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Cinematic Regression

Altered States Directed by Ken Russell

By Jeffrey R. Toobin

"WHAT ARE WE looking for?" asks the concerned wife.

"I don't know...yet," replies the husband, his brow furrowed.

The scene comes early in Altered States. Husband Eddie Jessup (William Hurt), a psychology researcher studying human consciousness, plays it with almost aggressive sincerity. Throughout the picture, this blond hunk seems to be trying to prove one need not look ethnic to be an intellectual. Soon, all that time under the thinking cap pays off, and Eddie knows what he wants: the secret to human life.

That's it. That's all. Altered States does not fail for lack of bold intentions. But Altered States does fail--completely. This quick tour of the latest in cocktail party theorizing, spoken entirely in psychobabble (subtitles not provided), matches two of the film industry's most hyperthyroid artists, director Ken Russell and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky; their collaboration produces a hysterically pretentious and ludicrously contrived hoax which is apparently cleaning up in its opening run in New York. Vel, vat haf ve heere? (In fairness, the Viennese psychiatrist is probably the only cliche this film avoids.)

It goes something like this. Boy (aforementioned thoughtful hunk) meets girl (aforementioned betrothed, also brainy knock-out). Sex, love and marriage ensue. He begins spending time in an isolation tank (a dark and clam vault of salt water). Intrigued by initial effects, he wants to explore further. So he ventures (reasons unexplained) to Mexico, where he visits a tribe that drinks a special potion during ceremonies. He tries potion. "Genetic regression" ensues.

The idea of "genetic regression"--that man somehow can move backward in evolutionary history, eventually reaching the moment of creation--consumes Eddie for the rest of the film. He brings the Joy Juice back to Harvard Medical School, continues to chug it, and wreaks havoc on his tank, his marriage and the Boston Zoo.

The story unfolds in characteristic Chayefsky style, with characters hectoring each other in language no normal person would ever use, saying things like, "By dinnertime, I had dispensed with God altogether." Chayefsky's overblown prose is not always a problem; his last film, Network, had flashes of brilliant insight and style. In it, he wrapped his metaphysical bantering around a plot and made his characters real people, not, as in States, participants in a dramatic reading of his half-baked theories about life. When he sprinkles occasional bits of dialogue among the pontifications about "stimuli deprivation" and "the inner self," he displays a mastery of conversation a la soap opera; "I've got to be alone," says he. Perhaps Chayefsky knew what he had wrought, when, after a vintage Hollywood pissing contest with director Russell, he took his name off the credits as screenwriter. All it says is "From a novel by Paddy Chayefsky," which, incidently, is said to be even worse than the movie.

But Chayefsky's failings pale in comparison with those of Russell, who has become the high-brow equivalent of Peter Bogdanovich, a professional--yet always employed--failure. In his last effort, he heaped so much simpleminded Significance on top of Tommy that he destroyed a quality score. With States, he takes an already overwrought script and ladles enough technical mumbo-jumbo onto it to make the film almost unwatchable at times.

What makes Altered States appealing to the Youth Trade, its publicists say, are the lengthy scenes depicting Eddie's hallucinations when under the influence of the Mexican special sauce. And Russell's idea of these scenes seems merely to captivate the young folks with meaningless, and lengthy kaleidoscopes of sound and color. Bran Ferren's special effects contribute nothing to the plot and entertain only for about the first five minutes. The significance of the hallucinatory images is unclear, although the director does use them to showcase the nubile bods of his co-stars.

Late in the movie, it appears that director and screenwriter headed at cross purposes, perhaps the reason for Chayefsky's bail out. Russell set out to make a hymn to psychological experimentation, pushing back the borders of reality to find a new, higher truth by getting stoned. Chayefsky, on the other hand, was intent on discovering man's true nature through this bogus concept of genetic regression. The important aspect of the story to Chayefsky is what makes Jessup want to take those trips back in evolution, while Russell cares only about the trips themselves. If that sounds confusing, that's because it is. Just think of its as a battle over turf.

THE ALMOST innocent victims in this struggle are Hurt and wife Blair Brown, who, respectively, appeared invigorated and bewildered by the sordid goings on. A veteran of B-movies that capitalized on his blond locks and blue eyes, Hurt throws himself into his role, watching with enthusiasm as he slides toward the simian. He is strangely unafraid, but Brown makes up for his lack of fear, crying almost incessantly. Charles Haid's cameo as the skeptical colleague is the best performance in the film, though he cannot rise above the chaos that constitutes the finale.

Despite plot holes through which one could fly several 747s (Why does this potion only affect him and not the Mexicans? When somebody gets killed, aren't the police usually involved? Don't most people recognize an ape when they see one? etc.) Altered States might have redeemed itself with a successful conclusion. Instead, Chayefsky, Russell and even Hurt are at their worst. The director lifts the worst parts of the ending of 2001; the screenwriter suddenly discards the rest of the movie in favor of banalities about the "power of love"; and the actor plays it all like Aeschylus, when it's more like Rod McKuen. Eddie Jessup calls his last tango in the tank "the most supremely satisfying moment in my life." Still a young man, poor Eddie may have better days ahead.

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