Sunday, January 23, 2011

Ken Russell: Altered States

Heading into the 80's, Russell was, to that point, at the nadir of his career. He made two of his worst and least successful films (Lisztomania and Valentino) after having tasted his biggest success (both critically and commercially) with the fantastic Tommy. It seemed that Russell had traded in his patented stick used to jab at the ribs of organized religion for a more polarizing and bombastic approach in the study of what it means to be a celebrity ( in the case of Liszt, the first ever pop star). I was curious to see what kind of movies Russell was making in the 80's, and, specifically, how he would bounce back from Valentino – his final film of the 70's that he himself hated (he would later call it the worst decision he ever made). Russell was rewarded with a trip to the States to adapt Paddy Chayefsky's novel and subsequent screenplay Altered States into a feature film. The shoot was a blessing and a curse for the controversial filmmaker: Chayefsky left the project and denounced the film because of Russell, and Russell himself claimed – in jest, no doubt – that he was literally the last filmmaker Warner Brothers wanted to hire for the project (he hilariously stated that the likes of Spielberg, Kubrick, Bergman, Allen, Zinneman, Pollack, De Palma, Lummet, et al were offered the job before he was). What came of the tumultuous shoot, though, was yet another example of Russell as a master of the visceral montage. Altered States, like all of Russell's best films, is a brilliant pastiche film; it's a bombastic, often overbearing, film experience that references Dali, Fritz Lang, and the usual religious imagery we come to associate with a Russell film. Naturally, I loved it.

When you consider it all, though, as a whole, Altered States feels like Russell's best joke; a film that is something of a statement from Russell to the American studios. It's as if he's saying, "you want to entrust me with a budget…here's what you'll get." But that isn't to say that Altered States wasn't successful for Russell (it was his second highest grossing film behind Tommy) or for the studio. The film was critically and commercially well received. It's a hilariously off-kilter, nutty-as-hell film, and it's almost as if audiences (and critics) were okay with Russell's excesses this time because they existed within the realm of science-fiction. Russell could have carved out quite the niche for himself in the science-fiction/horror genre, but ever the iconoclast, Russell was afraid to he would be pigeonholed as a genre filmmaker and instead followed Altered States with his second (and last) American film that couldn't have been a more polar opposite film.

Back to the film: Altered States is an impressive science-fiction film that for the most part finds a way to negotiate the scientific inquiry with that bat-shit crazy imagery. It's only when the film falls into the abyss of Chayefsky's super-serious dialogue that film feels stuffy and un-Russell. However, the SERIOUS parts of the movie are short and sweet as Russell rushes the dialogue along. Like most Russell movies, the characters either have a hard time standing still while talking – they're almost always doing something else while talking – or they're all talking at once. This pissed Chayefsky off immensely as he felt it disrespected his dialogue by not taking it seriously by slowing down and letting the audience digest the pseudo-science mumbo-jumbo. The film is actually better because of it; it's one of the rare times where Russell seems to know what he's doing with dialogue. Besides, we all know why people should want to see Altered States: for its trippy imagery. And yet the characters walk around in-between the visual fireworks of the film spewing pseudo-intellectual nonsense about the meaning of God, life, and (ugh) love…all in the name of SCIENCE! It's actually quite funny to see how Russell rushes through the dialogue just so he can get to the parts of the film where he can visually tell his story.

The other thing I love about the audacity Russell's blatant disregard for Chayefsky's script is that the film really feels like a big budget, big studio experimental film. Here is a film about bad trips and sensory deprivation, yet Altered States is remembered more fondly than the usual cult offering from Russell. The film is notorious not just for its off-set antics and crazy imagery, but it also marks the screen debut of William Hurt. Hurt's performance as Dr. Jessup is just the right amount of smug and crazy. Here is an insufferable character (his friends in the film, one played by Bob Balaban, even admit as much to Jessup's face) that is incapable of making the most basic of human connections because he's – pardon me for a moment – blinded by science. Russell is clearly indebted to Faustian mythology and Shelley's Frankenstein here (a subject he would cover to an extent with his underrated Gothic) as Jessup is so obsessed with sensory deprivation and hallucinations (he even takes an excursion to Mexico where some Aztecs give him some potent mushrooms) that he is more than willing to sacrifice his family and friends all in the name of going one step further every time he hallucinates. It's a great first performance by the idiosyncratic Hurt.

The hallucinations are the real reason to see the film (the film, shot by Jordan Cronenweth, is just plain wonderful to look displayed by the slew of stills below). Here, Russell has conjured up some of his most kinetic and hyperactive montage sequences (Aronofsky would use a similar effect in The Fountain). From the opening title sequence on, Altered States is a feast for the eyes. I loved the allusion (yet another one) to Lang's Metropolis with the way the deprivation tank looks in the opening scene; I also loved the bat-shit crazy religious imagery that rivals anything Russell had tried before (made even more noticeable by the fact that this was a mainstream movie), specifically in the Aztec mountain scene where fireworks go off (sparks falling on Jessup) as Jessup's mind flashes between lizards, super-imposed imagery of he and his wife in front of some flowers, and more fireworks! It's wacky, that's for sure, but as with any Russell film it's all part of the experience. You have to admire the man as he just rushed headlong throughout his film and delivers the images he wants to deliver (aided by the wonderfully manic and displacing score of John Corigliano who won an Academy Award for his work). If you go into Altered States knowing that you're getting something that is going to make absolutely no sense (I love how the ending pre-dates the effects seen in the music video "Take on Me"…another example of Russell's influence on the music video medium), you're going to find a film that – although flawed with its subplot of love conquering Faustian desires – is a brilliantly and masterfully visceral ride and one of the most enjoyable of all of Russell's films.

Russell has always been an iconoclast, so it's no wonder that this foray – despite it being a commercial success – into mainstream, studio filmmaking in the United States didn't last long. Russell's films feel more natural and organic when their produced on the fringes of the industry; Russell, too, feels like he's more at home as a filmmaker when he's being marginalized by system. So then, Altered States – for all of its goofiness and trippy aesthetic with big budget sheen – seems like just a detour for Russell. And in fact, he would make just one more movie in the states before heading back to England to make the smaller, more personal experiments that he garnered a reputation for. It's a shame Russell didn't stick with the genre in the States. I think his imagery is best suited for the sci-fi/horror genre, and I think that he could have found success making these type of experimental genre films. Like all of Russell's visual feasts, Altered States delves into the mind of its protagonist and conjures up imagery we've never seen in films before; however, unlike the rest of Russell's experiments there seems to be a genre context here that makes the whole exercise that much more digestible. It's one of my favorite Russell films. Up next, Russell makes a film with Kathleen Turner as a hooker named China Blue and Anthony Perkins as a crazed, sidewalk preacher in Crimes of Passion. Now we're talking…

Extra Stills:



  1. I really enjoyed this review of the only Russell film I've ever seen! I was 15 years old and discovering Cinema when I first saw Altered States and 13 years later I still have clear images of it in my head! I will rewatch it soon! What should I watch next? I heard a lot about The Devils...

  2. Thanks for mentioning this film. In my view it is underappreciated if not neglected in science fiction. I referenced this film not long ago in a post on Avatar and shamanism, with shamanism also playing a part in Altered States.

  3. Michael:

    Thanks for checking this out. It really is a fun, trippy movie. I forgot to mention in my review that DP (Jordan Cronenweth) also shot BLADE RUNNER, and that his son shot THE SOCIAL NETWORK (not to mention other Fincher films, FIGHT CLUB and SEVEN). Cronenweth and Russell's imagery definitely stays with you, and I can see why it had such an impression on you.

    As for other Russell films, I would go with THE DEVILS and then something like TOMMY. If you want to get really crazy, try out MAHLER which I think is the best of his composer biopics.

  4. John W. Morehead:

    Thanks for checking this out! I appreciate the time. Thanks, too, for leaving that link. I'll open it up in a new tab and check it out later tonight.

  5. Agree with you on this one, its one of Russell's best films. Well, at least its one of the most polished efforts. Still, with a budget and great actors, this Russell film manages to maintain the traditional Russell vibe, its hallucinatory images and religious imagery!

    Love it, I too wish he had produced more sci-fi films! Aside from that, I love the themes this one plays with, it gets very existential, very cerebral.

  6. TFC:

    He did do one more horror film, THE LIAR OF THE WHITE WORM...I'm getting ready to watch that one. Have you seen it? One thing I love about Russell: no matter how ridiculous his movies may be, they're never uninteresting.

  7. Yeah, I've seen Lair of the White Worm, pretty cool actually! I reviewed it a while ago:

    He also made another horror film called GOTHIC which is all kinds of weird and awesome as well:

    Both films have Russell's weirdness, but Lair has an unexpected level of comedy to it. Gothic is a descent into madness though...highly recommend both of em.

  8. I'll be watching GOTHIC just as soon as I get done with CRIMES OF PASSION. I'll read your thoughts when I've seen the movies. Thanks for the links!

  9. I couldn't get enough of this film when I was a teen. So weird and creepy, yet so seductive because Bill Hurt was still really freaking hot.