El Topo: The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky
Release Date(s)1970 (April 26, 2011)
Studio(s)Abkco Films (Anchor Bay)
Alejandro Jodorowsky is a man of many hyphens: mystic, scholar, teacher, shaman, comic book creator... artist. It’s his artistic persona that we’re here to discuss, because as an artist, he has chosen the film medium as one of his “canvases”. I may be a snob, but there honestly aren’t a whole lot of filmmakers I would put into this category.
Of course, there are plenty of great filmmakers whose work have become art through cinema, but there are many filmmakers who aren’t filmmakers at all... they are simply artists who use celluloid as their showcase. Jodorowsky is certainly one of those filmmakers, proven time and time with his short but visually, spiritually and philosophically stirring films. And the king daddy of those films is El Topo, a film that is so many things; it’s a very hard film to “explain” to anyone not already in awe of it what it is exactly. The very first time I saw it, it became one of my all-time favorite films – and I had no clue what I just watched. Honestly. The tone shifts, story jumps and visual cues come so fast and so furious, no one but Jodorowsky can possibly know what it all truly means. Sure, you could devote a few years breaking everything down, pulling out the pieces that are biographical to Jodorowsky concerning his life, personal passions, gender politics, battles with family, friends and lovers. You can glean bits about Eastern religion, philosophy, and Jungian psychology and all of that would give you a better understanding of what it all means – but in the end, all of these things you pick out of the film are simply moments and those moments add up to the man giving us this film. El Topo is a summation of Jodorowsky. It is he, and he is it.
All of that out of the way, it’s probably not a surprise that I don’t really want to say too much about the film in terms of “story,” except that I’ll go out on a limb and just tell you... you have to see El Topo; all of you who are reading this. It’s important. It’s a major milestone in cinema, and it should be part of every film lover’s collection – both physical and mental. On the surface, El Topo is a surreal western in the Italian style. Except that it’s not. Really, it’s not. When it’s all over, you’ll find that El Topo is Jodorowsky’s journey as an artist, as a man and as a thinker. It’s a biography told in a genre. We start the film with a man who is taking his son and making him throw away his childhood (a moment many people consider a riff on Kazuo Koike’s Lone Wolf and Cub, yet both the manga and this film debuted in 1970 at roughly the same time – so it’s just a case of great minds thinking alike). The man (El Topo or The Mole) then goes on a journey where he first destroys the memory of his own father and then dedicates himself to learning about violence, religion, spiritualism and mysticism by meeting up with, and besting a series of Masters. Along the way, he abandons his son, turns his back on his past and learns he has no respect for women, so much so that even his feminine side manifests itself as a separate being and proves to be no kinder. It all culminates with El Topo learning who he truly is and dedicating himself to his life, his art and a woman who needs him. Once out in the world again with his eyes wide open, he sees a world that is dirty, shallow and filled with religious contempt. And it’s all too much for him to accept. As a film, El Topo is mesmerizing. It’s just a wonderful piece of cinema. It’s brain candy, yes... so don’t expect a fun-filled romp. But if you love movies as art, and look for inspiration through the experience of handing yourself over to something, El Topo is one of the greatest ways to do so. It’s not hard to understand why so many love this film.
El Topo was released a few years back as part of a box-set after almost 40 years of obscurity due to a fight between Jodorowsky and Abkco Films’ Allen Klein, the film’s distributor and rights holder. The DVD was a beauty and well worth picking up. Anchor Bay releases this Blu-ray using, what I suspect is the exact same transfer (using a negative Jodorowsky found locked in a Mexican lab for 25 years) with no additional restoration. It looks beautiful in its original full frame aspect ratio (a 1080p high definition transfer). The image looks very good for its age, but it does show its low-fidelity indy production roots. Grain is minimal, and there are some moments where minor print damage is evident. Use of noise reduction is minimal, with incredible detail and texture present throughout the film. Colors are solid, with incredible blue skies, solid blacks and flesh tones that defy the age of the film. Considering Jodorowsky supervised the transfer for the DVD, and the same transfer was used here – having that transfer upgraded to Blu was a solid win, though you really need to have some remarkable eyes to see the improvements.
Sound is available in Spanish DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio and LPCM 2.0 Stereo. There’s also an English dub track, in LPCM 2.0 Stereo. All three sound quite good, but my money goes on the Spanish stereo track, which fits the film better as far as I’m concerned. Track separation in the 5.1 track is good, however, so it’s not a critique of that track, just a preference. Subtitles are available in English, Spanish, Portuguese and French.
All the disc-based extras from the original DVD set are here and all are quite fun and very informative. The most important one has to be the commentary with Jodorowsky, where he breaks the film all down for you. There’s his endless thoughts on philosophy, religious discussion focused on every possible denomination, talk of the autobiographical elements he brought to the film – just about everything you need to know about the film and its wonderful history is here. Do yourself a favor: the minute you finish watching the film, turn right around and watch it again with Jodorowsky talking you through it. Also on board here is a short interview with Jodorowsky (shot around 2008 for the DVD). A lot of what he discusses in the commentary pops up here, but to see him saying it is a joy. I hope I get to meet this man someday. You’ll also a find the original trailer and a reproduction of the shooting script with art and notes peppered throughout – this one slightly interactive feature is an improvement over the DVD version BTW, truly served by this HD format. Sadly, the soundtrack CD for the film in exclusive to the DVD box set, so if you have that set, keep it as the score is as wondrous as the film, even on its own.
- Todd Doogan