(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)
Altered States (1980)
Written by Paddy Chayefsky, based on his original novel
Directed by Ken Russell
Regular readers will of course know that, despite the age of the movies in this essay series, the vast majority of them are ones I'm seeing this year for the very first time; that was the whole point of even getting my Netflix account, after all, was so I could slowly start making my way through the hundreds and hundreds of movies I've been saying over the years that I should really get around to watching. And in general I like doing things this way as well, in that it keeps things fresh for both you and me; I'm seeing great movies I've never seen before, and you're getting opinions that were literally sometimes formed just a few hours before that essay was written. Now, that said, there will of course sometimes be movies slipped in that I have seen before as well, for one reason or another; the last time such a thing happened, for example, it was the silent-era classic Metropolis, watched again so as to see the restored edition put out a few years ago by Kino.
Ah, but no such justification can be claimed for the 1980 trippy masterpiece Altered States, which I just got done with a couple of days ago; I'd already seen it a dozen times, to tell you the truth, and rented it again for no other reason than that I wanted to rent it again, just like most of us do over the years with our favorite movies. And make no mistake, Altered States is one of my all-time favorite movies; in fact, it's fair to say that it's one of a dozen or so artistic projects from the '70s and '80s that I became a little obsessed with as a teenager, and part of what led me to pursuing a career in the arts in the first place. See, for those who don't know, the early years of cable television were a real boon to the art-film industry; and that's because back then, these now-famous premium channels like HBO and Showtime didn't have very much money, and of course there was no direct-to-video industry yet because of video having just been invented, so to fill up their late nights back then, these channels would usually load up on either cheapie European softcore pornography or trippy art-films, both of which could be licensed back then for next to nothing. And thus it was that between the ages of thirteen to eighteen, I ended up catching for the first time such seminal movies as Eraserhead, Heavy Metal, Liquid Sky, Repo Man and a whole lot more, pumped straight into my suburban Missouri home with no one being the wiser. (And thus it was that I also ended up seeing every Emmanuelle movie ever made...but that's a whole other story.)
So for this particular essay, I thought it might be fun not to write a traditional review of Altered States like normal, but rather compare the various ways I've interacted with the film over the years; of what kinds of things about both the movie and the script really appealed to me as a teen versus now, of what aspects went totally over my head until now. And let's face facts, that when I was a teen and first saw this film, the thing that most struck me at the time was the most obvious part of the storyline: the part about the brilliant and odd college professor Eddie Jessup (William Hurt in his very first role), and of the way he manages to accidentally revert to an earlier form of human evolution over the course of the film, through copious use of psychedelic drugs and sensory-deprivation tanks. And indeed, even if no other aspect of this film is taken into account, Altered States still holds together as a tightly-plotted science-fiction thriller, about a contemporary human who somehow manages to turn himself into a caveman through sheer will alone, and goes running around the streets of Boston in the middle of the night causing all kinds of havoc.
Of course, I also couldn't help but to be impressed back then with all the freaky sex scenes this movie features as well, between Hurt and the surprisingly hot Blair Brown; and seriously, how could you be a pre-internet teenage boy and not be grateful for any chances you got to see naked women? It wasn't until college, though, when I became sexually active myself, that I was able to appreciate these scenes for what they are; not just sex scenes, that is, but deeply disturbing glimpses into the mind of a tortured genius, and of how frustrating it must be to be the lover of such a tortured genius. Because that's the thing about Jessup that you don't need to understand to enjoy the movie, but certainly makes the movie even more enjoyable if you do -- that he's not just a brilliant cutting-edge professor, but also a former child faith-healer who still has just a very odd relationship with Christian dogma, and who regularly experiences hallucinations concerning the Rapture during his lovemaking sessions.
And this of course is what I mean when I say that the best films out there can be enjoyed on multiple levels; that if you want, you can certainly enjoy Altered States just for the thriller aspects alone, although it becomes just a completely different experience when you look at it as a complex character drama. Because ultimately, if you look at the film that way, Altered States isn't really about deprivation tanks and cavemen at all; what it's really about is the age-old quest to understand one's spirituality, of one's place in a cold and unfeeling universe where a higher power might exist or might not, a question you'll never get the definitive answer to until after you die. Jessup in this movie is an introverted genius, someone whose ideas form so quickly in his head that he can barely keep track of them himself, much less any of the well-meaning but helpless people around him; but yet with all of this, he's still obsessed with the relatively backwards world of Evangelical Christianity, because of his childhood and because of the untimely death of his father, to the point of finding himself trekking through South American jungles during his sabbaticals, sucking down ultra-powerful psychoactive compounds in the wild in an attempt to recreate the mystical experiences he had had as a kid.
And amazingly enough, even after all these viewings over the years, there was yet something else new for me to appreciate with the most latest screening this week, which is the historical aspect of it all; for, you see, this movie takes place over a roughly ten-year period, late 1960s to late 1970s, and one of the points of the script is that such a story could never even be contemplated except for that particular period of history. And that's true, as I've come to realize the older I get -- that there was something special about the '60s and '70s that will doubtfully ever be recreated again, a time when academes were allowed to muse publicly about mysticism and different states of consciousness, a time when professors were not only allowed to inject powerful mind-altering unknown drugs while on the clock, but were actually encouraged to do so. Now that I'm almost 40 myself, I find myself enjoying Altered States anymore not just for the story itself, but also as a historical document concerning the times in which it was made.
And then finally, there's something else about the movie I found myself appreciating for the first time this week, which is all the behind-the-scenes drama that went into making it; and that of course is because of the web now being around, which has turned the entire experience of watching movies into a much different and so much more complete thing than when I was younger. You see, for those who don't know, Altered States happens to be the last screenplay ever written by the infamous Paddy Chayefsky, who many in the '70s considered a culture guru because of such brilliant scripts as The Hospital and Network. As a matter of fact, Chayefsky had become so powerful by then, he was able to legally insist that not a word of his script for Altered States be changed by the eventual director; and this apparently is what led original director Arthur Penn to quit in a huff one day during pre-production, and is what supposedly led the producers to asking a total of 26 other directors to take on the production, before finally getting a yes from outspoken maverick Ken Russell (Whore, Gothic, Lair of the White Worm, Tommy, and a whole lot more).
Apparently Russell just hated the ponderous dialogue that Chayefsky had written for Altered States, but was legally obligated to keep every word; and that's why he instructed his actors to simply rush through the dialogue as fast as they could possibly speak it, which is what gives the movie the frenetic pace and feel that it has. And of course Chayefsky was apparently incensed by Russell doing this; so much so that he actually managed to get his name yanked from the final credits, and went around during the last year of his life publicly disowning the movie to anyone who would listen. And let's face it, this is a fascinating aspect of the movie, and makes fans of the film understand its nuances even more; and even more than this, is something that I think ultimately helped make the film as good as it is, certainly better than if Chayefsky and Russell had gotten along, and Russell had shot the film at the pace at which Chayefsky had meant.
Anyway, I hope I've gotten my point across today; that when it comes to a lot of great movies, there are actually all kinds of different ways to appreciate them, depending not only on the viewer's education and maturity level, but simply how much time the viewer wants to devote to analyzing the film in the first place. It's why those of us who love movies also love revisiting movies, and in some cases revisiting them multiple times over the decades. I hope that you'll take the same attitude in mind when it comes to your own favorite movies, and that you'll be able to always glean new understandings from them as your own life progresses. And needless to say, I highly encourage you to see Altered States soon, if you never have before.
Out of 10:
Next on my queue list: Mimic, the 1997 low-budget horror feature by Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth), which is apparently what earned him the opportunity to make his first breakout film, the insanely-loved Blade II. I have no idea if this is going to be any good or not; it'll be interesting to find out, that's for sure.