Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Ninth Configuration

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: films with numbers in the title / In category: 8 of 10 / Overall: 73 of 100

Remember that scene in ‘The Exorcist’, early in the film before Regan goes all blotchy and foul-mouthed and starts using religious paraphernalia as an aid to onanism, where Chris MacNeill is hosting a soiree – a low-key, intimate affair for a handful of friends including, you know, such everyday types as movie directors, theologians and an astronaut – and a clearly out-of-sorts Regan blunders into the party and, prior to urinating on the carpet, looks the astronaut dead in the eye and says emotionless, “You’re gonna die up there”?

Well, the astronaut in question is Captain Billy Cutshaw and he doesn’t die up there. He doesn’t even get up there. The man wigs out quite spectacularly during the countdown, causing the mission to be aborted. Thus it is it he finds himself in an asylum operated by the US army situated in a fairy tale castle somewhere in Washington State, ruled over by archetypal hardass Major Groper (Neville Brand). Cutshaw (Scott Wilson) is the rogue element amongst the patients/inmates – all the others are serving men. All have seen combat. All have been invalided out of active service due to their psychological problems. Naturally, the army thinks they’re faking and renowned psychiatrist Colonel Vincent Kane (Stacy Keach) is assigned to the facility to assess them.

In addition to the antagonistic Cutshaw, he meets Lieutenant Reno (Jason Miller), who is obsessed with staging the entire works of Shakespeare with a cast of dogs and agonises over whether to cast a Great Dane as Hamlet (geddit?); Captain Fairbanks (George di Cenzo), one of whose multiple personalities manifests as a nun and tries to exorcise a Coca-Cola vending machine; Major Nammack (Moses Gunn), whose nominally normal behaviour is magnificently undermined when he shows up in a Superman costume with a large letter ‘N’ on the tunic instead of an ‘S’ (given Nammack’s ethnicity, the meaning is wincingly apparent); and Fromme (a cameo by writer/director William Peter Blatty), who has convinced himself he’s the facility’s medical officer and has developed an obsession with his stethoscope.

Not that the actual MO, Colonel Richard Fell (Ed Flanders), cuts much of a reassuring figure. His uniform stolen by Fromme, he drifts through the first half of the film trouserless and his most introspective moment comes when he regards the skull on his desk and admonishes it, “What are you looking at me like that for? I told them not to operate.”

Remember that hoary old chestnut you had to debate in English Lit: how mad is Hamlet? That’s the $64,000 question that Cutshaw puts to Kane. When Kane defers that he’d prefer to hear Cutshaw’s hypothesis first, the astronaut obliges. Cutshaw posits that Hamlet fakes madness as a cathartic staving off of actual madness; that Hamlet’s princely status allows him to perpetrate extremes of behaviour under the guise of mania which would have been unthinkable for a commoner to get away with – and had that not been the case, he would have fallen prey to genuine madness. Kane is struck by the theory and determines to allow the inmates free reign.

‘The Ninth Configuration’ is a deep and probing film about madness, doubt, faith, comradeship, the existence of God and the complex, dichotomous relationship between good and evil. Entire scenes consist entirely of intellectual and/or theological dialogue. More than half of the film’s two-hour running time remains firmly entrenched within the same location. There’s a revelation in the last third that most directors would have delivered with tablecloth-pulling legerdemain but which Blatty treats as another element of the cerebral discourse. Nothing even remotely resembling an action scene happens until the last fifteen minutes, and then only after a certain character has done everything possible to avoid conflict.

If this makes ‘The Ninth Configuration’ sound heavy, challenging, bizarre or downright WTF, that’s because it is. It’s all of these things – in spades! It’s also achingly funny for at least 90 minutes, only steering into fully dramatic territory towards the end.

With the possible exception of ‘Castle Keep’ – the weird and subversive odd-movie-out in Sydney Pollack’s filmography – I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything quite like ‘The Ninth Configuration’. While the setting and military iconography of ‘Castle Keep’ – which also stars Scott Wilson – inhabit similar territory, Pollack’s film (made over a decade earlier than Blatty’s) is concerned less with the human mind and the immortal soul and more with anti-authority/counter-culture antics and surreal, borderline slapstick humour.

One day, when it has truly reached the audience it deserves, book-length critical studies will be written about ‘The Ninth Configuration’. All manner of speculation and theorising will occur. Readings and interpretations will be posited. Screeds of text – academic, literary, arcane and esoteric – will be dug up to support said theses. There will be debates, disagreements and denunciations. I’ll waiver my opportunity to be at the forefront – to really start to analyze the film, I’d have to discuss too many of its mysteries, mysteries that should yield themselves up to the viewer slowly, ambiguously and perplexingly – and settle instead for banging the drum for ‘The Ninth Configuration’ as an overlooked and underappreciated classic: off-the-wall, utterly unique, a true one-off.


The Film Connoisseur said...

Sounds like my kind of movie! Dont know why I'd never heard of it, but that title is awesome. Will report back as soon as I see it!

Troy Olson said...

Neil -- awesome. I've seen and love this film. The performances are amazing and Blatty does a great job of utilizing his location setting. I need to rewatch so I can delve more into the nuances of the philosophical and theological discussions that take place in the film.

I think that if more people see this, then your last paragraph will prove to be true.

Bryce Wilson said...

Great write up Neil, glad you liked the movie.

Its a shame that Bleatty didn't direct more, because he's got a great visual imagination. That shot on the moon is great.

On person whose definitely seen it though is Scorsese, I think you can see bits of it popping up in Shutter Island.

On Smash said...

I've read Twinkle Twinkle Killer Kane back in the 80s & need to both re-read it & see this movie

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks for the comments, guys.

Francisco - look forward to hearing what you think once you've seen it.

Troy - it was the location and the atmosphere of the film that captured my imagination first time I saw it, many years ago, on British TV. I kicked myself for years after that I hadn't taped. Watching it again for this review, the performances really grabbed me; also, Blatty marshalls his material incredibly well as director.

Bryce - I'm in complete agreement: Blatty, for my money, could have proved himself a better director than a novelist (the novels 'The Exorcist' and 'Legion' are intellectually brilliant but almost painfully overwritten).

On Smash - 'Twinkle Twinkle Killer Kane' is, I think, the only Blatty novel I haven't read. I need to get hold of a copy to see how it compares to the film.