Sunday, August 15, 2010

Acid Western Double Feature

On consecutive nights at the Red Vic, I saw El Topo and Dead Man.

El Topo starring and directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky; Spanish with subtitles; (1970)

Dead Man starring Johnny Depp and Lance Henriksen; with Robert Mitchum, Crispin Glover, Gabriel Byrne and Alfred Molina; directed by Jim Jarmusch; (1995)


El Topo is a cult film that was a progenitor of the term "Acid Western." According to Wikipedia, "'Acid Western' was coined by Jonathan Rosenbaum in a review of Jim Jarmusch's film, Dead Man."

Quoting from Wiki, Acid Western is a sub-genre of the Western film that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s that combined the metaphorical ambitions of top-shelf Westerns, like Shane and The Searchers, with the excesses of the Spaghetti Westerns and the outlook of the counter-culture. Acid Westerns subvert many of the conventions of earlier Westerns to "conjure up a crazed version of autodestructive white America at its most solipsistic, hankering after its own lost origins."[1]

I'm not sure if that describes El Topo. I thought The Mole conjured Buddhist imagery and Mexican Balkanization. The plot merits a cursory summary. El Topo begins the film as a gunfighter. He's not solitary since there is a naked boy riding on the horse with him. It's implied it is his son or at least, pedophilia is not implied. Why is the boy naked? I'm not sure. Maybe because he is innocent. El Topo abandons the boy with some monks who have been abused by some bandits. After dispatching the bandits and their leader, The Colonel (via castration), El Topo sets off into the desert with a woman he rescues from The Colonel. He is seeking to prove himself against the four great gunmen of the desert. After beating them through luck and deception, Topo is betrayed by the woman and left for dead.

The second half of the film deals with his recovery and relationship with a group of deformed people. In this part of the movie, Tope shaves his head and devotes himself to the freedom of his new friends. After freeing them from their subterranean prison, the freaks are gunned down by the townspeople. El Topo, in turn, guns down the townspeople and then self-immolates.

It's impossible not to see the similarities between El Topo and Buddhist monks in Vietnam in the prelude to the full-scale war in that country. Many monks committed self-immolation in the early 1960's to protest the government of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem.

I'm sure there is a message in the film. I found it interesting that the boy started naked, then wore a Catholic monk's robe and finally the black clothes his father wore as a gunfighter. There is a circle of life allegory going on. There is also a lot of Eastern philosophy being referenced. One of the gunfighter/masters looked like an Indian Yogi. El Topo resembles a Buddhist monk for the second half of the film.

El Topo wasn't my cup of tea but I'm glad I finally saw it. Maybe if I had a liberal arts background, I would enjoy films like El Topo. However, I have an engineering/science background.


Dead Man had a more coherent script. Johnny Depp is William Blake, an accountant from Cleveland who takes the train out to the town of Machine (state unknown). When he gets there, he finds that the job has been filled. Dejected, he wanders around town before meeting up with an ex-prostitute who now sells flowers. Their slumber is interrupted by her ex-boyfriend (Gabriel Byrne). Byrne and the woman are shot dead and Blake flees town with a near fatal wound. Unfortunately for Blake, the man he shot dead is the son of the town's wealthiest citizen (Robert Mitchum in his last role). Mitchum dispatches three assassins to track down and kill Blake. For his part, Blake falls in with an Indian who says he is Nobody which henceforth becomes his appellation and loyal companion to Blake due to sharing the name of the English poet and painter who became a counterculture icon. The rest of the film is similar to a standard Western chase film like The Searchers. There are twists though. Blake's wound leads tThe Searcherso hallucinations and Nobody seem to have knowledge of Indian mysticism. One of the assassins is also a cannibal.

Throughout the film, Depp undergoes a transformation from a milquetoast tenderfoot to a proficient and cool-under-fire gunslinger. Gunslinger is not the right term as he is an unwilling participant in all of his encounters.

I enjoyed Dead Man more than El Topo but both were two metaphorical for my tastes.


[1] Rosenbaum, Jonathan (1996-06-26). "Acid Western: Dead Man". Chicago Reader.

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