Independent Cinema:
El Topo and the Midnight Movie Craze

Frank P. Tomasulo

The literature on independent cinema is fairly extensive. There are dozens of scholarly histories and academic textbooks, and they are updated frequently, almost monthly. Those books and articles may be broad in scope (the entire history of “indie” film), semi-focused (independent documentaries, experimental films, unconventional American movies, etc.), or rather specialized and niche (“Songs of Ceylon: Music in Sri Lankan Independent Cinema, 1932-1934). However, few of these volumes or essays raise (let alone answer) the principal questions about the subject: What does it mean for a film to be characterized as "independent"? Which paradigms do we/ should we use to categorize them? There are probably as many answers to those questions as there are commentators ready and willing to proffer or prescribe a definition or epistemology. The three main rubrics usually used to define "indie" cinema, whether in the U.S. or internationally, have been, broadly, (1) the economic, (2) the thematic, and (3) the aesthetic.

The Hollywood trade papers and industry practitioners mainly define and determine independence by economic parameters. For instance, commercial considerations could include basic budget and financing (outside the studio system, co-productions, major "indies," self-financing, etc.), production (16 mm. or digital cinematography, non-union crews, no stars, novice director, etc.), distribution, and exhibition (niche audience, art-house and museum venues, film festivals, four­-walling, specialized cable channels, YouTube, academic conferences, etc.). In contrast, most film scholars and critics tend to focus on the thematic and stylistic aspects of the "indies," often with numerous subdivisions. For example, thematic independence frequently means focusing on innovative social issues and/or off-beat subject matter, including within various national cinemas, representations of ethnic and other groups, unusual perspectives on conventional thinking, and the personal and/or ideological expression of the filmmaker. The aesthetic dimension could include experiments with narrative form and structure, innovative cinematic techniques, the breaking or bending of genre expectations, non-conventional gender and sexual representations, serious or “in-joke” intertextuality, and self-reflexivity.

Despite all these possibilities, many still define independent film as anything outside the "mainstream." As an example, following the 1997 Academy Awards, the so-called “year of the Indies,” a special issue of the New York Times Magazine was devoted to “the Two Hollywoods”—studio and independent. That year, only one studio film, Jerry Maguire (Cameron Crowe, 1996), was nominated for the Best Picture Award, while four other nominees--The English Patient (Anthony Minghella, 1996; Miramax), Shine (Scott Hicks, 1996; Fine Line), Secrets & Lies (Mike Leigh, 1996; October), and Fargo (Joel Coen, 1996; Gramercy)--represented the American indie movement [1]. This belated recognition by the Times confirmed the fact that independent cinema was a consequential commodity, artistic voice, and set of signifying practices. I would argue that almost all the nominated films that year, with the possible exception of Fargo, were really, aesthetically, mainstream films, even though they were financed outside the Hollywood network. Indeed, the Oscar winner that year, The English Patient, was the first Best Picture to ever gross more than $1 billion [2]. A more recent example, The Lord of the Rings franchise was financed (for over $300 million) and distributed by New Line Cinema and could therefore be considered "independent" (with special emphasis on the quote marks here to indicate irony) by some definitions--namely the one that says that anything financed, produced, or distributed outside the eight major studios is an "indie" picture [3]. Of course, as we all know, New Line, Miramax, the Weinstein Group, and Sony Picture Classics were/are subsidiaries of AOL Time Warner, ABC Disney, and Sony Columbia, respectively, and therefore not independent by a more precise and restrictive definition of the term.

This essay therefore intends to suggest that we need to reconsider simplified and mono-causal definitions of the term. To reiterate, at least three factors--financing, theme, and aesthetics--characterize and differentiate indie movie--from each other and from mainstream cinema -- and each of those three categories has subtle and important subdivisions. As in our personal and political lives, “independence” in film is an over­determined phenomenon. This essay is a baby-step toward unpacking that Pandora’s Box.

El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1970)

This article will be of a more informational and even cheerleading nature than most of my previous scholarly publications. I will be advocating and proselytizing for a particular independent film, rather than just analyzing it. I am also championing this movie because it has very rarely been seen since its initial release in 1970.

El Topo Mexican poster.
(image attribution: https://posteritati.com/poster-country/mexico)

Economics.El Topo (The Mole), written, directed, and starring Alejandro Jodorowsky (he also wrote the music), is a truly independent film, from any perspective: economic, thematic, or stylistic. Its estimated budget of $400,000 was woefully low for an epic motion picture, even one shot in Mexico in 1970. It was initially distributed to film festivals and museums and later released at midnight movie screenings in only one theater in New York City. After a successful cult run of about a year, it was pulled from distribution for decades by its new owner and was unavailable to fans and the scholarly community, except via censored Japanese laserdiscs and bootlegged Korean videotapes, until 2007.

The Elgin Theatre, circa 1970
(image attribution: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elgin_Theater )

The Elgin Theater, in New York City's Chelsea neighborhood, would soon become famous as the midnight venue for the U.S. commercial run of a very unusual movie. Written and directed by a polymath Chilean auteur, El Topo, like many independent films, had a niche target audience: college students, potheads, acid freaks, cineastes, and cult movie enthusiasts who were into "head" pictures. El Topo is now generally recognized as igniting the midnight film movement. It sold out every night for months after it opened in 1970 at the Elgin, and many fans returned on a weekly basis. It ran through 1971, until the Beatles’ John Lennon--who was reported to have seen the film many times--ordered Beatles manager Allen Klein to purchase the film through his ABKCO film division and it was thereafter given a limited general release. Since then, it has been almost impossible to see in a movie theater, until it managed to get special screenings at Cannes and at the New York Film Festival in 2006. (The movie is now available in DVD format, in a boxed set with the director’s other films.)

El Topo original theatrical 
one-sheet.

(image attribution: https://www.amazon.com/
Original-Theatrical-One-Sheet-Alejandro-Jodorowsky/dp/B077R95RXT)

Theme. The thematic implications of El Tapo are both ambiguous and profound. Wrapped in an allegory, the film deals with all the major issues of human (and animal) life and death, redemption and rebirth, myth and religion, jealousy and revenge, violence and pacifism, heroism and villainy, the real and the imaginary, the rational and the irrational, rampant egocentrism and spiritual salvation. The movie presents Freudian concepts and symbolism (including a phallic­-shaped, “circumcised” boulder among the never-ending dunes that ejaculates life-giving water and semen when a woman caresses it), Buddhist koans, references to the Bible and to Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, Surrealist images, and meta-cinematic and self-reflexive ideas about film genres--all in a psychedelic framework that appealed to its target audience: the potheads and acidheads of the hallucinatory 1960s and 1970s.

Aesthetics. Stylistically, El Topo is both a Western and an "Eastern," a drama and a comedy, a profound mythic meditation and a slapstick farce. Its episodic narrative follows the exploits of a violent, black-clad gunfighter who wanders the desert in search of enlightenment and love, but that brief synopsis makes the film sound like many other archetypal tales. Yet El Topo is far more than that. Its genre has been variously described as "acid Western," "surrealist satire," "psychedelic farce," "mind-fuck movie," and "art house masterpiece." Incidentally, according to Wikipedia, "Acid Western is a sub-genre of the Western that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s that combined the metaphorical ambitions of top-shelf Westerns, like Shane and The Searchers, with the excesses of the Spaghetti Westerns and the outlook of the counter-culture." [4] As for the "surrealism" label, I believe that that word is greatly overused in both ordinary conversation and in academic writing. Too often, anything that is "weird," dreamlike, or even out of the ordinary is dubbed “surrealistic.” I tend to be stricter in my usage, basing it on the French Surrealist movement of the 1920s: Salvador Dali, René Magritte, and Max Ernst in painting; Louis Aragon and Lautréamont in poetry, André Breton's Manifesto, and surrealism's cinematic acolytes, Luis Buñuel, Jean Cocteau, and David Lynch. Even using that stringent definition, El Topo is clearly in the surrealist tradition.

 

With its bizarre characters and violent, bloody events, use of maimed and dwarf performers, and heavy doses of Christian iconography, Eastern philosophy, sexual symbolism, and Freudian imagery, the film fits the Comte de Lautréamont’s contradictory surrealist metaphor of “the chance encounter, on a dissecting table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella." Indeed, an umbrella figures prominently in El Topo's opening scene, as it does in the work of Magritte. The special, dreamlike and surrealistic mythic beauty of the cinematography, soundtrack, and music are highly evident in the film’s peaceful opening scene.

Hegel’s Holiday (René Magritte, 1958) 

(image attribution: http://www.mattesonart.com/
hegels-holiday--1958.aspx
)  

The opening scene of El Topo

(image attribution: https://medium.com/@maxfedyk/el-topo-a9ffe73af007)

You'll also see the irrational and disturbing conjunction with violent imagery in the scene that follows – a deserted town filled with bloody corpses. If you see the entire film, you'll notice that it has a two-act dramatic structure. In the first section, our eponymous and hirsute hero El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky) travels on horseback through a South American desert with his naked seven-year-old son Hijo (played by Jodorowsky's actual naked son, Brontis) and comes upon a town whose citizens and animals have been slaughtered by a band of degenerate outlaws. 

El Topo amid bloody corpses

(image attribution: https://neurodrooling.wordpress.com/2013/08/24/el-topo/)

He tracks down those banditos and kills them all, including their leader--the fat, balding, and effeminate Colonel--whom he first humiliates and castrates. He then meets a woman, Mara (Mara Lorenzio), whom the outlaws had been holding captive. El Topo goes off with her, leaving his son behind in a monastery with some odd Franciscan monks in bowler hats (the ones who had danced with the bandits and used blood as lipstick). At one point, Mara touches a phallic boulder and it magically spews out semen and life-giving water.

The odd Franciscan monks with El Topo, Jr

(image attribution: https://www.slightly-deranged.com/indexcc4e.html?page_id=1596)

Jodorowsky writes in the script: "The stone is an exact replica of my own penis. That's El Topo's sex!" (One might say, "That's Jodorowsky's ego.") Soon thereafter, Mara convinces El Topo to seek out and kill the four "Masters," the gunslingers of the desert. He does so, usually in violent Sam Peckinpah fashion. He even buries one rival under a mound of dead bunnies. These four meetings involve wise and mystical dialogues between the Masters and El Topo: "The deeper you fall, the higher you get"; "Perfection is losing yourself'; "To lose, you must love"; and "Too much perfection is a mistake."

Mara and the phallic boulder

(image attribution: https://archive.4plebs.org/tv/thread/75016212/)

The First Master is a quicker draw than El Topo, but our hero tricks him and shoots him dead. Mara then kills The Double Man --two men, one without arms, on the bottom, and the other, without legs, strapped on top--the First Master's servant.

The “Double Man”

(image attribution: https://www.pinterest.com/muchawozniak/alejandro-jodorowsky/

Soon afterwards, Mara sees her reflection in a pool and, like Narcissus, falls in love with herself. She even looks at herself in a mirror while making love to El Topo (the Lacanian “mirror stage”?). El Topo shoots the mirror and puts the broken glass in his pocket.

Mara’s Lacanian “mirror stage”?

(image attribution: https://goregirl.wordpress.com/tag/mara-lorenzio/)

After his first victory, El Topo and Mara  meet a second woman, Desconocida (Paula Romo), a whip-cracking, horse-riding lesbian dressed in black (like El Topo himself), with a husky male voice, who guides them to each new rendezvous.

Desconocida, El Topo’s doppelgänger and the “other woman.”

(image attribution: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/569001734167337843/)

As part of his scheme to defeat the Second Master, who is preoccupied with his mother, El Topo places the broken glass beneath her foot. When she cries out in pain, the Second Master is distracted and El Topo kills him. He takes a copper ashtray this Master made and puts it under his shirt. Later, the Third Master shoots El Topo in the heart, but the bullet hits the ashtray and El Topo slays that Master too. The Fourth Master catches El Topo's bullets with a butterfly net and flings them back at him. To show how unimportant death is, he takes El Topo's gun and shoots himself dead.

After completing his mission, our hero is crazy with guilt about his killings, so he destroys his gun and retraces his journey as if to do penance. However, as the guilt-ridden pacifist approaches the two women, who have bonded with each other, he learns that they do not approve of the new “girlie-man” and El Topo repeatedly shot--stigmata style--in his hands, feet, and side, and with his arms apart in a crucifixion pose. The two betraying women, now lovers, then ride off together.

Desconocida shoots El Topo, who “dies” in a crucifix pose

(image attribution: http://jodo440.blogspot.com/2017/02/the-spiritual-symbolism-of-el-topo-part.html)

The second half of the film takes place twenty years later. Having survived his redemptive execution, El Topo has cast off his black leather chaps and guns and become "reborn" as an unarmed monkish-looking figure in pale-­colored Buddhist robes and with a shaved head that makes him look like a Hare Krishna devotee or Holy Fool. After sucking on a hallucinogenic beetle and undergoing a symbolic rebirth, El Topo awakes in a community of dwarves and deformed outcasts who live underground.These mutants, worthy of Todd Browning's Freaks (1932), believe El Topo is some kind of god.

A monkish El Topo performs with his bride

(image attribution: http://rulerreviews.wikidot.com/el-topo)

He decides to liberate the cave dwellers by raising money to buy dynamite and thereby help them escape from their subterranean cavern. To that end, performs little skits (including making love in public) with one of the dwarf women, Mujercita (Jacqueline Luis), who becomes his paramour/wife. They perform for the amusement of the depraved and sadistic citizens of a nearby Old West town, which is ruled by a corrupt church, whose icon is the-eye-in-the­-pyramid symbol found on the back of the U.S. dollar bill, a Masonic symbol that is (coincidentally?) part of the Great Seal of the United States.

Hijo returns as priest and gunslinger

(image attribution: http://jodo440.blogspot.com/2017/02/the-spiritual-symbolism-of-el-topo-part.html)

Hijo, son of El Topo, in his Father’s gunslinger outfit

(image attribution: http://rulerreviews.wikidot.com/el-topo)

Soon, a new young priest comes to town, a cleric (John Robert) who joins his parishioners in games of Russian roulette in search of “miracles" (one of which does not transpire). Coincidentally, the new pastor is the son El Topo abandoned many years before. The young man now wants to kill his long-lost father (the Freudian Oedipal trajectory?) but decides to postpone his revenge until the underground dwellers are freed. Eventually, a tunnel is dug (hence the title, The Mole) and the cave people flee their prison and go into town, where the lunatic cultists of the village promptly massacre all of them, in a scene that “rhymes” with the early scene of El Topo riding through a bloody town. El Topo helplessly witnesses his friends being murdered and is repeatedly shot himself. Ignoring his wounds, he returns to his vengeful gunslinger ways and annihilates many of the perpetrators, while the rest flee for their lives. He then takes an oil lamp and sets himself ablaze, much like the Buddhist monks who immolated themselves to protest the Vietnam War.

El Topo douses himself with oil . . . 

(image attribution: http://epoleart.canalblog.com/archives/2015/05/15/
31916901.html)

 . . . and immolates himself

(image attribution: https://www.grindhousedatabase.com/index.php/El_Topo/Press_Kit)

El Topo's son and dwarf wife survive the bloodbath and make a grave for the hero’s remains, which soon becomes a beehive. The dwarf girlfriend gives birth to a child at the same time as El Topo's death, and Hijo, El Topo’s grown-up son, -- now dressed in El Topo's gunfighter duds -- the dwarf lady, and the infant ride off on a horse in the same way that El Topo and his son did at the beginning of the film. Thus, the first half of the movie resembles a Spaghetti Western, albeit a surreal one, while the second act is a love story of redemption, rebirth, and re-death.

Influences

"Most directors make films with their eyes; I make films with my testicles."  --Alejandro Jodorowsky

Alejandro Jodorowsky

(image attribution: http://sensesofcinema.com/2007/great-directors/jodorowsky/)

In some ways, El Topo is about an egotistical man ("I am God") who ends up completely humbled ("I am not a god. I am a man! "), but it is itself a somewhat self-indulgent, narcissistic, and intertextual film, both in its making and in its influence on future filmmakers. In that regard, Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie (1971) was no doubt influenced by El Topo. I suppose Jodorowsky's use of phantasmagoric images had something to do with that. And director Sam Fuller (who appeared in Hopper’s neglected movie) wrote that he liked El Topo because of its amazing diversity of material.

Jodorowsky himself stated that "El Topo is a library ... of all the books I love. He also acknowledged the influence of Jean-Luc Godard, Luis Buñuel, Sergio Leone, Erich von Stroheim, and Buster Keaton.”[5] As such, it is a staggeringly visionary work that "samples" dozens of often paradoxical artistic inspirations: Buñuel and Zen, Eisenstein and pantomime (Jodorowsky studied with Marcel Marceau), Antonin Artaud and Russ Meyer. In addition to these intertextual references, Jodorowsky, a prolific stage director, also borrows freely from passion plays, Artaud's Theater of Cruelty, Beckett's Theater of the Absurd, Jean Cocteau's surrealism, and even magic acts. Moreover, El Topo is part Jean-Paul Sartre, C. G. Jung, Wilhelm Reich, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Lao-Tzu. It uses both the Old Testament and the New Testament. It is about Moses, Christ, a Zen disciple, and, to make it really confusing, it is also “about” Alejandro Jodorowsky’s prodigious learning. For some viewers, there are far too many philosophical references, Jungian and religious symbols, parables, geometric configurations, epigrams, in-jokes, and abstruse images for anyone but the director to understand. For instance, at one point a community of rabbits dies off in the hero's proximity, while the old mother of one of the Masters of the Desert cries distorted bird chirps (actually electronically enhanced rat squeals) as she steps on broken glass. It is as if Jodorowsky made a long list of all the things he wanted to allude to: films, books, poems, symbols, etc. But rather than cut his list before making this film, he just used everything.

It is an impossible motion picture to categorize, but if pressed I'd group El Topo with Buñuel's Simon of the Desert (1965), George Stevens's The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (1967), Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1968), Federico Fellini's Satyricon (1969), and Glauber Rocha's Antonio Das Mortes (1969), the latter of which has a bounty hunter who is heavier than, but resembles, El Topo. Moreover, it is also comparable to Japanese manga martial arts films (think Hanzo the Razor and Lone Wolf and Cub) in terms of the buckets of fire-engine red fake blood spouting all over the place. Each of these films contains some of the plot devices and visual elements found in El Topo: its quest/mission structure, intense spectacle, ritualistic violence, desolate landscapes, and allusions to history, myth, religion, and culture.

Conclusion. Alejandro Jodorowsky's independent film El Topo remains an enduring cult-film experience. Its countless visions, fervid enough to burn in the memory even when not making a bit of sense, suggest a solitary cinematic salvo, with Jodorowsky frantically cramming everything that shaped his churning psyche into a single epic framework. The filmmaker's eclectic background--as poet, playwright, cartoonist, mime, and circus performer--unmistakably colors the extravagant richness of his work; surely, weed and LSD weren't even needed during the film's Elgin Theater run for viewers to undergo personal epiphanies, particularly since almost every shot seems to evoke multiple meanings.

With its druggy meanderings and inscrutable reveries, El Topo could be considered part of the revolutionary, post-1960s indie movement if its own private ideology didn't belong so obviously to its maker's acid subconscious. When El Topo intones "I am God," it seems that Jodorowsky is referring to himself: he uses film as a direct pipeline into his own mind (and maybe even the collective unconscious). The ideas, images, and sounds that result are a veritable blur of simultaneously ridiculous and sublime moments that defy ordinary readings while inviting viewers to participate in a dynamic and dialectical process of open interpretation. And beyond economics, theme, and style, that active spectatorship is also an important aspect of independent film.

End Notes

[1]  Deidre E. Pribram, Cinema & Culture: Independent Film in the United States, (New York: Peter Lang, 2002), 3.

[2] Emmanuel Levy, Oscar Fever: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards, (New York and London: Continuum, 2001), 305.

[3] Yannis Tzioumakis, American Independent Cinema, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018), 3.

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acid_Western

[5] Ben Cobb, Anarchy and Alchemy: The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, (Powder Springs, GA: Creation Books, 2007), 71.

 

Bibliography

Sources Cited

Cobb, Ben. Anarchy and Alchemy: The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky. Powder Springs, GA: Creation Books, 2007.

 

Levy, Emmanuel. Oscar Fever: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards. New York and London: Continuum, 2001.

 

Pribram, Deidre E.Cinema & Culture: Independent Film in the United States. New York: Peter Lang, 2002.

 

Tzioumakis, Yannis. American Independent Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018.

 

Sources Consulted

Artaud, Antonin. The Theatre and Its Double, New York: Grove Press, 1958.

Babcock, Jay. “Your Brain is a Crazy Guy.” Mean Magazine, no. 6, Dec. 1999–Jan. 2000.

Demby, B. J. “Highlights from Cannes.” Filmmaker’s Newsletter, Nov. 1973, p. 18.

Halter, Ed. “The Universal Language: An Interview with Alejandro Jodorowsky.” Cinemadmag, 2004.

Hertz, Uri. “Alchemy and Cinema: Interview with director Alejandro Jodorowsky.” Third Rail, no. 4, 1980.

Hoberman, J. .and Rosenbaum, Jonathan. Midnight Movies. New York:  Harper & Row, 1983.

Jodorowsky, Alejandro. El Topo: The Book of the Film. New York: Douglas Book Corporation, 1971.

Jodorowsky, Alejandro. “The Goal of the Theatre.” City Lights Journal, no. 3, 1966, pp. 72–73.

Jodorowsky, Alejandro. “Sacramental Melodrama.” City Lights Journal, no. 3, 1966, pp. 75–83.

Keesey, Pam. “Madmen, Visionaries, and Freaks: The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky” in Steven Jay Schneider, ed., Fear Without Frontiers: Horror Cinema from Across the Globe, FAB Press, 2003.

Monteleone, Massimo. La talpa e la fenice: Il cinema di Alejandro Jodorowsky. Bologna: Granata Press, 1993.

Richardson, Michael. Surrealism and Cinema. Oxford, UK: Berg Publishers, 2006.