Film Stuff

Day 9: The Ninth Gate (1999)

I’m going to go out on a limb here and make two assertions which might be seen as controversial:

To take the first point, Johnny Depp is a bookish collector of rare artefacts who, in the opening scene, steals a valuable treasure from under the nose of his rival. He returns in triumph with the prize, and is then summoned (stopping off at a university lecture) by a rich benefactor to examine the heritage of a book. The book contains special engravings which, when put together, form a set of instructions that point towards a divine encounter.

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Look – the heroes even wear the same glasses.

Depp’s client (Frank Langella) instructs him to travel to Europe to find the missing components of the book and piece together the puzzle. Pursued by a number of groups with different agendas, he endures ransackings, unexplained deaths and narrow misses from collapsing scaffolding. No rats, though.

Accompanied by a mysterious woman (who may or may not be a villain), he gathers together the evidence and begins to uncover the book’s secret. His paymaster unsurprisingly turns up to enact his own interpretation of the directives, only to die gruesomely when he gets the details wrong. With the final information in place, the hero completes the quest.

The main difference being, of course, that while The Last Crusade seeks the Holy Grail as the means to commune with God, The Ninth Gate is all about the search for the Devil. Replacing the Grail Diary is the “Nine Doors to the Kingdom of Shadows.” The representations of truth and light vs the evil Nazis are swapped for a muddied conflict between factions with increasing shades of grey and darkness.

Looking at some of the reviews published at the time, the main gripe seems to be the fact that Old Nick never turns up in person – the film builds to an anti-climax where the mystery is never fully explained. There is some debate over whether the unnamed woman is in fact the devil in disguise, but it’s not clarified one way or the other. Depp describes her at one point as his “guardian angel”, which probably has more truth than he realises, albeit in an inverted kind of way.

There are enough hints in the film to imply that the Devil does indeed have a presence in the form of Depp’s character, and the whole story is about his journey of self-realisation. In the opening scene, he invokes his powers of temptation by swindling a family out of a rare volume of Don Quixote. The characters he encounters have a habit of being consumed by fire and when he confronts the supposed main villain of the piece (Langella), who is waiting for the Devil’s appearance, Depp greets him with the words “I am the only apparition you’ll see tonight”. After a brief scuffle, Depp falls through the floor of the rotting castle, leading Langella to remark “I see you’ve found your niche” as he hovers, trapped, above the bowels of the dungeons. Finally, the last engraving depicts the mysterious woman riding a multi-headed creature, mirroring the somewhat ludicrous sex scene they’ve just had in front of the burning castle. The woman has been his protector throughout the film, a demon sent to guide him on his journey. The final scene shows Depp returning to the castle to fulfil the quest (and presumably open the Ninth Gate).

No, it’s not hugely clear, but do you know what – I quite like it that way. It leaves it open to interpretation and further imaginings. It makes me want to go and read Club Dumas, the book on which the film is based. It makes me wonder where the forces of good are in the story, if all it depicts are Devil-worshippers or weak souls succumbing to temptation. Then I remember it was directed by Roman Polanski, whose view of the world might not encompass too much godly conviction.

What I would have seen (if Netflix had the range): District 9

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Day 1: Capricorn One

I think I caught half of this film on TV a few years ago. I had a vague memory of two sinister helicopters chasing the good guys across an unforgiving desert. Plus a really cheesy ending where the sole survivor gate-crashes his own memorial service, holding his hand aloft in an Alan Shearer-like greeting. Watching it again, I think I made up the last part. Either that, or the film coincided with seeing Blackburn Rovers vs Coventry City at Highfield Road and I got a bit confused.

Dodgy memories notwithstanding, this was definitely a film I wanted to revisit. I love this kind of 70s conspiracy thriller; things like All the President’s Men and The Parallax View are all high on the list of favourites. There’s something about the struggle between the individual and the state/government/faceless corporation that fascinates and resonates, but also depresses in equal measure. There is an inevitability and a fatalism in most of these films which precludes a happy ending. Individual battles may be won, but ultimately the power of the (mostly) unknown enemy will prevail.

In this context, Capricorn One is a lighter take on the genre. Yes, people are killed, but they’re either a sad bachelor who has so few friends that NO-ONE notices when his life is completely erased from the records; or astronauts whose wives don’t get a speaking role, so they’re not really that important.

The main thrust of the story sees three astronauts (James Brolin, Sam Waterston and O.J. Simpson) preparing for a first mission to mars. Unbeknownst to them, NASA has run out of money, and rather than cancelling the mission, they decide to fake it. Instead of launching off into space, the astronauts are whisked away and blackmailed into filming a fake mars landing. Disaster strikes upon re-entry when the empty capsule disintegrates. To all intents and purposes, the three astronauts are now dead and the powers that be are determined to keep them that way. They are pursued across the desert by a pair of bug-eyed helicopters, whose synchronised movements hint at the wider conspiracy at play.

These anthrophomorsised machines are the nearest this film gets to an entertaining villain. Their faceless pursuit begins to echo Westworld in all its unremitting glory. In a way, it deflects from the fact that it’s never made clear who is behind the whole thing – NASA is implicated pretty heftily, alongside some bent FBI agents. But apart from Hal Holbrook’s sleazy turncoat, there is only a vague sense of a higher authority pulling the strings. It doesn’t matter who the bad guys are; they’re just bad and out for blood.

It’s left to Elliot Gould as a shambling journalist to uncover the truth from a series of decidedly ropey clues. He enlists a crop-dusting pilot (played by Telly Savalas) for the final search and rescue operation, managing to save at least one of the beleaguered astronauts.

It’s an enjoyable and, in places, gripping story, even if it does stretch the bounds of credibility. It’s very much steeped in a post-Watergate paranoia, portraying a time where journalists were bastions of truth and integrity, and O.J. Simpson was embraced as an uncomplicated, all-American hero.

What raises the film is the authenticity of the dialogue. Apart from a couple of self-aware, Basil Exposition-style monologues (the characters virtually say “I AM NOW MAKING A SPEECH”), there are a number of quieter moments where conversations are mundane and utterly believable. When offered a gun for protection, both doomed pilots reject it in a brief exchange of friendly banter:

– “I’d shoot my foot”.
– “I’d shoot his foot”

It’s nicely underplayed and heightens the sense that these guys aren’t soldiers, or heroes, but Everyman trying to make the best of a raw deal.

Also wanted to see (if Netflix had the range): One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest

Anagram: (Capricorn One)
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