A movie review revisited by Griselda Steiner of a film by Alejandro Jodorowsky
With Frank Pavich’s movie, Jodorowsky’s Dune, about to open at Film Forum in New York, and the article in the New York Times Magazine of March 14 titled “The Psychomagical Realism of Alejandro Jodorowsky” discussing Jodorowsky’s first new film in 23 years, The Dance of Reality, John Lobell decided to ask Griselda Steiner to revisit her review of Jodorowsky’s 1970 cult classic, El Topo. But first a note on Jodorowsky’s Dune from Wikipedia:
Jodorowsky’s Dune is a 2013 American documentary film directed by Frank Pavich. The film explores Chilean-French director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempt to adapt and film Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel Dune in the mid-1970s.
In 1973, film producer Arthur P. Jacobs optioned the film rights to Dune but died before a film could be developed. The option was then taken over two years later by director Alejandro Jodorowsky, who proceeded to approach, among others, Peter Gabriel, the prog rock groups Pink Floyd and Magma for some of the music, artists H. R. Giger and Jean Giraud for set and character design, Dan O’Bannon for special effects, and Salvador Dalí, Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson, David Carradine and others for the cast.
Frank Herbert traveled to Europe in 1976 to find that $2 million of the $9.5 million budget had already been spent in pre-production, and that Jodorowsky’s script would result in a 14-hour movie (“It was the size of a phonebook”, Herbert later recalled). Jodorowsky took creative liberties with the source material, but Herbert said that he and Jodorowsky had an amicable relationship. The project ultimately stalled for financial reasons.
[Note: Steiner’s current comments are in italics, and her material from 1970 is in plain text.]
When I was in my twenties in the early 1970s, El Topo was making the rounds of underground theatres in New York City in midnight screenings to fans already in awe of the great European film auteurs—Goddard, Antonioni, Fellini and Truffaut. El Topo, an art film that Alejandro Jodorowsky directed and shot in the Mexican desert, was fashioned on the Spaghetti Western with its gun slinging hero, played by Jodorowsky, out to find spiritual enlightenment rather than outlaw justice.
This reexamination of the film is based on a review I wrote in 1970 that was published on Scene4 International Arts Magazine online in February 2009. The film, now considered a classic and still being shown in IFC, NYC Late-Night screenings is available in a DVD set box by Anchor Bay Films that includes Jodorowsky’s films “The Holy Mountain”, “Fando Y Lis” and “La Cravate” as well as their soundtracks. Now 85 and living in Paris, Jodorowsky’s long prolific career include his work as an artist, cartoonist, writer, theatre (put in and) film director, and now spiritual guru of psycho magic. In 2008 he published his memoirs, “The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky,” and in 2009, “The Way of the Tarot.” In 2013, Frank Pavich released his film “Jodorowsky’s Dune” that documents Jodorowsky’s failed attempt in 1974 to produce an apocalyptic ski-fi thriller for which he had commissioned extraordinary talent.
Forty-four years later my take on El Topo film is quite different. As a mature spiritual feminist, I now view the fantastically cruel misogyny, violence, self-sacrifice and redemption in the film as a form of spiritual narcissism rather than Enlightenment. On his journey the hero is responsible for child abandonment, mass murder, physical destruction, and rape. When asked to give simple advice for spiritual living, the Dalai Lama has said, “Be kind.” I have learned through the years that many people who profess to be “spiritual” are highly intelligent achievers who lack basic humane characteristics—consideration, empathy and humor. Often grandiose and complex spiritual teachings come from the minds of self-appointed sadistic cult leaders who seek to control vulnerable followers.
Below are excerpts from my original review with contemporary comments.
“And I saw a new heaven and new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.”
~ Revelation of St John, the Apocalypse, New Testament, King James Bible
El Topo has been gaining a word of mouth reputation and is described by many adjectives pro and con. Produced by Poducciones Panicas, the film was shot in 35 mm color film by Rafael Corkidi in Mexico during the summer of 1970 in a style that reflects Cinema Novo. The film goes beyond any previous or contemporary concept of cinema and speaks of a new era in civilization in which film plays troubadour to tribal myth. Like the ancestral heroes of Homer’s poetry or Beowulf, El Topo personifies man’s struggle to live with himself—on earth, with other men, and with God.
COMMENT: Drug-Induced Machinations
In an interview concerning the film, Jodorowsky said, “I believe that the only objective end of all human activity—whether it be politics, art, science, etc. is to find enlightenment, to reach the state of enlightenment. I ask of film what most North Americans ask of psychedelic drugs. The difference being that when one creates a psychedelic film, he need not create a film that shows the visions of a person who has taken a pill. Rather he needs to manufacture the pill. Many say that Alexander the Great was an idiot because his conquest was so great, so complete, that as he progressed in conquering the world he was actually progressing toward his ultimate failure. I think that he was journeying into the depths of his being. I want to travel the route of the Odyssey. I want to travel the route of Alexander the Great. I want to travel into the deepest areas of my being in order to reach enlightenment. Period.”
El Topo—The Mole
The mole is an animal that digs passages searching for the sun. Sometimes he reaches the surface. When he looks at the sun he goes blind.
El Topo is broken into Four Sections entitled: ‘Genesis’, ‘Prophets’, ‘Psalms’ and ‘Apocalypse’. Jodorowsky’s frame of reference in philosophy, world religion, Buddhism, Taoism, mystic Catholicism, (take out and) esoteric and drug cults place certain aspects of the film beyond interpretation and make it as difficult to decipher as the symbolism of a stranger’s dream. Jodorowsky has celebrated the most brutal drives in men, perhaps to enforce new life into the stale blood of the Christian host. El Topo brings the viewer into its dimension through a series of shocks, visual, literal and physical – a spurt of blood – a whiplash – a cry of agony. Halfway through the film, when the nerves are toughened by the constant flow of blood, Jodorowsky turns the film inside out and softens the viewer so that the next barrage of violence becomes more real, more painful.
COMMENT: Child Abandonment
As the film opens El Topo, carrying a black umbrella and dressed in a black leather cowboy outfit and gaucho hat, rides a black horse through the desert with his naked his son riding on the back. He stops at a pole pitched in the sand. He lowers his son and instructs him, “Today you are seven years old. You are a man. A real man is alone. Bury your first toy and your mother’s picture.”
In the Buddhist cycle of life, the four stages of man are marked by the goals of Knowledge, Success, Devotion, and Sannyism (Meditation). When a boy is seven years old, he leaves his family to study with a learned master.
Alexandro said, “The pole in the desert is a Tao symbol. It is a sundial. I wanted to try to film the scene at a given point facing a given direction that would cast a shadow that would point to the site of a hidden treasure. He went to that site. He dug and dug, but found nothing. As his shadow began to shorten until at noon, he had no shadow at all. And then he understood.”
COMMENT: Mass Murder
THE COLONEL – Jehovah, God of Genesis, was a jealous God, the father of the tribe. El Topo kills the Colonel’s gang, who like the renegades of Sodom and Gomorrah perform sacrilege. At the monastery where they hang out and El Topo exchanges his son for Mara, the Colonel’s mistress. In the Buddhist religion, Mara is the Evil One who rejoiced not and threatened the enlightenment of Buddha. She was overcome by his power and banished from his life forever.
ADAM AND EVE – When El Topo and Mara enter the desert, Mara asks him how they will survive. She spreads her legs and digs eggs from the sand. When he shoots at a rock, water sprouts from it. He rapes her and obsessed by the power of his love, he demands that he prove himself to be the best man in the desert by conquering its four greatest masters. Alexandro said, “I put a clause in all the women’s contracts stating that they would not make love with the director. I knew nothing about her. I went to the desert with two other people, the photographer and a technician. No one else. I said, I’m not going to rehearse. There will be one take because it will be impossible to repeat. Roll the cameras. And I really, really raped her.”
COMMENT: Spiritual Competition
SUCCESS OF THE FOUR MASTERS – Each master has achieved a peace and artistry in his own zone of retirement that presents a challenge to El Tope’s restless ability. He finds one lounging on massive pillows behind the seated figure of his gypsy mother whose pet lion paces in the background. The master builds a syntax of structures out of toothpicks. He lectures El Top on love, “Love is perfection. Perfection means getting lost. In order to get lost you must love. In order to love you must give. When you give, you give to destroy…”
In the early history of Buddhism four great Masters preside. They were Shen Hsui (Northern School,) Hui Neng (Southern School), Dogen (13th Century Japan) and Ma Tzu (Mirror Wiping Zen).
In Buddhist scripture there is a chapter entitled, “The Perfect Net.” Buddha speaks of the Net of Advantage, the Net of Truth, and the Net of Theories. “Just brethren, as when a skillful fisherman or fisher lad should drag a tiny pool of water with a fine-meshed net, he might fairly think – Whatever fish of size may be in this pond, every one will be in this net. Flounder about as they may, they will be included in it, and caught. Just so as it is with these speculators about the past and the future. In this net, flounder as they may, they are included and caught.”
COMMENT: A Bit of Lesbos
THE SEEDS OF HIS OWN DESTRUCTION – Near the home of the first master a dark woman dressed as a replica of El Topo offers in a masculine voice to show El Topo through the cycle of the desert. She draws a path in the sand to each of the master’s homes. On their way, she sadistically seduces Mara. When El Topo’s conquests turn to guilt and suffering, he is tormented by the loss of God. He dies at the hands of Mara who chooses Graciela above him.
RESURRECTION – El Topo’s body is carried by lepers holding palm branches into a cavern, where he awakens years later in the form of a blond God attended to by a midget. He is offered a strange drug in the form of a beetle by a witch of the tribe, after which he shaves his head. Dressed in the ochre gown of a Buddhist monk, he promises the cripples to bring them out of their caves to freedom. He and the midget enter the town in which every form of corruption and perversion are carried out under the pyramid sign of power. They beg with a bowl for money with which they buy dynamite.
Having impregnated a woman named Jacqueline, he meets his son, now a monk, and asks him to marry them. After they have set the captives free, they are killed by the people of the town. In a superhuman effort El Topo destroys them and sacrifices himself. The midget, Jacqueline, his newborn child, and his son ride off, perhaps to breed a new cycle of life in wisdom.
El Topo acts as a man bent on saving humans from pain and suffering only to create destruction in his wake. If man, in order to redeem the social order must change his nature, than a purge would be in the first order.
“When I behold the sacred Tao Wo, my thoughts return to those who begot me, raised me, and now are tired. I would repay the bounty they have given me, but it is as the sky. It can never be approached.”
~ Tao Scriptures
The artifice of El Topo; its brilliant costumes, the manner in which foliage is set against the desert’s constant light, the way in which the sand and sky act as backdrop against which actors portray representative forces rather than individuals was created before the great technological advances in digital photography and computer graphic imagery cinematographers use today. The surreal visuals and mystic references make seeing the movie that is still gaining stature in film history worth seeing, or viewing again, even if you disagree with its message.
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Griselda Steiner is a playwright, screenwriter, poet and arts ritic. She has written an original screenplay “The Goddess in Exile” and original film treatment “DaVinci’s New World Order.” Visit her website.
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