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kenmorefield

Film Club December 2018: The Ninth Configuration

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Link to our Forum thread on The Ninth Configuration

Not much movement yet on resurrecting Film Club, but I went ahead and watched The Ninth Configuration, so I figured I'd go ahead and make a thread for it in case anyone else wanted to chime in. I see from the forum thread and recommendations that Nick is a fan, and Anders appears to be endeared to the film.

My own response was somewhat more muted. It seems like even it's fans admit this is an acquired taste, with an emphasis on theme Blatty is cited at Wikipedia saying that he considered the novel on which the film is based "comic," and I was reminded in the first half of Catch-22. 

It's very 70s in its music, hair, and acting. One key scene reminded me of the end of Psycho. The tendency to explain what one has seen is usually annoying, though in this case, it is probably necessary. I suppose I see parallels to The Exorcist in that there is a frame narrative that basically allows for abstract discussions of theology and psychology. 

I'll let this sit for a while and see if anyone else has comments.

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Thanks for picking this film; I was away a few days and this is the first I heard of your opening the discussion.

I admire this film a lot for what it truly attempts to do, that is to demonstrate Christian apologetics in the context of an-otherwise secular narrative.  The dialogue in such scenes are actually quite quotable and funny, but the film knows enough to have surrealist comedy and action interludes before such dialogue gets too burdensome.   

I will want to see this again to have a fresher output... only, I would do so after the holidays, as I am inundated with my mandatory annual holiday movie watching, considering there's too many great films I only watch this time of year.  

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I'll share my review here as well for anyone who's interested. It's a film I only saw for the first time this year, and it's stuck with me since Easter.

https://3brothersfilm.com/blog/2018/3/30/review-the-ninth-configuration-1980

 

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2 hours ago, Anders said:

I'll share my review here as well for anyone who's interested. It's a film I only saw for the first time this year, and it's stuck with me since Easter.

https://3brothersfilm.com/blog/2018/3/30/review-the-ninth-configuration-1980

 

From your review:

Quote

But, explains Reno, Hamlet recognizes madness as the appropriate response, and so conforms his behaviour to its expression. He is not mad, but since madness is the only proper response, he pretends to be.

I so expected the last line to be, "...but since madness is the only proper response, he must be." 
I like this line of thought, and it helps me appreciate the film more than I did. 

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I'm not sure if it's streaming anywhere else in the US, but I found The Ninth Configuration on Kanopy, and will plan to watch it when I have 2 hours I want to devote to insanity.

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Also, in the spirit of our "A Better Film About..." thread:

 

The Ninth Configuration is a better Shutter Island

. I do like the later film a lot, but it's true I think.

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I definitely remember hearing people talk about this film when that film came out. That *might* have even been the reason I ended up watching the film (though I can't remember offhand exactly when I first saw this film, and whether it was before or after that film came out).

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I intended to watch this on Kanopy during December, but my institution restricted access to Kanopy over our winter break in order to save on costs.

I really loved this film. So glad it was recommended.

My feeling of watching it was…weird, but in a way that matches the weirdness of the action and subject matter. I thought the theological discussions about the problem of evil, sacrifice, meaninglessness and goodness, God’s existence, etc. to be handled really well, so seamlessly integrated into the rest of the film. I took the thrust of the juxtaposition of theology and insanity to be staging that perceiving a world without God/meaning—whether in war, the emptiness of space, or how those things metaphorically manifest in the human heart—is a form of psychosis, a detachment from reality. I guess I didn’t find the inmates’ obsessive “roles” as redemptive as I think Anders did.

Interesting that Cutshaw wears a Fordham jacket and has a St. Christopher medallion, suggesting he’s not just any atheist but has rejected the Catholicism that Kane holds dear.

 

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

 

One thing I’m puzzling over in the film is the discussion of Hamlet’s madness, which Anders mentions in his review, and Ken also referred to. It’s not just faking vs. truly mad. The third option is unconsciously acting crazy as a self-defense mechanism from going truly over the edge psychotic. The film suggests this is the men’s unconscious state of mind/behavior. (Though it’s brilliantly confused right away by Reno’s talking with the dog, which suggests he’s truly nuts, followed by Cutshaw and Reno’s exchange which suggests they’re faking.)

I’m unsure how this maps on to the film’s posture toward faith. The world is crazy, so... turn to God? There’s “method in the madness” of truly believing in God?

Regarding the twists, I didn’t see coming either Kane’s true identity, or Fell and Kane’s true relationship.

I found both revelations really affecting, narratively and emotionally, and both were handled really well in the film, but my second, reflective reaction to both was that neither was particularly plausible (even accepting the premise, would the Marines let one brother treat/experiment on his brother? And wouldn’t they have known Gilman (the one who blows Kane’s identity) would have known who he really was? He didn’t act like the other inmates.) But those are quibbles with an otherwise masterful plot.

I do have two more substantive concerns with the film, and I’d be interested to hear others’ thoughts:

First, I thought the film really blew it in the final moments where Cutshaw finds the medallion in the car, suggesting a sign that Kane is contacting him from the afterlife. It seemed like a real cop-out that indulged in the kind of magical thinking that I find toxic to true faith. I was hoping some “sign” like wouldn’t happen in this way, and I’m not someone who needs cinematic miracles to be sufficiently ambiguous before I can suspend disbelief. This really felt like Blatty hitting the viewer on the nose, which I didn’t feel throughout the entire film, and it’s especially frustrating considering how easy I can imagine this being handled much better. How did others react to this?

I did suspect that Kane would somehow sacrifice himself for Cutshaw or all the men. I thought the film was a tad heavy handed in setting up Kane to be a sacrificial Christ-figure. (Though I mostly agree with Anders that the film “lacks subtlety” but has a “light touch” and avoids becoming overblown or overdetermined.) Really only the “he was a lamb” line was a little too much, especially after the juxtaposition of Kane with crosses, the word “Christ,” and other pervasive Christological symbolism. This is just as foregrounded in the book. In Kane’s dream of seeing the astronaut on the moon who sees Christ on the cross, it is his own face on Christ’s body, and that is indeed Stacy Keach in the film.

I feel a lot of tension around Kane’s suicide. I guess I am wary of lauding “principled” or "heroic" suicide, done for a reason of the larger good rather than out of despair, but still self-inflicted.  Like when monks or ministers self-immolate to protest social injustice. And there are plenty of examples in film of characters heroically killing themselves because they know they are a danger to others, which I’m also wary of. Then there are kamikaze and suicide missions, which are often portrayed as heroic, but I’m again wary of that.

This doesn’t include those narratives where someone does something knowing it will cause their death because the thing that kills them would kill someone else otherwise, and these kinds of sacrifice are given as examples in the film. (That kind of altruism is one of those pieces of “evidence” for God that can’t be otherwise explained.)

And then there are noble examples of someone simply doing the right thing because they know they must, even knowing they’ll be killed for it, a kind of martyrdom.

So: Sacrifice=good. Martyrdom=good. Principled/herioc suicide=ambiguous, grey area, problematic. Despairing suicide=bad (though I’m certainly not of the “blame the individual/they’re going to hell” persuasion).

Where does Kane’s suicide fit into this spectrum? It works as a curative for Cutshaw (and in the book most of the other men are “cured” too, and it inspires Major Groper later to himself make a heroic sacrifice in combat.) I guess I feel tension around this because he’s set up as both a cold killer as well as a Christ figure, and there is a lot of tension over how they overlap or don't. Once the (extremely tense) bar scene was going along, I expected Kane to somehow die there in a way that somehow saved Cutshaw, but maybe that would have been too easy and passive, not an affirmative enough of a sacrifice. (That was actually an alternate ending of the film.) I was really on the edge of my seat to see if he’d snap or sacrifice. He sort of did both, but in a way that felt like violence and/or self-violence rather than sacrifice was the answer, which is not Christlike. It’s really made me think, can I accept this as a “good” suicide?

If one is going to die (either of the wounds he received in the bar fight or by being put away for being a crazy killer) in a way that won’t heal the inmates, is it better to do something wrong (commit another killing, while in his right mind) that will?  This seems comparable to the paradox of interpreting Hamlet’s madness, though I haven’t thought that through. The end also reminded me of the end of Fight Club (Spoiler) where a principled suicide is intended to "kill the killer" inside, and the shock of the attempt is curative. But unlike The Ninth Configuration, that ending is unredemptive and incoherent in trying to have the suicide both ways.

The Good Shepherd passage from John is read at the mass in the film. Can a Christ-figure good shepherd like Kane “lay down” his life for the sheep by “taking” his own life instead of by “giving up” his life to be taken by others? Or can it be both simultaneously?

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