As one of the cinema’s great stylists, there were few filmmakers who remained as dedicated and determined in their vision as British director Ken Russell. Not all of his films were exactly hits, but it’s a tribute to his talent that so many of them struck a chord with wider audiences at all when you consider just how far removed his aesthetic ideals and thematic fascinations were from the mainstream. Remembered primarily for movies like Gothic (1986), The Devils (1971), Tommy (1975), and The Lair of the White Worm (1988), of these none remain as intriguing as his magnum opus, the 1980 science-fiction body horror carnival Altered States.
In William Hurt’s feature film debut, his astonishing youthfulness is outshone only by brief glimpses of Drew Barrymore as his daughter – five-years-old if she’s a day – also making her first movie appearance. Hurt plays Dr Eddie Jessup, a psychology professor at the Harvard Medical School who on the surface appears to be the picture of success, with a beautiful, loving family and an impressive career. But he risks it all for what he feels is his lacklustre performance as a researcher, obsessed as he is with investigations into “interior experiences” and his determination to discover “the true self”.
Using a LSD alternative concocted from mysterious Mexican hallucinogenic mushrooms, Jessup succumbs to obsession and his own ego in his search for these cosmic truths, tripping so hard as the film progresses that first his mind – and then even his body – begin to show signs of primal regression. The “altered states” of the title are therefore not difficult to identify, but long before Jessup’s experimentation begins in earnest, Russell relishes showing us characters marked by contrasts and extremes; dry and wet, naked and clothed, happy and sad, and (most centrally) sane and insane. But even this looming mental health crisis doesn’t bother Jessup: to him, “madness is another state of consciousness”, another “altered state” to explore and experiment with.
While its fixation on LSD-infused psychedelia might suggest Altered States is some kind of clichéd '60s nostalgia-fest, the opening title sequence alone feels as contemporary today as it did almost 40 years ago upon the film’s initial release. While never as simple or moralistic as an anti-drug film per se, hovering above its tale of a scientist surrendering to a dangerous research obsession are broader cultural anxieties about a regression back to the dippy-hippy mysticism of the 1960s, far from what was hoped in 1980 to be the comparatively ‘enlightened’ decade to come. Altered States was released in the United States during a period of momentous political and cultural change; not even a month before the end of Jimmy Carter's presidency, the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s conservative eight-year reign was only weeks away.
From its opening shot of Jessup in a sensory deprivation tank, isolation is a key theme in the movie, and the exhilaration he feels as his research develops – and as his physical and psychological condition deteriorates – is experienced predominantly by him alone, coming to life for the audience most vividly through the hallucinations Russell so lovingly brings to life. Altered States demands its audience surrender to the force of these hallucinations almost as much as Jessup does, and Russell revels in the hyper-theatricality and excessive symbolism that remains his directorial trademark. As much as the collision of sound, colour, light and what were then cutting-edge special effects is a veritable bombardment of deliberately overloaded meaning; nowhere more lurid, perhaps, than when a multi-eyed beast-headed Jesus figure finds himself floating mid-air on a crucifix in the clouds.
The film’s spectacular peaks and crescendos in these hallucination sequences are moments of pure Russellesque abstraction, the director getting away with it here more than anywhere else because this very spirit of self-indulgence is so central to the Altered States story itself. Oscar-winning screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky of Network (1976) fame was largely responsible for not just the often heavily philosophical dialogue but also the very story itself, adapted from his 1978 novel of the same name. Russell and Chayefsky had a famously tense relationship during the film’s production, with the latter ultimately demanding to have his name removed from the film’s end credits (replaced by the alias ‘Sidney Aaron’). A troubled production from the outset, Russell took over directorial duties after Arthur Penn (director of the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde) walked off set, again rumoured to be over clashing visions with Chayefsky.
That such hostilities riddled the making of Altered States behind the scenes seems to only add to the force of what plays out in the film itself, and in Russell’s hands this intensity is simply further fuel for the creative fire. In Altered States’ tale of the allure and ultimate dangers of playing with the buried enigmas of the unconscious, Russell returned to the tensions that permeated his oeuvre more generally; between belief and deception, body and spirit, and the sublime and the ridiculous. From this perspective, it’s the textures and surfaces of Altered States that tell us as much about Russell’s vision than plot or characters: like most of his films, this works best a film to feel and sense our way through. And no one did this in quite the same way as this particular director: as Roger Ebert so shrewdly observed, Altered States was “the movie that Ken Russell was born to direct”.
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Watch Altered States
Wednesday 8 August, 8.30pm SBS VICELAND
Available at SBS On Demand after broadcast
Director: Ken Russell
Starring: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban
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