Joshua Gizelt (swashbuckler332) wrote,
Joshua Gizelt

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The Ninth Gate is a film which is dark and dreamlike, so gleefully immoral that many viewers (including this author) were left cold, if intrigued, on first exposure. It is generally considered a minor film by a major filmmaker (Polanski's next film, The Pianist, has been hugely successful). It may well be... but Polanski is undeniably a major filmmaker, and The Ninth Gate is definitely a Polanski film.

The film's pedigree is really not in question... it stars a quixotic Johnny Depp, it features a sumptuous Dean Tavoularis designs and was it shot by duke of darkness Darius Khondji ("Prince of Darkness" either refers to The Godfather's lighting cameraman Gordon Willis... or a major character in this film). The brilliant and sinuous score, by Wojciech Kilar (and featuring soprano Sumi Jo), has been a constant favorite since I had been handed the CD by Joe Miller. It was the last promo he ever got for me.

The film deals, rather unflinchingly, with the fact that it is about a book collector investigating an ancient Satanic text. The other characters in the film are all seeking the power contained within the tome. The Nine Gates to the Kingdom of Darkness is a book whose mysteries are so magnetic that the audience becomes embroiled in solving the mystery of the book itself. The quirky people and absorbing milieu of the globe-trotting all add to a film in which a major star is bound in leather. Yes, part of the fascination with the film is the book itself, shown in elegant closeups, revealing all its details and textures.

The first element of the film that becomes an issue for audiences is that the Depp's central character, Corso, is a selfish loner. He's refered to as a mercenary several times in the film, and his introduction scene, in which he carefully cheats a family out of an extremely rare set of Don Quixote first editions, shows this. Corso is hired by billionaire occultist Boris Balkan (a sinister Frank Langella) to authenticate his copy of the book.

What is interesting is that, after the title sequence, one finds that the film follows Corso the way that Chinatown follows Jack Nicholson. The entire film is told from the protagonists point of view... only once (briefly) do we see something that he doesn't (which is an error many people noticed that doesn't bother me so much). Depp was at a very interesting point in his career at the time, having played many idiosyncratic roles, most notably in Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man and Tim Burton's Ed Wood; the actor rises to the challenge of Polanski's attention, and the audience follows him first because he displayed a kind of emptiness... then, he gets caught up in the enigma of The Nine Gates to the Kingdom of Darkness, which fills him with a desire to uncover its secrets. With his quiet demeanor, omnipresent cigarette, slicked-back hair (with a touch of white at the temples) and mustache and goatee, Depp inhabits this role much as Nicholson made the idea of anyone else playing J.J. Gittes impossible.

It is interesting that Kilar's score was considered pedestrian by so many. It is an excellent expression of Corso's mindset at any given time. While the bulk of the soundtrack album consists of some of the composer's blackest music for the mysteries of the film... but one notices that the film itself is also filled with a very cute theme for Corso himself. While on one hand, the bouncy Elmer Bernstein-esque tune (think the main piano themes for Stripes or Ghostbusters) might seem out of character for the score (and may account for the fact that it is not well represented on the album; I plan to pick up the DVD soon as it has an isolated score track) it is a perfect evocation of where Corso is towards the beginning of the film. As Corso becomes more and more involved with his quest, the music becomes more and more frightening.

Polanski is having a lot of fun here. In his commentary track, he mentions how, when he made Rosemary's Baby, he found it difficult to take the references to the Devil seriously, so he did it in such a way as so to allow for the interpretation that it is all occuring in the protagonist's mind. He didn't have that sort of out with The Ninth Gate, where the Devil is a major character (you don't really see him, but he is a co-author of the book, which makes him very important), so instead he allowed the film to play out in a very tongue-in-cheek aspect. This is nowhere more noticable (and appealing) in Corso's encounter with the Ceniza Twins (both played by common Spanish production liason Jose Lopez Rodero), who were previous owners of the book. They discuss, with increasing excitement, how the book's author, Torchia, collaborated with Lucifer and was burned at the stake. "Even hell has its heroes, Senor," says one of the brothers as they both chuckle about the incredulity of Corso. A major murder performed towards the climax of the film is done with a wink and a nod to the audience.


Comparisons to Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut may be appropriate on the surface. Both a character being drawn further and further into a world that he finds simultaneously alluring and appalling, with trappings of Aleister Crowley and forces beyond his conception. There are major differences. Bill Hartford (Tom Cruise) in Kubrick's film is overwhelmed by the money and power opposing him and ends up retreating into an "ignorance is bliss" attitude, while Corso is aroused by the great forces that he is getting close to, and in the end masters them. It is an opposite journey from what one would normally find in a film of this sort.

Tavoularis' sets and Khondji's photography emphasize the earth browns and reds in the film, giving it a hellish palette that gets increasingly more gothic in feel (if not in actuality). Over the course of the film, as Corso gets closer to understanding what the function of the book he is obsessed with, he is more and more fascinated, and the imagery becomes more and more extreme. An irresistable element of the film, one which is a fairly common in the genre, is that the book has plate illustrations. A series of murders performed by an ambiguous Girl (Emmanuelle Seigner), who seems to be following Corso, mimic the plates. The plates themselves are the key to understanding how the book is used (the DVD has a section devoted to the minor differences).

E N D of S P O I L E R S

Few films are quite as euphoric about being bad (in terms of ethics) as this film is. While the servants of the Devil are all over the film, from the pretenders playing with powers beyond their comprehension, as Liana (Lena Olin) to the Girl (who annoints Corso at one point with her own blood), with Corso becoming a minion himself, the forces of God are barely in any evidence. Polanski is playing with this millieu, and if you can avoid being offended (which is not really a problem for this author), then The Ninth Gate is great fun... both as an mystery and as an occult picture. If there is one thing about which there can be no question, the film is about a man with no alignment turning evil. When the Girl looks at a scene of violence that the formerly passive Corso performed, she comments, chillingly, "I didn't know you had it in you."

I think that the initial reaction to the film may well have been because many were expecting the film to be something that it isn't. I have sat and watched this film for the first time since I saw it in the theater, and I found it wholly enjoyable. The aspect of the film that makes it so wonderful is that it seduces you, much as Corso is seduced by the book he is researching. Few films offer this kind of portrait... the irresistable draw of darkness.

By the way, Polanski refers to Wojciech Kilar as "VOH-check KEE-lar." At long last I know how to pronounce his name. His scores for Polanski's films Death and the Maiden, The Ninth Gate and The Pianist are masterpieces. The music for the former picture is a masterpiece of restraint... there is only a bit over twenty minutes of score in the film, but it is so effectively applied that the film feels heavily scored. Kilar also incorporates passages from Schubert's "Death and the Maiden," (a recording of which figures prominently in the story). The film is flawed, to be sure, but the score is perfect. I also enjoyed Kilar's music for Francis Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula, if not its album presentation.

Other Thoughts


I recently revisited Tron for the first time in a while, this time on Buena Vista's georgeously transferred DVD with thunderous 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. What inspired me to watch the film was that I made a mix CD (called The Great Geek CD for my friend who was in town last week. I included a cue from Tron on it... and was forced to admit to myself how truly unique Wendy Carlos' score is. Her harsh orchestral writing and icy electronic textures don't sound like anything else, and the score is much more an element of the film than either of her works for Kubrick (she arranged the electronic versions of the classical music for A Clockwork Orange [when she was Walter] and came up with the otherworldly sounds for The Shining).

The purpose of the Tron score is to marry the electronic with the acoustic, much as the film was an attempt to marry the electronic with the flesh-and-blood. Nobody who has ever heard this score can mistake it for anything else. That the score is remarkably effective in the film is a tribute to the visionary nature of its creator, Steven Lisberger.

Tron is undeniably the work of a visionary, and it is the only film I have seen that Lisberger has made that I have ever liked. There is no other film before or since that has looked like Tron. The next film that used digital effects to such an extent would be The Last Starfighter. The advancement in the technology is marked... if the effects in The Last Starfighter have dated, they are still effective in terms of storytelling, and the earnestness of the cast sells it all.

Tron, however, uses the technology that was being developed at the time to create a different world, one that takes place within the very technology being used to realize it on screen. If the story (determined individuals triumphing over an evil tyranny) was a bit worn, it is the trappings of this film that make it so relevant even today. As the DVD LaserDisc Newsletter pointed out in their review, the relationship between users and their computers has not changed since the film was made, and that the sort of religious awe the programs have for their users is probably better understood by audiences of today than the pre-computer explosion of 1983.

It is that very religious subtext that makes the film somewhat more subversive than it initially appears. The anthropomorphic programs are avatars in the virtual world of their designers (Jeff Bridges plays human protagonist, Flynn, but is mistaken by both an information bit and villain Sark [David Warner] for his hacking program Clu). The humans have no idea what they are asking their programs to do, but the unswerving loyalty of the "good guy" programs to the mystical Users is a startlingly agnostic concept for Disney. The film draws clear parallels between the Users worshipped by the programs (us) and gods worshipped by humans. The unwritten message (which seems to have passed by Disney unnoticed, who are now quite proud of this fiilm and where it stands historically in terms of the evolution of cinema from analog to digital) is that if there is a God or gods, that it is highly probable that we are nothing but by-products or tools of whatever passes for technology for that level of being.


This week, I was thinking about books I know that I would love to adapt into films. It is a constant daydream of mine, to be able to take some of the science fiction books I enjoyed as a boy and make films out of them. One of these books was David Brin's The Practice Effect, which is, admittedly, more fantasy than science fiction. This rousing adventure tale has a man from our world entering another with a major, and surprising twist in the laws of physics. Much of the book is about how a human society would be so very different with this alteration in the fabric of the cosmos.

What struck me more than anything though, is that when I gave a good think to the music, one name popped into my head. Jerry Goldsmith. That his name should be brought up in connection to a science fiction genre film is not surprising, given how so very many classic scores for that very genre have been scored by him (including, but not limited to, Planet of the Apes, Alien, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Illustrated Man and Total Recall. There are many more, of course. In thinking of what Goldsmith's score for The Practice Effect might sound like, I came across the fact that, were I to temp-track my version of the film with Goldsmith music, most of it wouldn't necessarily be from anything contemporary, but rather the harsher, sparer and more tonally ambiguous works of earlier Goldsmith periods. Slashing strings, thumps echoplexing from left to right channel, nontonal brass clarion calls...

Any film music fan knows immediately what I'm talking about. During the transition from the Seventies to the Eighties, the music of Jerry Goldsmith also went through a major change. Orchestrations became larger and more lush, and his overall sound as a music producer became much less dry. Many of his icy scores of the late Seventies reflect this transition. The (unused) title music to Alien stands in a very sharp contrast to the aleatory and Spartan nature of the rest of the score; the title march from Star Trek: The Motion Picture somehow manages to fit with the geometrically bewitching music for V'Ger. Lukas Kendall at Film Score Monthly pointed out a perfect example: the score and album recordings for Capricorn One. The score as it appears in the film is spare and biting. The album re-recording, done with the National Philharmonic Orchestra of London (a pickup orchestra consisting of players from the main four London orchestras that Goldsmith has worked with many times) is lush by comparison. It is a fascinating thing to compare the two. One is a score by the Goldsmith of the Seventies, the other is the same score by the Goldsmith of the Eighties.

Of course, during the Eighties, Goldsmith was in no way dormant, penning some of his most memorable scores for Poltergeist, Gremlins, The Final Conflict, The Secret of N.I.M.H. and Legend. He capped the decade off with his balls-to-the-wall action powerhouse score for Total Recall, so it is obvious that there was no diminishment of his talent, it had merely been redirected. In fact, it is to this era that Goldsmith has been returning to with such recent scores as The Edge, The Mummy and The Thirteenth Warrior.

I can not help but feel that something has been lost. I must say that it is a shame, because the truth of the matter is that the reason Goldsmith's scoring style changed was because cinema had as well. Experimentation, which made the cinema of the Seventies so irresistable, portraits of uncertain moral universes (Goldsmith's contribution to Chinatown, which he had less than a week to score, is perhaps one of his greatest achievements) was abandoned after the blockbuster came onto the scene, and so Goldsmith's more idiosyncratic approaches were curtailed.

Listening to what Goldsmith composed for such films as Freud and Planet of the Apes is invigorating in the way that Miles Davis' Bitches Brew is... frankly, you have no idea what you might be hearing next. Jangling dissonances and stabbing strings, frantic pianos, all add up to wonderful sonic worlds. Goldsmith is a composer whose work is only really appreciated by film buffs; his music is to specific to the film (and to the language of the film score) for it to gain much of a wider audience, but among those predisposed to understanding music and cinema and the relationship thereof, Goldsmith is a master, one whose influence can be heard everywhere.

That influence became quite apparent when I revisited a mix disc that I was working on years ago. It was called Road Rage, and I put it together initally, when I first got a CD burner and started playing with the possibilities. My mix CDs have advanced in both technology and content, and so the original version of this CD sounds almost embryonic in comparison to the edition I have prepared this week.

Well, obviously, this album has quite a bit of Goldsmith on it. What struck me upon listening to it, however, was that I was looking for the most Goldsmithian elements of the other composers whose work was represented here. Yes, I'm talking about John Williams, whose Star Wars music contains many Goldsmithisms, and Alan Silvestri, whose Predator score is a perfect example of one composer referencing another while maintaining his own musical identity, and many others.

That Goldsmith is influential is undeniable. Many genres have had their sounds established by him (the most recent example of this would be the sound of the Nineties and post-Nineties erotic thriller, whose chilly intelligence was defined by Goldsmith's expert score for Basic Instinct).

The score in my head that Goldsmith would have composed for The Practice Effect sounds something like Alien, with the action music modelled after the unused (but brilliant) "Hot Water" cue from Outland. The mystery element would echo Planet of the Apes and The Illustrated Man with dry strings, harsh percussion and jagged rhythmic patterns. One day, I would like to work with him. I am pretty blase about meeting famous people as I strongly doubt any of them would want to talk with a relative stranger such as myself about the elements of their craft I get into... but Goldsmith is an example of somebody who I would really pay to sit down with and pick his brain.

I wrote the bulk of this entry at home, saved it to a disc and brought it to school to post it. On the way here I listened to some of Jerry Goldsmith's Twilight Zone episode scores, followed by a little bit of Planet of the Apes. The music is so wonderful, so expressive that it turned the Q26 journey from Fresh Meadows to Flushing (which I have taken most days I have lived in my apartment) into a sun-drenched odyssey filled with unexpected wonders. I am exaggerating a little, but I must say that the power of Jerry Goldsmith's talent is so unmistakable as so to turn the mundane into something new and adventurous.

End Title

Well, thats it for now. Swarthy People's Easter was wonderful, although I'm not sure how Tim and Patsy really felt about my drunken/stoned insistence on listening to the Beatles all the way home, taking advantage of the mp3 CD I have that has most of their catalogue easily indexed by album. They seemed to enjoy it (and I was careful to play anything that they mentioned they wanted to hear), but I still feel kind of strange seeing other people who normally aren't around for that kind of high to be exposed to it.

Swarthy Easter Tally:
Three (3) glasses of Dr. Pepper and Jack Daniel's green label (yum)
Two (2) glasses white
Two (2) glasses red
Three (3) glasses Sangria
One (1) shot of moonshine (I swear there's hair on my palms and I'm going blind)
Tags: cinema, film music, jerry goldsmith, reviews
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