Lately I have been feasting on Ken Russell's films. Every so often, precluding a full moon, I seek out the work of the filmmakers I admire in order to reinvent my imaginative processes. So, last night I settled down with a bottle of Douro Tinto, and watched Ken's Altered States. Written by Paddy Chayefsky and featuring William Hurt in his debut feature film role. Much of the 'official' criticism regarding the film relates to its 'believability' and its ending (Or final few scenes). Most of Russell's work signs off fairly quickly and those who know his work begin to see why this unusual abruptness in the closing minutes of his narratives is actually a unique technique for interrupting the end.
The believability aspect should be cast aside. This is Ken Russell we are talking about, even if Paddy is renowned for 'kitchen sink realism' as a writer, a bit tricky to pass a film Ken's way and be expecting Mike Leigh. The basis of Altered States is drawn from actual experiments induced by the neuroscientist and psychonaut John C. Lilly.
It's a film with a different kind of intensified continuity, William Hurt plays Edward Jessup, a university professor with a keen interest in exploring the evolution map stored in our memories. Ken's film flips through the stages of these experiments, accompanied by Hurt's broken relationship, faithful assistant, cynical but supportive fellow professor, and a tribe of indigenous Brujo.
Ken is the master of symbolism, and brings to the film a ritual denouncement of the 'demonic meets spiritual needs' through Edward's experimental mind travel beyond the evolutionary state of Eukaryote. His physical form changes also, this process being a reversal of supramental existence. Each phase of Edward's experiments is staged by Russell theatrically, which is what he is best at, and it makes for an energetic film that is relentlessly absorbing.