Originally screened in 1968, The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda is one of the most evergreen time capsules from the apex of the psychedelic movement. Shot on 16mm and directed by poet and photographer Ira Cohen, the twenty-two minute long film showcases Cohen’s signature use of “mylar photography,” an optical technique has since become a kind of aesthetic shorthand for psychedelia; visually synonymous with the “tune in, drop out” philosophy of the hippie counterculture.
Upon returning from Morocco to New York City in the mid-sixties, Cohen found himself at the heart of the underground avant-garde scene, immersing himself in multimedia experiments and independent cinema. Cohen converted his loft into what would become known as “The Mylar Chamber,” draping the walls and ceiling with large panels of mylar: a synthesized silver plastic with the reflective qualities of a fun-house mirror, causing images to bend and swirl into hypnotic patterns. Cohen would photograph and film the reflections of his subjects in the mylar sheets, producing images described by Life Magazine as “euphoric distortions of hallucinogenics.”
Cohen’s photography doubles as a “who’s who” of sixties psychedelia, featuring everyone from William Burroughs and Alejandro Jodorowsky to Jimi Hendrix, who described Cohen’s work as “looking at your picture through butterfly wings.” In the commercial space, Cohen’s mylar photography would populate the front covers of many revered psychedelic rock and progressive jazz albums, including 1970s Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus by Spirit.
Cohen’s esoteric imagery in The Invasion Of Thunderbolt Pagoda is enhanced by it’s trance-inducing score, composed by Angus MacLise. The droning sonic landscape that MacLise creates serves as the perfect auditory accompaniment to Cohen’s fantastical visuals, texturizing the film with an ominous undercurrent. MacLise is best known as the percussionist for The Velvet Underground, playing alongside Lou Reed, John Cale, and Sterling Morrison in the band’s original lineup. After The Velvet Underground was offered their first paying gig in November of 1965, MacLise quit, suggesting that the band was “selling out.” He was replaced by Maureen Tucker, becoming a footnote in the band’s iconic trajectory. Although he’d briefly rejoin The Velvet Underground during the 1966 “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” performances, MacLise would pave his own path as a musician. Throughout the sixties and seventies, he’d blend his penchant for Tibetan mysticism with tape loops and minimalist drones, creating experimental records that exists in the crosshairs of early electronic new-age. Most of MacLise’s music went unreleased until 1999, twenty years after his death at the age of forty-one.
Among MacLise’s unearthed tapes and records was the soundtrack to Thunderbolt Pagoda, which had become a legendary lost film. Shortly after the original screenings of Thunderbolt Pagoda in 1968, Cohen left New York City. He’d spend the next two decades roaming around India, Ethiopia, and Nepal as a bohemian nomad, unaware of the word-of-mouth folklore developing around his mysterious short film, its original copies long out of circulation.
In 1999, Will Swofford, a composer studying at Wesleyan University, took it upon himself to track down Cohen, offering himself up to Cohen as an archivist and agent. Cohen accepted, and Swofford eventually found the original film reels for the film in a trunk, buried beneath books, papers, and slides. “No one had touched the film for twenty-five years,” Swofford said.
A redux version of the film was released, featuring MacLise’s original score as well as a new eight minute long opening segment that features Cohen covered in mud, partaking in some kind of orphic rite of passage. Considering the film’s obscurity and checkered archival past, it’s a small miracle it was rediscovered and preserved for the digital age.
Much like the kaleidoscopic visuals it employs, the film serves as a refracted intersection point between the many subsets of counter-culture movements circa 1968. While being distinctly psychedelic, the film also explores the rituals of occultism, which had seeped into the hedonistic tendencies of the psychedelic movement byway of Aleister Crowley. Cohen’s investigation into the cryptic crossroads between the mind-altering hallucinations of psychedelia and the oracular ceremonies of black magick creates a phantasmagorical reflection of time and place. Coupled with MacLise’s hermetical score, The Invasion Of Thunderbolt Pagoda is one of the most surrealistic artifacts of its time, dubbed by members of the Warhol Factory as a “ritual happening.” | e hehr