogun Assassin’, ‘The Ten Commandments’, ‘League of Gentlemen’ (on TV) and ‘Easy Rider’.”

Fatally Yours: “If you are in for a movie that is gonna put you to the test, challenge all that you know and empower you in the process, then check out El Topo.”

Bob Freville, Get Underground: “In parts “El Topo” can be difficult, frustrating, confusing and even hard to believe —much like the religion it is concerned with— and some might be too prudish to look beyond its more challenging and polemical points, but taken as a whole, Jodorowsky’s messianic epic reveals itself as one of the most startling and brazen achievements in modern cinema.”

Ian Jane, DVD Maniacs: “Filled with surreal religious imagery, violent symbolism, and shocking metaphors, the film leaves both everything and nothing to your imagination with stunning cinematography, and stirring locations.”

Troy Howarth, DVD Maniacs: “While it’s easy to understand the appeal he holds over some viewers, for me Jodorowsky’s work has no more emotional impact or resonance than the average freak show – it can provide some morbid fascination as it unfolds, but ultimately it lacks ‘soul.'”

Steve Biodrowski, Hollywood Gothique: “EL TOPO emerges as the cult movie equivalent of alleged classics like BIRTH OF A NATION; that is, it is a film you are supposed to see because of its historic significance, whether or not it stands up as a piece of entertainment.”

Appreciating Great Trash: “While the lunacy in Fando y Lis managed to strike buried psychological notes, this film comes off as the worst kind of abstruseness, a series of events so disconnected from anything that they devolve into a babbling montage of sounds and images.”

Kevin Wilson, Thirty Frames a Second: “His political insights aren’t that interesting in themselves, but the way he frames them are, even if they’re usually soaked in copious amounts of blood.”

Beta Particle: “Jodorowsky put Clint Eastwood to shame (with his watered down spaghetti westerns).”

Jim Hemphill: “The network of visual and literary motifs is so elaborate that at times it’s impenetrable, but the movie’s style is always pleasing to the eye.”

Roy Frumkes, Films in Review: “Its excessive art direction, camera angles, sound effects, music, dialogue, violence, gore, unabashed nudity and sexuality, comprise a sensational trip with absolutely no acid necessary.”

Alan Simpson, Sex Gore Mutants: “Jodorowsky has saturated his work with all sorts of stuff to tease your brain juices but it’s not for me or any other so called critic to tell you what to read into a film, that’s for you to form your own opinion yourself?”

Reviews of the Image/Abkco Jodorowsky Box Sets:

DVD Beaver reviews the Image/Abcko box set as well as comparisons with the Tartan Region 2 and Anchor Bay Region 1.

DVD VerdictDVD Savant

DVD Times

About Alejandro Jodorowsky

Wiki IMDb

Quotes found on Jodorowsky’s profile on They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?

“Filmmaking for him is only one means of exploration: he has also directed avant-garde theater and written plays and books, as well as numerous comic scripts for the French artists Moebius. With merely seven films under his belt, three of which are first-rate cult classics, he has left an indelible mark on world cinema… Spiritual themes are embodied in often shocking imagery of blood, nudity, skinned and gutted animals, real cripples, and psychiatric patients.” – Dejan Ognjanovic (501 Movie Directors, 2007)

“Alejandro Jodorowsky became, for a brief moment in 1970-71, the darling of the New York countercultural cognoscenti with El Topo. He wrote, directed, scored and starred in the movie, which is equal parts Sergio Leone-style Western, grisly biblical rewrite and Federico Felliniesque freak show.” – Jessica Winter (The Rough Guide to Film, 2007)

“Born in 1929 in Chile to Russian-Jewish immigrants who owned a dry-goods store, Alejandro Jodorowsky seems an unlikely candidate to become one of the godfathers of the American midnight-movie scene. But essentially every turn in his career has been unlikely, a career that has found Jodorowsky taking on the roles of director, screenwriter, author, actor, cartoonist, editor, artist, composer, mime, guru, mystic, and tireless self-promoter.” – Keith Phipps (All Movie Guide)

“Most directors make films with their eyes; I make films with my testicles.” – Alejandro Jodorowsky

Video Interview with Alejandro Jodorowsky at TimesSquare.com

Although beyond the scope of this profile, Jodorowsky’s work is deserving of further study within the context of Third Cinema, surrealism, magical realism and post-colonial studies. As is the case with many cult/counterculture/underground films, his works have been treated as the foreign/exotic and indefinable “Other” of both commercial and art cinema. While filmmakers of the same era – such as Glauber Rocha, whose Antonio das Mortes (1969) was praised by Jodorowsky and could be seen as an influence on El Topo – were championed by critics, others have remained largely neglected by generations of cultural tastemakers. The truly transgressive and politically viable qualities of Jodorowsky’s films have been contained as carnivalesque and exploitative curiosities, almost dismissively relegated to midnight movie circuits and cult film catalogues. Only by re-evaluating these films both within and beyond their place in the cult tradition can we see them as a cohesive body of work evoking a continual spiritual journey and a sustained challenge to the political/religious climate of the Americas.

– David Church, from his impressive biography for Senses of Cinema Great Directors

Jodorowsky shows us the dark side of humanity because he realizes that in order to truly face and appreciate the light, we have to muck about in the dark, repugnant side of life. And visually, there are few filmmakers today who would have the sheer guts, much less ability, to get away with the antics that his movies employ. Blood, gore, sex, nudity, these are all but colors in his palette and those are but the basics.

Todd Konrad, Independent Film Quarterly

I was living in my intellect, a lot of the years. And then I…I…I…I realize my limits. I have all kind of limits. My family give me limits. My society give me limits. The world, the language, the Spanish language give me limits. And then I start to work in order to broke the rational limits. Lucid dreams, some experience with gurus, masters, brouhas, searching, meditation, sometimes I…TWICE I take LSD, TWICE I take mushrooms, with masters, um, Indian masters, Mexican. Et cetera. And then, in the moment, the walls of the reason went down. I broke the limits. I make a bridge between the conscious and unconscious. For me now, they go together, the two. Now. And then the unconscious is not any more my enemy. It is my ally – my unconscious. And when I need to have something, I put, I ask it, no? I want to have an idea [gestures like planting a seed], I put there, and the open flower, alone. I don’t make effort.

Jodorowsky, from interview with Sam Mcabee & Forestter Cobalt, 5MTL.com

On the “El Topo” commentary, Jodorowsky says he was influenced by the intellectualism of Jean-Luc Godard, but “Godard has one testicle. I have three. Those three are intellect, emotion and libido.” These comments by the now 75-year-old filmmaker are essentially less provocative updates of such past oft-quoted Jodorowsky declamations as “I ask of film what most North Americans ask of psychedelic drugs”; “I don’t live in France, I live in myself”; “If you are great, ‘El Topo’ is a great picture; if you are limited, ‘El Topo’ is limited’; and “Most directors make films with their eyes; I make films with my cojones.”

The Bloodshot Eye blog

Improbably, he and I were both present at an underground- cartoonist nerdfest in the spring of 1971; even less likely, I stumbled upon him two days later browsing in a midtown bookstore. I volunteered the information that I was soon going to Mexico (where I planned to stay for as long as I could make $500 last). “Incredible! You must look me up!” Where, I wondered? “Do not worry—everybody knows me there!”

Indeed, when I asked the student residents of my Mexico City flop they were incredulous: “You know the Maestro!” I journeyed to the depths of Chapultepec Park, where Jodorowsky was staging his psychedelic version of Alice in Wonderland. Maybe not so thrilled to find (hey, remember) me and two traveling companions (oh, hello), the expansive Maestro did a good job concealing it. What, he wondered, did we want to do? Did we want to eat, to drink, to fuck? Uh, dinner sounds cool. Jodorowsky and his wife—a frizzy-haired chick who was pure St. Marks Place—took us out. Table conversation was surreal. I was reading Impressions of Africa. “You know Raymond Roussel?” Jodorowsky bellowed. “How do you know of him? He is fantastic! Incredible!” As if on cue, the clean-cut group of American kids at an adjacent table leaped to their feet and burst into “Up With People!”

I’d never met a famous person before and I’ve never met one since who (with the possible exception of Susan Sontag) took such obvious pleasure in being their very own self. An amiable host, Jodorowsky plied us with toritos and showed off some Danish porn (snatching it nervously back when we began to riff on it in public). Outside, he paused to relieve himself against a parked car. “Look, he has made three streams,” Mrs. J remarked proudly as we staggered toward a disco named Paz y Amor. The evening provided material for three months of stoned impersonations: “Three streams! I . . . am . . . the Maker of the Topo!”

– J. Hoberman, The Village Voice

Jodorowsky’s most audacious project never came to be. He assembled an extraordinary cast and crew to adapt Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic, Dune. “I had Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson, David Carradine, Alain Delon, Udo Kier, Salvador Dali and in the lead, my son Brontis. Each planet was designed by a different artist: H.R. Geiger, Moebius, and Dan O’Bannon (screenwriter of Alien (1979)) would create the special effects, while Pink Floyd would compose the score.” His Hollywood backers, wary of the sheer scale of the project, pulled out. “I was in misery”, admits Jodorowsky. “One day I’ll publish the shooting script. Three thousand drawings.” And his take on DAVID LYNCH’s Dune (1984)? “DAVID LYNCH is a true artist, but the movie is very bad. It’s not his fault, but the producer’s (Dino DeLaurentiis). He put an artist in an industrial situation. Bergman had the same problem. All the great directors who worked with DeLaurentiis made their worst pictures.”

– Andrew Pragasam, Film Exposed

After the Cannes premiere of “Santa Sangre,” I asked him why “El Topo” had been out of circulation. He blamed Allen Klein, the man who had put the film in circulation in the first place.

“He’s awaiting my death,” Jodorowsky said. “He believes he can make more money from the film after I am dead. He says my film is like wine — it grows better with age. He is waiting like a vulture for me to die.”

He elaborated: “For 15 years, I’ve tried to talk to him by telephone, and he’s always busy. He eats the smoking meat. Smoking meat … you know? From the delicatessen?”

Smoked meat?

“Yes. When I call him by telephone they say to me he’s eating the smoking meat. I cannot speak with him because he is eating the smoking meat. He’s eating for 15 years the smoking meat.”

Roger Ebert

Two years ago Jodorowsky learned that the El Topo negative had been discovered in a laboratory in Mexico. His first thought was to call Klein’s bluff and release it off his own back. Finally he decided to contact his old enemy and the pair agreed to meet in London. “For 30 years I hate him and he hate me,” he recalls. “I thought I should take a weapon in case he wants to kill me. Then the hotel door opened and there was this little old man with white hair, just like mine. He said, ‘You are not a monster. You are beautiful’. And the whole thing, all that hate, was finished in 10 seconds.”

– Interviewed by Xan Brooks, The Guardian

You’re 77 now. How are you coping with growing older?

It’s fantastic! I like it a lot. I don’t want to change myself. If you said, Do you want to be 40 years old [again] and I would say, maybe my body, but not my mind. It’s a nightmare, a social nightmare to get old – to get Parkinson’s, to become an idiot, but every day the brain is making new connections and is developing, like the universe. Your soul is getting better and better because you are losing what is not necessary. It’s fantastic to get old! It’s an incredible feeling of freedom, incredible!

Now, for example, to make love, sometimes I have erectile problems. Sometimes it’s not so easy. But it’s not [a problem] because I can use my hands, I can caress – you can satisfy a woman in an incredible way, as the lesbians do it! What is the problem? Even at 80 years old, you don’t have sexual problems! [Laughter]

– Interviewed by Mark Pilkington, The Fortean Times

Other interviews:

Again, the lengthy interview with Jodorowsky originally published in El Topo: The Book of the Film can be found on Subterranean Cinema.


Author: alsolikelife

This is my pet project

  • http://thehangedman.blogspot.com/ John Hanlon

    An excellent and definitive resource for El Topo. I’m glad to see the film is getting its due and considered one of the thousand films people should see. For several decades, what one knew of it was inspired by the backlash; glad to see its reputation is slowly being revised, though I don’t think there will ever be a consensus. It’s too polarizing a film.

    Jodorowsky has been criticized for the mishmosh of religious, occult and esoteric traditions represented, notably by Danny Peary in Cult Movies. But in this he was ahead of his time, anticipating late post-modernism. However, his references were to religious imagery rather than pop culture references. I suppose most critics are more comfortable with (or at least understand) pop culture rather than spirituality.

    Again, great job.

  • http://dearjesus.wordpress.com Whitney

    I loved this essay. I’ve never thought of the film as “cinema-as-automatic writing,” sort of like the visual representation of stream-of-conscious. I’ve only seen this film once, but I think your final statements about the film living and breathing are so fantastic. I agree that El Topo is a living film, and that way of judging a film (or any creation, I guess) is making me think about other movies that have lived and breathed. Very cool.

  • alsolikelife

    Thanks to both of you for your comments – I really appreciate them. John I’m afraid you are right – I had to remove a lot of the filters that I had picked up from word-of-mouth and pieces I had read here and there, and just come to the film fresh. Actually with many of the films I’ve watched for my project I’ve had to “unlearn” some of my biases in order to appreciate where each film is coming from. It’s certainly broadened my tastes in film, though one thing I worry about is whether my own nascent sensibilities (which are part of what I think make me unique as a viewer/thinker) are being eroded…

    Thanks Whitney – I just wish I could articulate this idea of a film that lives and breathes — to be honest it may be an idea I’ve picked up from some Serge Daney article from way back, it sounds like something he would say. In any case if I could write about this idea the way Daney could, that would be something…

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    I agree that El Topo is a living film, and that way of judging a film (or any creation, I guess) is making me think about other movies that have lived and breathed. Very cool.

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