There has always been an appetite for provocative subject matter in movies. Whether that comes principally from the will of the audience or the will of the creator is a matter of debate. When I say provocative subject matter, I mean anything that intentionally veers from the mainstream path and entices the viewer into challenging territory. These may be classified as B movies, arthouse films, indie films or even exploitation flicks. Whatever. It’s about what’s cool at the moment, man…or woman…or man-woman. Whatever floats your boat really! Countless movies over time have attempted to corral the viewer into a pen of specific tropes and niche styles, e.g. Blaxploitation (Shaft, Super Fly), car-sploitation (Death Race 2000, Race with the Devil), creature features (Jaws, Alligator), Giallo horror (Deep Red, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), revenge fantasies (The Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave) or even Spaghetti Westerns (the ‘Dollars Trilogy’). Some have worked out excellently, others have failed miserably. But regardless of the success, it is about the cult status in the end. I mean look at The Room (2003). It basically re-ignited a genre of film for the Millennials – the ‘so-awful-it’s-hillarious’ genre. How subversive is that? If a high-profile Oscar-nominated film is made about the making of your terrible film (i.e. The Disaster Artist), high fives are due all around I think!
But on a more serious note, and to get back to exploitation movies, there was a time when provocative material was shunned from the populace by the conservative powers that be – the alleged corruption of the mind was being kept out of the mainstream’s gaze. This, even though it was being produced in the bag-fulls. In the 1950s and 60s, films that were perceived as provocative, exploitative, or even just ‘un-Christian’ were not allowed to be shown at all. They were either banned outright or the reels just never even seen the light of God’s creation. But thanks to mavericks like Kenneth Anger who pioneered an underground filmmaking scene in 1950s America, and the rise of popular Hammer Horror films in the UK (which prompted the allowance of an X-rated certificate by the censors), the concept of the ‘Midnight Movie’ was inevitably spawned. It wasn’t until the 1970s, that it literally became a thing in the US, with theatres around the country starting to screen X-rated films late at night.
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo is widely recognised as the first ‘Midnight Movie’. Made in Mexico in 1970, the film was never treated to a full-blown official release. It was instead picked up by the Elgin Theater in New York City who ran it on a late night roster every night for several months throughout 1971. It slowly and steadily earned its status as a cult favourite. John Lennon and Yoko Ono were huge fans and thus convinced the former manager of The Beatles, Allen Klein, to purchase its distribution rights and get it shown around the world. It was, however, never officially released on any home-video or disc format until 2007, when it was then re-released in cinemas throughout Europe and Asia. The reason for it being a ‘Midnight Movie’ are very obvious to anyone who has seen it. It is a highly controversial work and mainly serves out dishes of distasteful and ultra-violent content in the same way that Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange did a year before. Whereas Kubrick’s notorious opus is an obvious lead-in to El Topo in the grand overview of cinema history, Jodorowsky clearly sought more inspiration from the then trending Spaghetti Western genre (obvious parallels can be made to The Wild Bunch and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly). But don’t get me wrong, even as El Topo may be classified as a Spaghetti Western, it is a whole lot fucking more besides.
The film is absolute bonkers in totality. It follows the desert-set journey of a violent but self-reflective gunslinger called ‘El Topo’ (translates as The Mole), who is played with a certain egocentric self-proclamation of his own madcap genius by Jodorowsky. The story is focuses on a man’s overwhelmingly nightmarish sojourn through the worse aspects of the Wild West, or more specifically, the Mexican frontier. El Topo (the man) unforgettably enters the film on horseback dressed ominously in black, his head covered by a dark, woolly beard and a cowboy hat. His young son, who is starkers with the exception of a sun-hat, clings onto his back. The bizarro-world elements come thick and fast beyond this iconic first scene. The journey continues, fused with symbolic imagery from Eastern influences but also from Western movie tropes. Everything is mythical and mystical. But as much it dwells on symbolism, Jodorowsky keeps us under no illusions – he is making a movie to be recognised. He amps up the sex, guts and ‘heads-will-roll’ to eleven! In 1970, I can only imagine how shocking this must have been. Sure, pornographic films existed by then, but this is raw, visceral, many times nasty, and sometimes just shamelessly wrong. But look, it would not compare to anything we see on-screen nowadays (I mean the recent series of Stranger Things has shocking amounts of extreme body horror and it’s a TV show made with a teenage audience in mind!)
El Topo‘s violence and wilful disregard for censorship accounts for all of the justified controversy it received upon its release – some critics questioned its artistic merits, and some enthusiastically fell over themselves about it, while others (like myself when I first watched it) were trying hard to put a finger on its purpose. It gleefully wallows in a circus-like presentation of deformed humans, presenting dwarfs and quadriplegics as freaks, and it also depicts women and other minor characters with a wanton shallowness. But having said that, Jodorowsky does seem to be legitimately and unabashedly presenting the ugliness and depravity of power abuse. Even the titular El Topo himself is no stranger to the depravities. His journey is front and centre and it is his redemption that very much shapes the denouement of the film.
On a whole, at over two hours long, the film is not easy to digest, and is at times very sickening. But it does have a structure that eventually tracks in a rightful direction. The main focus is on El Topo and his son Hijo. Hijo’s role as sidekick to his father’s gun-slinging is effectively sidelined earlier in the film after El Topo saves a woman from slavery to a hideous general and takes her into the desert with him. After several years, Hijo returns as a monk with the blood-thirsty intention to kill his now born-again father. The deaths and massacres all appear very symbolic and deeply intertwined with religious and biblical imagery – monks are humiliated and shot in the head, El Topo is stigmatised, there are immolations, and there are rivers of blood. But the narrative is never straight-forward and there is minimal dialogue so it is hard to figure out where we are most of the time. It would have all seemed so easy in Jodorowsky’s head but because he is a complete nutter, we are left scratching our own quite often.
The story of Mara, the woman El Topo saves from slavery, then rapes and treats awfully, is quite trite. A mysterious women with a man’s voice, and seemingly a spirit (but who knows for sure?), turns up in the desert to seduce Mara. They have some sexy time in an oasis, and eventually ride off together away from El Topo. Good for her I suppose. Then there is the little, and never fully explained, matter of El Topo and his quest to kill four of the greatest gun masters in the whole of the land. Who the hell are these people? Why are they just hanging out in the Mexican desert? Although they are talked up from earlier on, their physical introductions are terribly underwhelming, and the anticipated duels that are set up with El Topo are just long-winded and very dull.
But the real impressive thing about El Topo is its filming and cinematography. Shot across the beautiful deserts and Pueblos of Mexico, the sun and the scenery is truly enveloping. Combined with symbolic and meaningful imagery, it has a great effect on the viewer. I would assume that for a pot-smoking enthusiast, this is the ideal film to oogle at whilst getting high. It is no surprise that Jodorowsky’s inspiration comes from scenery-heavy Westerns that he grew up watching and admiring – particularly Sergio Leone’s and Sam Peckinpah’s films of the 1960s.
Jodorowsky grew up in Chile the son of Jewish-Ukrainian parents, and is an extremely intriguing figure. He used to write poetry and worked in a theatre troupe before getting into film. He made comics and was part of the avant-garde Panic Movement in Paris in the 1960s. The style he would later incorporate into his films was all over the place, almost anarchist. And this was always his intention. It comes to the fore in El Topo, his third feature film, which eventually gave him worldwide recognition as a revered auteur and led to another surrealist western The Holy Mountain in 1973. Apart from the horror Santa Segre in 1989, Jodorowsky never made another film of note, but he did return to the zeitgeist in Frank Pavich’s 2013’s documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which marvelously recounted his failed (and hilariously over-the-top) attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel, Dune, in the mid-70s (eventually achieved by David Lynch but now regarded as a sublime failure). A completely kooky but always terribly interesting person, Jodorowsky has often provoked the wider public with his movies (including his deeply troubling comments on how he filmed the rape scene in El Topo), and he has also become renowned for his spiritual teachings. Notably, he has had a huge influence on many modern-day artists, given the visual imagery explored in El Topo and The Holy Mountain, as well as his work in comics.
El Topo is up there with the most enigmatic films ever made, and rightfully sits as the first true ‘Midnight Movie’.