Landscape, imagery and symbolism in Alejandro Jodorowsky's 'El Topo'

Melia, Matthew (2020) Landscape, imagery and symbolism in Alejandro Jodorowsky's 'El Topo'. In: Broughton, Lee, (ed.) Reframing cult westerns : From The Magnificent Seven to The Hateful Eight. London, U.K. : Bloomsbury Academic. pp. 93-110. ISBN 9781501343490


This chapter offers a discussion of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s transgressive cult western El Topo (Mexico, 1970) and its presentation of the desert landscapes and wastelands of Mexico as a spaces of metamorphosis, apocalypse and extinction and it argues that the film is as preoccupied with the traditions of the European post war theatrical avant-garde as it is in the popular cinematic traditions of such directors as Sergio Leone or John Ford. Jodorowsky’s formative years were spent in post war Paris mixing with the left wing, post war intellectual milieu. It was here that he formed his working relationship with the playwright Fernando Arrabal, came into contact with the Theatre of the Absurd and the work of Irish dramatist and writer Samuel Beckett and absorbed the influence of Antonin Artaud and the Theatre of Cruelty. This chapter argues that one of the many ways in which El Topo displaces the western, distancing it from its generic roots, is by filtering the genre through the prism of this post war intellectual milieu. I will discuss how Jodorowsky locates the film within a landscape which is resonant with the landscapes of both Beckett and Artaud, as well as noting also how the director deliberately and knowingly incorporates Beckettian and Artaudian imagery within the film’s mise-en-scene, scattering these images across the this brutal, arid, existential landscape. Drawing on research carried out in the archives of the British Film Institute as well as the work of critics and writers such as Ben Cobb, J.Hoberman; Jonathan Rosenbaum, Stephen Barber; Christopher Frayling, Doyle Green; Jim Knowlon, Austin Fisher and others, the chapter seek to present an understanding of the landscape in El Topo: its imagery and symbols, the ways in which it deconstructs and distances the myths of the Hollywood Western through its marriage to a seemingly disparate cultural context. It will offer an in depth discussion of how Jodorowsky engages the aesthetic, revolutionary and aesthetic concerns of both Antonin Artaud and Samuel Beckett. Drawing critically on texts such as Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier, the chapter will discuss the journey of the gunfighter through the space of the landscape as well as the presentation the grotesque and absurd body in relation to this wasted landscape and consider how the landscape becomes a contested space of violence, corporeal assault, decay, change and metamorphosis. Keywords: El Topo, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Westerns, Samuel Beckett, Antonin Artaud, avant-garde, the absurd, theatre, cruelty, Waiting for Godot

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