The Ninth Configuration has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies of All Time. Please post any comments on the official Certified Weird entry. This post is closed to comments.
AKA Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane
PLOT: A U.S. Marines psychiatrist is assigned to an experimental program in a castle housing soldiers who are suffering delusions; he bonds with a militantly atheist and misanthropic astronaut, but harbors a deep secret of his own.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Obsession is fertile soil for a weird movie. The Ninth Configuration is a movie set in a madhouse that sets out to do nothing less than to prove the existence of God; it doesn’t, naturally, but the ambition involved makes for some strange choices, and invokes a passion that carries the story over some rough patches.
COMMENTS: The Ninth Configuration posits that a world without God is a madhouse. An unexplained epidemic of apparent insanity strikes Vietnam War vets and other military types, including a NASA astronaut who’s now afraid to go to the Moon. The suspected malingerers are sent, naturally, to a castle in the Pacific Northwest, where they await the arrival of one Colonel Kane, a military psychiatrist with some odd ideas of his own. By the end of the film, Kane’s unorthodox therapeutic methods involve the inmates putting on a Shakespeare play cast entirely with dogs, roleplaying that they are prisoners of war and the hospital staff Nazi concentration camp officers, and inexplicably flying through the castle corridors in a jet pack. In other words, it’s sort of a wacky combination of M*A*S*H* and the early reels of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with a touch of Spellbound (a movie which is explicitly referenced—whether as a hint or a red herring, you’ll have to watch to find out).
That outline makes Configuration sound like an anti-authoritarian satire—which it is, at times. The main point of departure is that the comedy is tinged with a very melancholy performance from a world-weary Stacy Keach, and the characters argue a lot about the existence of God. The movie itself is, in fact, more schizophrenic than its Corporal Kliner-esque caricature patients, bouncing around from mood to mood and finding time to shoehorn in a hallucination where the astronaut encounters a crucifixion on the Moon and a barroom brawl that pits a single Marine against a motorcycle gang. The origin of the plague of mental illness is never explained, although we can presume it’s a metaphor for the situation of men who have lost faith in something larger than themselves.
It’s no spoiler to point out that the argument that Blatty advances for God’s existence here is that a seed of universal love can be the only explanation for a man taking the irrational action of sacrificing his life for his fellow men. It seems to me that there is a fatal logical paradox with this argument from altruism, however. If someone wants to commit a selfless act—say, to quiet their own doubts, or assuage their own guilt—then by definition, the act will not be selfless. In his defense, I don’t think Blatty is naive enough to suggest that he has discovered the magic bullet proof of God’s existence with The Ninth Configuration; he merely finds that the existence of altruistic love suggests and supports the idea of a created universe. Whether you agree or not, you have to admit it’s the kind of subject that doesn’t get addressed often in movies, even weird ones. As the work of a passionate first time director shooting for the moon, The Ninth Configuration is recommended, but more for what it attempts than for what it achieves.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“I’ve got a weakness for a certain kind of wacky personal filmmaking—movies… that aren’t ‘well made’ by any standard but clearly mean so much to their creators that all aesthetic rules crumble in the face of their bizarre, unaccountable intensity. William Peter Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration may be a classic of this peculiar genre…”–Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader
(This movie was nominated for review by Kat, who said that there was an “atmosphere of overwrought emotion and barely concealed hysteria about the whole thing that left me feeling a bit creeped out.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)