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The Hospital and Network. As for Russell, he was always the cinema's dilly Dali, running amuck through the lives of the great composers like a hyperactive adolescent, bull-whipping his characters to altered states of frenzy. When Russell took over the direction of Chayefsky's screenplay, irresistible force met immovable object, and the force was with Russell. Distressed by the intensity of the performances and the headlong pace at which the actors read his dialogue, Chayefsky took his name off the script and replaced it with the pseudonym Sidney Aaron (his actual given names).
It is still, in great part, his movie. No body else can move from behavioral parody to dead-serious paranoia the way Chayefsky did with Network. In Altered States he has gone further, higher, conceptualizing great notions like a tragic tenor in an orgiastic Rand opera. And no one else can overwrite as Chayefsky can. His characters are endlessly reflective and articulate, spitting out litanies of adjectives, geysers of abstract nouns, chemical chains of relative clauses. Says Emily of Eddie:
"Reality to him is only that which is changeless, immutably constant." (A double redundancy! "That which!") And yet Chayefsky's voluptuous verbosity is a welcome antidote to all those recent dialogues of the carnalites movies in which brutal characters speak only words of one syllable and four letters. Chayefsky's people are scientists in the throes of conceptual passion; they have built their careers on and are ready to sacrifice themselves for their ideas. Verbal and sensory over load is the strategy of Altered States: it layers word on word, thought on thought, image on spectacular image. Too much here is just enough.
The movie is also, and ultimately, Russell's. He succeeded Arthur Perm as director, with a cast of unknowns chosen by Perm, and gets an erotic, neurotic charge from the talking-heads scenes that recall Penn at his best. From William Hurt he got something more: a star performance of contorted intensity, mandarin charm and sleek sensuality. Russell's direction of actors and camera has never been so cagey, so controlled, so alive to the nuances of language and personality. Or chestrating the efforts of a superb production team and of the reluctant Mr.
Chayefsky Russell has devised a film experience that will astound some viewers, outrage others and bore nobody. Laugh with it, scream at it, think about it.
You may leave the theater in an altered state.
By Richard Corliss