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. I know; I was both when I loved this movie and hetero-mancrushed on William Hurt and thought it was a badass horror movie. But now that I've done the psychedelic overload thing enough times to count as one of the "experienced" in-crowd, ALTERED STATES seems ludicrously over-the-top and self-important. I quoted the above rant from Hurt's Dr. Jessup to illustrate the bizarre paradox of trying to use empirical scientific methodology to document and analyze "third eye" sensory experiences. As Tyrone Power put it in NIGHTMARE ALLEY, "it's like trying to put the ocean into bottles." It's why science hates us right-brained artists (and to paraphrase Bernardo in WEST SIDE STORY, we hate them right back). Psychologists of course are in a different boat - they study these experiences but don't consider them 'real' except to the mind perceiving them; even most of us who have perceived them know that feeling like you're returning to a prehuman state, remembering 'the first thought' doesn't turn you into an ape man; ye shall not grow hair where there wasn't hair before, even if it will "put hair on your chest," so to speak. That's the difference between just reading about these things, and being 'experienced' in them, no matter how many late night zoo break-ins you find yourself on at four in the morning with a head full of mescaline. You can imagine being a kid who doesn't understand metaphor hearing that tequila puts "hair on your chest" and being afraid he'll look like a freak if he tries it.... and then growing up to be Ken Russell.

The story of psycho-research maven Dr. Jessup and his isolation tank was probably much more restrained and impressionistic in Chayefsky's source novel, but Ken turned it 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 nervous 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 should bring a knowing smirk to any seasoned tripper, but this young and fresh William Hurt is such a strong charismatic presence that you swoon along with Blair Brown at his every pupil dilation.

See, he's a psychologist researching schizophrenia, studying the "interior experience." He has sex thinking about "crucifixions... Jesus..." When he was a child he used to see visions. But hasn't since he was sixteen and his father died. Dad's very last word: "terrible." No wonder old Hurt's such a mess.  But what's everyone else's excuse?

With his insistence on literalizing hallucinatory transmutation on a physical level, like a child or fundamentalist might imagine the bible allegories, if Ken was filming Eden he'd probably show Adam tearing out one of his own ribs and having a full grown woman morph out of the ensuing geyser of blood and latex. Similarly, our crazy Dr. Jessup, having tapped into primal animal instincts, transforms into a wiry little ape man running around with dogs, casting long nighttime shadows on his way to to the zoo, then later devolving still further, into a big half-blob, half-man! He's gone "too far" and is having crazy flashbacks! Whoa, man. Only Blair Brown's love (or a Valium, why have you got one?) can save him now!

To the hardcore 'heads' in the house, this is what's known as 'showboating:' the panicky ego of one of your less experienced trip contingent is getting in the way of everyone else's experience, trying to make his experiences more important than yours, and holding up everyone's parade until the full measure of his self-perceived brilliance is acknowledged --i.e. your experience is oceanic, you don't try to hold onto any one construct, but he's still trying, like a surfer having a tantrum because the big wave he wanted hasn't come, or already came and he wasn't ready and now he can't get it back - and no one else out in the waves with him understands or is willing to stop watching the ocean and pay attention to his snit.

Wavy Gravy (or I) could have talked Jessup back into a human surfer form in five minutes if that isolation tank lab had a chill out room. But that would imply this was all recreational. Snagging 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 or indolent 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.

"This guy Jessup seems like a real lightweight"
Now, no matter how experienced we are, we've all had our 'moments.' We've all 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... (Jason). But none of us ever did it in such glossy Hollywood style, with ape make-up and sound effects. We just revel in the possibility, feel the latent fangs and claws within our aura, take the dogs for a long shirtless, leashless, shoeless midnight walk and notice our long shadows in the few passing headlights seem precambrian. We maybe howl at the moon or chase some girl around the party until we find a bottle big enough to pound ourselves into submission with.

The next day we have to get up and go to our catering jobs, or spend the day retracing our steps in search of our lost keys, shoes, (or me, twice) pants. All hearts, when dying's done, do beat again. No Big Realization stays earth-shattering; the notes you scrawled on bar napkins to explain the meaning of life seem elementary, idiotic, illegible, or naive. To the rest of the world it's no less eye-roll inducing than hearing some wild dream you had as a kid, irregardless of whether you're studying whether schizophrenia is an illness or just a channel of God and devils into your inner TV that you just can't turn off. When you're reading Carlos Castaneda for recreation, doing mushrooms on the weekends, and studying Buddhism and Jungian archetypal mythology in class, all at the same time, it seems like every little synaptic connection you make between all four areas is like landing on the moon. It isn't. You'll find out if you just keep studying and reading, instead of giving yourself a ticker tape parade over the feeling of small-step-for-man style import those connections give you. That ego, man. No sooner have you ridden one of those massive oceanic waves as its convincing you to stop surfing, so you can get that last wave your rode preserved in bronze. In fact, better make all future surfing illegal, so everyone will have to acknowledge your feat of riding is without equal.

But to me, if you want to literalize, concretize a mystic experience, you got to find the mythic undercurrent and be consistent with all of them, and then it doesn't matter which, the way Boorman did with EXCALIBUR and then didn't do with ZARDOZ. Otherwise it's just self-important schlock. William Hurt goes to the end of the universe on STP and then announces "there's nothing there" (his equivalent of his father's "terrible") 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 psychedelic visions are more vivid than reality to the one experiencing them --that's the lesson. That reality itself is an illusion, that Big Truths are as constantly in flux as a shore line at the end of an unstable coal black sea. whether you surf or don't surf, the waves are still 'rode'. Jessup can't let go of his ego enough to dissolve into the white light of the big truth, so therefore there is no 'big truth' at all, and that's the one thing that's not true, Jessup!

But if Jessup would just let himself get subsumed by his space amoeba blob self, would just surrender fully to the horror instead of running and hiding behind his woman's skirts, he might--he just might--had been able to see that beyond the terror of the space amoeba blob-level void are many other layers to cross, the void of complete ego death is 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 ebb in flow in patterns of 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 Blair Brown 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 Man Called Horse initiatory antlers.


Hurt's character may or may not be full of shit but Hurt the actor does the best tripped out expression in all acid cinema (above) and our hearts flutter during the sandwich-making seduction scene with him and Blair 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, that he needs to cling to the notion some kind of physical manifestation or measurable evidence can result in order to feel his pursuits are valid. 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! Bad guide! Bad! He's an even worse guide than Bruce Dern in The Trip! There are a lot of people who wig out in isolation tanks without needing a nervous idiot fussing and yelling and bringing everybody down. 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, that whole "I already did it, and moved on, so now no one else can do it" wave bronzing scheme.

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 your Rick Baker monkey skin!

Lastly, one of the most Sisyphean things to do when in that altered state is try to use language to describe your visions and experiences. You can use it afterwards - hell I been using language to talk about it for years but haven't 'revisited' that plane since the mid-90s. But when you are in that 'zone' - tripping balls, as the saying goes--language is just a sandbag holding you down. I've seen kids throw themselves into a panic trying to contextualize their experiences in the moment, as if language is one of those ropes between Arctic research buildings characters use in whiteout snowstorms; if they let go they may never find their way back to a building only ten feet away, i.e. wind up permanently insane, permanently 'lost' in the whiteout of madness. But the reverse is true: if you don't let go and drift with the wind, and trust you will get back, or if not it doesn't matter because you're a fearless loving child of the Walrus King, needing only to roar into the avalanche to own all snow, then the snow will never vanish and be replaced by loving completeness and light --if you believe this to be so, what does it matter if it was true before or not? It's true now. Placebo effects are a universal, only ego can stop them.

But you're not going to get there if you're just narrating your visions from a microphone isolation tank. Language is like the mom who won't shut up on the Haunted House ride about whether or not you're having fun and do you remember that character from the storybook, honey? Remember the storybook? With such a mom you can never lose yourself in the wonderment, so avidly doth she drop the breadcrumbs every foot forward. Let go of language, Jessup! Trust that it will be there when you get back. You're not missing anything. That's the thing humans in their vanity associate with evolution. If evolution is real, how come zebras never learned to talk? The answer is simple --talk is not an evolutionary trait, it's a virus. It's like asking why they don't get depressed, or smoke cigarettes.

Ever want to see yourself as a primate, the 'original self'? You can't get there with language, Jessup. I can help without it; you don't need to hike into some South American mountains and find "the first flower" (presumably mimosa hostilis). Just get some from one of your students and go to the mirror and stare deep and long at your dilated pupils. Don't re-focus your eyes to see the peripheral of your vision. Gradually let the bathroom melt away around you in soft focus; let the jungle and recede behind you as your slackened jaw grows fangs and hair in the peripheral blur. Again, don't re-focus, just let it go... "then you will propel into the void, you will see a spot, the spot will become a crack, this is the crack between the nothing, and out of this nothing will come your unborn soul," as the shaman puts it. But you don't need to turn into a monster on any earthly plane to validate it. You just have to realize that earthly plane is no more real than the visions. You just have to realize that when language, when signifier-chains, are transcended, then all the world is new and strange again, regardless of where you are. It's a whole new world from moment to moment. Language, that rope that keeps you from drifting into the void, is all that makes it stale. And with a single breath and staring into your own pupils all the while in the looking glass, you can dispel it. Let it go, and fall into the whiteout like it's the arms of the goddess.


And when you come back from the void, language is always there waiting, and it's sorry it got so staid and stale. It vows it will try harder. It gives you more creative freedom to examine the shapes of the letters and lose yourself in their myriad meanings, the way a child would, or a Cro-Magnon savage, freshly defrosted. He let go of the rope and drifted into the whiteout void during the last polar shift. Was it only a million years ago? Seemed like it was just a few minutes. Look, the rope is still there where you left it, the anthropologists are already devolving back to your buddies saying "how long were you out there, bro?"

"I needed to take a pis," you answer, "but my dick froze." And the word "pis" seems like the hiss of a cosmic serpent. You're home. "Terrible" is just another word for the horror, the horror, and then the horror is just another word for Blair Brown's waiting lizard arms. Just go in, ticket-buyer, and takes your chance.

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

7 comments:

  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.

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  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.

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  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!

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

    www.i-sopod.com

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  5. great review
    this is a cine-trip

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  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.

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  7. Best review of a trip movie EVER!!!

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