Film: Altered statesI get a kick out of recognizing films that I watched as a kid and then later forgot about them. Well, not actually forgot – I spent a lot of time as a kid, sitting near TV-set. I glanced a lot of movies passing by and some of very impressive sequences carved into my brain. I get a kick out of recognizing such scenes.
Some of those scenes were really terrible. I can recall a horror movie where a dead body brought back into live loses it’s head, but still springs up and waves arms around headless, threatening at present people. It all happens in some kind of hospital. Later, I heard of a real event similar to this scene, but that’s beside the point. For the record, I still don’t know which film this scene is from.
I also recall watching Ken Russell’s “Altered States” and being very scared of surreal visions displayed in this movie. Then, being scared of the sequence where main character turns into a prehistoric ape. These two parts of the movie are so different in tone that long after that, I believed that I was watching two different movies, but being concentrated on something else, didn’t notice when one ended and the other one started. I was very small.
But that’s ok because Ken Russell is expected to cause confusion. This Englishman is one of the most controversial directors of all times. He’s a kind of director for whose films you can never be really sure: whether they’re complete crap or misunderstood masterpieces. Probably a little of column A, a little of column B.
He started his career as an unconventional director for British TV. His first cinema release, D.H.Lawrence adaptation “Women in love”, is nowadays considered masterpiece. His unconventional quasi-biopic “Mahler” in which he enjoys inserting elements out of the timeline (like Nazi ideology argumentation into the moth of enemies of this classic composer) is very high rated too. Other films from this period, however, aren’t. Most of them follow the same formula as “Mahler”: weird imagined biography of a famous classic composer: “Music lovers” deals with Tchaikovsky, “Lisztomania” with Liszt, and, widening that formula, “Savage Messiah” is about sculptor Henry Gaudier, “Salome’s last dance” about Oscar Wilde. These “biopics” are, in spite of all, affectionate, as Russell is, despite the weirdness characteristic to modern times, before all a classic music and art lover. The claim that he is simply filming his own sexual fantasies, sometimes understandable, often over-the-top, sometimes even gross, but always weird – just attaching the well-known name to them. Claim, not so far from reality.
Between filming these “biopics”, Russell managed to find time to film a few other stories: for instance, acclaimed adaptation of “The Who’s” rock opera “Tommy” (his only wade into popular culture), conventional gothic horror “The lair of the white worm” (Wth? Conventional? When did that happen?), god-awful trashy low-budget set-piece-is-falling-apart movie “The fall of house of Usher”, barely related to the namesake novel, and “Altered states”, film unusual for it’s serious tone and lack of excess (that’s unusual for Ken Russel film).
First of all, it’s strange that Russel would accept to work on a script with elements of SF, that is trying to talk about such big topics as genesis of human race and of the world in general, of the codes written in our genes and of the danger that lies in finding out answers to such questions (script based on Paddy Chayevsky novel).
Why did he take this unusually stiff script and film it? Probably because there’s a lot of drug-experimenting involved, a lot of hallucinations, surreal landscapes and religious and other symbols in them. So he took it and in the process found something else in it. He found what anyone who reads previous paragraph will probably think: that this script is almost ridiculously overambitious in things it’s talking about, that the span of the idea is such that this movie is bound to be either a philosophical masterpiece, or a farce. So he decided for both. And he managed well to keep the tone of the film both serious and silly through the entire movie.
Ok, here is what it’s actually all about: The film starts as the scientist Eddie Jessup (William Hart in his first role) experiments hallucinatory effects of immersion tanks on himself. Intrigued by religious symbols in his visions that coincide with some frustrations from his childhood he decides to go further in his experiments, using hallucinatory mushrooms found by some primitive tribes. Slowly, he forms a theory that what he experienced in his hallucinations is remains written in our genetic code, remains not only of creating our species, but of genesis of the entire universe. Big bang or whatever you call it. Jessup is driven further in experiments, to go further in the past, mostly because of his scientific curiosity, and the least for any purpose that his finds might have. Now you see why it is so ambitious.
Now, this is what the first part of the movie is about: Jessup’s researches, his flunky relationship with his wife and colleague Emily (lovely Blair Brown) always in shadow of his job, his colleagues and bosses telling him that it’s dangerous – all this realistic mash is worth waiting through, just to see those overwhelming, apocalyptic hallucinations that the film is offering us in glimpses. It’s these hallucinations, animal sculls, crucifixions, bodies covered in sand in the middle sandstorms, that carved into the brain of little me when I was watching the movie at first.
But – that’s the first part of the film, and there are no visions after that until the end. Other director might churn out some conventional filmmaking in the rest of the film, hoping that the first part is redeeming enough – Russell, however, found a new source of inspiration: he finally pushed the “farce” button, his ace in the sleeve.
As a result of experiments, Jessup experiences some physical mutations as well. One of them goes as far as regressing him evolutionary and leaving him unable to speak for a couple of hours. Despite this, he decides to continue in secret, after all his assistants refuse to help him.
Which is where another scene that carved into my brain begins: he regresses into a sort of primitive, pre-cavemen ape and, escaping from the laboratory, goes on a running spree through empty streets at night, being chased by a pack of street dogs. This scene, with it’s primitive-in-urban-environment setting is another thing worth seeing: it’s startling; It’s ridiculous; It’s the farce Russell was counting on. Perhaps it wouldn’t work so well in the entire movie if the first part didn’t consist very subtle farce as well: in the grandeur of the whole idea, in the quasi-scientific talk that we never even hear properly because it’s usually covered by some background noises, and in the daring and direct nature of Russell’s hallucination scenes.
Jessup ends up killing a sheep in a zoo, and as the effects of experiments aren’t permanent, next morning he is found as a normal human, sleeping in a zoo naked.
This is where the third, shortest part of the movie starts. Jessup returned to the starting point of human genesis, but he wants more – the universe. Side-effects of experience make the equipment and drugs unnecessary from this point – flashes of regression appear on their own now. Now that he passed the point of genesis of a living been, he’s regressing right into – nothing – and he’s not able to stop. For one moment, he is staring right into nothing of before the universes existence. The moment before he joins this nothing, Emily pulls him literally by the hand out of this time whirl. He is saved in this last scene, terrified from looking into the lack of existence, the only man who has ever seen complete nothingness. Part of the terror comes probably from the implied fact that he didn’t see God (is this movie anti-religious? I don’t think that Russell tried to give that kind of message – it was simply a proper ending for a movie with character such Jessup is).
This, last sequence of the movie is told with no words, through a series of well-done special effects. Russell leaves it to viewer to understand what’s going on from given transformations (Jessup is transformed into a cloud of primordial matter, Emily into a universe-like net, symbolizing the living force), from the context and, well, from everything that’s said earlier. As we watch the slow regression through the movie, this last scene is something that was announced a good deal of film earlier; Even if the movie was ended after the ape part, we coulda guess that this scene would occur. But through this no-talk scene, Russell gives a better insight into these mind-numbing concepts than he would with all “scientific” mumbo-jumbo from the rest of the movie. And how would he say it with words anyway?
At the end, I have to mention the characterization in this movie, fueled by unusual but understandable motivations. Jessup, genuinely curious, more reckless than bold, hopes with one part of his personality that he would see God himself; with other part that he would disapprove the existence of god. Emily, much more with her feet on the ground, but indecisive in whether she should let her man wade into this kind of danger and, in some moments, whether she should still fight for him at all; Their sexual life described briefly, realistically and in a sustained manner, which is all very unusual for Ken Russell. Characterization is not the main thing in this movie, but it is interesting and complex, and it’s Jessup’s character that pushes the story through the good part of the movie. However, it is all often neglected in favour of the spectacle that this movie is.
“Altered states” - just as I said: dead serious, grandiose, but at the same time, subtly, very subtly ridiculous. Too bad Russell doesn’t try it more often.