Alejandro Jodorowsky – The Finger and the Moon

The finger and the Moon" Zen Teachings and Koans

Alejandro JodorowskyThe Finger and the Moon: Zen Teachings and Koans [Le Doigt et la Lune
Histoires zen] (Alberto Tiburcio Urquiola trans.; Inner Traditions 2016 [1997])

In this book, filmmaker/poet/mime/comics author/etc. Alejandro Jodorowsky (Jodo) explores zen buddhism from a perspective heavily influenced by psychoanalysis.  He had met rinzai zen monk Ejo Takata in Mexico City long ago.  The historical background of how Jodo met Takata (and various other spiritual gurus, shamans and folk healers) is found in his other book The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky: The Creator of El Topo [El Maestro y Las Magas].  The Finger and the Moon reproduces traditional zen koans and some haiku, and then follows them with analysis.  Much of the analysis appears to be derived from — or at least heavily informed by — other published sources of “traditional” answers/interpretations.  Zen purists of course howl about how it is anti-zen to offer intellectual analyses of zen koans and such.  Humbug.  To me, the great value of this book is precisely that it steps outside of what zen (and its adherents) argues for itself (i.e., from a self-interested perspective), and tries to introduce some outside perspective.  Of course, Jodo is absolutely a proponent of zen teachings.  But he is willing to contemplate other ways of knowledge.

There are two points that, for me, help put zen buddhism into context:  social constructs and beautiful soul syndrome.

First, let me explain what I mean by “social constructs”.  Essentially this refers to the existence of three categories of knowledge.  First, there are “objective facts”.  This category includes scientifically-measurable things, like the mass of a paperclip.  Second, there are “purely subjective” things.  This category includes arbitrary individual thoughts, feelings, and the like, such as selecting a favorite color.  Third, there are “social constructs”.  This category includes social systems and institutions that are established by groups of people and not reducible to one individual’s arbitrary choices, such as laws, language, and the like.

How do social constructs relate to zen buddhism?  Well, at least as Jodo explains it, zen practice amounts to a rejection of social constructs, on an individual basis.  In other words, adherents are encouraged to recognize social constructs as arbitrary and beyond their individual control, and are further encouraged to attach no significance to them.  This is buddhist “detachment”.  So for, example, zen traditions utilize koans and often the traditional answers reject the use of language (intellect).  This is at least partly because language is a social construct.

But is it really a good thing that people reject social constructs entirely and permanently?  Put another way, if social constructs are totally rejected, are there still problematic “objective facts” and/or “purely subjective” things?  First some examples from popular culture.

In a season eight (2018) episode of the TV show Portlandia, there is a comedy sketch in which a woman living in an apartment building has concerns about a neighbor across the hall.  She hears loud noises, and suspects foul play.  But the neighbor smiles and assures her everything is fine.  Then one day, her suspicions are confirmed.  The police arrive to arrest the neighbor.  He is a serial killer.  But the neighbor smiles and explains to the police that he is just being true to himself.  So the police shrug and leave him be (advising the woman that she should probably move)!  The point here is, of course, that individual subjective perspectives cannot be given free reign in any sort of society anyone would want to live in (and society does exist, contrary to what Margaret Thatcher has said).

Another example is the film Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring, in which a main character is a buddhist monk.  A commentary on the film by philosopher Slavoj Žižek explains how the categories of “social constructs” and “purely subjective” things are related (reflexive):

“In his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel wrote that evil resides in the very gaze that perceives evil all around itself. Does Kim Ki-duk’s film not provide a perfect case of this insight? Evil is not just man’s possessive lust; evil is also the very detached gaze of the monk, which perceives possessive lust as evil. This is what, in philosophy, we call reflexivity: the standpoint from which we condemn a state of things can be itself part of this state of things.”

This ties in somewhat with the problems that some zen monasteries have with sexual abuse and the like.  And it is a bit like the Portlandia sketch:  it is possible — and necessary — to put a larger box around individual subjective thoughts and feelings, because they are reflexive and partly socially determined.

Taking the Hegelian critique of zen further, again drawing from Phenomenology of Spirit, we arrive at the concept of the “beautiful soul syndrome”.  It is a problem of certain people claiming to stand apart from evil, as a strategy for asserting a particular kind of social standing.  Žižek explains it this way:

“They play the Beautiful Soul, which feels superior to the corrupted world while secretly participating in it: they need this corrupted world as the only terrain where they can exert their moral superiority.”

But Jodo’s book offers excellent explanations of how “true” enlightenment goes beyond this.  Instead, he says, “When the self ceases to exist, the world exists.”  This is more like psychoanalysis, which is mostly about coming to terms with one’s own mortality.  I don’t think he means that in a literal or nihilistic way, but as a recognition of the arbitrariness of pure subjectivity — this is elaborated in his other book The Dance of Reality: A Psychomagical Autobiography.  So he writes extensively here about how people should accept their circumstances and avoid seeking power and superiority.  He also candidly suggests that he has not reached enlightenment, and questions whether anyone really has.  He makes no claim to being a “beautiful soul” standing apart from the corrupted world, but acknowledges his part in an imperfect reality.

Though, on the other hand, Jodo rejects certain tenets of psychoanalysis too.  Jodo goes on and on about happiness, though psychoanalysis rejects this.

“In our daily lives, we (pretend to) desire things which we do not really desire, so that, ultimately, the worst thing that can happen is for us to get what we officially desire. Happiness is thus inherently hypocritical: it is the happiness of dreaming about things we really do not want.”

The larger point here, which is not very well drawn in Jodo’s book, is that detachment from social constructs is never permanent.  But attempts at detachment, and perhaps temporary detachment, allow both the individual recognition of attachments to social constructs and — most importantly — a choice of attachments to social constructs.  Such choice is not always (or even usually) a happy one.  It is difficult.  In zen, the tendency is to detach from certain social constructs while bracketing out others from the field of view, leaving them in place but immunized from scrutiny.  Moreover, in “A Definition of Zen,” a master repeats the same definition as the disciple, but it is different because the master is “enlightened” while the disciple is not.  It is interesting to look at this from the standpoint of sociology.  In the book Language & Symbolic PowerPierre Bourdieu discusses the hypothetical christening of a new ship, in which a town mayor was to read a speech and break a bottle of champagne on the ship’s hull.  What if, before the planned event, a random person sneaks up and reads script for the mayor’s speech and breaks the champagne bottle on the ship’s hull?  Is the ship christened, or does the other person lack the symbolic authority to do so?  What does “enlightenment” mean from this perspective?  Is it just a social position of symbolic power? One that zen “masters” seek to immunize from scrutiny?  Some of this might also be critiqued from the standpoint of Fredric Jameson‘s notion of the “vanishing mediator”, with the sort of real, authentic master being one who disappears.

Injecting the perspective of psychoanalysis (or sociology, or whatever) helps to bring back into view the disavowed social constructs on which zen practice relies.  Even if Jodo stops short of drawing all these conclusions, his book suggests asking these sorts of questions and offers meaningful attempts to problematize the tacit assumptions of zen practice.  For instance, for one of the last koans in the book, “Tchau-Tcheu Tests an Old Woman,” he explains how even zen “masters” were male chauvinists who offered sexist “teachings” while supposedly “enlightened”.

The discourse of the master supposedly declined over the 20th Century. Jodo seeks a revival, but in a reformulated way.  In fact, as a “guide” to leadership, this book probably belongs up there with stuff like F.G. Bailey‘s Humbuggery and Manipulation: The Art of Leadership, a good biography of Lenin (plus his writings), and ThucydidesHistory of the Peloponnesian War.  This book does a lot to highlight unusual techniques and the limits of some leadership styles — if one reads closely and between the lines, that is.  Its strength in that regard is that it is not trying to be a book on leadership!

Anyone demanding a purist zen book will be disappointed (though, of course, such expectations are anti-zen).  But readers seeking to uncover wisdom for themselves may find some valuable tools and assistance here.

Poesía sin fin [Endless Poetry]

Poesía sin fin [Endless Poetry]

Poesía sin fin [Endless Poetry] (2016)

Satori Films

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Main Cast: Adan Jodorowsky, Pamela Flores, Brontis Jodorowsky

This is the best new(-ish) film I can remember seeing, a fact bolstered by watching the horrendous Star Wars: The Last Jedi at a second-run theater shortly after it.  This autobiographical work draws from the second part of The Dance of Reality: A Psychomagical Autobiography (2001), and chronologically follows Alejandro Jodorowsky’s previous film La danza de la realidad [The Dance of Reality] (2013), which also drew from his autobiography.  This is not a conventional, “accurate” or “realistic” autobiographical picture.  Some scenes are altered from their historical sources, and most of the film represents stylized exaggerations of real-life events for artistic effect.  While this can definitely be called Felliniesque — Amarcord, Satyricon and 8 1/2 being perhaps the closest counterparts — everything here is unique to Jodo and nothing can really be said to be copied from Fellini or anyone else.  Jodo’s predilection for combining psychoanalysis and shamanism completely and irrevocably marks his own style.  But perhaps it suffices to say this is about as good as Fellini at his best.

The film opens with Jodorowsky in his teens, still living in Tocopilla, Chile.  Jeremias Herskovits reprises his role as the young Jodo.  But his family relocates to Santiago.  He develops a love of poetry.  Eventually he runs away from home and is taken in by kindred spirits at a kind of artist commune.  There he works on his poetry and begins making puppets for a puppet show he presents with a friend.  He cultivates relationships with local poets and spends time in bars recreated here with surreal decor.  He then is given a loft apartment, by chance, where he comes into himself as a young adult.  A particularly moving scene is the very end of the film.  This is where Jodorowsky decides to leave Chile for France.  His father meets him at the port as he is leaving.  In real life, he never saw his father or other family members again.  But here, as a kind of narrator, he steps in to ask his younger self to forgive his father and insist on a different interaction with the father character.  The film is historical, but also a dialog with the director’s own past, as a kind of quest to confront and overcome his own mistakes.  Numerous scenes depart from the way Jodo described them in his earlier book The Dance of Reality.  While sometimes that means the filmic depiction is exaggerated, in some instances things are toned down to be more presentable on screen.

One recurring effect is the presence of stage hands dressed entirely in black, including gloves and full-head hoods.  These stage hands take things from the actors’ hands and hand them other things.  Familiar in theater productions, here the effect is to consciously direct the audience to the symbolic significance of characters’ actions on screen and to heighten emphasis on the characters’ emotional states.  Another device used repeatedly is the active unveiling and movement of life-size black-and-white posters of buildings and a train.  These convey the past in a kind of distant echo, real yet unreal.  They allude to the past while recognizing that events can’t be fully re-created, only conjured up from vague memories from a new perspective.  Then the end of the film features a crowd, half dressed in skeleton costumes and half dressed in red devil costumes.  The skeletons appear elsewhere in the film too.  These images are striking and indelible.

Jodorowsky’s wife Pascale Montandon-Jodorowsky provides lighting, color and costume contributions.  All of these aspects are particularly striking and effective.  His son Aden plays his teenage self, and his oldest son Brontis reprises his role as his father.  Pamaela Flores reprises her role as his mother, again singing all her lines in an operatic style, but she also portrays the poet Stella Díaz Varín, Jodo’s first girlfriend.

This is a somewhat smaller-budget film.  Moviemaking is an industrial art, demanding substantial funds.  It is simply not possible to realize certain things without money.  Jodorowsky is quite open about his outsider status as a filmmaker, and his acceptance that his quest to make art for art’s sake places him squarely in opposition to the profit-focused Hollywood machine.  He ran out of funds mid-way through filming Endless Poetry, and raised the remaining funds through a “crowdfunding” campaign.  While there is the potential to see his efforts as self-aggrandizing, taking Jodo’s mysticism — drawn from zen buddhism, the tarot, and elsewhere — at face value, he doesn’t hesitate to work on his own personal “inner” growth, or to use himself as an example — good or bad — for others.  This attests to some sort of more noble purpose.  Returning to the Last Jedi comparison, this film presents a much more worthwhile exploration of a master/apprentice framework, particularly in the way Jodo appears directly as a kind of narrator.  The Last Jedi is sub-moronic in that respect, when you get down its anti-zen “striving” narrative.  These elements become even more pronounced in later parts of Jodo’s real life.

Jodo is still only part way through film adaptations of the book The Dance of Reality, and that isn’t even counting his other memoirs about episodes of his adult life like The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky.  Supposedly he plans a five film cycle, of which this is the second.  Though it does seem that the third installment is underway in some form.

Being more about Jodo’s inner struggles to “become himself” when he a teenager, rather than being about his father, makes this just a bit more interesting than its predecessor The Dance of Reality.  The visuals are also more extravagant and memorable here.  This is why movies are made!

Julia Yepes – The Eternal Search of the Jodorowskys

Link to an interview of Alejandro Jodorowsky, Adan Jodorowsky, and Pascale Montandon-Jodorowsky conducted by Julia Yepes:

“The Eternal Search of the Jodorowskys”


Bonus links: Endless Poetry: Alejandro Jodorowsky on the Freedom of Losing Money, and Making Movies at 88″ and “A Beginner’s Guide to Alejandro Jodorowsky, the Magus of Cinema”

Alejandro Jodorowsky on Psychomagic

Alejandro Jodorowsky on “psychomagic”, from his book, The Dance of Reality: A Psychomagical Autobiography (2001):

“[M]ost of the problems we have, we want to have.  We are attached to our problems.  They form our identity.  We define ourselves through them.  It is no wonder, then, that some people try to distort the act and try to devise ways to sabotage it: getting free of problems involves radically changing our relationship with ourselves and with the past.  People want to stop suffering, but are not willing to pay the price — namely, to change, to not keep living as a function of their beloved problems.”  (p.313)

“The trainer has to teach [the subconscious] to obey.  This is difficult; in fact, people fall ill because they have a painful problem that they cannot solve or become conscious of.  They want to be treated — but not cured.  Although they ask for help, they then struggle to stop that help from being effective.”  (p. 281).

The most unusual aspect of “psychomagic” is the method of treatment, by “psychomagical acts” that “induce people to act in the midst of what they conceive[] as their reality” (p. 312):

“Once the subconscious decides that something should happen, it is impossible for the individual to inhibit or completely sublimate the impulse.  Once the arrow is launched, one cannot make it return to the bow.  The only way to free oneself from the impulse is to fulfill it…but this can be done metaphorically.” (p. 333).

“The patient must make peace with her subconscious, not becoming independent of it but making it an ally.” (p. 311).

“[T]he psychomagician presents himself only as a technical expert, as an instructor, and devotes himself to explaining to the patient the symbolic meaning and purpose of every act.  The client knows what he or she is doing.  All superstition has been eliminated.  However, as soon as one begins to perform the prescribed acts, reality begins dancing in a new way.” (p. 316).

If psychomagic were to be summarized, it would be important to note that it is mostly about taking ritual folk medicine and adapting it to appeal to educated urban-dwellers.  See also “interpassivity” (which distinguishes illusion from magic: “Magic thus presupposes that the magician does not take a symbolic act for real. In case that someone does that, if he takes a purely symbolic act for a real act, he succumbs to an illusion, but does not practice magic.”  In a way, psychomagic attempts to move a “patient” from illusion to magic to grant them conscious control).

The Holy Mountain

The Holy Mountain

The Holy Mountain (1973)


Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Main Cast: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Horacio Salinas

Alajandro Jodorowsky is really one the the most unique film directors of his time.  The Holy Mountain opens much like The One Thousand and One Nights (especially Raoul Wash‘s The Thief of Bagdad), with a thief (Horacio Salinas) cavorting about a town.  The town is a bit heavy on religious and military pomp (recalling both Fellini and Costa-Gavras‘ political thriller Z).  There is much other symbolism, including characters modeled on Tarot cards.  But then the thief hops aboard a hook being pulled up a minaret-like tower and enters the mysterious structure.  A cloaked alchemist figure (Alejandro Jodorowsky) disarms the knife-wielding thief and then makes him his apprentice, telling him, “You are excrement; you can turn yourself into gold.”  This, of course, in the premise of modern psychoanalysis.

The alchemist, acting as a “master” (Jodorowsky describes the character as “a sort of hybrid of Gurdjieff and the magician Merlin“), then introduces a montage of scenes describing his other disciples.  These are powerful, wealthy figures, and yet, also the most outrageously surreal representations of society’s worst traits: domination, deception, decadence, exploitation.  He summons them and they ceremonially burn their money and effigies.  They set out on a quest to find the mythic Holy Mountain upon which hermits who know the secret of immortality have supposedly lived for thousands of years.  They plan to capture the hermits and appropriate the secret.

The rest of the film is a surreal vision of an adventure movie, supposedly taking inspiration from René Daumal‘s novel Mount Analogue: A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing.  A girl (Ana de Sade) with a monkey follows the master and his disciples.  On the journey, the group is confronted with a series of tests to provoke subjective destitution, to surrender worldly desires.  The master convinces disciples to kill him, literally and symbolically (though with a laugh, he is killed only symbolically in one scene despite literal intentions).  The thief winds up with the girl with the monkey.  Although Jodorowsky wanted the film to end in a paradise scene filmed in a Mexican restaurant with a woman (actually) giving birth on camera, the pregnant woman backed out at the last minute, scuttling those plans.  Instead, the film ends in an equally remarkable way.  The master orders the camera to zoom back, revealing the film equipment surrounding the actors — what is known in cinema as “breaking the fourth wall.”

Much like in Jodorowsky’s immediately prior film, the western El Topo, there is much emphasis on traversing the fantasies of religion (especially) and cultural desires.  Jodorowsky very much makes his films according to Antonin Artaud‘s vision of a “theater of cruelty,” producing shocking, bizarre scenes to derange and assault the senses of viewers in the hopes of making them traverse their own psychological fantasies.  Viewers are meant to be surprised by what they see, to encourage them to cut the Gordian knot of their own ingrained habits of thought imposed by culture (and especially by family).  There is little doubt most viewers have never scene a movie quite like this!  Yet for as much as he breaks down mythic cultural institutions and the illusions that symbolically bind individuals, he refashions mystic processes in an atheistic way.  Here, he is concerned with a kind of frontier justice that fights symbolic problems with symbolic weapons, though later in life he changed his methods somewhat into what he calls “psychomagic”, a kind of “shamanic psychotherapy” — which perhaps can be described as using poetic rituals to self-administer metaphorical fulfillment of desires, to free the people burdened by those desires to engage reality on their own terms.

If there is any other artist worth comparing to Jodorowsky, aside from Artaud and perhaps Yoko Ono and Carlos Castaneda, it might be the jazz bandleader Sun Ra.  In a documentary, an associate said that Jodorowsky liked to work in areas beyond his knowledge  Sun Ra made an album called Strange Strings in which he instructed the performers this way: “We’re going to play what you don’t know and what you don’t know is huge.”  While Sun Ra dealt in Afro-futurism, and especially Egyptian and outer-space mythology, Jodorowsky has a different set of things he draws from, like the Tarot.  They both nonetheless share a very communal, mutually-supportive practice that draws on the strangeness of mythology and exoticism to promote self-empowerment and liberation.  Contemporary philosophers like Alain Badiou like to talk about the need for positive statements about the world.  Isn’t Jodorowsky exactly that?

Jodorowsky had difficulty funding many of his later film ideas, with his ambitious attempt to film a version of the sci-fi novel Dune falling apart before shooting began — recounted in the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013).  It took him almost a decade before he actually completed his next feature, Tusk (1980), and it was not until the horror film Santa Sangre (1989) that he really made something with close to full artistic control.  He turned to writing comics and books instead of films when funding was not available.  This seems partly a matter of the idealism that peaked in the late 1960s fading away.  Jodorowsky’s work certainly sits in opposition to everything that the celebrity-driven, corporate, commodified mass culture of the following few decades.

While a dispute with the film’s distributor kept The Holy Mountain from widespread view for decades, it has become available again.  It is quite a film, and its “comeback” has brought well-deserved attention to an artistic method that presents a substantially different approach than the mainstream.  Love it or hate it, this won’t be a film easily forgotten.

El Topo

El Topo

El Topo (1970)

Producciones Panic

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Main Cast: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Brontis Jodorowsky, José Legarreta

For most viewers, El Topo (English translation: The Mole) will be the most bizarre western they have ever seen, and maybe even the most unusual movie of any genre they have ever seen.  It has developed a cult following, and promoters claim it initiated the tradition of “midnight movies”, though a long dispute between the writer/director/star Alejandro Jodorowsky and the eventual distributor Allen Klein kept the movie largely unseen for decades.  Although there are plenty of interpretations floating around, some sympathetic and some not, it is a movie that actually makes perfect sense from the standpoint of psychoanalysis (Jodorowsky studied psychology for a time).

Many interpretations see the movie as being about spiritual enlightenment.  Maybe it is. But it is worth taking an entirely unsentimental look at it so see what other interpretations are possible.

The film opens with the black-clad gunfighter El Topo (Jodorowsky) riding into a small village on his horse with his naked son.  The village has been ransacked, and there is blood and death everywhere.  Jodorowsky locates the criminals responsible — they are led by a military officer.  El Topo renders frontier justice and frees the surviving monks from the village and a woman.  He leaves his son with the monks, and rides off with the woman.  She convinces him to seek out and defeat four master gunfighters in the desert.  He does so, and, finding them superior in skill, defeats them through trickery or luck.  There is symbolism all over the movie.  It is exaggerated symbolism, often religious.  The master gunfighters each resemble a different religion.  Along the way a black-clad woman whose voice is overdubbed with that of a man joins the pair.  The last master that El Topo “defeats” actually kills himself, to prove to that his life means nothing.  The woman in black then shoots El Topo, and his body is taken away by a band of physically handicapped or deformed people.

In the second half of the film, El Topo, now with a long beard and resembling some kind of spiritual guru, awakens from a long coma in a cave.  He is living among the oddball people, who have been sealed in the cave by the residents of a nearby town.  He is able to free the people from the cave eventually, after working as a street performer to beg for money to support them (Jodorowsky had studied as a mime).  He is something of a Gandhian, of sorts.  But upon releasing the prisoners of the cave, the townspeople murder them.  This is a brutal representation of what social elites always do — segregate other classes, and when any possibility of upclassing and escape from ghettoization seems possible they take away that possibility through any means necessary.

Film scholars debate whether Jodorowsky is faithful to his overtly acknowledged influence from Antonin Artaud‘s “theater of cruelty”.  He might be, or might not.  The surrealist use of symbolism, in a way that both crystalizes and degenerates the meaning of those symbols, presents interesting fodder for that debate at the least.  So many of the characters seem almost like Jungian archetypical images, essential representations of elements of a collective unconscious.  Yet they live and die before us in the film.  They are given gaudy, dramatic representation.  But their deaths and flippant usage in the film suggests they are not eternal archetypes.

Jodorowsky is routinely dismissed by certain film critics as a charlatan.  This is a rather common occurrence for an artist with anarchist tendencies.  Such a position is (rightly) perceived as a threat to the status of critics, etc. who attempt to distinguish themselves on the basis of their position within an established social hierarchy.  Jodorowsky is overtly attacking religions, of all kinds, and with it the very concept of a path pre-defined by a social hierarchy.  But more than that, he also seems insistent that something else must be put in the vacant space, without demanding or asserting what that something else should be, precisely.  The only demand, as such, is for the audience to work at the question.

It may be worth contrasting El Topo with Hermann Hesse‘s novel Siddartha (1922).  Hesse’s protagonist leads a spiritual journey through asceticism, then hedonism, then to a middle way that finds him working as a ferryman at a river crossing.  This end is a negation of self.  The protagonist finds enlightenment.  The book adopts aspects of hinduism, but is primarily buddhist.  El Topo, in contrast, does not end with the protagonist finding enlightenment.  He fails, if that is seen as his goal.  But, he also goes from a gunfighter who really exists only to kill, to someone who takes a non-violent, self-sacrificing approach to helping others, falling back to killing (killing the wicked) before he then turns to kill himself, the killer.  What is so different from Hesse is that Jodorowosky does not endorse a particular religion.  He stages the “deaths” of the major religions, through the symbolic confrontations with the master gunfighters.  The second half of his film takes place in the main character’s post-religious existence.  He is burdened with the task of finding meaning that is not provided for him.  Rather than simply regulating his empathy — not too much or too little, which is really what the “middle way” of buddhism is about — he tries to care for others and materially change their circumstances for the better.

But what El Topo does is to illustrate a very post-modern idea that through failure success eventually emerges.  El Topo may die failing to save the people from the cave, but when he dies, a beehive appears, just as upon the death of each of the master gunfighters in the desert.  He does not find any final answer or enlightenment, but just as the movie goes on after all of the first four master gunfighters die, there is the implication that there is more beyond the death of El Topo.  His children survive to go on into the world further.  His ultimate act is to destroy himself.  His life, at the close of the film, is a negation.

The sort of definite resolution of a novel like Siddartha was rejected by many filmmakers in the 1970s.  El Topo is one such example.  Others are Federico Fellini’s Fellini Satyricon (1969), a Jungian interpretation of Petronius‘ fragmentary ancient Roman “novel” Satyricon that is one of the very few cinematic precedents for El Topo, Pier Paolo Pasolini‘s unmade screenplay St Paul, about the founder of the christian church, and Nicolas Roeg‘s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), based on the book by Walter Tevis, about an alien who comes to Earth to save his home planet only to get lost in wealth, celebrity and hedonism.  Paul seeks to promote a revolutionary emancipation of christian believers, but ends up losing what he tries to advance under the weight of the contradictory pressures of the church as an institution.  The alien in Roeg’s film (played by David Bowie) amasses wealth to build a spaceship to go back to his home planet, but his amassed wealth brings about his downfall as it calls attention to his plans and he is stopped by the vested interests of the establishment.  Fellini said of Satyricon that his intent was “to eliminate the borderline between dream and imagination: to invent everything and then to objectify the fantasy; to get some distance from it in order to explore it as something all of a piece and unknowable.”  There is much dreamlike symbolism of that sort in El Topo as well.  Pasolini’s screenplay is the closest reference point to El Topo’s actions.  The collective unity through christian ideals of “holy spirit” are ultimately incompatible with the institution of the church, yet are still noble efforts worthy of revisiting — Pasolini’s script transposed Paul’s life into the WWII era, with Nazis in place of Romans.  El Topo tries to change the circumstances of the cave people, but he ultimately can’t change the bigoted townspeople who first trapped the others in the cave.  The desire to free the cave people was still a good and worthy goal, but El Topo failed to achieve it.  Just as in the first part of the film, he kills the bad guys.  In this way, the failure is his own.  He fails to move beyond such actions.  Yet the entire thrust of the film is to suggest that one must try to fail, fail again, and fail better (to paraphrase Samuel Beckett).