Sadder still is the film’s inability to live with its own conclusions.
As an art form, film is unsurpassed in its capacity for visual brutality. At best, it is an exhilarating ride. At its worst, the process leaves the viewer soiled and violated by the product of someone else’s polluted imagination. Rarely in American cinema, with its symbiotic relationship to commerce, does extreme abuse occur; offended viewers make for bad box office. Yet, it has become common practice for many twentieth-century artists to mistake intellectual pornography for artistic originality. Smugly attacking bourgeois social conventions, they rather stretch and shatter the boundaries of propriety and elevate immorality to a place of ideological honor. Director Ken Russell’s Altered States does not necessarily do this, but because it seems to, the result will no doubt be the same for many Christians.
John Lilly’s experiments with LSD and sensory deprivation are by now well known. A forerunner of Timothy Leary, Dr. Lilly would ingest LSD and float in the total darkness of an isolation tank filled with blood-warm water. There he would experience “universes containing beings much larger than myself,” and “processes of immense energy of fantastic light, and of terrifying power.” His experiments began in 1964, and nearly two decades and countless fried minds later, the myth of drug-induced altered states of consciousness resurfaces in this Warner Brothers film. It is the story of Eddie Jessup, an ultra-brilliant scientist, whose experiments with sensory deprivation and Mexican mushrooms take him to the edge of the great void where life began. Along the way he encounters and rejects the Christian symbols of blood sacrifice and original sin and has a quite literal encounter with Dr. Lilly’s “terrifying power.” Jessup is a seeker of truth, a pilgrim: but what he finds on his journey is definitely not good news for modern man.
Unlike Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Ken Russell’s Altered States takes Christianity quite seriously, and systematically dispenses with it. Eddie Jessup was a religious child, but he sheds his faith like a mildewed winter coat upon the death of his father. The senior Jessup has seen the other side, and his one dying word changes his son’s life: “Terrible,” he whispers. Turning from a sadistic deity, Eddie Jessup embraces the gilded altar of science. Christianity, the fallen faith, is calculated, dissected, and reduced to schizophrenia, and the schizoid condition is viewed as a higher state of consciousness: a threshold awareness of greater reality.
Jessup turns his experiments inward. He states emphatically: “The individual mind contains the ultimate truth.” The action accelerates as he enters the isolation tank a second time. The images come quickly like a slap in the face, unbidden and unexpected—a visual and aural force-feeding as we participate in Jessup’s hallucinogenic visions. A goat’s head with seven eyes swivels and blinks on the shoulders of a writhing, crucified Christ. A cross burns on the chest of the dying father. The young Jessup repeatedly casts aside a white child’s Bible. The seven-eyed goat is slaughtered, and the blood from the slashed throat spills across an ornate Bible. The images are grotesque, brightly flashing blasphemy—visual punctuation for the spoken dialogue.
Russell’s direction is deliberately shocking. Like Jessup, the audience must pass beyond mental artifacts that are the veneer of a fuller vision of existence. Christianity is illusion, an elaborate social myth arising from prehistoric memory. The result is a directorial lobotomy that slices through the belief structures and inhibitions of both Jessup and the audience. Our outrage is numbed by the swiftness the editing produces—we barely comprehend one image before it is replaced by another, causing the mind to lean toward rather than turn away from the distasteful pictures. We are left gasping, wide open for what comes next.
Jessup “would sell his soul to find the great truth,” and he does precisely that as his research leads him to Mexico and the fabled magic mushrooms. As he uncovers a level of memory corresponding to the antiquity of Genesis, Altered States dispenses with our cultured myths of biblical revelation. Flying high on the Indians’ psychedelic brew, Jessup witnesses the temptation of Adam and Eve, only it is he and Mrs. Jessup in the starring roles. They are, indeed, in a garden, but the attire is formal and Eve spoons forbidden pudding from a silver goblet. The Serpent hangs from an awning. The scene changes and the snake is strangling Jessup. The final sequence is remarkable, unforgettable, as we witness creation in reverse. Jessup and his wife lie facing each other in the dirt. A fine grey dust gradually coats their bodies. Their features are soon barely recognizable as they are transformed into rough statues of stone. The wind blows incessantly as the statues erode, until all traces of created Man and Woman disappear into the swirling dunes.
Russell has stripped away each successive level from New Testament to Old, implying through Jessup’s hallucinations that the basic realities of the Christian faith are mythological trappings disguising primitive drives and fears. The goat’s head on Christ connects the biblical sacrificial lamb with prehistoric man’s dependence on the blood and flesh of slain wild sheep for sustenance. Adam and Eve’s dinner clothes emphasize the civilized roots of the temptation “myth.” Jessup struggles with the serpent, Satan; and the final enemy Russell sees destroyed is not death, as I Corinthians says, but the concept of revelation itself. The Devil is a spook, an elaboration on our natural fear of reptiles. The death of a lizard he has killed during his mushroom experience signals a new isolation for mankind. We alone are responsible for our acts, for the insane fact of conscious biological life. We are the touchstone, the single source of truth. The highest morality is, simply, to seek that truth, to penetrate the fog of primal memory. Jessup explains: “Ever since we dispensed with God, we have nothing but ourselves to explain this meaningless horror of life.” It is a statement of profound despair, for it is impossible to explain what is meaningless. To pause in the search is to die, and Altered States carries this philosophy of despair to its ultimate absurd end.
Having passed through the levels of historical illusion. Jessup’s mind and body begin physically to turn in upon themselves, tracing the evolutionary pathway to its purposeless atomic beginning. Alone one evening, he enters the tank and emerges as an ape-like creature. The howling Cro-Magnon man is chased by security guards and a pack of wild dogs, ending up in the city zoo where he slays and eats a goat. Later, he tells his frightened wife: “My will consisted of nothing more than making it through the night. It was the most exhilarating experience of my life.” His singular quest for truth rendered him incapable of relating to those around him. “Nothing in the human condition means anything to him,” his wife admits sadly. But Jessup needs to validate his experiences, hoping to find in the repetition of the scientific method the single eternal truth of existence, to resurrect the God he has destroyed—one who is controllable and easy to define. He enters the isolation tank for the final experiment. Two hours pass and the scientist begins to scream. His body, the tank, the entire room pulsate as his genetic structure approaches that ultimate moment of intense energy that was the beginning of impersonal life. Jessup has met his God and his horrified screams shatter the room.
The Indian, Brujo, keeper of the mushrooms, had told Jessup he would see in his visions “the crack between the nothing … and out of this nothing will come your unborn self.” It is a logical assumption that out of nothing comes nothing and Eddie Jessup, in search of his “true self,” confronted and became a part of “the ultimate terror that is the beginning of life,” and found it to be “nothing … hideous nothing.” Returning from the void, this seeker of truth could only say of his findings: “The final truth is that there is no final truth.”
This is the reality Altered States promises us in place of the Christian universe: a hideous beginning, a meaningless existence, and a terrible end. Having merged with nothingness. Jessup states despairingly that it is now a part of him and wonders if he will be able to live with the knowledge. It is the saddest line in this tragic film. To dispense with God is to become an island of darkness, a product of the void, where screams of terror are the only proof of existence.
Sadder still is the film’s inability to live with its own conclusions. Brought to the point of despair, we are offered a saccharine pill to sweeten the taste. As Jessup is sinking into the void, his wife, against a background of stars, reaches into the whirlpool and pulls him back. For a moment they are beautiful star children, gods in the act of salvation. In the closing moments they are both transformed into pure energy, and only through an act of will does he save them from destruction. They embrace and for the first time he is able to tell her he loves her. It is an absurdly sophomoric leap of faith for this intelligent man—an attempt at an upbeat ending that is certainly sadder than Russell intended. In the world of Altered States, the characters must settle for something less than truth. The couple clasp each other desperately, yet they remain, despite the director’s efforts, a new Adam and Eve in a hopeless Eden.
Followers of the God of Israel and his Son Jesus Christ have experienced altered states ever since the Creator blew breath into his creation when the universe was new. He parted the sea and tossed Ezekiel’s wheels into the air. The works of God are tangible, verifiable realities and the Bible is a historical record of his interaction with humanity. Above all, the insurmountable, unalterable fact of Christianity is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To be born again is to be altered eternally. To meet the God who is living is to know at last, not the ultimate terror, but the pure joy that is the beginning of life.
HARRY M. CHENEYMr. Cheney is an assistant sound editor for network television programs and a graduate student at Loyola-Marymount University Film School, Los Angeles.
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