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Film Review

By Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat


Altered States
Directed by Ken Russell
Warner Home Video 12/80 DVD/VHS Feature Film

I'm a man in search of his true self. How archetypically American can you get? Everybody's looking for his true self. We're all trying to fulfill ourselves, understand ourselves, get a hold on ourselves, explore ourselves, expand ourselves. Ever since we've dispensed with God, we've got nothing but ourselves.
            — From the novel Altered States by Paddy Chayevsky

Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) is a psychophysiologist who in 1967 is probing his own altered states of consciousness in an isolation tank, first in New York and then at Harvard. His assistant, Arthur Rosenberg, wires him to EEG and EKG equipment and tape records his accounts of what he is seeing, feeling, and experiencing. His wife Emily, an anthropologist, and Dr. Parrish, a colleague, are concerned about Eddie's obsessive desire to locate in his inner space-time "the first self" and ultimate truth.

Jessup travels to Mexico where he takes part in a sacred mushroom ceremony performed by primitive Indians. The drug intensifies his journey backwards into time. He returns to Harvard and uses the mushroom potion in conjunction with his tank experiments. He hallucinates into a primitive stage of human development. Jessup then brings his ape being into the present and goes on a rampage, killing a security guard and escaping to the zoo grounds in Boston. Realizing his sanity has snapped, Jessup reprograms his love for Emily and defuses his animal self.

Director Ken Russell, who is hooked on human encounters with fantasy and the surreal, has a field day with the visual and dramatic components of Altered States. Film buffs who have reveled in the special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey are sure to go gaga over Jessup's psychedelic trips in the movie. The visual effects by Bran Ferren linked with the discordant, eerie music of John Corigliano are wild and exotic kaleidoscopes of color, movement, and energy. They contain images of nature undergoing explosion, animals, monsters, and weird sexual and religious visions.

The major theme of Altered States is the human drive to leave the body behind, to be born again, and to experience in the mind things that were once thought divine. William Hurt's stunning performances as Jessup manages to convey this intellectual's unbridled egotism and his Promethean urge to discover the mystery of life. Those who are fascinated with the whole subject of altered states of consciousness should check into the writings of John Lilly, Robert Ornstein, Andrew Weil, Carlos Castaneda, E. L. Masters, Aldous Huxley, and Jean Huston.


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Reviews and database copyright 1970 2012
by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
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