Ken Russell, a director known for biting the hand that fed him, early and often, died on Monday, November 28th, at the ripe old age of 84. Here’s a review of his most mainstream film. ‘Mainstream’ is here deployed very loosely…
In my other life, I am a trained academic (with letters after my name and everything), which is a polite way of saying that I pull a lot of shit under the aegis of free inquiry. A few years back I was teaching at a summer camp for “gifted” children. The course was called “Philosophy in Literature and Film”, which I interpreted as license to show Ken Russell’s Altered States to a group of 14 year-olds. The next year my contract wasn’t renewed. I don’t know if it was because I felt that a film about atavism, psychedelics, and monkeymen was appropriate viewing for youngsters or because I am generally very difficult to work with, but there was a method to my madness. When I remember what it is, I’ll send you a candygram.
Altered States tells the very weird story of a psychologist named Eddie Jessup, played by a young William Hurt in his silver screen debut, who deals in the currency of expanded consciousness. He spends some time in an isolation tank, dreaming of crucified goats. He talks in convoluted Paddy Chayefsky-penned monologues about six billion year-old atoms with Bob Balaban. He gets a notion to travel to Mexico to partake in a ceremony with some Indians, who like all cinematic Natives are endowed with magic power in lieu of political power. He drinks some boiling black liquid with a shaman, and then the fun begins. He eats an iguana, sees the goat demon again (a recurring motif), and gets a super hangover on account of his hubris and lightweight Ivy League education. He is a cautionary tale in human form: if you don’t want to spend the next forty-five minutes believing there is a spider laying eggs on your face, don’t drink the black tea the Navajo man gave you.*
“As per the treaty, you may take our land if we can turn your scientists into the monster from The Relic.”
Once Hurt isolates this mystery liquid into its component chemicals and brings it back to the states for consumption in elephantine doses, the meat of the film is revealed. It’s a critique of both colonial enterprise and of the naïve “we are all one” philosophy that fueled the actually rather inane popular writing of the likes of Timothy Leary and Carlos Castaneda. You see, this chemical doesn’t just alter your mind, it alters your body as well, and it opens up doors in the universe which no white man was ever meant to walk through. No wonder the Indians played it close to the chest. When William Hurt turns into a monkeyman and hits a dude with a pipe, nobody wins.
Like all Ken Russell pictures, this one is filled with insane visuals and special effects work that still holds up over thirty years later. But the heart of the story is an old one, touching on anxieties about Western contact with the savage other and the idea that we can only know so much and live. “Hippies, listen up!” says the film, “before you star travelers jump on that Native bandwagon, you might want to realize what the Natives have always known… sometimes the bandwagon runs straight into some scary shit.” It’s a harsh rebuke of the Summer of Love and the banal New Age universalism it spawned.
It uses a stereotype–that Natives are somehow closer to the primeval beginning, more aware of cosmic time–to critique American assumptions about what is and isn’t appropriate to appropriate (see what I did there?) in the name of self-realization. After all these years, I still can’t decide if the film is pretty racist or pretty deep. It is, after all, still playing on some extremely pernicious ideas about the original inhabitants of this continent and it also recapitulates the notion that Natives and Whites will always be unintelligible to one another and that there is nothing that can be done about our talking past one another. The Natives remain mysterious cyphers and the white man is still a hero who maybe just flew a little to close to the sun (which in this case was shaped like Quetzlcoatl). But it also makes academics like me look like masturbatory asses, which is always a good thing… because we usually are, in spite of our intentions.
What do you mean all scholars have God complexes? That’s baloney… Baloney!
There is a famous story about how screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky (who also wrote Network, and the novel Altered States is based on) had it in his contract that all of his dialogue had to be used verbatim, with no cuts, improvisations, or alterations. Because Ken Russell decided that he could be a bigger dick than Chayefsky, there are often scenes in which characters deliver bloated, pseudo-philosophical lines such as, “It is the Self, the individual Mind, that contains immortality and ultimate truth,” while chowing down on delicious sammiches.
“Whatever you say, you smug Ukrainian wang. Everyone in this movie just happens to be eating pie all the time. Verbal signature, Ken Russell.”
If you’re going to blast your consciousness across the astral plain with something you got in Mexico, you might as well do it on a full stomach.
Russell was right. Much of the script is guilty of the same sort of platitudinous nonsense that it’s actively trying to tear down. It takes itself entirely too seriously. It thinks it’s important. Chayefsky is treating his subject in a terribly grave manner, while Russell instinctively knows it works better as straight satire. One rarely has the opportunity to see such behind the scenes tension between two auteurs played out onscreen.
*C.T. Bland Field Notes: Four Corners – June 18th, 2008: “Death Journal” (you were waiting for that asterisk to pay off)
The visuals are stunning. The delivery is manic. And it is the highest of praise to say that there simply isn’t another film like Altered States. It’s one long hallucination in a directorial career that was full of them. Ken Russell, that winking English bastard, will be missed.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Bracing Shot of Absinthe: if you’re a Fringe fan and suddenly realize that you have now seen Nina Sharp’s (Blair Brown) boobies. Or when you realize what that South Park episode was about…
Eat the Worm at the Bottom of the Mezcal: when William Hurt transfigures into a blob monster
Enjoy a Couple Mexican Beers like Modelo or Dos Equis: because our neighbors south of the border have given us so many wonderful mind altering substances