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Altered States

By John Maier

During the 2010 General Election it became a point of some awkwardness for Nick Clegg that the public learned he was ‘fagged’ by Louis Theroux while at Westminster, and indeed that later on the two of them –plus a further Theroux (Marcel)– drove lengthways down America: a trip which coincided with the future Deputy Prime Minister’s regretted and regrettable flirtation with ‘transcendental meditation’. The lesson, it seems, is the same one Theroux has made a career in reiterating: beneath the carapace of individual normality, endless idiosyncrasy lies barely concealed, as our example shows, spread fairly democratically among mankind, and in some cases at least, in fairly liberal portions.


What, though, is one to make of Louis Theroux’s newfound following? Though always successful, he appears recently to have attracted a new species of fan. A whole generation of young people are able to make casual reference to his oeuvre, chapter and verse. He is a shared text; a cultural touchstone; a meme. Facebook fan pages with hundreds-of-thousands of likes churn out images of their idol in various postures: being dolled up, or attacked, or force-fed cheese. In one online interview Theroux sits, politely bemused, as he is shown tattoos of his likeness on various of his fans’ various body-parts. Needless to say, it is not a good look; indeed, one of them appears slightly inflamed. (Irritation, I suppose, is the highest form of flattery). The camera switches to a particularly unsightly specimen. ‘Oh Jesus’, whispers Theroux, the mask slipping a touch. ‘I haven’t seen this one before’.


How cruel, then, considering the evident renewal of feeling for his back-catalogue, that ‘The- Rouxnaissance’, if you like, should come just as Louis changes tack somewhat. Of course, he’s still more or less the same character: socially uneasy, watchful, humane, corseted by his native reservation and his professional detachment. There are signs, though, that his new project Altered States is an older man’s work, part of his gradual drift towards weightier, universal concerns – a triptych of death, birth, and love. Once again, he is drawn back to America, his perennial subject, which, within its vast borders, hosts a degree of free-range strangeness elsewhere not seen, and where Theroux plays the role of the tribeless, uprooted Englishman.


There was something compulsive and formulaic about his early films and their subjects: born-again Christians, survivalists, UFO-enthusiasts, demolition derbies. And whatever breed of monster lay beyond the door’s threshold – white-supremacist, brothel-keeper, Broadway agent – always the same plaintive outstretched hand: ‘Hello, may we come in?’ The films were littered with wildly-drawn eccentrics and grotesques, and driven forward by the curious, provisional relationships Theroux could foster with them from behind his unsexy glasses and uncharismatic, quizzical gaze. Yet, there always lurked the thought that the awkwardness was a camouflage, the naivety a device, and that Theroux was playing a character whose unthreatening charm was secured on the bankable assumption that oddballs and mavericks, grateful for the gaze of the camera, would merrily unwind themselves, like loose-cogged mechanical toys.


Facing death, adoption and crumbling marriages, it would be tasteless to carry on exactly in form. There are still, though, some familiar disarming tricks. Louis sits on a couch next to an unattractive middle-aged man in a polyamorous relationship.


‘You said you have a lot of sex...’, Theroux ventures, uncertainly.

‘I’m in a relationship with two other women and my wife, and all of them wanna have sex at least once a week ... so you can do the math on all that.’ Louis looks like he can do the math, finessing the difference between an expression of courteous incredulity and sudden nausea.


‘...Who wouldn’t want to have my life?’ the man continues, with rhetorical insistence. Louis, sits there, grimacing politely, one eyebrow arching like a raised hand.


In a second film, Louis visits those planning their own suicides. Deborah, wheelchair-bound in her home, filled with the paraphernalia of a life, sits at a large sea-facing window, watching a distant island and its slow erosion by the sea. She plans to kill herself in the next thirty days, we are told. Another scene – this time a deathbed – is fraught with self-conscious intrusion, shot through doorways half ajar, jerking away from the attitudes of grief as a family pile onto the death bed, like a scene from Munch.


On the fringes of closely-studied human dramas, Theroux seems to avoid the reliably irritating tropes of much contemporary human-interest television documentary, clogged with faux revelations and imposed arcs, yielding conclusions that have been prepared long in advance. His willingness to acknowledge the many-sidedness of the human situation and his intelligent interest in character and motivation are palpably welcome at a time in which judgement is so often divorced from understanding or sympathetic imagination, and we are encouraged to write others off on the slimmest of pretexts. ‘I am human,’ said Terence, ‘and nothing human is alien to me’. If there is a theme connecting Theroux’s quirkier, earlier work with these three new, darker films, it is an attempt to remind us that to come to know a person is an exercise that takes place in the particular, one which cannot be simulated or proceed from generalisation or bad-faith, and that if we are interested in discovering our innumerable differences, good and bad, we will have to try to negotiate our way, if possible, towards some small patch of common ground.


JOHN MAIER is a former editor of the ORB. He is a man of letters, particularly the letter 't'.