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  then, now that I've done the psychedelic overload thing enough times to count as over the rainbow, 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 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." It's why science hates us right brained artists. Psychologists of course are in a different boat - they study these experiences. But even they know that feeling like you're returning to a prehuman state, remembering 'the first thought' doesn't turn you into an ape man, you shall not grow hair where there wasn't hair before, even if it will "put hair on your chest," so to speak.

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 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. His very last words, "terrible." No wonder old Hurt's such a mess.

Russell re-imagines hallucinatory transmutation on a physical level, like a child or fundamentalist might imagine the bible allegories. 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, having tapped into primal animal instincts, 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! Whoa, man. Only Blair Brown's love can save him now!

To the hardcore 'heads in the house, this is what's known as 'showboating:' the ego of one of your dosed party getting in the way, 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. Wavy Gravy could have talked Jessup back into a human in five minutes if that isolation tank lab had a chill-out tent. 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 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, 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, feel the latent fangs and claws within our aura, maybe howl at the moon or chase some girl around the party until we find a bar where we can pound ourselves into submission. The next day we have to get up and go to our catering jobs. All hearts, when dying's done, do beat again. No Big Realization stays earth-shattering; and to the rest of the world it's no less eye-roll allaying 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. He gives schizophrenics massive doses of DMT, which makes no sense --like pouring gasoline on a fire expecting it to go out. And as with all the cases here, the religious allegories they hallucinate all fit the same Judeo-Christian mold; there's nothing out of the Tibetan or Egyptian Books of the Dead, or ancient Hinduism, like so many others, myself included, have experienced much more vividly than the Christ stuff, though there's that too.

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. Jessup doesn't get a big truth as big truth, so therefore there is no big truth, 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 clings to the notion some kind of physical manifestation or measurable evidence can result. 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! There are a lot of people who trip 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."

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 use language to describe your visions and experiences. You can use it afterwards - hell I been using language to talk about it every day but haven't 'revisited' that plane in ten years at least. But when you are in that 'zone' - 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 thing is, if you do 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 vanishes and is replaced by loving completeness and light --if you believe it, what does it matter if it was true before? It's true now.

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. 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 psilocybe cubensis mushrooms (this was written presumably back when they were relatively unknown in the west presumably). 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 peripherals 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 pupils, 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 tries harder, for awhile, to stay fresh. 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 after he was flash-frozen years ago. 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?" You just say "I needed to take a pis, 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 quality of terror, or horror, and you must make a friend of horror, the horror, and then the horror is just another word for Blair Brown's waiting lizard arms.

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.