Altered (liquid) States

Fu Manchu, mad scientist
German TV tube girl

The weakness of human memory means you’re often surprised when re-encountering your influences.

I saw Ken Russell‘s movie Altered States (1980) sometime when I was in high school, I think by passing myself off as a student at a local college and attending one of its film society’s screenings (I did that a lot — it made adolescence vastly more bearable).  And I recalled thinking at the the time that it was weird and sort of interesting and then largely forgot about it at least consciously.

Just this weekend I re-watched for the first time and realized that it must have lodged a lot more deeply in my subconscious than my conscious mind.

William Hurt played a psychology professor named Edward Jessop who was obsessed with the idea of finding deep secrets from the human evolutionary past — perhaps the universe’s entire past — buried within the self.  He thought he could do this by inducing various altered states of consciousness.  One of his initial techniques involved the use of sensory deprivation tanks, which meant a real mad-science setting.  His initial experiments were with student volunteers, and then he began trying out the apparatus himself.

A psychology professor who’s something of a mad scientist who experiments on his students using a fluid-filled tube.  Looks like that was something that would be popping back out of my own consciousness later on.  In addition, we get to see an example of William Hurt as a tube guy.

Later on Jessop will travel into central Mexico and experiment with hallucinogenic mushrooms.  He has an erotic vision of his wife Emily, played lusciously by Blair Brown.

In the course of the vision “Emily” is covered by some sort of blowing sand or dust, which gives an A.S.F.R. feeling to the whole vision.

That’s something that would return to my erotic consciousness later on.

Putting the magic mushroom juice together with the isolation tank produces very strange results — a man who begins dissolving into something like primal protoplasm:

And eventually into a swirling vortex of liquid, before being reconstituted into his normal self, or at least, as normal as his self ever really gets.

Obviously that’s also something that will be back for me as well.

I could probably go on mining this movie for plenty more if I really wanted to try to decode all its drug imagery (I can’t help but note that crucifixions are common).  But for now I’ll just leave with a bit of dialog that left me drop-jawed.  It’s Emily early in the movie, talking to Jessop.


You don’t have to tell me how weird you are.  I know how weird you are.  I’m the girl you bedded the past two months.  Even sex is a mystical experience for you.  You carry on like a flagellant which can be very nice but I sometimes if it’s me that’s being made love to.  I feel like being harpooned by some raging monk in the act of receiving God.  And you are a Faust freak, Eddie.  You’d sell your soul to get the Great Truth.

And she’s delivering this remarkable speech in the course of proposing to Jessop that he marry her. Talk about a girl willing to jump in with both feet!

2 thoughts on “Altered (liquid) States

  1. I loved that movie so much that it inspired me to hunt out someone with a tank years later and give it a try.
    It was pretty dang cool… but no crazy dreams or changes.

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