El Topo (US - BD RA)
Gabe revisits Alejandro Jodorowsky's break out surrealist western on Blu-ray...
Last year Severin Films got their hands on the release rights to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s last great film, Santa Sangre. This was a major reason for celebration, as the film hadn’t been released uncut on home video in North America up until that point, and most fans were forced to either go without, or find a region free player and import the UK DVD. However, Anchor Bay’s 2007 DVD release of Jodorowsky’s other two essential pictures, El Topo and The Holy Mountain, was in some ways an even more exciting development, as those two films hadn’t been officially available in the United States in any form, even in the days of VHS. I was personally finally able to see El Topo for myself on a bootleg VHS copy of a Japanese laserdisc that was made available for rental at a particularly brave mom and pop video store. Later I spent an exorbitant amount of cash on the Italian Raro Video DVD release, which held me over until Anchor Bay’s acquisition and release. After decades of controversy and black market trade offs El Topo was now available at Best Buy stores in the American Midwest, alongside the likes of Titanic, Star Wars and Harry Potter. This is the truly remarkable side of the DVD revolution cult film fans under a certain age will never understand.
The story begins as many do, with a gunman traveling the barren countryside in search of a fight. Behind him is his son, who sits upon his horse completely nude except for a wide brimmed hat. Though comparable to Kenji Misumi's Lone Wolf and Cub series initially, El Topo is actually looking for trouble rather than steering his son away from it. El Topo wants to defeat all the world’s greatest gunfighters, and travels with the lone intent of killing to make a name for himself. Being a Jodorowsky film (if you've never seen any of the director's work, this is the best and most accessible place to start), the plot is almost immaterial, and by the second act El Topo has learned his lesson, become reborn in a Christ-like fashion, and reduced to a street beggar confronting his now adult son. In this regard El Topo is a single film divided into two very distinctive parts, and most people seem to prefer one to the other. Both parts deal strongly in the writer/director’s obsessions with juxtaposing violent Catholic imagery with over-the-top Eastern philosophy (as the original trailers stated: El Topo is all religions).
Perhaps my affection for this film over Jodorowsky’s other work ( Santa Sangre is probably the ‘better’ film) comes out of the fact that El Topo is, in its way, the ultimate revisionist Western. The Western has become one of my favourite genres over the years, due in large part to the manner in which the genre was reused as a political and artistic vehicle. Once the B-movie and Saturday matinee mainstay, America’s most important and influential ‘workman’ directors began cutting their teeth on Westerns largely because the studio system considered the genre a safe place to stick their artistic impulses. These directors ended up utilizing the rather innocuous genre to forward experiments in both style and subtext. The Western genre, often hand in hand with the horror genre, served as the framework for Vietnam era allegory, much as science fiction had in the Atomic era. The allegorical possibilities were mined with special fervency in Europe, where Italian and Spanish Spaghetti Westerns would delve deeply into leftist politics, and visual excesses.
El Topo was released at the height of both the Italian and the American revisionist Western periods, only a year after Once Upon a Time in the West and The Wild Bunch. Though he usually cites French New Wave and Mexican matinee idols like Zorro as his stylistic influences, it’s obvious the revisionist and Spaghetti Western movements had an effect on Jodorowsky’s film. Here the director revises the classic Western template so profoundly only the setting and wardrobe give away the roots by the final act, but there’s a lot of European leftist mentality behind his outlook on the genre (the fact that Italian filmmakers like Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Sollima often used the Mexican Revolution as a basis for their allegorical political statements could render the similarities coincidental, I suppose). Jodorowsky recalls many of Italy’s finest Spaghetti Westerns ( For a Few Dollars More and Django are two films that draw direct visual comparisons, whether Jodorowsky mentions them in his commentary track or not), and takes those visual extremes, once considered hyper-evolved versions of classic American equivalents themselves, to surrealist levels that would give even Fredrico Fellini pause. But the kernel of genre always remains, and there is more traditional structure at play than in the director’s previous and following films ( Fando y Liz and The Holy Mountain, respectively).
El Topo is a film of excess, leaving no room for subtlety among the onslaught of visual metaphors. As an artist Jodorowsky’s personal excess barometer seems to have been broken from his first appearance on the art house scene, and at times his choices make Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci’s similar work appear shrewd in comparison. Many viewers will find El Topo laughable, and thus not worth their time. I like to assume Jodorowsky has a sense of humour about his more bizarre imagery, and hope that his more on the nose elements are meant as satire. Four bandits waltz with four monks, dress them as women, and then ride them bare-assed like horses. An evil General leaves his adobe dwelling followed by an excess of frightened pigs that scurry from the same womb like exit. When we meet the third master gunman he is surrounded by rabbits, most of whom are dying due to the malice of El Topo’s mere presence. Later El Topo gives himself over to despair, and willingly takes a series of bullets to the body, which miraculously land as a series of bloody stigmata. But it’s the film’s most overtly comedic scene, where a beautiful black man is literally branded and sold to a group of grotesque middle aged women who proceed to effectively rape him while lions growl on the soundtrack, that really stands apart. The slave is later strung up by his feet and shot at point blank range to the sound of thunderous applause. Could these be taken as straight faced indictments or acquittals of pop culture, religion and politics? Sure, but that’s not how I’ve personally come to read it over the years, even if the likes of Peter Gabriel, John Lennon and Roger Waters have.
This new 1080p transfer doesn’t exactly eat Anchor Bay’s previous DVD release for breakfast, but fans with HD capabilities will definitely want to make the upgrade. The big upgrade comes out of this new transfer’s pristine clarity. The images are several times sharper, revealing a lot more fine detail, and generally appearing as clean as a brand new motion picture. There is grain on the print, but it’s incredibly fine, and relatively consistent in frequency, while major dirt and other artefacts are only featured in minor occurrences (a flash of scratch here, a minor burn there). I’m also quite happy to announce that despite all this clarity there doesn’t appear to be any DNR tinkering. Textures remain rough and true to source throughout. I’m slightly disappointed by some of the contrast levels, which lead to some less than deep black levels during the underground sequences, and tend to wash out some of the less colourful desert sequences. For the most part colour quality is vibrant, especially the bright red blood that regularly saturates the screen. The argument of ideal framing will always rage among fans, and apparently El Topo has been displayed in various widescreen formats in theaters over the decades, but home video releases have always been full frame. It’s consistently obvious that there’s no footage missing from the right and left sides of the frame, and most of cinematographer Raphael Corkidi’s compositions don’t lend themselves to matting, so I’m of the opinion that Anchor Bay has made the right choice with this 1.33:1 transfer.
Anchor Bay presents El Topo in revamped DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, the original 2.0 stereo track (in PCM audio), and a 5.1 English dubbed version. I’ve chosen to ignore the dub (as should you), and compared the two Spanish language tracks. Sound is a very important element to the film, as dialogue is not. Jodorowsky takes his time saying the unsaid with seemingly incidental audio. And when words are spoken vocal effects are often fiddled with to mess with the audience’s perception of character sex (Jodorowsky even dubs his own performance with a different actor’s voice). That said, there isn’t much in the way of directional work, or stereo influence at all, making the 5.1 remix a pretty empty proposition. Thankfully Anchor Bay technicians don’t go and force directional effects into the production. Truthfully the DTS-HD track is better than the PCM 2.0 track because it’s more effectively centered, and the LFE boost helps to differentiate the effects. Even the film’s eclectic musical score is a relatively front facing and centric affair, but this is also relatively clean, and once again the DTS-HD track’s separate bass track offers warm support.
The extras here are no different than the ones that graced Anchor Bay’s DVD release, and begin with Jodorowsky’s solo commentary track. Thankfully this track is in Spanish with English subtitles, and we aren’t forced to struggle through the director’s broken English. Jodorowsky covers a lot over the film’s 124 minutes including the film’s thematic and stylistic inspirations, the film’s autobiographical elements, technical aspects, and all the horrible stuff that happened on set (which he mostly apologizes for in his old age). For the most part it’s intriguing to hear the meaning behind some of the film’s more bizarre elements (this is my second time listening to this particular track), and it’s nice to know that Jodorowsky does, in fact, occasionally have comedy in mind, but there’s also something disappointing about seeing too far behind this particular curtain. Considering how enigmatic El Topo is I’m tempted to recommend against fans listening to this particular track. Some will be happy to know that the director does discuss every dead animal on screen. The horses were sick and scheduled for slaughter, and the rabbits died of heat stroke and were all eaten by the crew (he says he can never eat rabbit again after that). Only the two birds El Topo shoots were killed for the purpose of filmmaking, and Jodorowsky greatly regrets the choice.
Next up is an interview with Jodorowsky (7:00, SD). Discussion here includes brief discussion about John Lennon’s influence on the film’s release, the film’s original midnight movie showings, critical reception, Jodorowsky’s opinion of the film (he doesn’t know if it’s good, but it certainly got him laid), and his hated for his father. For whatever reason the scenes from the film are presented in 2.35:1 widescreen. Things are wrapped up with an HD image gallery, and a trailer.
El Topo sits among the best and most accessible art films available in the digital format, and this Blu-ray release is a worthy upgrade of the already good looking Anchor Bay DVD release. I can’t imagine the film ever looking any better than it does here, even if a 1.78:1 or 1.85:1 aspect ratio would make for a more impressive HD showing. 1.33:1 transfers make me wish I had a bigger TV. The DTS-HD Master Audio presentation isn’t overly impressive, but is more than effective considering the film’s modest stereo roots. I would like to see a big, feature length retrospective documentary, featuring interviews with celebrity fans like Peter Gabriel, David Lynch and Marilyn Manson some day, but Jodorowsky’s feature commentary and brief interview will do for the time being.
*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray's image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 26th April 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Spanish, PCM 2.0 Spanish and English
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese
Extras: Director's Commentary, Director Interview, Image Gallery, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Cast: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Brontis Jodorowsky, Jose M. Barrutia Legarreta, Alfonso Arau, Jose Luis Fernandez
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Fantasy and Western
Length: 124 minutes
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