Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Ah, the joys of YouTube (Part 2)...

One of the wonders of the Internet is that you can dig out hard-to-find material which, pre-Internet, which would have been virtually impossible to find otherwise (except perhaps on expensive import). So it is with underground cult films such as Sun Ra’s Space Is The Place, a truly bizarre blackspoitation classic from the 70s which you can view parts of below (the whole film was up on the wonderful UBUWeb site here, but didn’t seem to be working the last time I looked – could be either the new servers UBUWeb are using, or copyright issues).
SITP looks as if it was done on a budget of around $100. Sun Ra’s spaceship in particular looks like it was assembled out of sticky black plastic and makes pre-high budget Doctor Who (the 70s/80s version for those of us old enough to remember) look like Independence Day in comparison.
The plot – such as it is – seems to be a weird, lysergic-flavoured proto-The Blues Brothers (which would come a few years later), reshaped in Ra’s inimitable style, in which he tries to get people to his gig, is kidnapped along the way, dodges various mishaps, and only makes it to his concert at the last minute. He also sets up something called the Outer Space Employment Agency, which the DHSS probably wouldn’t approve of if it were attempted over here. The OSEA as Ra promotes it represents a utopia of sorts for the black race, unshackled by white oppression, and which will eventually ascend to the heavens. It’s at this point that the difference with The Blues Brothers becomes apparent, and in any case, the film is far more mystical, echoing at times Jodorowsky’s El Topo (which came out two years before) with its dream-like sequences in the desert, where Ra plays tarot cards with his opponent at a table.

Indeed, the presence of SITP, Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain and the afore-mentioned El Topo, and even never-to-be-repeated grand follies such as Caligula (yes, that one), suggest that the 70s produced some extraordinary one-off films, which would be difficult to repeat today. It’s doubtful that even many independent film companies would go near a Jodorowsky today, for example, such was the extremity of his vision. The Holy Mountain in particular is so out-there even today that it’s perhaps no surprise that Jodorowsky eventually wasn’t entrusted with in favour of David Lynch, with the unhinged Chilean director originally planned in the directors seat (and with a soundtrack by Pink Floyd and Magma, no less). Now that would have been incredible, but unlikely to be looked on benevolently by major film company reps (not that Lynch’s version made much sense either, mind you)
While it’s always interesting to see how far Ra was ahead of his time - with his hithero unheard of seaming together of jazz, rock, and unconventional synthesisers allied to an unbelievable work ethic - it’s also interesting seeing how much the mixture of unconventional, frequently avant-garde music, headdress and flamboyant gear that Sun Ra took to the max in both this film and in his stage performances have been used by the likes of latter-day freak-out rock bands such as Sun City Girls and the Sunburned Hand of the Man today. I once saw the latter perform a live soundtrack to an even more out-there film than Space Is The Place – Ira Cohen’s 1968 hippy mind-f**k The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda. It’s somewhat strange when you think about it that such a huge corporation behemoth as YouTube should be hosting such genuinely counter-cultural material, but then, alternative culture has always been co-opted by the mainstream, from grunge through to rave culture and beyond (with the style mags waiting at the door).
It’s difficult to work out what’s really going on in Thunderbolt Pagoda - I guess you kinda had to be there. All I know is, that’s one party I wish I were at…

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