Posts Tagged ‘The Ninth Configuration’

Hum. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s actually very difficult these days to go and see a film with no knowledge whatsoever of the story, plot, tone, or cast, and it’s virtually unheard of for a sane person to end up watching a film theatrically which they never really wanted to see in the first place. And yet I find myself in just such a position, courtesy of my recent encounter with Dr Mark Kermode, who decided to precede his talk to publicise his new book (The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex) with a showing of William Peter Blatty’s 1980 movie The Ninth Configuration.

I’ll happily admit that I’d never heard of this movie before last week, and if pressed might have suggested it was an occult drama with Johnny Depp and Roman Polanski (I would of course have been thinking of the 1999 horror movie The Ninth Gate). I did a bit of cursory research prior but as I was going to end up sitting through the film no matter what, in the end I just decided to turn up and take the film as I found it.

This movie is set after the Vietnam War, in a Gothic castle which has been transported wholesale from Europe to the Pacific Northwest of the USA. Here it is being put to good use as a military asylum, for men who (it is suspected) began to feign madness in order to avoid dangerous combat duties. Also present is Captain Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), a former astronaut who apparently had a violent breakdown immediately prior to his moon mission.

Someone new arrives at the castle: Colonel Kane (Stacy Keach), the new commanding officer and chief psychiatrist. He makes the acquaintance of the various inmates, including Cutshaw, and begins to formulate a plan for their treatment. But Cutshaw has his own doubts about Kane’s sanity, and after a discussion with an inmate who is adapting the works of Shakespeare for dogs, Kane decides to indulge all the inmates in their eccentricities, believing that, Quixote-like, this will restore them to sanity…

This brief outline barely scratches the surface of the heroic peculiarity of Blatty’s film. As Dr K commented after the screening I attended, it’s one of those movies that would never get made these days – anyone going into a major studio these days and suggesting they make a psychological thriller wherein a mass murderer and a man who refused to go into space embark on a knotty debate about the existence of God would probably find themselves hurled bodily from an upper storey.

It opens, for the most part, as a strange, deadpan black farce, but even here it contains dreamlike moments of surrealism – an astronaut discovers a crucified Christ on the moon, for example – and clearly heartfelt theological debate. Later the tone transmutes again, with a scene that seems to have wandered in from an exploitation movie and which concludes with a stunning explosion of violence.

In fact, heartfelt is the word I would use to describe this movie, which isn’t afraid to be – well, almost self-indulgent: it opens with a musical pre-credits sequence in which not much happens, is cheerfully slow in places, has little truck with credibility, and (to my mind) seemed quite startlingly sentimental in places.

But then again, if there wasn’t a place in cinema for personal visions, even if they do result in beautiful mutants like this being made, then I suspect I would find it a lot less interesting. And, for all its weirdness, its flaws, and occasional inpenetrability, The Ninth Configuration remains very watchable. It’s a film I can see easily myself returning to in future in the hope that future viewings will allow me to decipher more of the numerous levels of metaphor and symbolism that the movie clearly contains. I can’t confess to loving this movie as much as Blatty or indeed Kermode obviously do, but I’m glad of having the opportunity to see it. Nevertheless its obscurity is not really a surprise, if I’m perfectly honest.

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