Paddy Chayefsky had no business being angry about the treatment given to his screenplay for the movie Altered States directed by Ken Russell in 1980. Reportedly, he was angry about the way his beautifully crafted dialog was treated. Here’s a rant by whiz kid scientist Jessup (William Hurt) delivered while he’s raging drunk:
“What dignifies the Yogic practices is that the belief system itself is not truly religious. There is no Buddhist God per se. It is the Self, the individual Mind, that contains immortality and ultimate truth.”
Not far from the truth, but an absurd piece of dialog, in context. All the characters speak in this stilted, intellectual way, which, along with the deadpan treatment of the action, gives the film a comic-ironic dimension. Apparently, Paddy took the ideas dead seriously, but this story is ridiculous, and what redeems the film is Russell’s usual over-the-top imagery, in this case perfectly in sync with the psychedelic freakout ethos of this post 60s romp that seems trapped in Strawberry Fields. Religious, mythic, erotic, pop-cultural, oh that Ken, he’s something else!
In this series of images from Jessup’s mushroom induced hallucinations with rural Mexican Indians, Russell recreates the craziness of pharmaceutical mirages and seems to be paying homage to that milestone of surrealism, An Andalusian Dog.
As I said, the plot and the ideas driving it are laughable: it includes an extended interlude in which Jessup regresses, physically, to a primitive hominoid state, nearly kills some security guards, and finds peace only after breaking into a zoo and devouring a sheep raw. I wanted nothing but to survive that night, to eat, to sleep. Italo Calvino treats the same ideas, the bliss of pre-cultural consciousness, in his wry and funny piece, Interview with a Neanderthal Man, but, as I said, the screenplay of this film plays it straight.
During Jessup’s final trip, there are some nice images, and more homages to films, I think:
Could be Kiss Me Deadly. What’s in the damn box?
This definitely recalls 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The Love Goddess saves the day!