El Topo

I was told the word “el topo” in the Spanish language translates to “the crazy,” and after seeing the 1970 film El Topo by Alejandro Jodorowsky, I believed this translation was correct. However, after careful research I have discovered 1.) I have a friend who either lies or doesn’t know as much Spanish as he thinks and, 2.) “el topo” actually translates to “the mole.”


While a title like “The Crazy” would have been very fitting, I can also understand the reasoning behind the fable-like title of “The Mole.” If the (supposedly) lone gunman all clad in black and traveling through the desert in a spiral path is not the first giveaway, there’s always the more obvious association, when the gunman buries himself in the thick, hot sand of the desert plains. However, it is also said the film’s name was due to the way such underground films in the late 60s and early 70s were finding their way to the surface and becoming commodities. Although somehow I believe this may have been a post-interpretation of the title.

This film became popular (if one can call it that) after its initial underground release, but when one Beatles’ member (namely John Lennon) watched this film for the first time, he loved it so much that he encouraged businessman Allen Klein to buy the rights to the film and distribute it. Allen Klein’s company (ABKCO) was primarily intended to distribute records, and there is much debate over the motive behind Klein’s ownership of many recordings and especially of this film. The story even goes that due to a dispute between ABKCO and the filmmaker Jodorowsky, the film never received distribution until just this year.

Now a deemed cult classic, El Topo is anything but refined Hollywood filmmaking, yet still holds water with the best of today’s independent cinema. While most stories today take more straightforward narrative approaches, there are still filmmakers striving to append to the genre Jodorowsky fits in. Take a look at Harmony Korine, Werner Herzog, Elias Merhige, and even Gus Van Sant.

Definitely not a film for everyone, the intent is for viewers to take their own meanings from films like this. I couldn’t help but draw conclusions to the Vietnam war throughout this film, most assuredly at the end when the “reincarnated” mole sets himself on fire much in the tradition of Buddhist monks in protest of the Vietnam war (most famously, the one who did this directly outside the US Embassy circa 1963). In fact it almost seemed kind of a rip-off of that associated press imagery that everyone now knows thanks to not only the media, but more recently the rock band Rage Against the Machine.

The mole is on a quest for enlightenment (get it?), and during this quest he encounters four “masters” of who each he will have a duel with. The mole generally cheats during these duels, and thereby wins, but the last “master” commits suicide before the mole gets a chance to duel with him (is this a statement to the banality of dueling?) I have read many interpretations of this film which call it a Biblical allegory; however, I don’t buy into this interpretation, because it’s too simplistic. Everything in art (and especially surrealistic art) seems to always be interpreting or alluding to some type of religious icon. That’s too easy. Jodorowsky was certainly into the religious iconography, but I do not believe that he was trying to allude to the Old or New Testament here intentionally.

War is what this film is about, and the banality and vanity of it. Atrocity is something we are faced with in the first few shots of the film, and along with a disjointed soundtrack, this makes for a film that is meant to keep us annoyed, even edgy but still interested at all times, much like following the day-to-day reports of a war through the media. The “masters” appear to be no more than various types of politicians, and the razed town that he encounters at the beginning feels too much like it may have been a town he was familiar with at one time. In this way the film could almost be a story of revenge in which the viewer is just not fully aware of the mole’s ulterior motives. We are let on at the beginning that the mole at one time did have a wife, who is now dead (as his young son buries her picture with his stuffed animal). His wife was also a mother to the young son which the mole eventually leaves with monks at the onset of the story. Was his wife killed by the outlaws that massacred everyone in this desert town? Does he leave his son with the monks because he plans to seek his revenge on the killers?

For me the imagery in the film is what’s most striking, and the soundtrack has a quality not unlike another cult classic Eraserhead. I believe Jodorowsky, in the grand tradition of other primarily surrealistic filmmakers, was simply trying to shock and appall audiences in 1970. But unlike the Luis Buñuel’s of the filmic world, whose surrealism is not nearly as simplified, but more convoluted and oftentimes more of an examination of religion, Jodorowsky examines the advent of war, by stripping down its main players (the politicians, high-ranking military officials, middle class promoters and innocent by-standers), and dissecting it for signs of a catalyst, purpose and realistic resolution.

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300

Not often do I see a film and think it could have been better made by another director. It’s happened a few times, but generally, I do not like to pigeonhole any individual I consider an artist, regardless how I feel about their work. So it pains me to say that I believe the story 300 could have been more of an adrenaline shot to the heart if it were only helmed by someone like Oliver Stone (more on that later). Since my wishes went unrequited, we instead have been given the version in theaters by Zack Snyder.

I like zombies and especially zombie films, so I was rooting for Zack upon entry into the theater, but I left with a sense of disappointment. In comparison to the exceptional technical SFX and genre craftsmanship of his first film, 300 was a letdown. For starters I’m not fond of CGI, especially when it has been thrown together haphazardly and without concern for realism or even continuity. The special effects and computer animation felt rushed here, as if there wasn’t time to be meticulous, (like a Frank Miller comic, or even one adapted by Robert Rodriguez, would be); only time to meet the studio’s Spring premiere deadline.


So, for a director who filmed one of the gorier zombie flicks this side of 1999 (props to Peter Jackson for the goriest prior to that), I don’t think I should be able to feel cheated. For instance, like Snyder’s earlier Dawn of the Dead, there’s a lot of blood flying and splattering in this movie, but unlike Dawn of the Dead, none of it ever lands anywhere! With the way these 300 men went through a 1,000 Persians like some human woodchipper, you’d think – if not them – at least the ground would be covered in blood. You’d be wrong. The question is: was it for ratings, or simply hackneyed SFX?

Technical aspects aside, I did enjoy this movie. While it’s certainly not riveting material, I was ultimately lulled by the sometimes creepy, sometimes blissful, bedtime story-like narration. This narration was so noticeable to me as a viewer, I wanted it to create a hard contrast to the imagery on screen. This is where I believe Stone would have excelled. Think Alexander, only written like Natural Born Killers and fused with the editor-as-storyteller quality of any recent Peter Jackson film. However, what Snyder leaves us with is a campfire fable processed through some sort of a post-1990s-genre-exploitation machine, and handcrafted for syndication on MTV at a later date.

One review that I read spoke of how the film was bad due to its not being “realistic.” This type of criticism appalls me as I believe that the critic in question should have been well-versed enough to understand that no Frank Miller story, transcribed to film, could (or should for that matter) ever be realistic. That’s not the point of such movies, and especially not of such stories. Though events depicted in the film are based on true accounts of a small army of Spartans defending themselves against the Persians, even in such accounts, just how much realism can really be expected or attained? I mean do we really know if the exact number of Spartans fighting equaled 300? My point in harping on this one negative review is that its critics like this, which defile the important meaning of the criticism of movies and cause both the filmmakers and audience such distaste for film reviews in general.

While I can’t deny the film is fun, and engaging, it’s like a less hard-boiled, less edgy, and less monochromatic Sin City with its colorfully dark characters throughout, but unlike Sin City, these characters have no dimension to them. The one exception being Xerxes, with whom some character traits are revealed, but for such a cruel person, he seems to realize his faults all too easily in the end. Additionally, all the other standard storytelling methods are in place here: foreshadowing, irony, flashback, and the favorite of scriptwriters everywhere, the red herring. But none of these do the plot any justice with the exception of the foreshadowing which comes at the very onset of the film, and is unnecessarily reinforced later through the use of flashbacks.

Here’s my advice, before you go out and drool under the concave silver screen of frenzy that is the film 300, add the third revised, and nearly 300 minute, unrated director’s cut of Oliver Stone’s Alexander to your Netflix queue. Only then will you really understand what Zack Snyder’s film was lacking.