Can You Hear Us Above This Noise? An “Altered States” Critical Exchangecore

The late English director Ken Russell must have been a huge proponent of watching Fellini films really, really blitzed. His 104 minute-long tribute to mushrooms, “Altered States,” is a relatively cogent exploration of the drug and its effects, all things considered — it imagines a universe where an even more-powerful strain of mushrooms than has heretofore been discovered is tested by a mad professor upon himself. The professor, Eddie Jessup (William Hurt), desires to get in touch with the primordial foundations of humanity, and takes unhealthy doses of the substance, to physiologically deleterious degrees.

Charles Perry and Alex Kirschenbaum unpack one of the weirdest Bob Balaban movies of all time below.

Alex: This movie is basically just what happened to me the few times I tried hallucinogens in college. Right down to the damn seven-eyed Jesus Goat. It felt like a David Cronenberg movie combined with a Jim Morrison tone poem and funneled through a peak Jodorowsky psychedelic freak-out. ALSO. In terms of the zoo scene, I agree with you that it lags a bit, BUT I also kind of loved it. Or maybe just like a mash-up of “2001” (right down to the prehistoric ape man), “Frankenstein,” “The Incredible Hulk” (the Lou Ferrigno TV series, I mean), “Love Story” without the dying Ali McGraw. Either/or, really.

William Hurt’s Eddie Jessup character, in the 25-minute preamble to his psychotic gallivanting, came off as a cold and cruel weirdo, an intellectual so riddled with selfish pretense that he couldn’t see that his loving and similarly emotionally curious wife and family were what he needed all along. His ensuing hour and a half of tripping balls, lizard and sheep gutting, and transforming into a prehistoric cro-magnon and then a sort of fleshy California Raisin Man feels like a wholly self-imposed prison sentence, brought about by gross chutzpah.

I think if William Hurt seemed even mildly more like a relatable human being, and not a sociopathic space case with nothing but disdain for the other humans in his orbit who actually care about him (until the final seconds of the movie, where he does a complete 180 during a very naked embrace), his addiction to achieving these “altered states” with near-fatal doses of the untested mushrooms would have been all the more heartbreaking. That said, his Eddie character felt wholly unique: a scientific genius with no stomach for feelings or just basic empathy.

One moment, about an hour into the proceedings, sums up my feelings for the selfish Eddie character pretty well: A year after moving out, his wife Emily and kids (including Drew Barrymore) move back into their house in Boston. Eddie is living in an apartment elsewhere in town. He kvetches to Emily about being out of the loop on the hallucinogen research that his colleagues Mason and Arthur have been conducting for the past three months without him due to his “genetic regression” (when an X-ray specialist discovered that his bone structure reverted to a simian pattern). Eddie wants to return to the tank to reach the level of simian genetic regression he achieved before. When Eddie barks angrily that Mason’s “got Arthur up in his lab fractionating rats’ brains? What the hell am I supposed to do while they’re fractionating rats’ brains?” The answer to that question is adorably beckoning to his wife across the room, as Drew Barrymore calls to Emily. To him, until the final seconds of the movie, his daughters are a nagging appendage, and his wife is a research assistant.

All told, “Altered States” stands as an interesting ride. There were times where the momentum was sapped from the 102-minute enterprise, especially the first act, which for me was so dry and tame (outside of the aforementioned seven-eyed Goat Jesus on the crucifix, I guess) that I struggled to get through it. Things picked up after that, for the most part. Overall, I’d award “Altered States” with a ** 1/2 star rating out of ****. I wanted to like “Altered States” more than I actually did, and the tidy ending, though I appreciated it at the time for the sake of the two characters, felt somehow small and disingenuous to the craziness that had preceded it for 100 minutes or so.

Charles: You’re right about a lot of things, K-Bomb, but you’re most right about the ending. For such a weighty, schizophrenic rumination on the ravages of self-knowledge at all costs, the trite ending turns “Altered States” from a heady sci-fi adventure into one of cinema’s weirdest love stories.

For two hours, I’d watched as a distracted, obsessed Hurt hurtled (or should I say Hurtled?) toward the kind of mind-expanding discovery that can split a skull wide open. And while Blair Brown’s touchingly patient efforts to keep him grounded were important to the story, they were never the focus. That honor belongs to Hurt’s wide-eyed battle with the nature of existence itself.

And I’ve got to say, as seriously as “Altered States” takes itself, its saving grace just might be the little comic flourishes that puncture the bubble of righteous detachment Hurt’s character works so hard to maintain. Consider the opening shot: a be-goggled man floats behind the thick glass of a sensory deprivation tank’s single porthole, spooky tunes warbling in the background. Is this “Rocky Horror Picture Show Underwater?”

Or how about Bob Balaban, who takes a short break from his dependably stoic demeanor to puff-puff-pass a joint around a house party full of professor types early in the film. Watching Balaban make his way through a cozy, ’70s-chic apartment (the film was released on Christmas Day, 1980, but was very much of the ’70s), I couldn’t help but smile at the prospect of so many academics getting loose with each other. The only thing missing was Jeff Goldblum calling his agent in the corner, haven forgotten his mantra.

Contrast that with Hurt’s entrance. Eddie is framed by blistering, prophetic white light as he stands at the entrance to the party — a Christ figure entering the dark. If I hadn’t been so chill from hanging with Balaban first, this kind of heavy handedness would have caused my eyes to roll right out of my head. Actually, that happened later, when Hurt sees visions of crucifixion during his and Brown’s remarkably sweaty post-party romp. But thank goodness that sex scene was as weird as it was, because it sets up one of the greatest Serious Relationship Talk lines in the history of Serious Relationship Talks:

“Sometimes I feel like I’m being harpooned by a monk in the act of receiving god.”

Alex: Don’t you feel like that quote is sort of the highest possible compliment, though?

Though all the actors are great (especially Hurt and Balaban), the star of the show was unquestionably special makeup effects artist Dick Smith (also responsible for “The Exorcist” and “Amadeus,” among many, many other spectacular makeups), who created some terrific, fairly minimal bodily transformation moments. CP, I’m curious if you had an MVP for “Altered States,” the way I did with makeup maestro Dick Smith (I’m going to guess that it’s the Balaban character Arthur Rosenberg), and what you thought of the singularly unique Hurt character, Eddie Jessup, and the Blair Brown character, his wife Emily Jessup.

Charles: My opinion diverges from yours on this. I hope we can still be friends.

First, I thought the special effects makeup was just passable, but maybe I’ve been too ruined by the vibrant special effects of the last decade to give old school makeup effects the credit they’re due. The proto-human’s bright blue contacts, for example, are just too much. (The amount of ass hair, though, is just right.) I think Hurt’s Mashed Potato Man incarnation was too over the top, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to see “Altered States” remade. Just think what David Fincher could do to a script like that.

I also really liked Hurt’s character, despite all his flaws. His pursuit had a single tone purity to it. Instead of a desire for wealth or power, he’s propelled forward by a volatile mixture of deep intellectual restlessness and deeper spiritual need.

A note on Hurt as opposed to his other, more normal cohorts. I think it’s interesting that Hurt’s non-Balaban associate Mason (Charles Haid) tries to destroy the evidence of his regression almost immediately. It’s a favorite theme of mine that I first experienced via Stephen King. Adults who “know better,” and understand what’s possible and what’s not, what’s real and what’s not–when presented with something impossible they can’t escape, they have two options.

Don’t believe it. Destroy the evidence. Remove it permanently from your mind. OR, believe the impossible thing and go insane. It’s only kids or already-crazy adults who can see the impossible thing, believe it’s real, and live to tell the tale.

In the end I would give this *** out of **** for a couple of reasons. The most important is, this is a film that delivers on its promise. Unlike a lot of risky Hollywood films, all the promotional materials and trailers I could find of “Altered States” more or less communicated, “Hey, this movie is WEIRD, and a HANDSOME leading man is in it doing real WEIRD stuff. Don’t you wanna see all kinds of WEIRDNESS from this HANDSOME man?”

Who wouldn’t be intrigued?

Alex: Oh I was hella intrigued for sure, CP. I went into this wanting to love it, but I found the cold sociopathy of the Hurt character and the blandly reactive behavior of the Blair Brown character to be off-putting. I never felt wholly invested. Whenever William Hurt wasn’t reverting to a carnivorous cro-mangon state or turning into Mashed Potato Man, whenever the storyline shifted to the Jessups’ weirdly unloving home life, I found myself checking my wrist in the off-chance that a wristwatch was there. No, it wasn’t, but damn it I was bored.

Charles: I thought that, because of Hurt’s unique strangeness, “Altered States” certainly held my interest. And that the proceedings were peppered with enough oddity, once he returned from tripping balls in Mexico, that they held my interest.

Anyway, he was relatable enough. Who among us hasn’t gotten up to pee in the middle of the night, and when going back to bed to keep banging the graduate student you were banging before, discovered the entire landscape of the history and future of man laid at your feet in a volcanic eruption of hellfire? Then, you ford that molten river only to have some kind of David Cronenberg body horror shit try to tear its way out of your arm? You show me one sentient adult on this planet who hasn’t experienced that exact thing, and I’ll show you a liar!

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