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El Topo

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“El Topo” is a picaresque journey past the principal myths and symbols of human culture, shot in the style of an incredibly bloody, violent Italian Western. People are going to it for all sorts of reasons. As a greasy, grimy, gore-dripping Western, it works just fine, and not even the early Clint Eastwood films had so much sweat and sadism.

As a kind of freaked-out philosophical catchall, on the other hand, it inspires people to invent or discover hidden meanings and secret levels, and as soon as we all finish figuring out “American Pie,” I guess “El Topo” will be the next symbolical biggie.

Shot on a fairly large budget in Mexico, It began its American existence as an underground cult object, playing midnight shows in New York for six months. It surfaced to a normal run last November amid loud controversy. Its director, author and star, Alejandro Jodorowsky, was attacked in some quarters for using the symbols to make the violence digestible, and in other quarters for using the blood to sell the symbols. I don’t think you can take the movie apart that way; “El Topo” is all of a piece, and you’ve got to take the concrete with the fantasy, the spirit with the flesh.

Jodorowsky lifts his symbols and mythologies from everywhere: Christianity, Zen, discount-store black magic, you name it. He makes not the slightest attempt to use them so they sort out into a single logical significance. Instead, they’re employed in a shifting, prismatic way, casting their light on each other instead of on the film’s conclusion. The effect resembles Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” and especially Eliot’s notion of shoring up fragments of mythology against the ruins of the post-Christian era.

Jodorowsky’s hero, El Topo (the mole) devotes his life to a spaced-out quest that’s first cousin to the journeys in the Ring trilogy, “Stranger in a Strange Land,” maybe “Easy Rider,” certainly “2001,” and most obviously to the goalless, introspective missions of Eastwood’s Man with No Name.

The movie begins with an observation about the mole (he spends his life digging tunnels to the sky, and when he finally sees the sun, he goes blind), and then sets its hero to actual and symbolic tunnel-digging. What he digs his way into and out of, mostly, is the Italian Western genre. The movie has echoes here of Godard’s “Pierrot le Fou,” in which the characters make their way out of a gangster movie and into a musical, and wind up against their will in a Western.

In the version according to Jodorowsky, the West is peopled largely with corpses of men and animals and the survivors are gross, obscene caricatures who follow phony gospel-mongers and practice slavery. When El Topo moves out of this world, he goes first to do battle with the Four Masters of the Desert (who have black-magic connotations probably inspired by the work of Aleister Crawley), and later to help free a colony of deformed and incestuously mutated cripples.

These quests supply most of the film’s generous supply of killings, tortures, disembowelments, hangings, boilings, genocides, and so on. “El Topo’s” violence is extreme and unremitting, and more calloused even than Ken Russell’s in “The Devils.” And yet, somehow, “The Devils” came over as a violent exploitation film, and “El Topo” doesn’t. Maybe that’s because Jodorowsky dazzles us with such delicate mythological footwork that the violence becomes distanced, somehow, and we accept it like the slaughters in the Old Testament.

I’m not sure. “El Topo” is a movie it’s very hard to be sure about after a single viewing. It weaves a web about you, and you’re left with two impulses. One is to accept it on its own terms, as a complex fantasy that uses violence as the most convenient cinematic shorthand for human power relationships. The other is to reject it as the work of a cynic, who is simply supplying more jolts and shocks per minute than most filmmakers. The first impulse seems sounder to me, because if Jodorowsky were simply in the blood-and-gut sweepstakes he could have make a much simpler, less ambitious movie that would have had the violence of “El Topo” but not its uncanny resonance.

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