Alejandro Jodorowsky's surrealistic Western El Topo, which has reached the grand old age of 50, is one of the most enduring artefacts of that psychedelic moment when the movies and the world were opening themselves up to all manner of weird and wonderful, wacky and wayward ideas. To this viewer, the film still looks like the work of a creative who'd been watching the spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s askance (or under the influence of something far more dizzying than mesquite). So many of El Topo's elements would have been present and correct in any of the period's straight-up spaghetti servings: the big skies, the rocky landscape, the black-clad gunslinger (here played by Jodorowsky himself), the frontier town. (There's even a handful of Lionel Stander and Jack Elam types in the supporting cast, alongside the director-to-be Alfonso Arau, fresh from the previous year's The Wild Bunch - or at least as fresh as anybody could be after surviving a Peckinpah movie.) Everything else under this sun, from the slanting credits onwards, proves ever so slightly off-kilter. The gunslinger rides into view holding a parasol over a naked young boy (the director's son Brontis) who seems to represent an innocence in need of protection; a shootout is cued by a deflating balloon; there are strong suggestions that the gunslinger represents God (or a god) or Christ or perhaps even Jodorowsky the besieged poet-visionary himself. The spaghetti Westerns made around this time by Sergios Leone and Corbucci were only one or two notches on the dial away from spiralling madness. Jodorowsky, unshackled by his contemporaries' commercial concerns, turns that dial further still, and reveals just how close society itself was close to madness as the Sixties played out.
What's particularly fascinating about encountering El Topo in 2020 is viewing the film's structuring quest for enlightenment through the prism of successive real-world waves of progress. The softcore toplessness and suggestive cacti-licking have to be taken as very much of this Askwith moment, and Jodorowsky's casual attitude to the onscreen depiction of rape would come back to bite him firmly in the behind (as detailed here). You'll have to weigh all those elements for yourself, but what strikes me as clear from the film is that Jodorowsky was drawn to the Western as a form in which men hold all the cards, and yet are most frequently left to their own devices. The first hour makes most sense as a litany of those bizarre quests, curious-to-perverse fetishes (shoe-sucking!) and outright nasty habits men take up in the absence of the fairer sex - and then the terrible acts they're driven to commit, to themselves and others, when women do come into the picture. As our hero resurfaces from a spell underground in an outpost where outsiders are buggered and branded, stripped and harassed, it becomes increasingly clear that El Topo is another of the Seventies' insurrectionary texts about power, and what the powerful do with it. Dig beneath the surface weirdness - and no film has been keener to establish that, you know, ya dig - and you'll find a deeply moral work, asking questions about the place of the concerned individual in society that were being asked in the world beyond the cinema in the 1970s.
Granted, that risks being too sober a reading of a film that otherwise proves entirely resistant to anything so dull as rational logic and interpretation. You come to El Topo, as audiences have always come to El Topo, to watch a head opening up before you, and there are sequences, particularly those out in the desert, where a man with no arms carries a man with no legs around his neck, a woman screeches like a bird, our hero rubs his face in honeycomb, and a lion marches back and forth just because, which may be the closest any cinema ever came to delirium or dementia. Not only would Jodorowsky not get something this inexplicable funded or released today, he'd have found the moneymen pushing to have him sectioned under the Mental Health Act. It's kept from outright lunacy - babbling nonsense - by its maker's grounding (if warped) sense of humour. Even if you can't fully grasp what's going on, you can discern the form of a joke or some other grand design, as in the sequence of Russian roulette in the church that winds up with a small child holding the gun. Jodorowsky was always too much the clown to play the forbidding, thin-lipped mystic: it's why the gunslinger reinvents himself as a capering fool, though the brutal finale, wherein the peaceable Mole of the title is pushed to breaking point, is no laughing matter. El Topo remains a perfect midnight movie, because it unfolds before you as a carnivalesque procession of big, bold images, sometimes dreamlike, sometimes nightmarish, all apparently caught via some cosmic butterfly net; it wouldn't matter if you were watching on some crappy, scratched print (which this new 4K restoration may have banished forever) or if some longhair was obscuring your view of the subtitles, because its sheer oddness is imprinted on every corner of every frame, and impossible to miss. No-one but its creator, caught working through some distinctly heavy psychic shit, will ever understand it fully, but it sure remains a trip, and the West was never wilder.
El Topo is now playing in selected cinemas.