Tanked

Our teenage friend Louis seemed ripe for introduction to the oeuvre of the late Ken Russell, so we showed him ALTERED STATES. His father thanked us for this afterwards, so it seems it was a good move. I think he viewed it as something like the young fellow’s first trip to a bordello — a necessary stage in his development.

(William Hurt experiments with isolation tanks and hallucinogens, experiencing a physical regression to a pre-human state. Along with DAY OF THE DOLPHIN, this is the second film based on John C. Lilly’s experiments — he sued the makes of the former film… but apparently this one was OK with him.)

Fiona had been wanting a Ken Russell tribute ever since the Great Man left his body, but she was particular that it should be this film, and I thought our only copy was on loan, but then I found a spare, and so we DID IT. Ken’s first American-shot film and his last major studio film (VALENTINO was shot in the UK, CRIMES OF PASSION was an indie for New World) seems to have allowed him considerable freedom — a big budget and license to cast unknowns like first-timer William Hurt. He’s excellent, though Ken found his need to discuss everything slightly wearing. “I knew he’d marry a deaf woman.”

ALTERED STATES is full of Dick Smith bladder effects. Chief among them is William Hurt’s face.

I once met a chap from a deaf school who had dealt with Hurt on CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD. “He had an interesting time,” said the guy’s dad, and the guy immediately did a full-body clench of anger at the mere memory of Hurt: “He’s – a – very – difficult – man,” he gritted.

I may never forgive Pauline Kael for sniping that all Blair Brown displayed here was the small of her back — she gives a moving and intense performance, dealing with Paddy Chayefsky’s decidedly tricky script. She does, it must be admitted, look great in her nude scenes, but that hardly seems something that should be held against her. She’s credible as an anthropologist and as a woman in love, which is not a combination everyone can pull off. Plus, she delivers two of my favourite facial expressions in any movie — the first is her Sphinx Face, which she deploys when playing the in-between to a gila monster and a sandstone sphinx in a hallucination. It’s appropriately both sphinxlike and lizardlike, full of cold-blooded mystery.

The second is her very convincing and frightful going-into-shock face. In GOTHIC, Julian Sands has a very similar scene in a very similar shot, but his version is rubbish because he’s Julian Sands and not Blair Brown, as any fool can see.

About that tricky dialogue — the one area where Russell didn’t have freedom was the script. Chayefsky had earned the right to control his productions to the point where nobody could change a line of his dialogue without his consent, which is fair enough considering his status and the level of his success with NETWORK etc. But here, his writing does somewhat cross the boundary from florid and theatrical to ridiculously over-explicit and jargony. Russell thus proves how far a director can subvert a script without rewriting it — pretty far, it seems: to the point where Chayefsky took his name off the screenplay.

Russell’s main weapons are speed and overlap, allowing the dialogue that didn’t interest him to rocket over the viewer’s head in a cataract of projectile verbiage. Having the character spout psychological insights with their mouths full of food also adds much-needed naturalism. And actors like Bob Balaban and Charles Haid, with their cool, moist and hot, dry delivery respectively, manage to make this stuff sound believable and human. Haid gets the best rant ever, as Hurt slides to the floor laughing in his face (which, believe me, is the best reaction if anybody ever does start furiously ranting at you — try it, it makes them crazy).

The only downside of sliding so quickly over the incessant monologues is that this stuff is where Chayefsky sets up the crazy Jekyll-and-Hyde transformations that come later. This must be my sixth viewing of the film at least, but it’s the first time I’d taken particular note of a stray observation about schizophrenics almost trying to modify their bodies to suit their schizophrenic self-image. The idea of Cronenbergian psychoplasmics, where mental states take on physical forms, is a crucial one to prepare the audience for the TERRIFIC APE-MAN, who otherwise may seem a bit of a stretch.

Although, a friend said he had no trouble with the ape-man, what he found a little tricky was the weird cosmic shit, which really only gets set up quite late in the day. Of course, for Ken, the image was of singular importance, so what mattered was not establishing these concepts through science-talk, but hitting the audience right between the eyes with them as forcefully as possible, in actual scenes of violent physical action. Here, he delivers. Nothing could be more compelling that the non-verbal adventures of Hurt’s monkey self, rampaging through the streets followed by Jordan (BLADE RUNNER) Cronenweth’s dynamic, roving camera. Just beautiful!

The late Miguel Godreau, a Puerto Rican dancer, plays “primal man” with aggression, gusto, grace, and a surprising quality of choreographed grace — rather than simply running wild, he strikes poses that seem as much physical theatre as wildlife documentary, an unusual choice which shouldn’t work but does, aided by the 80s lighting, which is all smoky shafts of toplight and overwhelming Spielberg godlight. Ken’s sensory overkill needed the kind of budgetary support he got up until CRIMES OF PASSION, and the later films suffer by having insufficient resources to barrage the audience with their effects.

Attention To Detail — here are two shots from near the beginning and near the end, melodramatically lit and mirroring each other cutely. Note also the statue in image one — barely noticeable in the film, where one’s eye flashes to the silhouette of Hurt, but amusing when you spot it. Note also the image at the top of this post: I never spotted, until I went looking for frame-grabs, how the face of the schizophrenic patient bleeds through Hurt’s face during one of his trips. The amazing actress, Deborah Baltzell, tragically died of a heart attack, aged just 25, a year after the movie came out. Everybody use this as your Facebook avatar, NOW.

John Mcdonald’s production design, like most of the film, straddles a line between realism and theatricality. Everything has real-world solidity, and insists on its authenticity via texture and age, but the room with the metal grid floor, lit from below, makes very little sense if you think about it. It’s a hard balance to get right: see EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC for an example of production design that crosses that line first define by David St Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel, between clever and stupid.

As Ken happily pointed out, what contemporary audiences really responded to was the crazy trip scenes. Ken’s crew discovered that what he responded to best was actual on-set physical effects he could see happen live, through his camera, although by the time things reached the screen he had manipulated them in all kinds of ways with the optical printer and splicer. The combination is both visceral and cosmic, which it needs to be. John Corrigliani’s score, with its Stravinskian assaults, is a great help.

And who’s this guy? Small role, but he’s AWFUL good.

“Well, they seem like agreeable people.” — classic example of the kind of fellow you wouldn’t want supervising your peyote trip!

(Apparently he’s Thaao Penghlis, and no, I didn’t just collapse face first on my keyboard, that’s his name. And he’s been in 1,053 episodes of Days of our Lives, which I guess is better than dying young, but how much better I’m not sure. Still, he’s GREAT.)

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18 Responses to “Tanked”

  1. The late great Dorothy Dean, who knew him quite well, said that Altered States was inspired entirely by the hydrotherapy treatment Chayefsky was undergoing to stem his raging bi-polarity.

    Kael’s focus on the small of Blair Brown’s back is most suggestive of “strange twilight urges” on her part. And I’ll leave it at that for the moment.

    When I reviewed Altered States at the time of its release I called it a cross between Monster on the Campus and Kramer vs. Kramer. I see no reason to alter that judgment. It’s wonderful cheezy fun with a great score by the brilliant and overwhelmingly babe-a-licious John Corigliano ( the gay Warren Beatty in his youth.)

  2. William Hurt wasn’t marreid to Marlee Matlin. They just had a tumultuous relations hsip during and a tad after the making of Children of a Lesser God He also had a tumultuous relationship with Sandrine Bonnaire.

    He was for a few years early on married (tumultuously of course) to Mary Beth Hurt. She has since been very happily married to Paul Schrader.

  3. I think this might be Ken’s best love story, in addition to all its more pyrotechnic elements.

    Blair Brown’s nude scenes are… awfully good… but for Kael to reduce her work here to that is just insulting. As I’m sure it was meant to be. What lay behind it is anyone’s guess. The small of her back is displayed a few shots before the end, so maybe that was all she could remember after her ONE VIEWING.

  4. I never understood that quirk of Kael’s, the one-and-done. There are plenty of films I’ve seen once that I would never see again for my own reasons but if I were to write about even those films, I’d absolutely see them again even if it was like having a two-hour root canal. I had no problem with Blair Brown, she was all over television in the mid to late ’70s and she was in my (so to speak) little black book of actresses I’d make an effort to watch.

  5. david wingrove Says:

    David E – I’m intrigued by your hint about Pauline Kael and her ‘strange twilight urges’! What first alerted me was her rapturous description of Laura Antonelli and her ‘succulent flesh’ in a review of Visconti’s THE INNOCENT.

    What makes me sad watching ALTERED STATES is thinking of the other big studio projects Ken was offered around that time but – for various reasons – didn’t make. Chief among them were DRACULA (which went to John Badham) and THE ROSE (which went to Mark Rydell).

    Just think what Ken could have done with either or both of those. Surely he and Bette Midler would have beeb a match made in heaven! I also wish someone had asked Ken to direct one of the AIRPORT sequels – which wound up being made by people who just didn’t know how ridiculous they were!

  6. I recallt hat Marilyn Goldin once sent her a Birthday greeting that read “To Big Motherfinger from Little Motherfinger.”

  7. Nice to see BB turning up in the endearingly hokey Fringe.

    A Ken Dracula would be quite the thing. Preferably not from the script Badham used, but I’m sure he would have made something more interesting out of it.

  8. He most likely would have cast Julian Sands as the Count.

    I’ve got Sands On The Brain, as he turns up in Fincher’s entirely unnecessary remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as the young Christopher Plummer in flashback sequences.

    He used to live a block away from me, back when I was located in central Hollywood. I’d see him jog by my window every morning. A lovely sight.

  9. I would accept Gabriel Byrne more readily, Byron being somewhere in the literary mix leading to that character, and Byrne having more natural gravitas.

    That Dragon Tattoo book isn’t really very good — the Swedish film flounders amid the sheer wealth of incident and plethora of characters. I’m HOPING Fincher has pared it down a bit, otherwise it’ll be like Benjamin Button with a body count.

  10. I’m entirely too suggestible, I”m sure, but I once watched ALTERED STATES while on LSD. I’m still recovering. However, I think I *will* steal that top image for Facebook.

  11. Well, well. I wasn’t on acid, but I was rather pleasantly high when I saw AS back then. Those were the days when nobody cared what chemical you did unless you were disruptive.

  12. The film to watch on acid is Yolanda and the Thief

  13. Christopher Says:

    I’d toyed with the idea of writing a book on The Best Tripping Films…So many hidden meanings come to light under the influence of window pane,blotter or brown barrel mescaline..Once Upon A Time In The West is one to see..Fail Safe is not…well.. :o))

  14. Ken, of course, never touched drugs. Neither has Gilliam. They don’t need to, obviously. LSD would probably make them see the world like Ken Loach.

  15. Jordan Benedict Says:

    There are two reasons why Paddy Chayefsky insisted his name be taken off the screenplay of Altered States, one known, the other unknown. Chayefsky was a brilliant writer and wouldn’t put with anyone tinkering with his words, least of all Ken Russell. To put it mildly, he had a low regard for the director. That’s the known factor which has been written about and discussed adnasium.

    The unknown factor was the tragic relationship Chayefsky had with his son, a young man who got involved with drugs and couldn’t handle them. Chayefsky placed his son in a halfway house for addicts in Hell’s Kitchen. The doctors and therapists had some success with the boy. Then one night he climbed to the roof of the building and dove over the edge. He died on the payment. No apparent reason for the plunge, other than the boy having lost all hope and connection with the real world. When Chayefsky was notified by the police, his only comment was: “I just couldn’t reach him

  16. Kevin Deany Says:

    An acquaintance of mine who is a fan of John Corigliano’s music related to me an amusing anecdote concerning a visit by Corigliano to his college, where he performed some of his music and gave a talk afterwards.

    Someone asked him about Ken Russell and Corigliano said he liked him quite a bit and got on fine with him and Russell didn’t tell him what to write. There was only one source of disagreement. At the recording sessions, Corigliano was not conducting (his friend, the late Christopher Keene did the honors) and all was going well. All of a sudden during one sequence Corigliano realized he was hearing a gong, which he did not remember as being part of the score. He turned to Russell to ask what was going on, just as Ken Russell leaned into the microphone and said, “Make the gong louder.”

    My friend said Corigliano’s telling of this story brought the house down. Otherwise, Coriglilano had nothing but nice things to say about Russell,

  17. I didn’t watch all that many films in such, ahem, altered states, but the time and place made the opportunity such that I did so now and then.

    I still say if there’s a deluxe box set of Duel In The Sun, there should be a small pack of Benzedrine included, “See the film as David O. Selznick did!”

  18. Well, that would have to apply to The Third Man as well, with both Reed and Selznick hopped up.

    Kevin and Jordan, thanks for the insights! Russell was apparently 50th choice to direct AS, when of course he should have headed the list. But then, Bob Fosse was 10th choice for Cabaret, so sometimes fate has to help out when execs fumble.

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