Altered States

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.

That Andalusian Dog




Man meets his inner lizard.


Pagan Goddess


…………………  …………..


In stone, for eternity.

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?

Bill Gates freaking out on Windows?  Where did this primordial goo come from?  And who’s going to mop it up?

This definitely recalls 2001:  A Space Odyssey.

The Love Goddess saves the day!

11 Responses to Altered States

  1. Ducky's here says:

    What was in the damn box in Kiss Me Deadly.

    Always felt that L’il Quentin Tarantino should be dipped in phlegm and allowed to harden for copping that great bit for Pulp Fiction.

  2. Guy Savage says:

    Thanks for the memories and HAPPY NEW YEAR!

  3. I saw this film as a student when it first came out, when Ken Russell was already beginning to metamorphose from Enfant Terrible to National Treasure and Lovable Eccentric. I didn’t at the time get all the cinematic references that you point out: I’ll see if I can get hold of a DVD of this one. It’ll bring back memories, if nothing else.

    A Happy New year to you.

  4. Guy Savage says:

    I recommend The Desert of Forbidden Art. It’s on Netflix

  5. troutsky says:

    A lot of folks at the time were also reading Carlos Castanedas and trying to become crows.

  6. Mannie says:

    A disappointing opinion of a film that I thought was amazingly powerful. But from my perspective, which was completely mashed up on large amounts of LSD, I think the film was given a whole new very direct and personal meaning. If you’ve never experienced the world through LSD, there are very few, if any, reference points that one can share when making comments about the film Altered States. Regression (Psychologically rather than physically) and out of body experiences are memories I will treasure and take to the grave. They really do happen 🙂

    • Lichanos says:

      But from my perspective, which was completely mashed up on large amounts of LSD…”

      Hmm…I know a little bit about that. But here’s a post about it that you may consider more positive, but perhaps not more interesting.

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