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The Ninth Configuration (William Peter Blatty) 1980


    As the first film to be directed by William Peter Blatty, scribe of The Exorcist, Iím sure that The Ninth Configuration must have been greeted with some degree of eagerness. Unfortunately the knowledge that his new work would have a built in audience seems to have created in its director an assumption that people would be willing to put up with this insanely self-indulgent and bloated work. Though The Ninth Configuration walks boldly into a crisis of faith as The Exorcist did, thereís no doubt that itís an inferior film to that earlier hit, no matter how much it must have meant to its director. The film, which chronicles the rehabilitation of a group of psychotic Vietnam veterans who are housed in an old cathedral in the Pacific Northwest, presents itself as an allegory thatís so impossibly overstuffed that it canít help but explode. It attempts nothing less than to shoehorn the modern American experience into a desperate attempt by people to deny the unavoidable possibility that there may not be a God. In doing so, Blatty has his cast of colorful lunatics reference a multitude of movies (The Treasure of Sierra Madre, Frankenstein, The Jazz Singer, The Great Escape, Spellbound, and many others), pop culture events, and historical occurrences, in an attempt to expose them all as folly. It would take a brilliant director to overturn so much historical baggage, and Blatty simply isnít one, no matter how hard he tries to be. As a result his filmís point, which depends on our agreement with these delusions, is never made.


    So much goes wrong in The Ninth Configuration that itís difficult to find a place to start. From the bizarre music video that opens the film onward, thereís no sign that weíre on familiar ground here, and while thatís initially refreshing, slowly patience ebbs as it becomes apparent that Blatty isnít taking us anywhere new. Better movies like One Flew Over the Cuckooís Nest and Shock Corridor have used the insane asylum as a microcosmic metaphor of our national lunacy, but those films worked to a degree because they didnít feel like they were exploiting the madness of their characters to make a screenwriterís statement hold water. Blatty flubs badly here, since he makes each member in his cast of crazy people so wildly different that their insanity seems gimmicky (thereís the Shakespeare-loving one, the ex-astronaut, the black one, etcÖ). The way that they march into the room of the instituteís psychiatrist one at a time to deliver their colorful and humorous monologue makes the film feel like a sitcom. Weíre told that the inmates are all intelligent, but theyíre all unnecessarily glib here, and the way that each of them makes astute (but groundless) observations about The Way We Live shreds all credibility.


    As the film proceeds, and it becomes increasingly difficult to tell the patients from the doctors, the movie seems to be suggesting that the standards that we use to judge the world we live in are wildly out of whack, but I canít subscribe to that thesis, since the filmís presentation of it is so messy. Any specks of truth that might emerge from the prisonersí observations are obscured by the unavoidable realization that Blatty is using them as his podium. While thatís not inherently offensive, since the movie skews so far from reality, itís glib and far from convincing. When Blatty finally asks us to accept one of these psychopaths as a Christ figure, itís too much. As he continues to build upon his pompous mess of a movie, he tries to invoke The Deer Hunter and the most serious, soul-searching moments of Bergmanís oeuvre, but comes up with nothing thatís remotely affecting. To ask oneís audience to endure your soul-searching is a great demand, and if youíre doing it, you had better be able to back up your ideas with enough cinematic verve to transport the audience to a world where these questions truly matter. The Ninth Configuration, which is a truly bad movie, is a parable that canít convince the audience that itís worth pondering. Even on its own terms, the movie seems a bit shallow, since after the personal absolution of its characters finally arrives, Blatty offers no answer for the rest of the blighted masses. Perhaps worst of all, it fails to excite even as an exercise in sheer excesses, since the ending turns toward the introspective instead of toward the epic. Instead of trying for something brave when it matters most, it hews its bets and resorts to cheap sentiment.



Jeremy Heilman