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La vasca nel cinema: Altered States (1980)

Diretto da Ken Russell
Scritto da Paddy Chayefsky
Con William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban, Drew Barrymore

"Altered States" starts as an ubertrip - based on the studies of John Lilly, who, in the '60's, holed up in a senses deprivation tank to find the elusive key to his subconscious. While time spent in one of those tanks floating in an epsom salt/H20 solution will certainly fuck with your mind - throw in a little Carlos Castaneda, shamanism, peyote and, well... blast-off. Which is exactly what Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) does in "Altered States".

Jessup's a prof at a small university and is on his way to a full tenure at Harvard. He's hyper-intellectual and only a select few can enter his electric cerebral world. He's arrogant and self-absorbed. His mind is an overloaded stimulated acid fit - and his life is a dichotomy of disillusionment toward humanity and a driving need to know why humans are what they are.

We don't see Jessup's first trip, we see him floating in a tank as the credits roll. His body convulses uncontrollably but we never go inside his mind. Once out of the tank, Jessup tells his research partner, Arthur Rosenberg (Bob Balaban), about the intensity of his visions. At first, Russell wisely keeps us out of Jessup's head, teasing us with information, through dialogue, about what he has experienced. But the characters speak in academic tongues and their words tend to distance audiences. It is Jessup's next excursion into the tank when Russell takes us directly into the professor's mind where the movies really lives.

It seems Jessup's chosen route toward discovering the evolutionary process of human life is by going inside his own skull - by tripping on his own ego not only through deprivation of his senses, but through ingesting a potent peyote cocktail in conjunction with the tank. Jessup's cocktail is derived by Mexican Indians through a bizarre shamanistic rite of passage. A ritual not unlike the Yaqui passage celebrated by writer/anthropologist Carlos Castaneda.

Jessup's hallucinations provide dramatic arcs in the film's progression - plot points and lysergically drenched reflections of the obsessions of a man possessed by reaching something that has, up to this point, been merely theory - that is, personal theories of evolution. Personal yet, according to Jessup, universal.

The 'goal' of Eddie Jessup isn't to save the material world (though his ideas are in favor of a better functioning humanity) - in fact, the material world disgusts him. He isn't trying to achieve anything tangible. He's just trying to reach this abstraction of soul. Why the film was troublesome in 1980, is because it took place inside a man's mind rather than amongst the physical world of things.

Jessup's collegues, Rosenberg and Mason Parrish (Charles Haid) are reluctant passengers riding on a careening train that is Eddie's cracking psyche - yet they know the professor is on to something. So does Jessup's wife, Emily (Blair Brown), yet she is terrified for her husband's sanity and wonders aloud if he is, indeed, a madman.

Ultimately, the studio wanted a film more palatable to large audiences and, about 3/4's into it, Jessup's perspective is totally lost. The p.o.v. shifts outside of Jessup's body, resulting in an easy, literal reading of the professor's metamorphisis, not into his subconscious primordial soup, but into a 'monster' flick. The movie, therefore, becomes a carrier for creature-type special effects not unlike "An American Werewolf in London". And this diversion into sci-fi pap is probably why Chayevsky walked.

Granted, the f/x are impressive and Russell handles the concluding suspense masterfully. But "Altered States" is an idea movie and relegating it to the physical world made the ride disappointing in the end. Jessup's statement after fruitless searching and plummeting over the evolutionary abyss - that 'the answer is that there is no answer' - is undermined by his final acceptance of Emily's love. Romantic, yes. Sweepingly so. But, after all he'd been through physically and psychologically, after all the risks he took with mind, body and spirit - the final conclusion is, well, just a little goofy.

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