Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

Friday, August 28, 2009

Acid's Greatest #15: ALTERED STATES (1980)

"There's really very little literature on this type of research. There's good people in the field: Tart, Ornstein, Dykeman, but most of it is radical hip stuff, drug culture. Obviously the first thing to do is to set up some kind of sensible methodology to see if we can't study these experiences in controlled laboratory conditions.
A fairly effective medley of sci fi suspense trappings and Ivy league psycho-pharmacological grandiosity, ALTERED STATES works best from the perspective of an outsider to the psychedelic experience, for whom this sort of thing is super scary, such as young children and squares. As Jimi Hendrix once said, "But first, are you experienced?" If you are, some of ALTERED STATES may seem ludicrously over the top. I quoted the above rant from Hurt's Dr. Jessup to illustrate the bizarre paradox of trying to use positivist scientific methodology to document and analyze spiritual experiences. As Tyrone Power put it in NIGHTMARE ALLEY, "it's like trying to put the ocean into bottles."

The story of psycho-research maven Dr. Jessup and his isolation tank was probably much more restrained and impressionistic in Chayefsky's novel, but director Ken Russell never liked ambiguity so he's turned into a horror story along the realms of Cronenberg's THE FLY remake or James Whale's FRANKENSTEIN, replete with mad scientist enthusiasm, dark laboratories and concerned wives and research assistants. Unlike the usual tanks wherein one kind of lays down in what looks like a roofed racing car bathtub, Dr. Jessup (William Hurt) goes into a vertical combination old fashioned diving bell and water heater, wearing special headgear and so forth, all moodily and mysteriously lit. He climbs out and proudly announces he was hallucinating "a lot of religious allegory, mostly out of Revelations." This kind of self-important raving would bring a smirk to any knowing tripper, but Hurt's such a strong charismatic presence that you swoon along with Blair Brown at his every pupil dilation.

Russell re-imagines hallucinatory transmutation on a physical level, like a child or fundamentalist. If filming Eden, he'd probably show Adam tearing out one of his own ribs and having a full grown woman morph out of it, with geysers of blood and latex. Similarly, our crazy Dr. Jessup transforms into a guy running around with dogs, then later morphs into a big half-blob, half-man! He's gone "too far" and is having crazy flashbacks! Only Blair Brown's love can save him now! To the hardcore 'heads in the house, this is what's known as 'showboating:' your ego getting in the way and holds up everyone's parade. Wavy Gravy could have talked Jessup back into a human in five minutes if he'd
had taken the time to set up a chill-out tent. Dude, you make your own reality, especially if you manage to snag a grant and a course release. To take drugs and lie around in body temperature saline solution like a lazy bum and then announce God doesn't exist doesn't make you pretentious as long as someone's monitoring your EEG, apparently. And if your synaptic disturbances manage to create interior lightning, bully for you, old Dr. Frankenstein Hyde, but PS - it's only new to you.

Now, we've all had our moments, gone a little Hunter S. Thompson-style savage, and some of us may or may not have crawled into a zoo to kill a sheep or a ram once the drugs began to take hold. I'm not naming names. But none of us ever did it in such glossy Hollywood style, with ape make-up and sound effects. We just revel in possibility, maybe howl at the moon or chase some girl around the party until we find the bar. The next day we have to get up and go to our catering jobs. All hearts, when dying's done, do beat again.

If you want to literalize, concretize a mystic experience, you got to find the mythic undercurrent and be consistent with that-- the way Boorman did with EXCALIBUR and then didn't do with ZARDOZ. Otherwise it's just tony schlock. William Hurt goes to the end of the universe on STP and then announces "there's nothing there" and runs back to his wife like a little baby and wants us to nod and toast with the baron for an heir to the house of Frankenstein. But if Jessup would just let himself get subsumed by his space amoeba blob self, surrender fully to the horror instead of running and hiding behind his woman's skirts, he might have been able to see that beyond the terror of the space amoeba blob-level void are many other layers to cross, the void's just the front lobby. Once you get upstairs to Pleiadian star space-time continuum-granted conceptions that vibrate endlessly outwards and upwards to levels where being and nothingness dance in ones and zeros like a bountiful flowing nerd river and the third eye that sees it creates it as it sees and then, too, is subsumed, and born again, then you don't need Bonnie anymore, and so can finally love her correctly, as a warrior and not a boy who runs home to mom as soon as he sees the okipa antlers?

Hurt's character may or may not be full of shit, but one thing is for sure, Hurt the actor does the best tripped out expression in all acid cinema and our hearts flutter during the sandwich-making seduction scene with Hurt and Bonnie Brown. Hurt has no problem ranting in undertone stream of conscious scientific jargon and that makes him not only believable but fascinating. While his character loses points by being so contemptuous of the "drug culture" (an experienced guide could have helped him avoid all that property damage), one must admire his willingness to put his own sanity on the line, even if he can't admit it's really just for kicks. And it's cool the way Brown is set up as the pursuer, nervously asking about him at the faculty party before busting her moves. As a piece of man art, Hurt is without peer.

But then STATES saddles Hurt with an annoying doubtful Thomas played by Hill Street Blues' Charles Haid, whose always telling him, "Jessup, it's too dangerous!" Freaking out and grabbing vainly for the Oscar gold with his hamfisted hand-wringing ala Dr. McCoy on Star Trek. He makes you want to slap him and shout, Dude! Anxiety is contagious! Don't freak out your subject! There are a lot of people who trip in isolation tanks without you fussing and yelling and bringing everybody down and taking our temperature every thirty minutes. This insistence on correct clinical procedure won't legitimize psychedelic drug insight to the American Medical-Industrial-Organized-Religion complex, which has been using the vague idea these drugs are dangerous to demonize anything that would get us closer to realizing our godliness -- privileging the information (Hurt doesn't, for example, offer his wife a hit of the ayahuasca he brought home from the Amazon) and then both glorifying and demonizing the actual experience, so no one else can do it.

The amazing "Riverman" at Strange/True reports on the actual research, by John C. Lilly, that likely inspired Paddy Chayefsky's original novel
In the 1950s and 60s a series of pioneering isolation tank experiments were conducted by John C. Lilly at the National Institutes of Health. Chayefsky clearly based much of "Altered States" on Lilly's accounts of these experiments, which you can read online and in his book "Tanks for the Memories" (oh, what a title). Like the fictional Dr. Jessup, Lilly used a hallucinogen (LSD) during a "tank trip"; here's how he described it: "That's when I learned that fear can propel you in a rocketship to far out places. That first trip was a propulsion into domains and realities that I couldn't even recount when I came back. But I knew that I had expanded way beyond anything I had ever experienced before, and as I was squeezed back into the human frame, I cried." A common theme in many tank experiences seems to be this sense of leaving the body behind and entering a vast metaphysical space where inner landscapes long obscured by earthbound fog are at last made clear.

While Lilly never actually changed his physical form in a tank, he did recount the following anecdote about a colleague of his, Dr. Craig Enright: "While taking a trip with me here by the isolation tank, [he] suddenly 'became' a chimp, jumping up and down and hollering for twenty-five minutes. Watching him, I was frightened. I asked him later, 'Where the hell were you?' He said, 'I became a pre-hominid, and I was in a tree. A leopard was trying to get me. So I was trying to scare him away.'

Notice however that Enright was just taking a trip "by" the isolation tank. What does that mean? He was just hanging out watching his friend inside the comfy tank, then got jealous, so started jumping up and down to scare a ghost leopard? Sounds like he was just trying to get attention. No reason to go yelling for Rick Baker!

Ever want to see yourself as a primate? I can help. Just go to the mirror and stare deep and long at your dilated pupils. Don't re-focus your eyes to see the peripherals of your vision, just gradually let the bathroom melt away to jungle and recede behind you as your slackened jaw grows fangs and hair in the peripheral blur. There you go, my pre-hominid friend, 200,000 years of evolution gone with just a little soft focus.

P.S. I ran "Der Hollentrip" through babelfish Dutch-to-English and the definition I got was "To run, sniffing." Amen, bruder!


  1. Another great review. You summed up my problems with it rather well: it's just too damn glossy! Some Lynch films are glossy too, of course - Blue Velvet is glossy - but it's the glossiness combined with the lack of imagination. Somehow Russell's visual histrionics are too ... materialist, perhaps.

    I'm loving this series, but the highlight so far was probably the Snow White cartoon, an experience I find hard to put into words.

  2. Thanks MM, that's good to hear, I'm honored to have been the one to open this door for you! There's a good cheap set of all the best pre-code (and some post-code) Boops out there. I urge you to get it if you haven't already.

  3. Great review, this is truly one of the great cinematic "trips" I've ever had the pleasure of taking. Keep up the excellent work!

  4. I just adore this film..... so much so that I have been using isolation tanks for the last 16 years!

  5. great review
    this is a cine-trip

  6. They should hundreds of more sci-fi movies similar to this movie. Love the transformation air-bladders special effects, I wanted to see billions of more transformation bladders fx.