It happens, every once in a while, that seeing a movie will energize me in a profound and productive way. I will go in my usual humdrum self, and I will come out two or three hours later knowing, with absolute certitude, that I have to change my life, and that in my grasp is a plan to do it.
It’s rare. The first time I actually noticed it was in 1981 or thereabouts, when I saw El Topo in a dumpy little movie theater in upstate New York. Originally released in 1970, El Topo is a deep ‘60s movie, an enigmatic and overtly symbolic Mexican western created by and starring the Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowski. I’m not sure why it was playing—it was at that time caught in 30 years of contention between Allen Klein, who had been manager of the Beatles, and everyone else on the planet who was not Allen Klein, and could not legally be shown. (Evidently Klein had a contract as producer to Jodorowsky, and turned against the director when he refused to make a pornographic film. Klein in retaliation blocked all distribution of the films he controlled. I think it’s generally known and safe to say that Allen Klein was an asshole of transcendent and incandescent skill and ability.) The screening I saw was an incredibly fortunate accident— It was unadvertised; I had seen a newspaper article stating that there would be one showing and one showing only, at midnight on a certain date. There was a legal or perhaps technical reason that it had to be shown in a theater; this was not intended as a rerelease.
I drove up in my brown Rabbit, no doubt smoking a cigarette, knowing the film by reputation as one of the great unseen weird masterpieces of the moment. I bought a single ticket and went in. I remember where I sat; there were maybe 20 people in the audience, half of whom were lawyers and half of whom were weirdos like me who had seen the article. I remember the lights going down.
It’s in Spanish. A gunslinger with long black hair and a black beard dressed entirely in black leather rides through a barren Western landscape. He comes across a massacre, finds the military man responsible, deballs (ugh) and kills him, rescues a girl the man had kept as a slave, and then is charged to kill this universe’s four greatest gunslingers, each of whom represent a different discipline. At some point our hero and the girl are joined by a female black-leather gunslinger with a man’s voice who guides them on their way. El Topo succeeds in his mission, but is betrayed by the two women who shoot him in an appropriately Christ-like manner and go off together.
But he’s not dead, and he wakes up, now with white hair and robes, in an underground city filled with mutants who regard him as their leader. He ultimately leads the mutants out of their underground prison to freedom, though he meets his own death in the process. His now-grown son, whom we had seen as a little boy in the beginning, takes on the mantle of black leather and rides off toward the horizon.
This thing makes all three of the Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns look like they were put together by the Care Bears. It’s magnificent, it’s deranged, it’s unwatchable and you can’t take your eyes off it. To call it acid-drenched would imply that it had little paisley curlicues all over it, and it doesn’t. It’s Christianity-drenched, and sun-drenched, and drug-drenched, and other-stuff-drenched, and it is truly one of a kind.*
I left the theater at 2:30 in the morning, walked back through the parking lot, got in my car, and thought: I have to get my shit together. I have to stop smoking, I have to finish my novel, I have to become the person I want to be and not be trapped by my bad decisions of the past.
And I did. It took a couple of years, but I haven’t had a cigarette since September 14, 1983. I finished the novel (it was Nightmare Logic; it took a bit longer, but it got done). Something about that movie gave me a tremendous surfeit of energy, rebounded my strength and allowed me to grab hold of the things that were wrong in my life and squeeze them until they got right.
Okay, this is where it gets weird: it happened again last week when I saw The Dark Knight Rises.
Boy, was I not expecting it to. I had no reason to suspect that I was going to feel anything but ambivalent, given the overall weird karma of this series— Heath Ledger, that idiot with the guns in Colorado. It was playing in my neighb, I had a free night, I like Batman, I went.
And sat there loving it. I didn’t want it to end. I know it’s long, too long in places, and some of the plot points dissolve with the application of logic, but I simply didn’t give a shit. I loved being in that universe, and when the screen went black at the end, I was honestly bummed that there was no more to watch.
And then I left the theater and began to think about all the things I should do to improve systems and performance at my job. A strong handful of initiatives crowded my mind, and I was filled with a surfeit of energy, and that energy carried me forward the next morning when I got to the office and has continued to illuminate my way for a week since.
Some people have Oprah. Some people trust in Joel Osteen or the Chicken Soup for the Soul guy. But when asked, I can truthfully say: Batman and El Topo. Self-management gurus that work for me.
*Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) was ripped off, in overall conception, arc of story, and visual execution, directly from El Topo (1970). Master Blaster in that movie—one of the bad guys Mel Gibson must fight, a dwarf sitting on a giant’s shoulders and acting as his “brain”—is a direct rip from El Topo. So, for that matter, is the entire second half of the movie—Mel Gibson awakens dressed in white in the subterranean caverns, amidst children whom regard him as a leader. He eventually leads them to freedom. I’m not sure why these parallels aren’t better known, but the entire movie is basically El Topo made mediocre and stupid.
Tina Turner excepted, of course, because whatever Tina Turner wants to do is fine.