Overlooked Movie Monday: The Ninth Configuration

by Shelby Thomas on March 22, 2010

in Columns,Overlooked Movie Monday

the ninth configuration 1980William Peter Blatty is famous for having written The Exorcist. Regretfully, his popular notoriety tends to end there.  At the risk of coming across as hyperbolic and nerdy, I’ll say that it is altogether distressing to me that a work of his called The Ninth Configuration (a.k.a. Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane) doesn’t often come up in conversations about 20th century cinema.

It was initially deemed a masterpiece by much of the press and was nominated for several awards (including Best Picture at the Golden Globes in 1981; it won for Best Screenplay), yet not long thereafter was mostly forgotten.

The plot involves a commanding officer named Colonel Kane (Stacy Keach) arriving at a huge castle somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. The castle is being used as an insane asylum for U.S. military veterans whose respective manias are being studied. The government is attempting to rehabilitate them via the intervention and expertise of psychologist Colonel Kane. Kane’s method involves giving them free reign to act out their fantasies and bizarre tendencies as a means of unearthing the source of their illnesses.

ninth configuration keach 1980It quickly becomes clear that Colonel Kane isn’t who we thought he was.  The usually wide chasm between the insane and sane is narrowed early on, absolving the film of any “twist-inclined” sins. Kane is described by one character this way:

“He is Gregory Peck in ‘Spellbound.’ He comes to take over the mental asylum, and he’s nuts himself. I swear it. It’s just like that picture. I took a fork and in the tablecloth in front of him, I made ski tracks and he fainted.”

We are thereby forced to evaluate the soundness of each character’s thinking. Our preconceptions of the characters’ archetypes are stripped away and we’re left with only their words to guide us.

Keach gives one of the most calculatedly understated and measured performances ever.  Such careful delivery of intense ruminations on the anatomy of madness and evil serves as a foil to the frenzied interrogations he receives from the inmates of the asylum.  His calm presence establishes a sort of equilibrium within the narrative.

The sometimes blaring histrionics of the inmates, paired with Col. Kane’s soft disposition, converge into an enchanting ebb and flow. There are several moments of monologue wherein a slow swell of strings accompanies Keach’s soothing voice to mesmerizing effect.

the ninth configuration 1980For my money, though, the star of the movie is Scott Wilson (nominated for a Golden Globe for this role) who plays disgraced astronaut Captain Cutshaw. While Keach meditatively contemplates, the first half of the film sees Scott Wilson’s character up in his face, snide and disrespectful. Nevertheless, his hilarious and witty lines are often poetic and as thoughtful as Keach’s. And that seems to be the point: to give equal intellectual footing to both sides of a timeless debate while seamlessly advancing a predominantly character-driven plot.

Captain Cutshaw: Can you prove there’s a God?
Colonel Kane: There are some arguments from reason.
Captain Cutshaw: Are those the things we use to justify dropping atomic bombs on Japan?

Cutshaw really establishes himself as the standout character when the film progresses into the second half. His clamoring tantrums give way to crestfallen introspection. Throughout the first half of the movie, in an attempt to get to the bottom of Cutshaw’s psychosis, Colonel Kane repeatedly asks him “Why won’t you go to the moon?” while garnering no meaningful response. However, near the end of the movie, after Col. Kane proves his loyalty to Cutshaw once and for all (in probably the most menacing barroom brawl of all time), the broken man finally gives in and tearfully delivers one of the more devastating one-shot moments in modern cinema:

“I tried, sir. See the stars? So cold, so far. And so very lonely. Oh so lonely. All that space, just empty space. And so far from home. I’ve circled round and round this house, orbit after orbit. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like never to stop, and circle alone up there. Forever. And what if I got there—got to the moon—and couldn’t get back? Sure, everyone dies, but I’m afraid to die alone. So far from home. And if there’s no God, then that’s really—really—alone.”

twinkle twinkle killer kane 1980The already solid group of main characters is reinforced by a compelling ensemble of eccentric supporting characters.  For instance, Lt. Frankie Reno (Jason Miller, who played Father Karras in The Exorcist) is determined to adapt Hamlet for an all-canine cast. The moments between he and his note-taking assistant provide several laughs, most of them regarding whether a certain breed of dog is compatible with a certain role.

Though I’ve seen references to its “cult status,” I’ve never witnessed evidence of this. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’ve yet to hear someone prattle on about it the way I’ve heard people gush about, say, Eraserhead or Heathers.

It would certainly make sense, though, as The Ninth Configuration doesn’t follow standard Hollywood conventions, is immune to genre classification (the film’s flawless integration of both comic and tragic elements is something to behold), involves whimsical costume-play, and is extremely quotable. Furthermore, the effectiveness of the film in many ways relies upon striking and evocative imagery and deceptively intricate soundscapes.

My best guess is that the decidedly theistic slant of The Ninth Configuration turns off a lot of cinephiles who prefer their philosophical movies to be served with a generous helping of atheism. It’s unfortunate, because the thought-provoking nature of this movie cannot be simply dismissed as “believer” axe-grinding.  It is most definitely independent of that sort of proselytizing, and should instead cultivate discussion on mankind’s role within the framework of a dispassionate cosmos.

“I just think about sickness, cancer in children, earthquakes, war, painful death.  Death, just death.  If these things are just part of our natural environment why do we think of them as evil?  Why do they horrify us so?  …unless we were meant for someplace else.”

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 steven g. March 22, 2010 at 8:44 am

hmm best line in that whole article, “My best guess is that the decidedly theistic slant of The Ninth Configuration turns off a lot of cinephiles who prefer their philosophical movies to be served with a generous helping of atheism.”

There is a lot I could say in regards to that quote. But I would rather let Shelby’s words stand alone and just say I completly agree.

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2 steven g. March 22, 2010 at 8:44 am

hmm best line in that whole article, “My best guess is that the decidedly theistic slant of The Ninth Configuration turns off a lot of cinephiles who prefer their philosophical movies to be served with a generous helping of atheism.”

There is a lot I could say in regards to that quote. But I would rather let Shelby’s words stand alone and just say I completly agree.

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3 steven g. March 22, 2010 at 8:45 am

I take that back the whole paragraph was great!

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4 steven g. March 22, 2010 at 8:45 am

I take that back the whole paragraph was great!

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5 Phil Fava March 22, 2010 at 10:13 am

This is a fantastic, fantastic piece. Flick’s one of my favorites.

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6 Phil Fava March 22, 2010 at 10:13 am

This is a fantastic, fantastic piece. Flick’s one of my favorites.

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7 Shelby March 23, 2010 at 8:47 am

Hey, thanks for the props. One of my favorites as well (if that wasn’t made clear by the review).

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8 Shelby March 23, 2010 at 8:47 am

Hey, thanks for the props. One of my favorites as well (if that wasn’t made clear by the review).

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9 steven g. March 24, 2010 at 8:48 am

Shelby, not completly aware of your faith or non-faith perspective I would like to know your thoughts on the issue of theistic perspectives in modern film. I agree with you that most critics prefer their philosophical movies to be served with atheism or at least a strong bent towards secular-humanism. I wonder though if there has been though, if not directly, a black-listing of movies with theistic overtones. I am not saying that it is deserved to some extent, but it is hard to deny that many critics seem to openly approve and applaud movies that purposely cut against the grain theism, while offering harshing criticsm to overtly theistic films. Any thoughts?

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10 steven g. March 24, 2010 at 8:48 am

Shelby, not completly aware of your faith or non-faith perspective I would like to know your thoughts on the issue of theistic perspectives in modern film. I agree with you that most critics prefer their philosophical movies to be served with atheism or at least a strong bent towards secular-humanism. I wonder though if there has been though, if not directly, a black-listing of movies with theistic overtones. I am not saying that it is deserved to some extent, but it is hard to deny that many critics seem to openly approve and applaud movies that purposely cut against the grain theism, while offering harshing criticsm to overtly theistic films. Any thoughts?

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11 Shelby March 25, 2010 at 5:03 pm

Steven:

Good questions. I’m not sure if I can give you meaningful answers, however. I will say that I’m often nonplussed by this tendency you speak of, but it goes far outside of the realm of cinema. It’s political, obviously. It seems that, in a misguided attempt to lend strength to their arguments, so many people vocalize their opinions in black-and-white terms, and I think it’s detrimental to thoughtful discourse.

Really, though, I would think it goes without question that there’s a certain degree of “blacklisting” in Hollywood w/ regard to theistic viewpoints. Mel Gibson’s “The Passion” did very well at the box office, but not without an outpouring of disgust from Hollywood.

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12 Shelby March 25, 2010 at 5:03 pm

Steven:

Good questions. I’m not sure if I can give you meaningful answers, however. I will say that I’m often nonplussed by this tendency you speak of, but it goes far outside of the realm of cinema. It’s political, obviously. It seems that, in a misguided attempt to lend strength to their arguments, so many people vocalize their opinions in black-and-white terms, and I think it’s detrimental to thoughtful discourse.

Really, though, I would think it goes without question that there’s a certain degree of “blacklisting” in Hollywood w/ regard to theistic viewpoints. Mel Gibson’s “The Passion” did very well at the box office, but not without an outpouring of disgust from Hollywood.

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13 name required March 25, 2010 at 5:14 pm

steven g.,
For a movie that — from my reading of the Bible — didn’t seem to stray very far from the story of the crucifixion, Passion of the Christ sure got blacklisted by the critics. Many dismissed it as a ‘snuff flick’ and used that as an opening to bash Mel Gibson as an anti-Semite. No doubt it didn’t hold back on the gore tip, but I found it to be an honest, sincere film representation of the texts. I’m no Bible scholar, but I think it’s problematic to paint a director who portrays the Jews as at fault for Jesus’ crucifixion as anti-Semitic and then dismiss the film based on that.

One example anyway.

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14 name required March 25, 2010 at 5:14 pm

steven g.,
For a movie that — from my reading of the Bible — didn’t seem to stray very far from the story of the crucifixion, Passion of the Christ sure got blacklisted by the critics. Many dismissed it as a ‘snuff flick’ and used that as an opening to bash Mel Gibson as an anti-Semite. No doubt it didn’t hold back on the gore tip, but I found it to be an honest, sincere film representation of the texts. I’m no Bible scholar, but I think it’s problematic to paint a director who portrays the Jews as at fault for Jesus’ crucifixion as anti-Semitic and then dismiss the film based on that.

One example anyway.

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15 curtis March 25, 2010 at 6:37 pm

Shelby has written an intelligent review. He persuades us that it is shame that this film doesn’t get more attention. His remark at the end about theism is well placed. One cannot help but notice the hypocrisy of critics who regularly praise violent films while condemning “The Passion of The Christ” as too violent.

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16 curtis March 25, 2010 at 6:37 pm

Shelby has written an intelligent review. He persuades us that it is shame that this film doesn’t get more attention. His remark at the end about theism is well placed. One cannot help but notice the hypocrisy of critics who regularly praise violent films while condemning “The Passion of The Christ” as too violent.

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17 steven g. March 29, 2010 at 7:00 am

Great discussion, thanks for the responses! The issue especially resonates with me (a theist) who has seen movies as those listed or others with theistic themes, especially with a Christological bent dismissed as irrelevant, psuedo-historical representations, etc.. While movies slanted towards a secular humanistic perspective, or flat atheism/nihilism received with open arms. Now before I go further I want to clarify I am not making a blanket statement, and this issue should be treated case by case. But I think it would be ignorant and dishonest to say that people tend to welcome and warmly-receive movies that affirm their worldview and ethical framework, and criticize (usually) more harshly ones that fly in the face of it.

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18 steven g. March 29, 2010 at 7:00 am

Great discussion, thanks for the responses! The issue especially resonates with me (a theist) who has seen movies as those listed or others with theistic themes, especially with a Christological bent dismissed as irrelevant, psuedo-historical representations, etc.. While movies slanted towards a secular humanistic perspective, or flat atheism/nihilism received with open arms. Now before I go further I want to clarify I am not making a blanket statement, and this issue should be treated case by case. But I think it would be ignorant and dishonest to say that people tend to welcome and warmly-receive movies that affirm their worldview and ethical framework, and criticize (usually) more harshly ones that fly in the face of it.

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19 Dennis September 5, 2010 at 8:03 pm

I saw this movie on a whim in 1986, with zero foreknowledge of what it was about. There were two other people in the theater. One of them left halfway through the flick. The other one took notes.

I understand the latter of the two. I was spellbound. This became, and remains, my favorite movie of all time… and I suppose thanks to the shortage of other folks in the theater, I’ve always assumed that I was all but alone in my fandom.

How nifty, therefore, to discover such a review as this one! Props!

And yeah, Hollyweird’s anti-theistic slant is as predictable as it is depressing. I’m sure it has something to do with their profound openmindedness.

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20 Shelby December 3, 2010 at 10:42 pm

Great story, Dennis. Thanks.

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21 Saul X July 6, 2012 at 1:16 am

Brilliant and perfect: “One of them left halfway through the flick. The other one took notes.”

Even more perfect: “Hollyweird’s anti-theistic slant is as predictable as it is depressing. I’m sure it has something to do with their profound openmindedness.”

This movie has GOT to be one of the most underappreciated films of all-time.

-Saul

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