Written by Andy Dimond
US, 1980. Rated R. 102 min. Cast: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban, Charles Haid, Thaao Penghlis,Charles White-Eagle, Drew Barrymore, John Laroquette; Music: John Corigliano; Cinematography: Jordan Cronenweth; Written by Paddy Chayefsky (as Sidney Aaron); Directed by Ken Russell.
Like most of Ken Russellâ€™s movies, Altered States is a strange, phantasmagoric spectacle, and like many of them, itâ€™s a (very loose) biopic. Not of a classical musician this time, but of John C. Lilly, a government neurophysician who became one of the first, and freakiest, pioneers of consciousness research.
The isolation tank (whose evolution from vertical, diving-helmeted monstrosity to reclining, Epsom-salt-saturated pod is portraryed fairly accurately in Altered States) was invented by Dr. Lilly in 1954 to disprove the notion that the human mind, deprived of all sensory input, would simply shut down and go to sleep. Lilly theorized, to the contrary, that (Nature abhorring a vacuum) the mind would pick up the slack and provide its own stimulus.
He was right. I personally dabbled with the isolation tank during a college semester in England, and can confirm its potency as a tool for altering consciousness. The first twenty minutes was marked by a kind of claustrophobic anxiety, followed by profound relaxation and an incredible feeling of well-being. Daydreams set in, turning gradually into more concrete hallucinations in the second hour. As a result, most flotation spas today, which package the tank experience as a mild, relaxing therapy, recommend one-hour sessions.
Lilly, on the other hand, subjected himself to hours upon hours of floating in the void, and amazed by what he saw as the mind-expanding effects of the tank, one day he asked a friend, â€œWho floats around twenty-four hours a day?â€ This led Lilly directly to the field that would make him truly famous: dolphin intelligence and interspecies communication. He began his dolphin research in what were then the usual ways: killing them and cutting up their enormous brains, or simply jacking electrodes into their skulls. During one of these latter experiments, Lilly became aware that the dolphin was attempting to mimic human language, in order to chastise him for repeatedly triggering its brain’s negative-reinforcement system. He allegedly made real inroads into teaching the dolphins English, but abandoned this line of inquiry as he became more sensitive to the ethical issues between man and dolphin (throughout his career Lilly worried about government attempts to weaponize his discoveries). Instrumental in passage of the Marine Mammals Protection Act of 1972, Lilly was the first scientist to propose that whales and dolphins should be regarded as peers of man, and he was directly responsible for the superintelligent dolphin meme in 70’s New Age thought and sci-fi (parodied by Douglas Adams in So Long and Thanks For All the Fish).
This aspect of Lilly’s life was left out of Altered States. This may be in order to narrow its focus, or to fictionalize “Dr. Edward Jessup,” but I bet it has something to do with the unqualified failure of Day of the Dolphin, Mike Nichols’s 1973 film with George C. Scott as the Lilly character, embroiled in a typical Nixonian web of horrors when men in black come around asking about his dolphins. A complete misfire in every way (except its Delerue score), Day of the Dolphin avoids any connection to Lilly’s even farther-out pursuits.
Altered States, on the other hand, doesn’t want to talk about anything else. This is a straight-up drug culture freak-out, in a way that many of Russell’s other films are only obliquely. This is appropriate, for Lilly is a major figure in the psychedelic pantheon. It would have been nearly impossible to study the things Lilly was, at the time he was, and not run into LSD. Lilly worked with acid (not only legal but government-funded) in the early 60’s, and first took it in the tank in 1964. It was a revelatory combination, described in books like Programming and Metaprogamming in the Human Biocomputer, which along with his dolphin work made Lilly a counterculture hero.
Unlike his most famous contemporary in fringe neuroscience, Timothy Leary (a rascal who never left home without his beaming Irish smile), Lilly in his writings can often come off as humorless, detached and, in his later period, even genuinely insane. This may be due to his particular drug of choice. In the early 70’s his doctor prescribed a mysterious new cure for the chronic migraines he had suffered all his life. He took an injection in the comfort of the isolation tank, later claiming he could actually see the migraine pain leaving through the top of his head. It never came back. Lilly wrote about his exotic new obsession in 1978’s The Scientist: A Metaphysical Autobiography, calling it only “Vitamin K.”
Ketamine is a dissociative, like PCP and nitrous oxide, rather than a psychedelic like LSD. And unlike LSD, it is addictive. Lilly went off the deep end. A friend described him as “brilliant, but in love with death.” He made it all the way to 2001, at 86 years old, but had many brushes with death in his K years, for instance nearly drowning in a hot tub; his wife Toni resuscitated him. They later wrote The Dyadic Cyclone, a touching but characteristically abstract story of true love in the K-hole. It is this period that inspires the tone, if not the setting, of Altered States – which despite its weirdness has two very familiar morals: there’s no place like home, and all you need is love.
As a film, it’s a mixed bag. William Hurt is great, an underused screen presence, though fun last year in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. Indeed all the actors try hard (special mention going to Charles Haid of Hill Street Blues as the skeptical endocrinologist), but their dialogue is pompous and silly. I’m not sure whose fault this is, not having read the book by Paddy Chayefsky (creator of Network and first person to achieve fame as a TV screenwriter). He took his name off of Altered States sight-unseen. Still, it’s not a bad movie, and far from an uninteresting one. Obviously the “trip” sequences are of primary importance, and don’t disappoint. (The special-effects man, Bran Ferren, later headed Disney Imagineering, and co-founded Applied Minds with computer genius Danny Hillis.) I wonder if the fallout was over the Revelation fixation, which seems more Devils-Russell than Chayefsky (who was Jewish), and certainly not Lilly!
One common criticism of the film is that its third quarter devolves (literally!) into something like a Universal monster picture. I always thought that was great: Russell making the connection between psychonauts like Dr. Lilly and the archetype of the Mad Scientist who “tampers in God’s domain.” Indeed, I wondered why scopolamine (a completely inappropriate belladonna derivative), rather than ketamine, was the drug Jessup usedâ€”until I saw the AIP schlock-fest I Was a Teenage Werewolf. In that film Michael Landon is made to regress to a similar bloodthirsty, primitive state by a mad psychiatrist who gives him… scopolamine! Far from ruining it, for me Russell’s wry B-movie sensibility redeems what is otherwise a very pretentious film.
If youâ€™re interested in trying the sensory deprivation tank for yourself, go check out www.floatation.com. Unfortunately (and somewhat surprisingly!) there are none in Cambridge; until some entrepreneur sees the potential for such a wacky venture in Harvard Square, the closest commercial floating operations are in Manchester, NH and Milford.