El Topo (1970)

Genres - Avant-garde / Experimental  |   Sub-Genres - Hybrid Western, Surrealist Film  |   Run Time - 125 min.  |   Countries - Spain , Mexico   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Lucia Bozzola

Virtually out of circulation from the mid-1970s into the 1990s, performance artist/provocateur Alejandro Jodorowsky's second film El Topo claims a place in film history as the first "midnight movie." Determined to bypass traditional distribution after his experience with his first film Fando and Lis (1968), Jodorowsky sought another route for his surreal western. Described by critics as Sergio Leone crossed with Luis Buñuel, Sam Peckinpah, and Jean-Luc Godard, and infused with eastern and western religious iconography, El Topo premiered at New York's Elgin Theater at midnight in December 1970 and began playing at the witching hour every evening. With almost no publicity, El Topo quickly became a cult sensation, as Jodorowsky's trippy, ultra-violent screen quest for "sainthood" deeply appealed to the Elgin's hipster, counterculture crowd (especially since the management tolerated pot-smoking). Picked up for distribution six months into its Elgin run on the recommendation of fan John Lennon, El Topo divided critics over whether it was a timely avant-garde masterpiece or reactionary faux art pandering to its acolytes' worst impulses. Regardless, El Topo all but vanished by 1975 in the wake of the distributor's stipulation that it play only with Jodorowsky's less-admired Holy Mountain (1973), with its rare screenings raising the question of whether El Topo could have succeeded outside of its cultural moment.