Monday, March 19, 2007

El Topo & Tears of the Black Tiger

"The Long and Terrible Sadness"

El Topo

Dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky

Tears of the Black Tiger
Dir. Sasanatieng

[Viewed: From the Balcony]

Padraic Says:

This past week, Sean and I watched two movies that approached the western genre from very different perspectives. One movie featured an incoherent and rambling plot that included gratuitous amounts of violence, deformity, and cross-dressing, a naked seven-year-old who kills villains dispassionately, four monks being analy raped before being ridden into the sunset, an underground city of incestuous freaks and some of the most obvious (and, literally, tortured) biblical references I’ve ever seen on screen.

This was, by far, the better movie.

My initial plan had been to do a comparative report of El Topo (the rambling one) and Tears of the Black Tiger (the really, really bad one) because both films had attempted radical interpretations of the western and, well, because they were both playing in the Boston area in the same week. However, I don’t think it is fair to the incestuous freaks—or, for that matter, the gun toting ladies club, the drag queen Colonel, or the traitorous lesbians—to include them in a review with the truly horrible Tears of the Black Tiger, so Tears has been pushed to the end and El Topo will be reviewed in isolation. Sean, of course, can do whatever he wants with this.

Anyway, so the title character of El Topo is the archetypical anti-hero with a not-so-slight Messianic twist: good with the gun, laconic and surly, but also bearded, caring and ready to avenge any wrong inflicted on the weak. The first act features finds El Topo (played by Alejandro Jodorowsky, who also wrote the script and directed) tracking down the murderous Colonel, a balding and flabby loser who has somehow managed to create a cult of personality in this post-apocalyptic frontier. After dispatching of him and his sodomite minions in fine fashion, El Topo takes up the Colonel’s former wife Mara (Mara Lorenzio), an empty-eyed innocent who clearly dates the picture to the very end of the sixties.

In a simple but effective plot device, Mara convinces El Topo that he could be the greatest gunfighter in the land, but that he needs to defeat the four “masters” first. Each one, of course, is very different and has their own powers and tactics, but El Topo is able to defeat them through a combination of guile, gunplay, and luck. This idea is clearly just a way for Jodorowsky to introduce four really badass characters—it doesn’t connect to anything else in the film—but this leads to so many great scenes that you can excuse him for the arbitrary plot twist.

Even after exhausting two ideas that could serve as the basis for an entire film, El Topo still has another 80 minutes or so to go, and plot summary begins to become ridiculous. Though El Topo does defeat the masters (sort of), the consequences of his ruthless gunplay will be mixed, and he will spend the rest of the movie as a demigod, savior, prince, and jester for the aforementioned cave-dwellers. Though El Topo will ultimately lead his people out of the cave and into the Promised Land, their salvation will be short lived.

If this begins to seem like an odd collection of references (Plato’s Republic as well as both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles), you’re not alone. The movie, though compelling and original, is fairly obvious thematically, and therefore rarely rises above 60s acid-laced symbolism into anything transcendent. El Topo isn’t a great movie, and it isn’t even a great trippy movie, but it is an interesting movie, with enough honest-to-goodness pulp western features to offset its fairly sick (and I would argue false) picture of humanity. But if you have a free Friday or Saturday night, some cheap drugs (or, like Sean and I, some Canadian Club and ginger ale) and a fairly high tolerance for ugliness, check it out.

And now, en lieu of a review of Tears of the Black Tiger, a lament* in free verse:


Oh, El Topo,
where were you as
Sean and I watched
Tears of the Black Tiger, a
“long and terrible sadness.”

How I would have loved to see
you,
or your naked seven-year-old son,
kill the hero Dum
15 minutes in.

Oh, Black Tiger,
A.O. Scott called you “sincere,”
though your movie made a mockery of the western
and I don’t think your director,
Wisit Sasanatieng, even likes westerns,
or why would he fail to capture even the most basic point,
fun and adventure.

Instead, you offer false melodrama and bad music,
and the destruction of the western.

Technicolor and soft-focus do not a vision make
and I want to believe not all Thai cinema is
this bad…

…Oh, Dum, when you stare down El Topo at high noon,
I can only hope you shed the same tears as I…

*Note: this is a total rip-off of the Philadelphia Weekly’s tradition of panning movies with Haikus. But it is such a great idea, I had to borrow it.

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Sean Says:

Your first three sentences up there are hilarious and well-put, Paddy. Who’d have thought that John Lennon’s favorite drippingly pretentious, ultimately boring movie would be the one that beats the “dazzling”, “hallucinatory”, “good-natured”, “action-packed” romp. And it ain’t like it beat it out by much. But El Topo delivered on what Tiger did not. That is, giving you the quasi-psychedelic/surrealist western vibes that both movies promise, while presenting interesting characters in a decent story.

Tears of the Black Tiger did none of these things in abundance. God… Thinking about this movie just brings up boiling hate and to tell the truth I really can’t describe all the reasons why, but I’ll try to touch on some. I understand that the movie is supposed to be this kitschy throwback to the old westerns of yesteryear, but the main plot of the star-crossed lovers was excruciating. We start off with this fun little shootout where we meet our main cowboy characters and get an inventive death that shows off some tricky camera work. I’m thinking, All right, this is what I was hoping for – tongue-in-cheek action playing off all the conventions of the genre in a fun and entertaining way, all the while giving us cool hyper-colored/stylized Thai strangeness. That “all right” quickly leaves the theater, gets drawn and quartered, and spends the next two hours getting beaten with its own bloody stumps. Immediately following the opening shoot out we’re treated to one of the many excruciating montages the film pummels you with that either leads up to or is the result of some slathered on melodramatic moment revolving around this inane doomed relationship story. God, those fucking montages… and that same damn song over and over again… And like a sucker punch to your privates, every once in a while, in between montages, we’ll get another one of these over the top moments of violence. Oh, and that cool stylization wears off just as quickly too once the soft focus starts adding to the whole headache recipe. What are we doing here, Tiger? Are we playing with the conventions? Or strictly adhering to them in a masochistic way? I know westerns love montages and melodrama and having a theme song and sticking to it, but what gives? Where’s the fun?

El Topo at least gives you half a movie’s worth of fun right up front. Starting off with a series of great iconic images and throwing you head first into a great, simple western story – become the best gunfighter in town by taking out the competition. It even pays tribute to the genre that begat the western, the samurai movie, in an early scene where El Topo beats down a bad guy while using his rifle like a sword. Alejandro Jodorowsky is actually perfect for the mysterious stranger with the bare-assed kid wandering through the desert. This is due mostly to his ability to successfully hide behind his big white ball of facial hair – but hey, it works. And we find out soon enough that with the beard gone, so is Alejandro’s charisma. But the movie starts to decline really once we leave El Topo Jr. with the monks and pick up Mara. It’s interesting that you call her an “empty eyed innocent” when as far as the story goes she’s more like the crazy eyed psycho determined to corrupt and drag El Topo’s soul to the depths of hell.

Let me say before I wrap this up that I have a pretty high tolerance for pretentiousness in movies. Milius, von Trier, Vincent Gallo, Harmony Korine, Woody Allen, Coppola, Bergman, Fellini – this all stuff I find endlessly fascinating and see a lot of beauty in even in their ugliest moments. But imagine if Mel Gibson cast himself as Jesus and was beaten and crucified by a bunch of women in The Passion of the Christ and you get a sense of where El Topo dares to go. [I’m about to get a bit spoiler heavy for the rest of this paragraph folks.] I’m okay with the women he loves being the succubus that forces him down the path of evil. I’m all right with the whole cock rock thing, you want to beat us over the head with idea that the penis is the giver of life, ho-hum, ok. But then you’re going to tell us that it turns out the woman he loves would rather be a lesbian and together the two women crucify him? Yeah, that’s when the movie blew past my pretentious meter and into bizarre levels of misogyny. But it was reinforced even further when the cave dwellers he spends the second part of the movie freeing are uniformly cut down by rifle toting, angry, fearful, yes, women. The only woman not bringing death upon the people around them – a dwarf who loves El Topo unconditionally. Yeesh.

But hey, it was better than Tears of the Black Tiger.

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Padraic Takes it Home:

I really have to thank you Sean for actually trying to figure out why Tears was so terrible; I just didn’t have the stomach for it. One thing I would add is that the movie fails mostly because it doesn’t even work as a fun western. All of the actions sequences are terrible, with guys just lining up to be shot, and absolutely no thought is given to staging an intriguing gun battle. Sasanatieng (the director) does come close to giving a great kitschy western twist at the end, but it is ultimately marred by all the heavy music and stupid Hong Kong hyperviolence. Okay, I think that’s all I ever want to say about Tears again.

On El Topo, I disagree that the movie is misogynistic. Sure the women are mostly twisted and violent, but so is everyone else, from the Colonel and his henchman, to the cross-dressing sheriffs in town. If there is a target group, it isn’t women but the placid and civilized bourgeois. It’s not hard to see the counter-cultural elements here, the women with the guns at the end are just Jodorowsky’s version of the two country hicks who shoot down Captain America and Billy at the end of Easy Rider: convenient shorthand for the oppressive culture.

I think the pretentiousness charge has some merit, but the movie is just so blindingly obvious in its symbols (as most Surrealism is), that I laugh rather than cringe at most of the Christ references. This may be a bigger insult, but I have to think the days of Surrealism are beginning to look more silly and less ugly. I went to a Dali show in Philadelphia last year and the irony couldn’t have been greater; a bunch of middle age couples in fanny packs and headphones, looking at the work of a man who detested and feared these same people. Even some of the women had some of the creepy grins that recur as a motif in many of Dali’s paintings! I seriously doubt the bourgeois will be coming around to Jodorowsky anytime soon, but if they do, I think the freak-out factor will be long gone. They’ll just laugh or shake their head at the end and head for the parking garage.

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