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Monday, 22 February 2016

Altered States (1980)

Director: Ken Russell
Stars: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban and Charles Haid
And Death continues to swing his scythe at the film industry. I’ve just read about Andrzej Żuławski, who left us two days after George Gaynes, who I’m remembering here. Gaynes will be best known to most as Commandant Eric Lassard of the Police Academy films and he channelled a similar ineptness as the soap opera star who tried to woo Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie. In real life, he wasn’t inept, being fluent in no less than seven languages, perhaps partly due to being born in Helsinki, back when it was part of the Russian Empire. He and his wife founded the State Street Ballet Company in Santa Barbara, reflecting higher art than Police Academy. He was a prolific TV actor and his films are surprisingly varied, including Marooned, Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off, Nickelodeon, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, To Be or Not to Be, The Fantastic Four and Vanya on 42nd Street, along with this underrated gem from novelist Paddy Chayefsky and director Ken Russell. Hey, I reviewed the first couple of Police Academy movies recently; let’s go more obscure.

To be honest, it’s been so long since I last saw Altered States that I’d forgotten that George Gaynes was in it and, as it turned out, he’s only just in it, with one scene late in the film with a few memorable lines. The same scenario applies to some of the other famous names that I’d forgotten about, like John Larroquette and Drew Barrymore, who debuted here at the age of five as the daughter of the leads, a couple of years before ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. She steals at least one scene here, simply by opening her mouth, unless that’s her screen sister, Megan Jeffers. Larroquette portrays an unnamed X-ray technician, who ironically enough, literally leads us to George Gaynes, playing the awkwardly named Dr Wissenschaft. Oddly, as a number of the future names, like Larroquette and Barrymore, have small roles, the other debuting actor isn’t so hamstrung. He’s William Hurt, who would win an Oscar on his first of four nominations, for Kiss of the Spider Woman, but here was just a brand new actor playing a peach of a leading role.
We begin in April 1967, with Dr Eddie Jessup inside an odd flotation tank that rather looks like a boiler for steampunks. He’s a university professor, working as part of a team to investigate schizophrenia, which he isn’t even sure is a disease; perhaps it’s just a different state of consciousness. He’s interested in it from the perspective of religious experiences, as he saw visions of the saints as a child, visions which stopped after his father’s death at sixteen. He’s so drawn to the concept that he doesn’t want to restrict himself to examining the EEGs of student volunteers, he wants to try it out for himself. He sees the isolation tank as a good means to induce a trancelike state, though at this point he doesn’t want his serious science to be tainted by the psychedelic drug culture that was creeping into the field at the time. It certainly seems to have an impressive effect from this initial scene, or at least his control, Arthur Rosenberg, seems to think so. That’s Bob Balaban from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

It’s at one of Arthur’s parties that Jessup meets Emily, another prodigy of a young scientist, but a physical anthropologist about to start teaching at Harvard. Before that happens, she becomes his wife. Suddenly, we’ve lost two months, as if we’ve been stretching out in Eddie’s flotation tank too and time has ceased to have quite the same meaning. If he had notable experiences in the tank, he continues to have them in the sack with Emily. ‘What are you thinking about?’ she asks him during sex. ‘God,’ is his thoughtful reply. ‘Jesus. Crucifixions.’ This eventually leads to one of the most memorable lines in the film, which bizarrely comes as part of her proposal of marriage, which is as unromantic as they come, given that she tells him that, ‘I feel like I’m being harpooned by some raging monk in the act of receiving God.’ We start to share some of this during his second session: blasphemous mixtures of sex, death and the Christ, which would be utterly amazing in anyone’s work but Ken Russell’s, in which they’re entirely expected.
And so we move on. Quickly. Next thing we know, years have passed and they have kids but they are to divorce, even though she doesn’t want to. He’s just ridding himself of ‘clatter and clutter and ridiculous ritual.’ I told you about the romance, right? And finally, here we start to get to the point of the picture. It revolves around race memory, which Jessup is convinced can be tapped into. He believes that we have six million years of memories stuck in our limbic systems and he wants to experience them. Gone is his reluctance to use pharmaceutical assistance, because he promptly finds his way to Mexico to be part of what must be very similar to an ayahuasca ceremony. ‘Your soul will return to the first soul,’ explains the brujo who leads the way and, to highlight that this is a particularly important journey, their entrance into a cave is reminiscent of science fiction, as if they’re all astronauts discovering a lost civilisation on Mars. The trip is wild, of course, mixing the primal with the civilised. Next up is the hellish vista of a Bosch.

Part of the reason that this film works is the introduction of Charles Haid as Mason Parrish, who works at the same university as Eddie and Arthur. He thinks that the other two are being utterly irresponsible, but he ends up involved anyway, mostly because the three work very well together from our perspective. If Hurt, as Eddie Jessup, is the visionary, the mad scientist, the focal point of everything we experience, the others are the response to what he does. Balaban as Arthur is the calm, studious believer, ready to allow Jessup’s next officially unsanctioned experiment to see where it goes and to monitor it to see what might happen. Haid as Mason is the far from calm disbeliever and his actions are almost violent to pretty much anything that happens, down to simple questions. ‘Do you believe in supernatural phenomena, Mason?’ he’s asked and his reply is a defiant, ‘No, sir, I do not!’ It’s a classic approach to something controversial: throw in someone who believes in it and someone who doesn’t and let battle commence.
I appreciated how Ken Russell focuses on the emotion here. There’s science all over the script, most of it adapted by Paddy Chayefsky from his own source novel, but most of it is buried in frantic dialogue as the passion is more important than the detail. A good part of it is hurled with vitriol during arguments, which means that we can’t really understand half of it but we don’t care. It’s not important to us, even if it is to the characters who are speaking. What matters to us is the passion that they’re resonating because they care. Oddly, Chayefsky had a lot of concerns with Russell’s approach and so had his credit as scriptwriter changed to Sidney Aaron, his real first two names, even though he’d earned a cool million for his efforts. Critic Richard Corliss suggested that his problems with what we see on screen are what I liked the most: ‘the intensity of the performances and the headlong pace at which the actors read his dialogue.’ I have read the book and enjoyed the science there, but on screen I enjoyed the passion.

To be fair, this is only half a science fiction movie anyway. The other half is firmly horror and it moves at steady pace from one to the other as Dr Jessup starts not only to experience primitive states but actually starts to regress physically to them. One of the longest sequences in the movie is the one where Jessup isn’t actually played by William Hurt but by Miguel Godreau, the former lead dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. In some ways it’s rather bizarre to see a primitive apelike creature played by a classically trained ballet dancer, but the approach works really well. He lopes and leaps and climbs, all in the very hairy nude. This sequence is almost entirely devoid of dialogue, just grunting as this regressed Jessup does what primitive apelike creatures would probably do if suddenly confronted with a landscape as alien to them as the America of the 1970s. Godreau does wonderful work, but the piece de resistance comes from Hurt, who smiles knowingly when released from jail. It’s a smile of vindication.
While the story is Chayefsky’s, adapted by him from his novel, that novel was based on real research into sensory deprivation done by neuroscientist and psychonaut, John C Lilly, well known for experimenting on his own body and so endangering his health and his life. His research in the early 1960s involved the consumption of psychedelic drugs like LSD before entering an isolation tank or attempting to commune with dolphins. The film, however, belongs to Ken Russell, because it’s a product of wild science, classical music and psychedelic and often blasphemous visuals. Lilly liked it, even if Chayefsky didn’t, particularly appreciating some scenes that resonated from his experiences. The ending is a real trip, reminding once again of 2001: A Space Odyssey, as some of the scenes with Godreau did. Magnificent editing from Eric Jenkins makes these scenes burst; sometimes it’s rapid fire, pulsing, staccato stuff, while other times it’s slow, letting scenes unfold to tell their own story.

Today, it fits well with Russell’s other work, which always stands out even if it’s flawed. It sounds an odd and redundant thing to say but he was a very cinematic filmmaker, using visuals to tell stories as well as add to the ones already being told. He inherited the cast when he took over from Arthur Penn, but could have done a lot worse. William Hurt shows the promise that he soon lived up to, playing his challenging part with aplomb. Blair Brown is firmly in support as Emily, but she manages to steal some scenes from him. Bob Balaban and Charles Haid are exactly what they need to be to support the scientific side of the script, just as Charles White-Eagle carries the philosophical ones as the Mexican brujo. Down the credits, behind Barrymore and Larroquette and others is George Gaynes, who gets little to do with his one scene, but has a memorable line to deliver which he does with style. Parrish suggests that Jessup’s X-rays are ‘slightly abnormal,’ Gaynes looks at him askance and says, ‘Somewhat? The guy’s a fucking gorilla!’

RIP George Gaynes.

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