Oct 15, 2014

The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda

It should be no surprise to readers of SS that I find hippies repugnant and Hebraic ones even more so, so it probably seems somewhat dubious that I would watch a film directed by a man of such a ‘preternatural’ persuasion. Nonetheless, after I discovered that Judaic Beat generation hippie Ira Cohen’s cine-magic ‘magnum opus’ The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda (1968) was influenced by the films of Kenneth Anger and Sergei Parajanov, as well as the Alchemical theories of ‘Aryan Christ’ Carl G. Jung, I decided to give it a chance. Although absurdly advertised as “the only psychedelic film ever made,” the keenly kaleidoscopic short (although originally only 22-mintues, Cohen decided to add a pretty pointless 8-minute prologue section to the film featuring himself playing naked in the mud for when it was re-released on DVD in 2006) plays more like a poor occultnik’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) than ‘thee’ ultimate work of celluloid psychedelia, though it is certainly no waste either, as a sort of brother film to works directed by the director’s cinematic compatriots like Jack Smith’s Normal Love (1963) and Ron Rice’s Chumlum (1964), which incidentally both star underground superstar Beverly Grant. Directed by a comrade of none other than John McLaughlin, William S. Burroughs and Jimi Hendrix who created “mylar images” and considered himself a “mythographer,” The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda also demonstrates a certain fetishism for mylar in a work where mylar combined with mercury are utilized in a transcendental fashion to depict the “ever-flowing river” that is nature and creation. A plot-less and wordless piece of oneiric and phantasmagoric psyche-cinema as dreamed up by a Hebraic pseudo-messiah on hallucinogens and his equally inebriated comrades, Cohen’s film is one of the rare examples where drugs have a positive, if not somewhat superficial, influence on the film as if it is an aesthetically hypnotic daydream that is made all the more entrancing by the musical score of Angus MacLise, who is probably best known as the original drummer of The Velvet Underground. Indeed, if you’re looking for real dirty hippie/beatnik cinema, you can probably do no better than the short but somewhat sweet celluloid trip that is The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda

 After opening with a largely senseless recently added 8-minute sepia-tone sequence involving, among other things, auteur Ira Cohen rising from the mud naked and hanging around with a fellow that looks like a Christ-like holocaust survivor, as well as a couple less than homely hippie chicks acting all ‘entranced’ and whatnot while they roam around like dejected flesh-eaters and born again junkies, The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda, which is a film with three different acts, finally begins in the fashion it did in 1968 with a keenly colorful yet fittingly hazy opium smoking scene where a chick smokes some in a room of bendable-mirrors and enters a demented dream featuring green elves, a white snake (Peter Birnbaum), ‘death’ (played by the director), and a “maker of mayhem” (also played by the director), who hands out gifts like sea shells and rubber lizards. In terms of iconoclastic imagery, there's a green elf with pointy goblin ears waving around a white baby doll lynched on a stick, as well as an icon of Christ with batwings instead of a cross. Basically, the film feels exactly like what director Ira Cohen described it as in the DVD audio commentary, as a film where a couple friends got together and filmed each other by passing the camera around to one another. In a scene using a extra-use of mylar, Cohen is married during a Jungian ‘alchemical wedding.’ Towards the end of the film, a scene is shot through a prism inspired by the “Snowflake syndrome” concept featured in the sci-fi novel Wolf Bait. During the final scene, while standing in front of the sky (aka “heavenly vault”), Cohen ‘plays magician’ under his ‘Majoon Traveler’ persona using a magic wand to dictate the “ever-flowering river” that is nature. 

 In the audio commentary for the 2006 DVD release of the film, auteur Ira Cohen describes how he and his friends were just merely “winging it” and not putting much real thought into the production of The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda, as a work where they were merely “acting out” their “real lives.” While I am not exactly accustomed to the lifestyles of Hebraic hippies during the late-1960s, somehow I am not surprised that they might get high on opium, create sacrilegious images of Jesus, and use red devil candles to light the ‘cock’ of a mural, as depicted in a somewhat goofy but nonetheless strangely entertaining way that, while it may only vaguely resemble the campy Crowleyite charisma of Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, nonetheless makes the film mandatory viewing for fans of vintage experimental cinema. Indeed, while Cohen’s film might be inferior to similar works of celluloid psychedelia like Smith’s Normal Love, Federico Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits (1965), and Steve Arnold’s Luminous Procuress (1971), it is also idiosyncratic enough to stand out on its own as a piece of heretical Hebraic hippiedom that demonstrates that the so-called ‘flower children’ were not just about peace and love, but also metaphysical subversion, deluded drug worship, and moronic pseudo-neo-pagan customs. Featuring a mostly less than homely looking collection of individuals and borrowing from a hodgepodge of religions and spiritual practices, The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda probably features enough ‘esoteric excess’ and eccentric people attempting to ‘find themselves’ to make the average person snicker in ridicule, but it is also surely a strange enough celluloid affair to appeal to the most obsessive of cinephiles, be they hippie-haters like myself or not. 

-Ty E

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