Posts Tagged ‘ken russell’

Altered States (Ken Russell 1980)

11 March 2009

First let us note the ending, which is eucatastrophic, and which thus fits my gut sense of the decade in film. (Stalker is an exception, I suspect…). I’ll quote J.R.R. Tolkien, from On Fairy-Tales, and thus blame him for the barbarism of the Greek:
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy […] is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
What we have in most narratives is a situation which is threatened, and characters who therefore experience a reversal of fortune, or peripeteia which is then resolved. In tragedy, which Tolkien seems to be placing fairy-stories in opposition to, there is clearly a (dys)catastrophe, a death, but which leads to catharsis in the viewer/reader. For the eucatastrophe, it seems as if a second peripeteia is required, producing not quite catharsis, but the notion of grace and the potential of salvation. My notion of the amphicatastrophe is that there is no second reversal – and no salvation – and if there is catastrophe, it is not accompanied by catharsis. The amphicatastrophe resists any notion of being consolatory.

Altered States is not amphicatastrophic.

It is the tale of a doctor, Eddy Jessup (William Hurt in his first film), who discovers a sensory deprivation tank in the basement of the hospital he is training in. With the aid of his mate, Arthur (Bob Balaban), he attempts to measure his brain waves whilst in meditation. He does have some odd visions, but eventually he graduates and marries and a few years pass. He hears about a drug in Mexico that he want to try – a magic mushroom – and he has some odd experiences on it. This, he decides, need to be combined with a sensory deprivation tank, and he starts to experience a sense of going back in time to something more primal. A sceptical superior intervenes – Mason Parrish (Charles Haid) – and finds it hard to believe the evidence that Jessup is regressing to some kind of hominid. Then Jessup escapes from the tank, whilst still transformed.

In Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Dr Jekyll takes a potion which projects all of his dark side into Mr Hyde – or perhaps represses any notion of conscience and produces a Mr Hyde. After a couple of transformations, Jekyll is at risk of metamorphosis with or without potions. Here the same seems to be true – Jessup becomes more and more like a primitive man, and less and less bound by propriety. The twist is that he can also infect people – which is pushing things a little too far.

A couple of years later – 1983 – we have Videodrome and a (Todorovian?) fantasy as we’re not clear where Max’s hallucinations begin and end. We might want to have that real/hallucination hesitation here only the trips are distinct different from real life. But clearly Jessup has the sort of voyage into the Underworld that cyberpunk is also to engage with. When he becomes little more than a glowing mass of desires he does look like a cross between the characters in Tron and the eponymous Lawnmower Man. But he is redeemed and brought back to the real world – by his wife.

He has been with his wife since college, and I noted early on his lack of response at the moments she said she loved him – he cannot say it back, and deflects the question. From more than one speech it is clear that he is aware of the power of the love:
You saved me. You redeemed me from the pit. I was in it, Emily. I was in that ultimate moment of terror that is the beginning of life. It is nothing. Simple, hideous nothing. The final truth of all things is that there is no final Truth. Truth is what’s transitory. It’s human life that is real. I don’t want to frighten you, Emily, but what I’m trying to tell you is that moment of terror is a real and living horror, living and growing within me now, and the only thing that keeps it from devouring me is you.
He rescues her, and himself, at the moment that he is able to say, “I love you.”

That was the moment I reached for the sick bag.

This is definitely the good catastrophe, the moment of joy the walls of the world.

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