Shot at a castle in Hungary over two months on a mix of money provided by Pepsi (to slyly also fund a bottling plant they were setting up there) and author William Peter Blatty's EXORCIST profits, THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980) is a dark mix of anti-war/ masculinity deconstruction craziness (based on Blatty's 1968 novel, Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane) that could only have come out in the late 1960s-early 1970s, but didn't. Released at the dawn of the 80s instead, it fittingly missed its own zeitgeist, and so maybe it was understandable the film wouldn't make any sense until the 21st century when DVD could help it sneak quietly away from it's uncouth 1980s brethren and back into the realm of 70's anti-Vietnam / cold war satire priapic character studies-- DR. STRANGELOVE, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, M*A*S*H, CATCH-22, TAXI DRIVER and APOCALYPSE NOW--to which it belongs. Blatty, himself, directed. With a powerful hand!
So, as with EXORCIST, there's Catholic spirituality lifting a man from the darkness but then making him question the light. There's also masculine psyche-probing in an inmates running the asylum, BILLY JACK-style pacifist vs. bikers mythology, and the garroting of children wrapped up in a story about a remote experimental military officer's mental hospital which blossoms under the loving leadership of a Kane, a guy crazier than Gregory Peck in SPELLBOUND. Said fella is played by the perennially underrated Stacy Keach, whose tight, pulp magazine face, scarred lip, musically complex voice, and eerily round eyes make him ideal as a mix of Christ and cobra, Gandhi and Golem. He says his lines like he's barely holding back toppling Gomorrah, reaching for an olive branch like Samson might reach for a wig he knows in advance is far too small for him.
Kane doesn't interfere with the inmates' cuckoo plans to--among other things--dig elaborate GREAT ESCAPE-style tunnels to freedom, though they are hardly imprisoned. There's communal madness afoot and you get a sense that production was a real boondoggle for cast and crew, with the Bavarian beer hall/castle interior carrying a smoky slightly melancholic post-party Sunday afternoon frat house vibe. Murky cloudy day castle exterior establishing shots punctuate little bits of business in the castle as a lunar crucifixion, Vietnam flashback dream sequences break up the drearily (naturalistically) lit, mostly indoor scenes of bemused doctors and their carousing patients. After awhile the washed-out images foster that dopey feeling you get when you wake up with a hangover on a friend's couch on a bleak Sunday afternoon and start drinking watery beer from the still-some-foam-left tap, and while it cures your hangover it makes you more existentially depressed than comfortably numb, but numb enough it's bearable. The camaraderie of hairy, foul-mouthed bros playing pool and cavorting around the room with you as they all stir to life and resume the party, does nothing to quell your heartsick longing for some girl you stayed up all the previous night with, and know you shouldn't call yet but are dying to anyway but don't have her number, and anti-depressants don't exist yet, and it's a lonely cold, rainy Sunday afternoon mix of aching in the shoulders and jaws, a nonspecific heartsickness that overtakes you while you wait for the pot dealer to come back from wherever so you can get the hell out of there. You can barely care about the pool score and each clack of the balls hurts your eyes, at such time every earned laugh is like a stray sunbeam in your cloudy constellation and you can feel the need for amusement and male bonding like a junky in permanent withdrawal. The cigarettes, the watery beer, the laughs all combine to lift the spirits, ever so slightly, for three or four minutes, then the mood passes and the terrifying, cold burn of the shadowed soul in torment chills the November air once again.
Believe it or not, I can also vouch for the authenticity of the 'letting the inmates run the asylum" approach, having interned at Bellevue's alcohol clinic in '01. Our head doctor was a sexy Swiss woman with huge antler horns in her ears and an office full of bizarre trinkets she'd collected from Africa. When Keach shouts "Where's the love, man?!" at the stern staff sarge, or just keeps reading and drinking as Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson) hams it up with tantrums and wearily Marx Brothers-esque anarchy, I'm reminded of when this doctor would do the same thing, patiently listening as nutty patient rambled excitedly away for hours on end in her office while I tried to figure out the admittance software and quietly watched the clock.
NINTH CONFIGURATION is not all hell and high water however. Good as Scott Wilson may have been as one of the killers in IN COLD BLOOD (1967), here he's way too ectomorphic to be a believable astronaut (his character was told "you're gonna die up there" in THE EXORCIST, making this a 'sequel' in the most sketchy of terms). He wasn't Blatty's first choice; Michael Moriarty pulled out at the last minute so it's not Wilson's fault he's miscast. Moriarty doesn't have the mesomorphic right stuff either but at least he can loom and swagger and lunge. Wilson just kind of chews at the corners until scenes are too moistened with saliva (not Salvia) to really rip. Insanity really needs to have a hunger behind it. To tear the screen one must be a little rabid... like our friend below, Jason Miller.
Far more alive than he was as Father Karras in THE EXORCIST, in NINTH Miller shows off a deep understanding of deadpan comedy, playing an officer playing a theater director who's doing Hamlet with a cast of dogs. Miller also shows a fine rapport with Times Square grime legend Joe Spinell who plays his devoted "Aww, gee boss" production assistant. At times they seem to channel John Barrymore and Roscoe Karns in TWENTIETH CENTURY (1933). So yeah, there's a lot about this shaggy dog boondoggle of a movie to love, especially the way Blatty shoehorns in a Saint Christopher medal and issues of loss of Christian/Catholic faith. I'm no Catholic, but I appreciate the balls it takes to shoehorn spiritual allegories into a shaggy dog story. We could use more such shoe-horning in our shaggy dog cinema! Here, at last, we find the kind of allegory that insists on a genuine striving need for spiritual connection as opposed to the drab sermonizing of most pro-Christian allegories.
In fact, Spinell and Miller have--in spades!--what's missing from Michael Shannon's matricidal nutter in MY SON MY SON WHAT HAVE YE DONE (which I lamented the lack of a few weeks ago), that Radium X of deadpan absurdity and detached gamesmanship even in the face of existential horror--the Kinski precipice as I call it--but hey, not everyone has it. Does this astronaut played by Scott Wilson have it? No, well, sometimes. Luckily, Keach has enough of it that he can pass it around like a spliff in a trustafari drum circle.
Alas, decades of reruns of the hit TV show M*A*S*H has made military silliness (showing up to roll call in bath robes and summer dresses, for example) banal with repetition. But we should also remember that at the time of CONFIGURATION's inception, Hawkeye Pierce was still a little cutting edge. In some ways he still is. Just imagine how much less drinking and sexual harassment there would be in a M*A*S*H remake now! But the 1970s was when adults first realized the government and military weren't always on the square, and they acted accordingly, swinging for the aisles. In other words, they were adults and declared themselves their own masters irregardless of the protests of the established authority.
That attitude now seems almost quaint, like watching Father Karras wrestle with his faith in THE EXORCIST (1973) in the light of all the 21st century charges against the Vatican for protecting child molestors. But this quaint above-it-all disillusionment is not a sign we've matured, quite the opposite. It just means there is no longer any reliable pillar of authority to rebel against. The Hawkeye antics have been co-opted by the establishment. Reagan and her advisor/war counsel Pazuzu run the country. The Karrases of the world have dissolved back into the NY Post-headlines. They all took the plea bargain, and now are raising kids and chickens in the suburbs. They say they're happy but their eyes plead for you to dig them an escape tunnel.
In the amnesiac lathe of time we've largely forgotten that THE EXORCIST was shocking not only because of what the devil did to Linda Blair's little girl body, but what the medical community did. Nowadays kids get that kind of treatment for something as innocuous as being caught with a joint in their backpack, or testing positive via a mom's at-home urine sample kit. Blatty has clearly predicted all that - it's the Reagan generation! Stop them before they start and the result is a nation stunted at the knee. THE NINTH CONFIGURATION is Blatty's attempt to imagine a saner policy for the insane, the humoring of madness to get at its root, the notion that people who act crazy do so to keep from going truly crazy. Only by embracing madness can they stay above it. Like any other jealous lover, mental aberration chases you if you run from it, but pursue it with open arms and it shrinks back into the shadows like a frat boy in a Courtney Love song.
In the scheme of NINTH CONFIGURATION, belief, love, and faith are all that prevents us from falling into the yawning chasm of meaningless carnage and despair. Acting crazy is just a way to try and own your own plummeting. As someone who, in 2006, was touched by God (on the shoulder) and told to preach the gospel, and realized I was just creeping people out and so stopped preaching said gospel, I can relate to the issues Blatty explores. If you ask for a sign from God, to prove to you He's real, and God gives you one, do you stammer an excuse why you still don't follow him? Do you shrug it off as coincidence? Do you prefer to cling to your life raft of earthly possessions and egoic fears? Or do you jump into the sea and follow Saint Francis Aquarius of barefoot mermaid flower power bowl haircut love like a cult-brainwashed sailor to the ocean floor? Either way you wake up cold and hung over one morning feeling like a sucker, shivering in the hungover cold of post-party frat house, waiting for the pot dealer to come take the pain partly away. So, make every touch of God count... and boondoggle your way under the barb wire fence of drab rationalism to whatever illusory truck stop freedom you can find!