THE BOOTLEG FILES: “EL TOPO”

One of the most influential movies of the 1970s has not been in official U.S. release for roughly three decades. It is widely regarded today as a classic of avant-garde filmmaking, but in America it can only be appreciated on bootleg videos. The film in question is Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1970 “El Topo” and its importance was not so much within the parameters of the actual production but in the way it was sold to American audiences.

The exact meaning of “El Topo” has been debated for a long time and there is still no common consensus regarding its purpose. The main plotline involves a gunman in black leather (played by Jodorowsky) who sets out to kill four master gunfighters, only later to rediscover himself within the tenets of extreme religious faith. Or something like that. “El Topo” is packed with surreal and frequently grotesque images which range from the exploitative (a gunfighter consists of a deformed duo tied together: a man without legs who is strapped to the torso of a man without arms) to the disturbing (the gunfighter rides through the desert with his naked young son — the boy’s lack of clothing is never explained) to the silly (visual sight gags involving priests being tied up by bandits). I will confess that “El Topo” is not among my favorite films, but I’m not here to barbecue it and thus I will refrain from making any personal comments about the work.

“El Topo” was the highest grossing film in Mexico for its time and American audiences first saw it at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1970. Among those who saw and loved the film was John Lennon, and he quickly contacted Allen Klein (the Beatles’ final manager) to acquire the film for release. Klein was not a movie distributor, but strangely he accepted Lennon’s suggestion and bought the U.S. rights. This included the music rights, and the soundtrack was subsequently released on the Beatles’ Apple Records label.

But selling “El Topo” as a commercial release was going to be tricky. While Mexican audiences appreciated the film’s outlandish visuals and deranged sense of humor, Americans did not seem ready to embrace such a movie. Klein decided to open the film in New York but chose to break all the known rules of distribution at the time: there would be very little advertising and promotion, and the film would be shown only once a day. The daily screening, however, would be in what was traditionally the worst hour on the clock for attracting audiences.

And thus, the midnight movie was born. Whereas later versions of the midnight movie concentrated only on Friday and Saturday showcases, “El Topo” played every night at 12am. Word of mouth quickly spread when news got out that celebrities including John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Dennis Hopper were turning out to see “El Topo” at midnight. In an interview with L.A. Weekly, Ben Barenholtz (the theater manager who booked “El Topo”) recalled the film’s rapid popularity: “Within two months, the limos lined up every night. It became a must-see item.”

But why? During this era, it was not uncommon for many moviegoers to seek out films that could be viewed through a narcotic haze. Films like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the re-release of “Fantasia” were known to attract stoner audiences who got high while viewing the trippy images on the screen. “El Topo” played out like a Western on acid, and more than a few viewers were anything but clean and sober when they paid their admission.

Beyond the druggies, the notion of seeing a weird movie at a weird hour had a distinct novelty appeal. “El Topo” did not seem like the kind of movie that daytime audiences would seek out (in fact, Klein later attempted to distribute the film the normal way and it flopped). But watching an edgy, eccentric flick at midnight had a fun appeal: staying up past a normal bedtime to see something that could not thrive in the regular daytime world.

Other theaters around the U.S. quickly booked “El Topo” as a midnight attraction and the film’s notoriety spread. Jodorowsky was even invited to be a guest on “The Tonight Show,” though reportedly Johnny Carson found his conversation to be perplexing and frequently incomprehensible. Klein and Jodorowsky agreed to work on a new production which Klein would finance. The movie was to be called “The Holy Mountain” and it would follow along the avant-garde lines of “El Topo.”

But at this point in the story, something went terribly wrong. Jodorowsky’ s “The Holy Mountain” proved to be a disastrous endeavor. Dennis Hopper was originally cast as the star but quit following a dispute with the director (who took over his role). The shooting schedule was disrupted when the production was mysteriously forced to relocate from Mexico to America. The finished film was so poorly received that even midnight movie audiences who embraced “El Topo” refused to see it. Klein had a flop on his hands and he made matters worse by insisting that “El Topo” (which was still playing in midnight movie showcases) could only be rented if theaters also ran “The Holy Mountain.” Very few did.

Relationships frayed between Jodorowsky and Klein and the latter withdrew both “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain” from U.S. release. To date, neither film can be officially shown in the U.S. and Klein has been quoted as saying he will only re-release “El Topo” after Jodorowsky dies.

Around the time of the Klein-Jodorowsky feud, other films emerged to take priority in the midnight movie circuit: “Pink Flamingos,” “The Night of the Living Dead,” “Eraserhead,” the re-release of “Reefer Madness” and festivals of Three Stooges and Our Gang shorts, and (of course) “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” These offerings reigned at midnight in theaters across the U.S. through the late 1980s, at which time home video virtually killed off the genre when these wild and crazy movies became available for endless private viewing. In certain theaters, midnight movies are still around and thriving; one theater in New York has been playing “Donnie Darko” as a midnight movie for the past two years, while another New York venue has revived the X-rated classic “Flesh Gordon.”

Jodorowsky’s film career never truly recovered from his falling out with Klein. He made three subsequent movies, none of which captured the audience imagination of “El Topo,” and his attempt to create a feature film based on Frank Herbert’s “Dune” never got off the ground. For the most part, he has focused on publishing and has even claimed to be planning an “El Topo” sequel with Johnny Depp and Marilyn Manson. But nothing has come of that.

And “El Topo”? To date, the Klein-Jodorowsky feud has kept the film out of circulation. In 2001, Jodorowsky issued this statement in regards to persistent inquiries about the fate of his beloved movie: “Allen Klein insists to prevent my movies from being shown. Now he’s trying to bring me into a trial for having shown my movies in some festivals and (in) pirated copies. It would be good that all the people who admire my work demand life-time jail for Klein, under the charge of cultural murder. Killing a work of art is as monstrous as killing a human being. For 25 years now, Klein has prohibited the public to see “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain.” He has destroyed the original negatives. It would be necessary to have a worldwide campaign against him and his crimes. Please translate this message in all possible languages and send it to as many people as you can. We will establish the existence of cultural crime against humanity. Allen Klein is a criminal, together with his accomplice lawyers. All of them deserve punishment and prison.”

The only way Americans can see “El Topo” today is by bootleg video. The most widely circulated bootleg is based on a Japanese laserdisc version; the film is dubbed in English and has Japanese subtitles (the original film was Spanish with English subtitles). It is also a pan-and-scan version and some copies are less than visually pristine. Try to avoid this one.

The original Spanish-language version can be obtained via Shocking Videos (www.revengeismydestiny.com), and this version is also easier on the eyes. An Italian label recently issued the letterboxed version of the film and this can be obtained from several Italian DVD e-commerce sites. The web site Subterranean Cinema (www.subcin.com) has the full text of the screenplay plus sound wav files from the movie.

It would be nice to imagine that “El Topo” will be back soon in official American release. But until Jodorowsky and Klein kiss and make up, it will have to stay at home in The Bootleg Files.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on April 23, 2004 in Features by
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