There's a lot of interesting stuff about El Topo, the rare 1970 film that's beginning a run this weekend at the Clinton St. Theater. It's probably most famous as the favorite film of a Yoko Ono-ified John Lennon, but the more you dig, the more strange stuff surfaces: Like that its director, Alejandro Jodorowsky, is a New Age hippie, or that Jodorowsky presided over Marilyn Manson's wedding, or that Jodorowsky and artist Moebius once sued Luc Besson for supposed plagiarism in Besson's goofy sci-fi flick The Fifth Element.
Likewise, the film itself seems weird at first, then gets even more so the further you go. A languid, allegorical tale about a gunslinger (Jodorowsky) who hangs out with a naked little boy, kills, fights, fucks, and eventually finds a sort of enlightenment, El Topo surreally references everything from Spaghetti Westerns to Vietnam to porn. Visually, it's striking: Jodorowsky captures vibrant swaths of vegetation, mind-numbing expanses of sand, and deep puddles of blood so stylized that the color approaches fluorescence. But while Jodorowsky's palette ensures that nearly every shot is engaging, he's disappointingly satisfied with too-easy symbolism and visual non sequiturs. (Look! A skinned and crucified lamb! Look! A fight with barbed wire wrapped around boxing gloves! Look! A man with no legs! Riding on the back of a man with no arms!) Despite so much stuff onscreen—or perhaps because of the excess of it—El Topo has neither a cohesive tone nor emotional resonance. Visually, it's colorful; narratively, it's self-involved and clumsy; intellectually, it's impenetrable.
At times I'm pretty sure El Topo is meant to be deathly serious, at others, fanciful and light-hearted—but that's just the thing: There's hardly any way to tell, and there's even less of a reason for doing so. Occasionally, El Topo's an interesting film from an interesting artist—but overall, it's lazily satisfied to throw up a lot of things onscreen, while saying hardly anything at all.