Monday, July 27, 2015

SECRETLY CONSERVATIVE MOVIES: “The Ninth Configuration” (1980)

The unofficial sequel to “The Exorcist” has a lot to say about spirituality and the limitations of psychiatry; in that, it might just be one of the greatest Christian apologist works in cinema history. 


By: Jimbo X
JimboXAmerican@gmail.com
@Jimbo__X

"Now, obviously, much of this new political and social consensus I've talked about is based on a positive view of American history, one that takes pride in our country's accomplishments and record. But we must never forget that no government schemes are going to perfect man. We know that living in this world means dealing with what philosophers would call the phenomenology of evil or, as theologians would put it, the doctrine of sin."

-- Ronald Reagan (1983)

I don’t think evil comes from madness. I think madness comes from evil.” 

-- The Ninth Configuration (1980)

All of the greatest movies share a common theme: in some way or another, they are about extraordinary faith, or an extraordinary lack thereof. From “Intolerance” to “Ikiru” to “The Illusionist” (the 2010 animated one, not the overrated live-action film of the same name from a few years prior), the question of whether or not belief is worth it is at the heart of all truly great cinematic works. While many of these films are certainly rooted in religion (“The Passion of Joan of Arc,” “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” “On the Waterfront” and “The Last Temptation of Christ,” among other heavy hitters) most tackle an entirely different kind of faith -- that is, a faith not in a celestial father residing beyond the limitations of time and space, but faith in one’s own humanity. Are we just nasty, brutish animals at heart, despite our high-tech creations? As a collective, are we a worthy throng, or just a jumbled assortment of liars, cheaters and maniacs? I am immediately reminded of the line from the first “Human Condition” film -- “Man is not poetry or morality,” a hardened bureaucrat states to the idealistic young man, “he is just a mass of lust and greed.”

Strangely enough, perhaps the most resounding humanistic riposte to that statement can be found in a scene excised from “The Exorcist” (later restored in the 2000 director’s cut.) In the scene, Father Karras and Father Merrin discuss why young Regan has been bedeviled. The elder priest informs the younger man of the cloth that the target isn’t her, but the people around her; the idea, he said, was for them to become dejected and despondent, to ultimately view themselves as animalistic and irredeemable. Karras’s ultimate display of faith comes at the end of the film, when he sacrifices his own life to save Regan. Much to author William Peter Blatty’s surprise, that scene -- meant to unequivocally mean that humanity was worth saving and that unconditional altruism can overcome even the foulest displays of evil -- instead was interpreted by most filmgoers to suggest that Satan had triumphed. That rankled Blatty so much that he soon sought to helm a film of his own to get the point across a little more bluntly -- alas, that film wouldn’t bear a number 2 in its title.

“The Exorcist II: The Heretic,” isn’t just one of the worst horror films of the 1970s, it’s one of the worst mainstream Hollywood releases of all-time. The absurd pell-mell script was the exact opposite of the iconic 1973 original, focusing on external supernatural hokum instead of the internalized Manichean battle each and every one of us face a on day in, day out basis. The abject failure of that film, in tandem with Blatty’s desire to reiterate the humanistic message from the first movie, is the focus point of “The Ninth Configuration,” a 1980 film based on one of the author’s earlier works, “Twinkle, Twinkle ‘Killer’ Kane.”

Needless to say, “The Ninth Configuration” is a very unorthodox film. While it’s not canonically considered a sequel to “The Exorcist,” it is often considered a spiritual successor to it, having a very similar tone and even a few shared characters. Undeniably, it is a MUCH better film than “The Heretic.” It may not have the blunt power of William Friedkin’s original, but it is definitely one of the finest genre films of the 1980s, regardless -- even if it is a tad difficult determining precisely which genre the film falls under.

On one hand, “The Ninth Configuration” is an absurdist comedy. The film revolves around a ragtag group of high ranking military officials, who appear to have come down with onset bouts of Ganser syndrome -- a.k.a, PTSD-borne madness. They are locked inside a castle-like facility in the Pacific Northwest, where top-tier federal researchers investigate them. It’s very much a literal case of inmates running the asylum during the film’s first half, as the new military psychologist Kane -- played by Stacy Keach, long before he resembled Wilford Brimley’s stunt-double -- tries to make sense of the patients’ madcap musings. For the first hour, the film is a collection of weird non-sequiturs (there’s a minstrel show, a guy running around in Superman regalia and the dude who played Karras trying to stage Shakespearean performances with all-dog casts) and quite a bit of philosophizing. On a second viewing, many of these seemingly throwaway exchanges actually portend what happens later on in the film, additionally reinforcing the film’s primary Aesop about humanism. Early on, we encounter a man pummeling a wall with a hammer, because he couldn’t walk through it. When asked what’s he doing, he tells the doctor he’s punishing the wall’s “atoms” for not giving him enough space to squeeze through. It’s a very, very subtle way of commenting on the trifles that arise from our organic inability to transcend our mortal shells; when one cannot embrace who they are, as lowly and weak as they may be, whatever external thing he or she does to “overcome” such a hiccup might as well be the same remedy as banging one's head against a brick wall.

The film begins to take a series of more serious turns once the psychiatrist begins seeing Cutshaw, an astronaut who flipped out before embarking upon a lunar mission (it’s not the same actor, but its heavily implied that it’s the same character Reagan spoke with in “The Exorcist.”) Their chats began with a discussion of death, which segues into a discussion about theology -- “an all-knowing foot,” the astronaut considers the alleged almighty. Turning the tables on the shrink, Cutshaw suggests that there are no rational explanations for altruistic, sacrificial acts, such as military men hopping on live grenades to save others in their brigade. To want to betray one’s rational self-interests for a greater good, Cutshaw suggests, is true madness, a hard-to-refute assertion that rankles the psychiatrist a lot more than it seems a professional therapist would be.

After a discussion about “Hamlet” with another patient, the shrink decides to use some reverse-psychology and indulge in his patients’ madness. He orders dogs and costumes and all sorts of props so they can stage some grandiose production of “The Great Escape.” That way, he says, the patients can address the inherent terror that drove them to the brink of psychosis to begin with in a safer, less anxiety-producing manner.

Without spoiling the rest of the movie (which includes a HUGE plot reveal), let’s just say the second half of the flick gets a lot more serious, with a lot more exploration of the mortal condition. In essence, the last hour of the flick focuses on the duality of man, and really, the duality of insanity; if through madness one can become evil, is it possible that man can likewise become good through the same mental distortion?

That’s the meaty center of “The Ninth Configuration.” If there exists the potentiality for good in all of us, what must we do as individuals to realize that better half? When Cutshaw says that he is besieged by thoughts of dying in orbit (“just empty space … circling alone forever”), the religious allegory is painfully apparent. We also see that in perhaps the film’s most striking sequence, a reverie in which the astronaut lands on the moon and sees a gigantic crucifix looming over the rocky, lifeless satellite surface, all while Kane drones on and on about the incredible statistical improbability of man getting here via meager evolutionary processes. Yes, it’s blunt, but many times in life, the most significant revelations aren’t delicate kisses, but sledgehammer shots straight to the schnoz (and psyche.)

“A good shepherd gives his life for his sheep,” Kane says at one point. We see this manifested at least twice in the picture, the first being a sequence in which he retrieves Cutshaw from a bar where is being endlessly berated and bruised by a biker gang. Another display marks the conclusion of the film, but to say anything about that effectively ruins the entire picture for those who haven’t seen it.

While the pro-altruistic message of the film doesn’t necessarily gel with the mentality of your rank-and-file Randian right-winger, the film does contain and promote at least two elements that are central planks of the social conservative platform. Obviously, there is the veneration of spirituality, but there is also a fairly caustic antagonism on display against psychiatrists, modern institutionalized medicine, and really, the entire federal bureaucratic system.

Blatty clearly believes that the only worthwhile “faith” man can have is an all-encompassing faith in the concept of man’s better half. Furthermore, “The Ninth Configuration” champions the notion of this “better half” emerging triumphant, even against the most heinous forms of evil in existence. That “faith” -- that not only does moral man exist, but he has more power than immoral man as a social influence -- is embodied in the film by a St. Christopher medallion, which Kane delivers to Cutshaw early on in the film. The message there is not complicated: per Blatty, the way to moral man is via religion, in particular, the Westernized Judeo-Christian philosophies.

Throughout the film, we see that incarnation of spirituality pitted against a host of secular “opponents.” Obviously, the big “antagonist” of the picture is psychiatry, the notion that man can attain “his better half” via self-actualization and a host of pharmaceutical souvenirs. To Blatty, the idea of man “improving” himself through addressing long-held grievances against others and downing pills is fundamentally absurd. Indeed, the core message of “The Ninth Configuration” is more or less the idea that man can only improve himself internally by his external actions. To redeem one’s self, one must help others find redemption -- a classical hallmark of evangelical Protestantism.

At its heart, the film is just as critical of the idea of medicinal technology being used to treat man’s existential worries as “The Exorcist.” In that film, a series of needless spinal taps and brain scans were used to personify the “uselessness” of modern science in aiding Reagan in her spiritual battle; in “The Ninth Configuration,” the idea of psychiatric medicine and talk therapy doing the same is portrayed as similarly worthless in man’s quest for  existential worthiness.

Although not as pronounced, there do seem to be a few signs of anti-federalism in the film. If you are one for hyper-literalism, you can take the basic concept of the movie -- that is, a bunch of isolated lunatics run amuk on the taxpayers’ dime -- as a general allegory for the excesses of Washington. The fact that the military brass would even bring Kane in for psychiatric services (and fund his semi-cockamamie “treatments”) is in and of itself something of a slight against the department of defense brain trust -- how ignorant these men must be, Blatty seems to be stating, of not only the philosophical condition of man, but the ineffectiveness of their own departmental programming.

No matter your interpretation, the film is defiantly against the concept of governmental service (military duties included) representing a bridge between man and the best that man can be. Only through man’s acceptance of his inert frailty, Blatty states, can the journey to true self-actualization begin, and only through Christian altruism can that sad sack of bone and nerve endings become fortified as something beyond organic matter. It’s a strangely delivered political message punctuated by more than a few touches of the proto-Marxism that is The Book of Acts, but it is one that nonetheless waves the flag of post-Reagan social conservatism with great zeal.

Many, many films resonate with a veiled sense of Republican political ideology, but very, very few resonate with a sense of Republican metaphysical political ideology. Their rank may be few and far in-between, but there is no denying that “The Ninth Configuration” is one of the best movies of the type -- and quite possibly, the one that delivers that somewhat abstruse philosophical message the most coherently and effectively.

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