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.)