“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” is something Sigmud Freud supposedly said at some point in his life. Regardless of whether he said it or not, the quote refers to his method of analyzing the subconscious mind for symbols, and how sometimes we see dicks everywhere – er... no -- I mean -- it refers to how we can get a little over zealous in our quest to assign meaning to everything.
While distinguishing between what matters and what doesn't might be tough to differentiate in psychology, the task becomes ludicrous in the context of surrealist art. Take Un Chien Andalou, for example. What does it mean, anyway? Is it a comment on time? Mortality? Was it meant to not mean anything? Are we even supposed to discuss it? I have no idea, but damn, that woman just got her eye cut open and now I want to know why.
It is this hunt for symbols that helps explains why the mere mention of the name “Alejandro Jodorowsky” is enough to make certain eyes roll – a reaction not entirely undeserved. He is perhaps best known for his 1973 film The Holy Mountain, a film which, like many of his works, he wrote, directed and acted in. It's also the film chiefly responsible for his reputation of stuffing his surreal films so full of symbolism that drawing any meaning from them becomes almost impossible. Every action, expression and spoken word feel as though they are part of a massive mantel draped over the film, begging so badly to be deciphered that it becomes hard to draw a line between the cigars and the dicks.
Fortunately for viewers not looking to tear their hair out, there exists El Topo, a 1970 film which proves he could be accessible, too. Sort of.
Filmed in the sprawling deserts of Mexico, El Topo (Spanish for “The Mole”) follows the story of a gunslinger clad in black named El Topo, played by Jodorowsky. The title of the movie and the character are both references to how underground, low-budget films were breaking out into the light of the mainstream world; coincidentally, El Topo did just that when John Lennon decided to help distribute it after becoming a fan.
At it's core, El Topo is a classic Western, full of guns, betrayal and redemption. Over the course of two hours, El Topo forces his son to become a man before abandoning him, avenges a village massacred by bandits, saves a woman named Mara from said bandits and falls in love with her, abandoning his son in the process. “Destroy me. Never depend on anyone,” he shouts back to his son as he rides off into the desert with Mara in an astonishingly powerful scene.
Realizing that he loves her, Mara asks El Topo to kill the four mystic gun masters who live in the desert, a task he accomplishes through trickery and the aid of a mysterious woman in black. Despite an increasing sense of guilt, he defeats them all, only to be shot by Mara, who has fallen in love with the woman in black.
He survives the shooting, is taken in by a band of deformed people who become trapped in a cave. As El Topo can climb the cavern walls, he vows to help save them by digging a tunnel from the surface and leaves, bringing along a deformed girl. The two go into a nearby town with to raise money and slowly fall in love. Eventually, he gets her pregnant. When the couple go to be married, the ask a priest who turns out to be El Topo's son, now a full grown man. He declares that he must kill his father, but El Topo urges him to wait until he can free the people from the cave. The son agrees, but when the tunnel is finished, he finds he does not have the strength to shoot his own father and runs off. The deformed people run into the town and are immediately massacred. In revenge, El Topo goes on his own rampage, shooting up the town and forcing everyone out before lighting himself on fire.
Even that extremely long-winded summation does not even begin to delve into the symbolism of the film. There's the different religions, the many shots of bees, and the fact that the woman in black has the voice of a man. This only proves that, even more than a western, El Topo is a surrealist film.
Fortunately for Jodoworsky and the audience, the Western genre and surrealism blend together perfectly. The sweeping shots of the desert landscape dotted by strange things and stranger people look straight out of a Dali painting, while the ritualistic and the deliberate manner in which the characters speak and act seem to serve as both a way to set up the mystic world the story inhabits and a comment on how, by 1970, the Western genre was over played and filled tropes and stereotypes. The plots of such films were so predetermined that it's almost as if they were rituals.
Or maybe not. Like every potential symbol in El Topo, stating the meaning of something as if it were fact is impossible. But should we stress about it? Well, as Jodoworsky said in a 1973 interview with Penthouse, “I speak with my unconcious to your unconcious. It's another kind of language. I am trying to put the dreams into reality and not trying to put reality into dreams. When you sit with me to see the picture what I am doing is to put your symbols in reality. Everyone of us have in his unconcious symbols. You have everything in your mind. Man is not a creator. But man is all the time discovering.”
Tempting as it is to look for a defined story in the symbols, sometimes it's better to just take it all in.
And watching El Topo is totally one of those times.