Unbury The Past: LET THE CORPSES TAN And The Weird Western

Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani point back to an era of genre experimentation.

Get your tickets to Let the Corpses Tan here!

The best genre revivals engage the past. Films of any era are informed by context, and making a new version of an old genre, with no new context, is merely imitation. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani critically examined giallo in their films Amer and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears. Now they look to crime and Western films – more specifically, on the weird fringes of the Western – in Let the Corpses Tan. This new movie engages “weird Western” ideas entrenched by a run of films in the early ’70s, reviving not only the genre concept, but a general interest in key films.

Nominally, you could call Let the Corpses Tan a crime story. It is modern, more or less, and hinges on a cache of gold stolen from a truck. Its plot, based on the pulp novel ‘Laissez bronzer les cadavres’ by Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jean-Pierre Bastid, is an escalating series of double-crosses and betrayals under the hot summer sun – and in the cold depths of night.

It doesn’t even take an Eastwood squint to see this movie as a Western, however. For all intents and purposes, the story takes place at the edge of the world. Cattet and Forzani’s syntax imports elements from Leone and Argento – those two appropriately being creative partners before the latter made his first movie – with extreme close-ups and loving attention given to objects and minute movements, and excessively-stylized power fantasies.

All of which points back not only to the filmmakers mentioned above, but to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo, the grandfather of midnight movies and the cornerstone of weird Westerns. Films like Johnny Guitar had taken the Western into new territory years earlier, and Fellini’s artistry suggested Jodorowsky’s conceptual approach. Nothing, however, pushed the genre to sky-high extremes – and sludgy depths – like Jodorowsky’s story. El Topo, the story of a gunslinger driven to destroy four not-quite-rival masters before being reborn as a sort of prophet, stands alone.

I wrestle with El Topo now. Its influence on a wide swath of filmmakers is impossible to deny. Some of its symbols, and the cyclical structure in which an abandoned son ultimately replaces his father, have actual power. But its treatment of animals, and of people, diminishes that impact. Viewed now, it seems cruel and selfish. It aspires to represent magic, but even as Jodorowsky’s character reflects upon the violence and trickery used to destroy the other masters, it has little compassion.

Jodorowsky, for his part, has re-examined the immaturity of his breakout film. In 2014, he said, “When I started making El Topo, I was one person. When I finished that picture, I was another person… when I finished the picture, I became more human, and asked forgiveness from my child. I'd never kill an animal; I became conscious. If you don't make errors, how can you be conscious?”

I can’t mention El Topo without acknowledging Jodorowsky’s admission that he raped actress Mara Lorenzio on camera. He has since walked back that story, and I don’t know how to approach it. Lorenzio only appeared in El Topo, and as far as I can tell has never spoken to the press, much less talked about the scene. Jodorwosky made the admission in a book about El Topo published in 1971; as presented in the book his admission is followed immediately by a ridiculous question from one of the interviewers. Was Jodorowsky’s statement intended as provocation, evident to those in the room, or was any follow-up edited out of the published transcript? I don’t know; perhaps the guy asking the question was just clueless.

In part because of statements like that, El Topo also represents the mythologized history of some extreme genre corners, in which filmmakers blurred the line between making a movie and living it. Certainly Jodorowsky was eager to confuse one with the other, either in truth or at least in his account of the filmmaking experience. (The story of the rape was not commonly discussed at the time, as far as I know – I only encountered it while researching for this article.) When it originally played as a mysterious midnight movie in New York, part of El Topo’s allure was the suggestion of an indistinct line between reality and onscreen fantasy.

Dennis Hopper bought the story. Anecdotes say El Topo was a regular programming choice at the BBS offices, where Hopper’s directorial career was born. When Universal created a low-budget unit to capitalized on the “youth market” following the New Hollywood boom that included Hopper’s Easy Rider, the actor-turned-director got nearly a million dollars from the studio. He did as one imagined Jodorowsky might, and took friends, gear, money and drugs to Peru for a year.

The result, The Last Movie, is, not to put too fine a point on it, probably exactly the opposite of what Universal hoped to get for their money. It is a bizarre examination of the relationship between film and life, and the ways in which ugly reality inevitably assets itself on well-intentioned ambitions. It is a supremely bizarre film, and ultimately a weird Western.

Hopper plays Kansas, a horse wrangler and stunt man working on a thinly-veiled analog of a Sam Peckinpah film. (Director Sam Fuller plays a filmmaker very much like “Bloody” Sam.) There’s a death on set, which is suggested but not confirmed until late in the movie. After the production departs, locals create imitation cameras to “shoot” their version of the movie. Kansas, who has stayed behind to dally with a local woman he’s already tiring of, is meant to be the person who died, for which he’ll actually be killed.

The Last Movie is more experience than narrative. It is assembled thematically, disregarding any sense of linear order. Sometimes it pays attention to the plot I just described, but it also veers off into other sequences, all of which question the validity of film as an endeavor, and which break down the concept of a division between fiction and reality – which seems informed not only by Hopper's “off the ranch” experience making the film, but myths attached to movies like El Topo.

Peter Biskind, in ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,’ wrote that Hopper showed a linear cut of The Last Movie to Jodorowsky, who scorned it as a conventional failure, leading Hopper to recut the movie into its final form. Hopper has denied that story.

Clint Eastwood has always been about as far from the New Hollywood concept as someone could get. The Sergio Leone Westerns that turned Eastwood into a star did inform the deconstruction of moral preconceptions that New Hollywood films took as central thematic pillars. And Eastwood benefited from changes in Hollywood; Dirty Harry may be politically far to the right of a movie like Easy Rider, but it would not have been made even a few years earlier. And yet the first film produced by Eastwood’s Malpaso Company, 1968’s Hang ‘Em High, features Hopper in a small role.

Eastwood’s second film as director, the 1973 revenge fable/ghost story High Plains Drifter, is a stealth weird Western, and possibly as close as any film adjacent to Jodorowsky’s bizarre instincts ever got to the top of the box office.

Fueled as it is by perversions of law and commerce – and with Eastwood playing a character that completely undermines his still relatively new image as a star – High Plains Drifter is actually far more strange than it appears at first glance. Eastwood’s character rides into a new town, shoots three men who confront him in a bar, and rapes a woman moments later. That’s the beginning of a story in which no one is even close to “good.” Eastwood’s character only escapes being the worst of the bunch thanks to a suggested supernatural history.

All of which makes High Plains Drifter a challenge. The film is austere but far from beautiful, and staged to emphasize moral weakness in every scene. The town set, which Eastwood had constructed at Mono Lake near Yosemite, far from Los Angeles, calls to mind the fabricated sets in The Last Movie. Eastwood isn’t full-on playing with the “movies versus reality” questions of Hopper’s film, but he gets close.

If myth-questioning Westerns like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Ox Bow Incident are early rock and roll, High Plains Drifter is mostly punk rock. The ending is a cop-out that eliminates any need to face what Eastwood’s character does. He’s got a good reason, it says, and he’s beyond our laws now anyway. But everything that precedes the final minute suggests that the myth of the American West is actually a lying, violent con.

El Topo is currently streaming on Filmstruck, and is available on disc and digital formats.

A restored DCP of The Last Movie is touring theaters now, with a blu-ray to follow in November.

High Plains Drifter is available on disc and digital formats.