“We live in the image you have of the world. Every one of us lives in a different world, with different space and different time.” – Alejandro Jodorowsky
El Topo is unmistakably part of Jodorkovsky’s idiosyncratic world, an image of the avant-garde desert governed by its own hallucinatory laws, one that this week celebrates its 50th anniversary. Intoxicating and bewildering, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s acid-western lives and breathes autonomously, an untamed illusory dream so eccentric it feels based in some sort of strange, alternate reality.
It should come as little surprise that such eclectic visual stimulus attracted some of the 1970s most creative minds. In fact, upon the film’s first showing in New York, Jodorowsky superfan John Lennon promoted the film and even urged his manager Allen Klein to invest in future productions. It was thanks to the Beatles figurehead that El Topo became the underground sensation that it was, helping the film acquire worldwide distribution by publicly supporting the film and director. Speaking later about the New York debut of the film, Jodorowsky said: “When I brought ‘El Topo’ to New York, no one understood the picture. But John Lennon understood. John and Yoko Ono, they presented ‘El Topo’ in the United States; they introduced it.”
Not totally dissimilar to the visual absurdities of the iconic 20th-century band, El Topo is best viewed as a hallucinatory trip across a sparkling desert landscape glittered with colourful delirium. Materialising like a psychedelic mirage in the empty Mexican desert, Alejandro Jodorowsky plays the titular El Topo, emerging on horseback clad in black with his son clinging naked behind him. An undertaker of the desert, El Topo floats across the landscape experiencing the stories and evils which behold it, before he embarks on a spiralling symbolic quest to challenge ‘four masters of the desert’. An acid-western version of the biblical ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ El Topo is textured with religious symbolism and tarot mythology, often rearing its head in scenes of splattering violence and sexualisation.
The paint-red blood of Jodorowsky’s desert seems to mean little to those dealing the deadly blow, or even those falling victim to them. Spluttering outward like liquid from a syringe, El Topo’s lightning-fast blows befall countless ‘enemies’ across the desert, not to mention the landscapes’ four masters whom he efficiently dispatches, but not without a philosophical conversation first. His journey from master to master weaves a strong narrative core and chronicles a genuinely enjoyable quest: “You shoot to find yourself, I do it to shoot. Perfection is to lose yourself,” the second master mutters as he lords over El Topo beside his (genuinely real) pet lion. Each of these characters is creatively crafted and written with glorious poetic wisdom that makes the protagonists quest across the desert a meditation for the soul.
Upon the murder of each of these masters, El Topo descends into an undoubtedly less-interesting second act which abandons the journeyman’s quest and focuses instead on a tale of redemption and identity. Tasked with guiding a community of paraplegic’s out of a cave network, he and one of the women venture into the nearby town to seek their help only to receive bitterness in return. Muddled and disordered, the film tails off and operates autonomously with small seemingly irrelevant vignettes based in the deserted town. It bookends a festival of phantasmagoria, a colourful kaleidoscopic journey that dances in insanity and well illustrates the psychedelic obsessions of the 1970s.