Mar. 20, 2013 - Issue #909: Water Crisis
Hurt remains central to the movie's appeal, his baby-blues and beatific arrogance. He introduced a new, liberal ideal of Aryan beauty, ambition and intelligence. He must have been pleased that for his big screen debut he would play an irresistible genius. Eddie Jessup is a whiz-kid professor spending all his spare time in a sensory deprivation tank, studiously chronicling his head-trips to bearded lab buddy Bob Balaban. The movie starts with Jessup just floating, the embryonic hero-shaman. His next big entrance has him surrounded by white light in the threshold of a party full of pot-smoking academics halfway through the organ solo of "Light My Fire." He quickly corners Emily (Blair Brown) the second-smartest-prettiest person in attendance; within hours he beds her, the sex accompanied by religious visions; post-coitally he confesses his psychic need, the childhood realization on his father's deathbed that death is a harrowing void, so best to break on through to the other side while still kicking; within two months Emily's proposing marriage to him.
Flash-forward to Harvard gigs, two kids and a marital crisis, and Jessup's off to Mexico to hang with Indians and swallow some hallucinogenic concoction that looks like mole but seems meant to resemble ayahuasca. (Wrong hemisphere, but whatever.) The stamp of director Ken Russell, maestro of overstatement, is most clearly seen in the hallucination sequences, which are largely literal-minded and corny, though there are startling moments, such the extended sequence in which Jessup and Emily lay still on a cave floor, in fetal and sphinx poses, respectively, while a sandstorm first engulfs them and then erodes their bodies down to dust. That bit is about as inspired as Altered States gets, but let us praise the movie for its likable supporting characters and its fleetness, the way it gallops through exposition.
The script and source novel were by Paddy Chayefsky, though he would withdraw his name from the finished product, for reasons one can guess at. I haven't read Chayefsky's book and thus can't comment on Russell's treatment, but could anyone, even David Cronenberg, have convincingly realized the story's final third, in which weird science makes a monkey out of Jessup? Taking more and more of the Mexican brew and spending more and more time in the deprivation tank, Jessup learns the hard way that regressive states of consciousness can be externalized. The movie becomes a little like Cat People (1942/82), with Jessup morphing into a hairy, aphasic version of Iggy Pop, going to the zoo and slaughtering a goat. Eventually the movie remembers that it's actually a love story. Yes, it's mostly ridiculous, but I can still fantasize a version co-directed by Stanley Kubrick and Henry Jaglom, and let myself fall under its audacious spell. It helps to get loaded first.
Tue, Mar 26 (7 pm)
Directed by Ken Russell
Metro Cinema at the Garneau
Originally released: 1980
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