Repeat the mantra “far fucking out” all you like but to fully appreciate the thing that is El Topo you’d have to have been there 36 years ago, in the wee hours of the morning, stoned out of your gourd, in a run-down theater on lower Eighth Avenue. Even then, I assure you, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s magnum opus was less kabbalah than cowabunga—albeit a triumph for theater owner Ben Barenholtz.
It was Barenholtz who spotted Jodorowsky’s Mexican whatsit at the Museum of Modern Art in late 1970 and booked the film for midnights (1 a.m. on weekends) because, as the single ad in the Voice put it, it was “too heavy to be shown any other way.” Unlike midnight movies before or since, El Topo played seven nights a week. Its astonishing word-of-mouth success was dependent on a demographic of hippie-boho druggies with cheap rents and no cause to wake up early for work. People like me.
Glenn O’Brien’s hilarious review (republished for your delectation in the newly released Voice Film Guide) recaptures the moment. El Topo was a midnight Mass, a way of life—not least for Jodorowsky, who not only wrote, directed, and scored the picture but also played the eponymous holy killer–gunslinger saint. Although I vastly preferred Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns to Jodorowsky’s peyote variant, I saw El Topo twice—was this movie really as stupefying as it seemed? (Those were the days of acid fascism.) Indeed, El Topo was still packing them in when the film was bought that summer by John Lennon’s manager and yanked in advance of a full-scale Broadway opening, where it flopped. Big-time.
This saga has been told by many— including me in a book written with Jonathan Rosenbaum. I volunteered for the El Topo chapter not because I liked the movie but because a mysterious fate brought me into contact with its creator at the acme of his counterculture prestige. Improbably,
he and I were both present at an underground- cartoonist nerdfest in the spring of 1971; even less likely, I stumbled upon him two days later browsing in a midtown bookstore. I volunteered the information that I was soon going to Mexico (where I planned to stay for as long as I could make $500 last). “Incredible! You must look me up!” Where, I wondered? “Do not worry—everybody knows me there!”
Indeed, when I asked the student residents of my Mexico City flop they were incredulous: “You know the Maestro!” I journeyed to the depths of Chapultepec Park, where Jodorowsky was staging his psychedelic version of Alice in Wonderland. Maybe not so thrilled to find (hey, remember) me and two traveling companions (oh, hello), the expansive Maestro did a good job concealing it. What, he wondered, did we want to do? Did we want to eat, to drink, to fuck? Uh, dinner sounds cool. Jodorowsky and his wife—a frizzy-haired chick who was pure St. Marks Place—took us out. Table conversation was surreal. I was reading Impressions of Africa. “You know Raymond Roussel?” Jodorowsky bellowed. “How do you know of him? He is fantastic! Incredible!” As if on cue, the clean-cut group of American kids at an adjacent table leaped to their feet and burst into “Up With People!”
I’d never met a famous person before and I’ve never met one since who (with the possible exception of Susan Sontag) took such obvious pleasure in being their very own self. An amiable host, Jodorowsky plied us with toritos and showed off some Danish porn (snatching it nervously back when we began to riff on it in public). Outside, he paused to relieve himself against a parked car. “Look, he has made three streams,” Mrs. J remarked proudly as we staggered toward a disco named Paz y Amor. The evening provided material for three months of stoned impersonations: “Three streams! I . . . am . . . the Maker of the Topo!”
El Topo now can be seen at normal hours at IFC. You may find it a tiresome, macho relic—or a ragtag circus wandering through a fantasy realm part Treasure of the Sierra Madre, part Tolkien’s Middle-earth. I can’t watch it without conjuring up Alejandro. Maestro, I salute you: paz y amor!