The Celluloid Highway's # 4 Bizarro Film: EL TOPO (Alejandro Jodorowsky, Mexico, 1970)
No list of weird cinema would be complete without the presence of experimental Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. The question for me was whether my choice for this Top 5 would be El Topo or The Holy Mountain (1973). El Topo won out mostly because of the way in which Jodorowsky fuses his weird existential vision of human nature within the iconography and form of the spaghetti western. This might be a bizarre film, but it is still a genre film, and Jodorowsky ably ticks all the boxes when it comes to the grandiose, highly stylised and operatic violence one associates with Italian westerns. The Holy Mountain right from the off is more difficult to grasp, but El Topo benefits from the signifiers of genre which act as a familiar conduit into what turns out to be a very unfamiliar narrative world. Jodorowsky’s personality is so dominant in this film it almost feels like a vanity piece - in addition to directing his credits also include writing, acting (he plays the lead character), music (the haunting main theme is superb), production design and costume design. He gets a great deal of visual mileage out of the sun bleached desolation of Mexican desert landscapes, into which he thrusts downright surreal imagery. After eliminating a ruthless gang of bandits (the leader of which is castrated) El Topo begins his quest to defeat a series of legendary masters who all represent a different facet of human understanding. The strangest of which is one who is surrounded by hundreds of rabbits, who die at the same time he does. Jodorowsky pulls out his first major plot twist by having his expert gunslinger gunned down half way through. But this ‘death’ only leads El Topo on to greater things. Clean shaven and bald El Topo awakes in a mountain cave where he is surrounded by deformed outcasts, and is immediately acclaimed as a messianic character by the assembled group of disabled people. Things take an even greater turn for the weird when El Topo visit’s the town from which the cripples have been banished. A perverted town in which the local peasantry are treated as slaves and murdered for the pleasure of the wealthy few, and in which the local religion involves games of Russian roulette. Somewhere within the surrealism and savagery (because this is an incredibly violent film) is a three pronged allegory. The treatment of the Mexican peasants is surely a reference to the civil unrest in the country, the religious overtones and symbolism offer a critique of the blindness of religious orthodoxy, and thirdly this is an allegory about acceptance and tolerance, and self sacrifice. Does it work? - not at all, this is an incoherent mess of movie that leaves anyone searching for a linear plot tearing their hair out. But is it fun? - oh yes it certainly is, but it is only fun if you enjoy the images for what they and don’t take the whole thing too seriously.
The Film Connoisseur's #4 Bizarro Film: Fantastic Planet (Rene Laloux, France/Czechoslovakia, 1973)
This animated film has a couple of interesting things going for it. Number one, it was a film that had many production woes because it was such a subversive film, because of this, the film ended its production in a different country than where its production began. The film actually took five years to complete! It speaks about a race of aliens on another planet who rebel against their masters and want to break free from their hold. The Omms are little creatures that look like miniature humans. The Draags are their would be masters. This movie touches upon many interesting themes like politics, religion, and personal freedom. Should men rule over other less educated less fortunate humans? Cant we all just learn to get along? Should the less fortunate revolt? Yes they should if you ask me! But aside from these heavy themes, the film also has something really great going for it. Its visual flare! On this movie you will see some really strange and bizarre imagery. The Draags for example are gigantic blue beings with these bulging red hypnotic eyes! They go into a trance where they change shape and form and become something else altogether! The planet they inhabit is filled with strange and interesting creatures, including one giant predator which actually sniffs its victims through its nose, devours them and spits them out! This movie is a masterpiece of old school animation and should be seen for that alone, but if you like heavy thematic elements with your animation, look no further than this awesome piece of French animation. It will prove to be a unique experience even without the use of hallucinogenic drugs. The film won the Grand Jury Prize that year at the Cannes Film Festival, and was later distributed in the U.S. by Roger Corman.
For part 5 of the Top Five Bizarro Films Countdown CLICK HERE!