Digging to Enlightenment

El TopoI’m going to discuss the whole plot of El Topo in this article. I assure you, it does not matter. The plot of the film is not the point. But if you want to watch the film before knowing what happens, don’t read on.

I finally got around to watching Alejandro Jodorowsky’s film El Topo. For those of you who are not Spanish speaking zoologists or gardeners, the title translates “the mole.” This is referenced at the beginning of the film, “The mole digs tunnels under the earth, looking for the sun. Sometimes, he gets to the surface. When he sees the sun, he is blinded.” What does that mean? In the context of the film, I would have to say that it means nothing. I think I know what Jodorowsky is getting at. We all search for answers. It is our nature. But we are not equipped to get those answers. But beyond that?

The Plot of El Topo

The title character is a badass cowboy who rides the desert with his naked 7-year-old son. He abandons the boy with monks to go off with Mara, a woman he saves from sexual slavery. She is a Lady Macbeth kind of character who tells him that she can only love him if he kills the four great gun masters. It is clear, that just like Macbeth himself, he isn’t too keen on the whole project. But he reluctantly agrees. It’s all kind of strange from there. He meets them, they discuss philosophy, and then he kills them, mostly through trickery. A strangely androgynous guide shows up in the middle of all this. When El Topo kills the last gun master, Mara shoots El Topo and runs off with the guide.

That’s the first two-thirds of the film. Visually, it is very interesting. It has a style of cutting that is very much like Sergio Leone. Continuity is not of great concern. In fact, much of the discontinuity is delightful. So the film goes from philosophy to action and back, over and over again. It is very much like what The Wachowskis would make if they made a western. But even though the philosophizing is pseudo-eastern, the iconography is very much Christian with a distinct Old Testament emphasis.

Part Two

At the very end of the first part of the film, a group of dwarfs and deformed people show up and carry El Topo’s body away. The second part starts perhaps 20 years later. El Topo is in a cave where he has apparently been in a coma with the deformed people who live there treating him as a god. He wakes up and tells them he is not a god. They are all trapped underground because of the limits of their deformities. So he decides to dig a tunnel for them.

He takes a dwarf woman with him and goes to the local town to get money to get tunneling supplies. El Topo and the woman fall in love as they work together. Soon a monk comes to town who turns out to be El Topo’s abandoned son. The son wants to kill his father but allows his father to first finish the tunnel. When it is done, the son finds he cannot kill his father. The people trapped underground escape and go into the town where they are shot down by all the townspeople. El Topo turns back into a badass he was at the beginning of the film, and kills everyone in town. He then self-immolates himself, much like Thích Quảng Đức. The woman gives birth to his child and then she and the baby ride off with El Topo’s elder son who has now effectively become El Topo.


This part of the film is far more interesting. For one thing, El Topo acts as a kind of anti-Jesus. He builds a tunnel for those trapped underground. But their freedom leads directly to their deaths. And it isn’t because they are deformed. The film makes clear that they are deformed because they have been ostracized. The woman tells El Topo that they are all deformed because of all the incest that has gone on in the cave.

Much of the film is about rebirth. The outcasts are killed so El Topo, acting as God, slaughters everyone to give his son, girlfriend, and child a chance going forward. Of course, it could be that seven years later they will be at exactly the place where the film started. But none of this really matters because I don’t think that Jodorowsky is really working in any concrete way. You can think of it as a road picture. It works like that. Or you can think of it as a fetish film. There is lots to that. But mostly, it is internally consistent journey: a man searches for meaning and then dies without answers. As we all do.

We Are Our Own Jailers

Amusing Ourselves to DeathWhat Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Hexleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their pubic business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.

—Neil Postman
Amusing Ourselves to Death