Cinema: Cosmological Circus

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Every midnight for the past seven months, the Elgin Theater in New York City's Chelsea district has presented a screening of an exceedingly curious and especially arresting film called El Topo (The Mole). An allegorical western made in Mexico by a Chilean-Russian stage director named Alexandro Jodorowsky, El Topo has not been shown at all outside Manhattan; reviews, aside from the underground press, have been few and mostly negative. Nonetheless, the film has been kept alive by word of mouth spread by a burgeoning band of fierce partisans. Dennis Hopper had it screened at his home in Taos, N. Mex., and quickly promised to star in Jodorowsky's next movie, which will be financed by Universal.

For all the furor El Topo is neither a cathartic masterpiece, as its disciples believe, nor a con job, and Jodorowsky is neither messiah nor mountebank. There are scenes of brilliance in El Topo, followed by sequences of unwieldy pretension. The film is by turns comic and profound, hysterical and pompous, fully complex enough to deserve more than a simple yea or nay.

Pastiche of Satire. El Topo begins with the kind of burning, indelible imagery that promises great moviemaking. Dressed in black leather, the protagonist comes riding across the desert, his small son naked behind him on the saddle. Reaching a town that was recently the scene of a massive slaughter, he guides his horse over festering corpses, through puddles of blood steaming in the desert sun, and rides out again, seeking vengeance. He finds the villains, homicidal clowns wearing elaborate bandit outfits, and dispatches them in an orgy of dispassionate bloodletting.

This sequence, a pastiche of satire, homage and serious allegorical narrative, is the best part of the film. But when El Topo (played by Jodorowsky) leaves his son in the village and rides off for a series of gun battles with four holy men, the film turns diffuse and flirts with total disintegration. After a series of opaque symbolic adventures, El Topo is reborn as a kind of Zen saint who performs mummery for money in a Western town that serves as a crude mock-up of contemporary America. Eventually he is killed by his son, now fully grown, who rides off into the sunset with El Topo's dwarf wife and her newborn son, an image that strongly recalls the Holy Family's flight into Egypt.

Stylistic Reminders. Cluttered almost to the point of chaos, El Topo often flounders in a deluge of religious and pseudoreligious symbolism, of parables, epigrams and jokes. There are plentiful stylistic reminders of other film makers, notably Bunuel, Welles and Sergio Leone. One of the film's more vigorous fans wrote that Jodorowsky's library has "thousands of volumes covering every imaginable subject." El Topo almost appears to contain at least a fragment from each, so that it has the look at times of a richly illustrated concordance. But many of the references —like much of the symbolism—are never assimilated, which only serves to make the film forbidding and unwieldy.

Jodorowsky's is perhaps a prodigious, certainly a prodigal talent. What is most bothersome is not his chaotic cosmology but his coldness. He is so obsessed with allegorical meaning that El Topo misses any kind of full human resonance. It is instead a vivid if ultimately passionless passion play.

Jay Cocks