THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (aka Twinkle, Twinkle, "Killer" Kane)- 1980
There's a Steven Wright joke: "You know that feeling when you're leaning back in a chair, and then you lean back too far and start to fall and just at the last second you catch yourself? I feel like that all the time."
That's how I felt watching The Ninth Configuration. The movie isn't truly disjointed; everything follows a certain, specific path both in timeline and in plot development. But the choices of scene and camera placement were made in such a way as to force themselves on the viewer. This is not a movie for smooth visual transitions. This did not feel like an intentional choice of the director, but rather something incidental to the process... as if the director wanted to make sure the scenes were acted correctly and filmed correctly, and only afterward realized that successive scenes might not flow well.
That's a minor quibble, at least to me. The movie might have actually been served best by the style; it kept me, as a viewer, from identifying too strongly with any of the central characters. By keeping the moviegoer as an observer (though not necessarily an impartial one) it allows a better presentation of the story as a parable.
And it is a parable. If it were less clever, it would be easily classified as a message movie; instead, the screenwriter and the director (in this case, both the same person... William Peter Blatty, the author of the book) took pains to present multiple sides of deep questions and only fully resolve a small percentage of them. By keeping the answers vague the questions are accentuated; at the end of the film, people are likely to talk about their interpretations. I think this can be the mark of a successful movie, if that is its intent; in this case, I believe it is the mark of a successful movie.
The casting is top-notch, particularly Stacy Keach. His character is a haunted pacifistic psychiatrist who holds some secrets deep within. Keach is ideal both in that aspect of the role, and for his actions during the brawl scene.
There is very little physical or even emotional violence in this movie. That's not the intent. There is, if anything, intellectual violence. It manifests both in humor and in fear, and that fear is made worse by the efforts of the screenwriter to approach the key topics rationally on both sides of the issue.
Ultimately, I think it succeeds admirably, and it is one I can easily recommend to other viewers. Although I would have to warn them about how many times they'll see the same waterspout used as a bridging image in the movie.
Five stars out of five
This month Bill and I have switched roles. He’s doing the movie and I am doing the novels. When we decided on doing this story, I couldn’t help but insist I get the written versions, because I truly do love this tale.
There’s a brief scene in The Exorcist where little Regan comes downstairs during a party, looks at an astronaut and says, “You’re going to die up there.” In context of the novel or movie, it seems like a throw-away scene meant to show her growing possession. But in the context of William Peter Blatty’s work, it leads off a whole different story.
The Exorcist makes up one third of Blatty’s “Crisis of Faith” trilogy, bookending it with Legion (made as the movie Exorcist III). In the center are two books, the first version published in 1966 under the title Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane and later in 1978 as The Ninth Configuration. Even the movie has had numerous re-edits, as Blatty himself tries to fine-tune his story. He’s often said it was his most personal novel, and I can see that.
All versions of the story have the same central story: the astronaut from the party, Billy Cutshaw, freaks out just before his rocket is to take off for the moon. The countdown is halted, and he is shipped off to an experimental mental hospital for active military who may or may not be faking their illnesses. In comes a psychologist, Hudson Kane, with his own mysterious past and ghosts that haunt him in ways he may not fully understand. During the therapy between Cutshaw and Kane, the question of faith comes up, Cutshaw absolutely denying the existence of God, while Kane has an all-consuming faith. Kane sets out to prove God is real, thinking if he can do that, then he will cure Cutshaw’s insanity.
The two books take very different points of view to this story. “Killer” Kane has a more omnipotent view, where many of the other patients are featured, and we see not just their maladies, but also some of the insanity in the world surrounding them (makes me think of a quote by R.D. Laing that “Insanity is a sane reaction to an insane world”). While the Cutshaw/Kane story is there, so is the story of many others. While we see more of the other characters, we don’t get so far into the minds of the two main ones. It also features a lot more humor (albeit dark humor), something which Blatty is a master of (before The Exorcist he worked mainly as a comedy writer).
The Ninth Configuration takes a different approach. This time Kane and Cutshaw are front and center. We find out more about their backgrounds, their upbringings, the life experiences that brought them both to that institution. A great deal of the humor is still there, but the theological questions come much further into the forefront, thus edging out many of the funny bits. While not as entertaining as the original version, this one is definitely more affecting.
Yes, all versions of this story are quite heavy in their questions of God and faith. I know many people who will be turned off by that and not give it an initial chance. Let me tell you that I, a complete and total nonbeliever, found this tale so completely compelling that it didn’t matter if I believed. I believed the characters believed, and that was enough to carry me through it.
Do I have a version I prefer more than another? Not really. While it’s the same general story, one is like looking at it from an aerial view, while the second is like seeing it from the inside of a room. Two totally different perspectives on the same thing. I will say, if you haven’t seen the movie before, read The Ninth Configuration first, and then move on to Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane (and, yes, I do recommend reading both versions. Just not back to back. I did that. By the time I’d finished the second I was emotionally devastated and been through an entire box of Kleenex). Whether you watch the film or read the book, getting to know the two main characters in that more detailed way makes the story grab at you that much more. For those of you who have already seen the movie, go ahead and start with Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane. It’ll give you a chance to get to know the other guys in the institution, and a different take on how Kane got there in the first place.
Blatty himself has said that Cutshaw is the character Regan was talking to. Yet “Killer” Kane was published a full five years before The Exorcist. I have no idea if he had planned the timeline of the trilogy out or not, or if Cutshaw inspired him to write that scene in The Exorcist. The timeline really doesn’t matter. In the context of the other two stories, this one fits in perfectly. As its own story, Kane is more than effective. It’s haunting, and I think my life is a little better for having read them.