Wild, Wild Western

(Above: Alejandro Jodorowski, star and director of ‘El Topo.’ Source: YouTube video)

Arrow Video Channel, a cult-film subscription streamer available on Apple TV, will add one wacky horse opera tomorrow, September 1.

The film in question – El Topo (1970) –  is part of a September lineup that includes Crystal Eyes (2017), Ivans xtc. (2000), Graveyard of Honor (both the 1975 and 2002 versions), The Holy Mountain (1973), Fando Y Lis (1968) and Return of the Killer Tomatoes (1988).

El Topo (English translation: The Mole) surely reigns as one of the most bizarre contributions to the western movie genre.

Anti-war warriors and counter-culture New Yorkers of a certain age might recall Manhattan’s downtown Elgin Theater and its pioneering  “Midnight Movie” programming. The reefer-friendly cinema showcased such cult favorites as John Water’s Pink Flamingos (1972), Jim Sharman’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) and David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977). Yet, El Topo was the very first Midnight Movie to grace the Elgin’s screen.

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Critics regarded El Topo as an art film. Produced in Mexico, Alejandro Jodorowski was El Topo’s quadruple threat – director, co-writer, star and composer. (He also wore the same hats for the above-mentioned The Holy Mountain.)

The thumb-nail synopsis is disarming: A horse-riding, black-clad gunfighter (El Topo, played by Jodorowoski), searches for enlightenment. Along the way, he is compelled to challenge and defeat four mystical, master gunfighters, each one uniquely philosophical. Later, El Topo finds redemption and discovers his sacred mission is to protect and defend a group of social outcasts.

Be warned: Watch El Topo at your own risk, especially if you have just finished a big meal, are hoping for a pleasant distraction from insomnia, or are simply wasted.

The film’s unnerving violence starts with a group of marauding bandits having killed dozens of citizens, who are all clad in white and lying in a bloody desert trough. (The scene is later echoed at a master gunfighter’s ranch where dozens of white rabbits are slaughtered).

'El Topo' western
(Source: YouTube video)

El Topo exacts retribution on the bandits – and their “Colonel” – at a Catholic mission. Channeling Italian director Federico Fellini, El Topo finds the bandits homoerotically abusing the young and virginal priests by painting their faces and forcing them to join in an elegant waltz.

After dispatching the bandits, El Topo shoots and castrates the Colonel.

Then things get weirder …

One of the four masters is protected by two deformed compatriots: one without arms, one without legs. By joining together, they fight as one. The armless man carrying the legless man, they both charge El Topo.

Later, we meet El Topo’s protected “social outcasts,” a population of dwarfs and actors with physical deformities. The outcast deformities have been accentuated over time due to constant incest (which brings to mind the controversial X-Files episode, “Home,” about the Peacock family).

'El Topo' western
(Source: YouTube video)

Afficionados might find Jodorowski’s use of spiritual symbolism, imagery and quirky editing strikingly original. You will probably find it memorably – and incredibly – strange.

An Arrow Video Channel subscription costs $4.99 with a 30-day free trial. You can also rent El Topo starting at $3.99 from Amazon and iTunes.

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Charlie Greenberg is a NY-based theater and instrumental composer.

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