Dec 28, 2014
With my recent reexamination of the director's darkly humorously heretical yet strangely spiritual alpha-nunsploitation masterpiece The Devils (1971), I decided it was about time that I re-watch English auteur Ken Russell’s most ‘Hollywood’ effort Altered States (1980), which is notable for being both the filmmaker’s first American film, as well his first and only excursion into science fiction. Indeed, a sort of metaphysical and psyche-philosophical horror-sci-fi-cum-romance hybrid that one might describe as Russell’s own equivalent to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising (1972), the film hardly seems like it could be a typical personal auteur piece for the director upon looking at its troubled production history. Based on the only novel ever written by three-time Academy Award winning screenwriter/playwright Paddy Chayefsky (The Hospital, Network) that was inspired by neuroscientist/psychonaut/philosopher John C. Lilly’s sensory deprivation research conducted in isolation tanks while under the influence of counterculture psychoactive favorites like ketamine and LSD, Altered States was originally slated to be directed by kosher counterculture auteur Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Man) and according to director Russell he was Warner Brothers’ 27th choice for director after the previous 26 directors had declined, thus making the work what might be described as the most personalized and idiosyncratic for-hire ‘hack’ piece ever made, as a phantasmagoric Faustian trip that is like a chaotic marriage between a Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster, the then-trendy prehistoric man flicks of the 1980s like Jean-Jacques Annaud's La guerre du feu (1981) aka Quest for Fire, and the more psychedelic-oriented films of the American avant-garde like Jack Smith’s Normal Love (1963), Ron Rice’s Chumlum (1964), Ira Cohen's The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda (1968), James Broughton’s Dreamwood (1971), and Herr Anger's oeuvre. Of course, considering writer Chayevsky, who was apparently barred from the film set after trying to have Russell fired, later had his name taken off of the film and special effects man John Dykstra resigned from his duties, I think it quite obvious who was in control of Altered States, which with its allegorical religious imagery (snakes and all!) and daunting depiction of a deleteriously fanatical madman of the quasi-megalomaniacal sort whose obsessiveness ultimately gets him in serious trouble, is a pure and unadulterated Russellian work to the core, even if it lacks the auteur's characteristic campiness. While critics have described Altered States as everything from a modernist reworking of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth to an aberrant adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, I think source writer Chayefsky was most accurate when he described the work in an interview as a love story. Indeed, despite its hysterical hodgepodge of largely horrific hallucinatory imagery of the apocalyptic sorts, the film is ultimately the tale of a fanatical scientist with intimacy problems and the woman that is rather reluctantly hopelessly in love with him and will stand by her mensch no matter what, even when he transforms himself into a rather revolting mass of primordial matter and almost kills her, himself, and their friends in the process. A rare special-effects-heavy sci-fi flick that does not seem like it was specially tailored for impotent, virginal, and/or asexual fanboys who prefer seeing imaginary exotic alien planets to real-life pussies, Altered States may bring up quasi-existentialist questions about the origin of mankind, the Book of Revelations, pain and suffering, and the Faustian nature of Occidental man, but these themes are merely more or less window dressings for an idiosyncratic romance featuring the fairer sex at its most strangely empathetic and respectable, which is surely no small accomplishment.
Edward Jessup (William Hurt in his very first feature film role) is a Harvard University professor of abnormal psychology that is so obsessed with his work and research in such a deleterious way that he has no personal life and seems to suffer from Asperger syndrome, but luckily he is a tall, blond, handsome, and charming chap who doesn’t seem to have a hard time getting hot tail like most socially retarded academic types do. In between practicing sensory deprivation in a floatation tank with the help of his dorky Jewish pal Arthur Rosenberg (played by real-life Hebraic nerd Bob Balaban) where he hallucinates like a “son of a bitch” and experiences “a lot of religious allegory, mostly out of Revelation,” Edward meets a hot and equally Nordic-looking 24-year-old physical anthropology student working on her doctrinal thesis named Emily (Blair Brown) and they screw the same day that they meet each other, though he suffers hallucinations of “God. Jesus, crucifixions” during mid-coitus that make it fairly clear that the two will have a somewhat troubled relationship. As Edward explains to Emily after they fuck for the first time, he started hallucinating images of Christ when he was a young child even though his parents were pretentious atheistic scientists and it was only when his father succumbed to a “protracted and painful death from cancer” when he was 16 that he started to stop hallucinating and believing in Christ. From there, Ed warns Emily “what kind of nut” she is getting mixed up with if she decides to keep dating him and she replies that he is a “fascinating bastard,” thus demonstrating her early devotion to him. Since most of the research into alternate states of consciousness is basically “radical-hip stuff, drug-culture apologias,” Edward hopes to prove via his floatation tank trips that “our other states of consciousness are as real as our waking states” and he is more than willing to destroy his mind and body in the process. When Edward suffers nefarious visions of his father on his death bed and Baphomet on the cross, as well as images of people suffering in hell and various other apocalyptic visions, even that still does not stop him from continuing his dubious studies. Meanwhile, even though she thinks he is an “unmitigated madman” and complains to him, “Even sex is a mystical experience for you. You carry on like a flagellant, which can be very nice…but I sometimes wonder if it’s me that’s being made love to. I feel like I’m being harpooned by some raging monk in the act of receiving God,” Emily makes a somewhat strange marriage proposal to Edward, which he accepts, but not before rambling on about administering dimethyltryptamine aka DMT to a schizophrenic girl, thus reflecting his pathological preoccupation with his work. Indeed, at best, Emily is of secondary concern to Edward, as nothing gets in between him and his research.
While Edward and Emily ultimately get married in a seemingly immaculate romantic union that produces two cute little girls (one of the Jessup girls is played by Drew Barrymore in her debut film role) , the Asperger-ridden scientist cannot handle devoting himself to a family and thus asks his wife for a divorce even though she is still deeply in love with him. When his friend Arthur finds out about the divorce and states to his friend, “My God, if anybody has it made, you have” in reference to the fact that he has a totally beautiful wife that is completely devoted to him despite his glaring peculiarities, Edward, who rarely expresses any emotions aside from a disturbing mania for his scientific research, coldly replies that if he doesn’t get a divorce, he will “go out of my fucking mind.” As Edward adds while sounding like some drop-out hippie moron who has devoured too much Timothy Leary twaddle, he is determined to search for his “true self” and he is “going to find that fucker,” even if it means hanging out in caves and getting stoned with fossilized third world savages. Indeed, Edward plans to “find that fucker” by tripping on psychedelic mushrooms with a tribe of ancient Mexican Indians. Before tripping with the old Injuns, the head Indian chief cuts Edward’s palm and mixes his blood with the psychedelic soup. Ultimately, Edward has such a nightmarish trip with the Indians that he hallucinates seeing a large lizard morphing into Emily, among other unsettling visions that might further scare him away from his wife. After the somewhat ominous ordeal, Edward learns that he brutally slaughtered a large lizard while he was tripping, but he is in denial about his actions, complaining to his mestizo translator/tour guide, “And this whole hideous business is just a joke…the Indians have played on me to make the gringo look like a fool!” Despite his intolerable gringo arrogance, the Indians give Edward a tincture from psychedelic mushrooms to take back with him to the United States so that he can trip while in his isolation tank, thereupon heightening the entire experience and potentially throwing him into a truly altered state of consciousness. Around the same time, Edward begins to face major criticism from his comrade Mason Parrish (Charles Haid), who begins secretly telling his estranged wife Emily about his eccentric and increasingly dangerous experiments. When one of Edward’s isolation tank trips results in him being covered in blood and growing a sack inside his throat, the half-deranged scientist concludes, “I obviously regressed to some quasi-simian creature,” but perennial skeptic Mason does not believe it for a second and concludes that his strange friend is losing his sanity and has contracted cancer due to all the drugs he has taken.
With his friend Mason adamantly refusing to help him with anymore of his experiments, Edward makes the mistake of going on one of his isolation tank trips all by himself without supervision and in the process he suffers from a form of biological devolution where he degenerates into a hairy feral monkey man. Upon morphing into a true untermensch, Edward almost beats a security guard to death, fights a pack of wild dogs, and eventually ends up in a zoo where he savagely hunts and devours a deer. The next day, a cop arrests Edward after finding him naked near the dead deer that he devoured the previous night. Naturally, Edward is bailed out of prison by his beloved wife Emily and instead of being fearful as a result of his experiences, he describes transforming into a simian as being the “most supremely satisfying night of my life,” which is certainly not the sort of thing a normal man says to his wife. Somewhat preposterously, Edward convinces Mason, Arthur, and his wife Emily to accompany him to his next isolation tank trip where he ultimately transforms into a grotesque globule of primordial matter that somewhat resembles Belial from Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case trilogy. Demonstrating her undying devotion to Edward, Emily risks her life to bring back her husband by pulling him out of a foggy abyss and ultimately preventing him from being lost in some sort of alternate reality as an unconscious and non-physical pile of primordial puke. While Edward rests after almost being lost in oblivion, Emily begins suffering a hysterical episode and complains to Mason, “Of all the goddamn men in this world, why do I have to love this one? I can’t get him out of me. Do you know how many men I tried to fall in love with this past year? But it won’t work no matter who I’m in bed with, I have to imagine it’s him or nothing happens…No matter who I’m eating with or walking with...there’s always this pain because it isn’t him. I’m possessed by him.” The next day, Edward begins to suffer a spontaneous attack of temporary partial devolution and when Emily grabs his hand to help him, she also begins to degenerate into some sort of glowing primordial being of the hardly human sort. Proving ‘love conquers all,’ Edward manages to use mind over matter and saves his wife and himself from transforming into worthless genetic garbage. Upon transforming back into normal humans, Edward says to his beloved for the first time ever, “I love you, Emily,” thus reflecting the fact he has finally accepted his humanity and is determined to devote himself to the one who loves him the most, or as he states before his last transformation, “The final truth of all things is that there is no final truth. Truth is what’s transitory. It’s human life that is real.” Notably, Altered States ultimately concludes in the best way any aesthetically pleasing film can with a shot of a rather ample sized female derriere.
While not exactly an immaculate work by any means, Altered States is easily one of the most strikingly romantic sci-fi flicks I have ever seen, which I guess does not say much considering the autistic nature of the genre and the sort of sexless and socially defective people it attracts, but knowing that it is a Ken Russell flick, one can certainly expect that it is the sort of work that features a singular rebel’s love affair with no vomit-inducing cliches. As a fanatical man and filmmaker who was more than a little bit obsessed with his own work and who was married no less than four times during the course of his life, Russell certainly had reason to be attracted to Paddy Chayefsky’s source novel. Indeed, I certainly cannot think of one single girlfriend I ever had that was not jealous of my interests or artistic projects, as if it was another woman competing with them. Of course, Altered States protagonist Edward’s wife Emily is like the ultimate dream woman, as she even stays devoted to him after he divorces her so that he can spend all his time figuratively jerking off in an isolation tank while tripping on Injun shrooms. Like a Salvador Dalí landscape painting come to life as molested by Russell’s curious obsession with Catholic religious iconography, the film attempts to visually depict the living hell of being, especially if you’re a deracinated and emotionally retarded intellectual like the protagonist, in a fashion that romanticizes yet ultimately rejects the obsession with retrogression. Indeed, in his obsession with coming into contact with his primitive side, Edward is no different from the many ethno-masochistic bourgeois whites that listen to rap music and absurdly parrot the sub-literate slang and repugnant mannerisms of poor negroes in a pathetic attempt to feel more in tune with nature and the visceral side of life, as if it will make them feel any more soulless. As for self-loathing intellectuals who take psychedelic drugs in a desperate attempt to have some semblance of human emotion and spirituality, I personally know of one fellow who took one too many trips and was ultimately institutionalized after declaring he was some sort of messiah and attempted to murder his girlfriend with his bare hands. Like the protagonist of Altered States, this certain individual had a complete and utter incapacity for love and empathy, but unlike Edward, he was also apparently more or less sexually impotent, which seems to be common among scientifically-minded individuals. While I could never see the sort of protagonist featured in Russell’s film ever reaching an epiphany about the gift of his humanity, let alone the ability to reciprocate love, even after he is turned into primordial waste, Altered States was an enthralling enough cinematic experience for me to the point where I was able to temporarily suspend my disbelief and consider that human touch and emotional affection might be able to destroy the Asperger-like traits in certain individuals.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 9:33 PM
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