This week, Boing Boing is presenting a series of essays about movies that have had a profound effect on our invited essayists. See all the essays in the Mind Blowing Movies series here. — Mark
Mind Blowing Movies: El Topo (1970), by Antero Alli
The first film to truly blow my mind was Jodorowsky's El Topo, which I saw soon after its release in the early '70s. Up until then I assumed that all films were made for entertainment purposes only. However, as a twenty-something, former acidhead living in Berkeley, California, my young mind was freshly imprinted to remain open to the symbolic levels of existence. Whether the "meaning" behind things whispered cosmic secrets to me or whether I made it all up mattered very little; what mattered to me was the freedom to not take everything so literally.
In the first ten minutes of this movie, I saw right away that if I viewed El Topo in any literalist way, I would experience it as a mediocre spaghetti western, softcore quasi-snuff film. But after I shifted into a more symbolist way of seeing, the film unfolded before my eyes like an animated magical Kaballah.
The main character was now The Ego on a spiritual journey to encounter and defeat four "masters," which revealed themselves to me as Body, Heart, Intellect, and Spirit. In this story, the Ego defeats the first three masters but is unexpected and indirectly defeated by Spirit. The Ego undergoes a death and awakens underground inside a hollow mountain filled with deformed humans that I saw as the Subconscious filled with distorted repressions of our human condition. Here, the Ego undergoes a series of initiatic encounters that leave him humbled and transformed. That's not the end of the movie but really, the beginning — it just got better and better after that.
I was utterly astonished, no, gobsmacked, by how the filmmaker seemed to be using cinema as a tool or device for altering perception and expanding consciousness and doing that without being preachy or timid. This was some hard-hitting, metaphysical voodoo visionary shit disguised as a mediocre spaghetti western, softcore quasi-snuff film! Was it Jodorowsy's brilliance or my own brilliance for seeing his film this way? Impossible to say — unless I asked Alexjandro Jodorowsky himself.
In the many interviews I've read of Jodorowsy discussing El Topo, I've never come across anything about him mentioning these interpretations haunting my psyche yet he speaks freely about his cinema acting as a drug and as a means for transforming consciousness. What really blew my mind about El Topo was not all the mysticism and the stunningly original cinematography but how the film left me with a new way of seeing which, for me, was synonymous with "changing my life." Twenty years after seeing El Topo, I began my own filmmaking trajectory inspired by this same vision of using cinema as a means of transmission for initiating audiences into new ways of seeing — a direction informing my filmmaking processes ever since.