Saturday, December 23, 2006

[1980] THE NINTH CONFIGURATION: This was quite good, like a more intelligent One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest without those pieties about the crazy really being the sane or whatever. No, sane or insane, we're all in the same boat in The Ninth Configuration's universe, utterly alone in a cruel, capricious universe. Directed by novelist and screenwriter William Peter Blatty, it's definitely the work of somebody who's got literary sensibilities first and cinematic sensibilities second; for a large part of the opening of the film the dialogue dominates everything, in the form of witty monologues and back-and-forth between the guards and staff of a military hospital for the insane. I had the feeling of one of those very heavy, idea-drenched and fast-paced science fiction novels, like Bester or Harness, where people say things normal humans wouldn't necessarily say but you don't care because it's intelligent and clever and tossed off quickly, one after the other, so you don't have time to think about it either. But there's also moments of incongruity where you get the sense Blatty was trying too hard, like when astronaut Cutshaw (Scott Wilson) dreams about seeing Christ on the moon, or when a couple of the inmates decide to put on a version of Hamlet with an all-dog cast, or weird blackface solo with an actual black guy nodding approvingly. Yeah--it's definitely in that late 70s tradition of works of overweening ambition, and stands with The Stunt Man as the great lost auteurist classic of 1980. (Like Rush, Blatty went on to direct one more movie--The Exorcist III. Kids, a compare-and-contrast essay between The Color of Night and Exorcist III would make a great topic for your Films of the 90s seminar, let me tell you.) It's hard to talk much about Ninth Configuration without giving away the more important twists; suffice it to say that Stacy Keach's Vincent Kane, army psychiatrist, has a big bad secret. And the big secret isn't that great, and there's some explanatory psychobabble thrown in and the circumstances are pretty implausible, but I can forgive it, it gave Blatty the right framework to put Kane through the metaphysical ringer. Keach was fantastic as Kane, too; it's a really great portrayal of a guy torturing himself with past sins to the brink of insanity. I dunno--I think this approaches must-watch status for the year 1980. It's not entirely successful, but it's a failure of too much ambition and I can't fault Blatty for trying to stick in as many of his Deep Thoughts as he could.

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