THE BLATTY’S DREAM EDITION
White space. A blessing, or a disease? A cure-all for a fast and easy read? Or a soul-crushing killer of creativity that inhibits that most basic form of expression, language? If short, punchy, and easily digestible are the prized traits in the written word of film, why are our gods so damn loquacious? Chayefsky? Serling? Sorkin? All playwrights, you say? Correct! But what do we make of the subject of today’s Great American installment? “The power of Christ compels you” to read on, as we put the spotlight on – William Peter Blatty.
Like the other great men we have profiled in this series, Blatty was a New York City kid and a serviceman. Prior to becoming a celebrated novelist and screenwriter, Blatty, the son of Catholic immigrants from Lebanon, was a scholarship student at Brooklyn Prep (where he studied with the Jesuits), a scholarship student at Georgetown University, a grad student in English Lit at George Washington University, a door-to-door salesman for the Electrolux Vacuum cleaner company, a Gunther Beer truck relief driver, head of the Policy Branch of the United States Air Force Psychological Warfare Division, an editor in Beirut for the United States Information Agency, the public relations director at Loyola University of Los Angeles, and the Director of Publicity at the University of Southern California. Blatty accomplished all of this before the age of 32. Which is when he published his first book, Which Way to Mecca, Jack?, about his early life and experiences in Lebanon. In his career as novelist, he has written 10 other books to date, including The Ninth Configuration, The Exorcist and Legion, which served as the basis for “The Exorcist III”, which also Blatty directed.
Though he started his screenwriting career working on comedies with director Blake Edwards, such as 1964’s “Pink Panther” sequel “A Shot In The Dark” and 1966’s “What Did You Do In The War, Daddy?”, he is rightly most celebrated for “The Exorcist”, both the book and film, and his dark, at times, horrific explorations of the power of religious belief and doubt in the face of darkness in the world.
We all know the pea soup and the spinning head and the crucifix masturbation, but all of that is mere window dressing for the themes at the heart of “The Exorcist”. Stemming from research and one of his “battles of wavering faith”, Blatty spun a tale about three people: Regan MacNeil, a young girl who is possessed by a demon; her mother, Chris MacNeil, an atheist; and Father Damien Karras, who is caught in a crisis of faith after his mother dies. After a long battle with the demon Pazuzu, Chris believes in greater forces, and Regan is cured because Karras allows himself to believe once more, and, in doing so, makes the ultimate sacrifice.
Blatty’s commitment to making a horror film about ideas and actual spiritual substance, combined with William Friedkin’s terse direction and stellar performances from Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Max Von Sydow and young Linda Blair, made the film (in 1973) one of the highest-grossing films of all time. And, for his efforts, Blatty received the Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay.
But it is in this author’s opinion that Blatty would go on to write (and direct) a greater masterpiece, one more close to the bone.
With 1980’s “The Ninth Configuration”, Blatty went from the internal religious struggle with doubt to the big question itself: Is there a God? The film told the story of one Col. Kane (Stacy Keach), sent to be head psychiatrist at a mental hospital for veterans set up at a castle in the Pacific Northwest. There, he encounters an, at times, humorous and rambunctious band of patients, including an astronaut, Capt. Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), who suffered a nervous breakdown prior to a lunar mission, and Lieutenant Reno (Jason Miller) who is trying to put on a production of “Julius Caesar” with a cast made up of dogs. Throughout the film, which alternates between surreal imagery (a crucifix on the moon in Kane’s dreams) and bizarre therapy hijinks (the patients are allowed to play “The Great Escape” by digging tunnels), Cutshaw and Kane have running argument. Cutshaw insists that God cannot exist with evil in the world. Kane believes that God exists because there is beauty – not aesthetics, but within the human spirit. Their arguments come to a head with revelations about Kane’s character, climaxing with Kane defending Cutshaw in one of the nastiest bar brawls put on film.
If we’re nothing but atoms, molecular structures, no different in kind from this desk or that pen, then we ought to always be rushing irresistibly, blindly, toward serving our own selfish ends. So how is it that there is love in this world? I mean, love as a god might love. And a man will give his life for another.
-Col. Kane (Stacy Keach)
It is far too often today that we hear fundamentalists, some presidential candidates, drowning out the voices of thoughtful, rational people, who also believe in a higher power. Within Blatty’s work, there are no preachers at the pulpit, but rather grown adults engaged in debate. And these theologians of Blatty (some priests, some just regular folks), they are forced to grip with the basic questions fundies cannot allow themselves to ask: What is evil? How can God exist while the innocent suffer? How can love be possible if the world is such a rotten place? Where does joy come from? And why is humanity so hellbent on self-destruction? How can a God sit by and do nothing? Blatty has always been after more than just throwing up pea soup.
Blatty also poses the question: is insanity just an escape from the madness and cruelty of the rest of the word? This is best exemplified in a speech Lieutenant Reno delivers to Kane on Hamlet:
“You see, Hamlet isn’t psycho. He’s hanging on the brink. A little shove, a little teensy-eensy little eensy push, and the kid’s gone. Bananas. Whacked-out. So his unconscious mind makes him do what keeps him sane, namely acting like he’s nuts. See, because acting crazy is a way to let off steam. A way to get rid of your fucking aggressions, a way to get rid of your fears and your terrors. If I did what Hamlet does in this play, they’d lock me up, they’d put me in prison, they’d punish me, sure. But him, Prince Royal Garbage Mouth, gets away with murder, and why? Because nuts are not responsible. In the meantime, the crazier Hamlet acts, the more he indulges himself, the healthier he gets.”
“The Ninth Configuration” is like a cry in the dark from those who have seen the world’s worst horrors, those of us who are sad, a little fucked-up but are brave enough to laugh at ourselves once in a while. Naturally, the film was a flop, but now has a gloriously demented cult following.
William Peter Blatty may not be the most prolific screenwriter of all time, but there is no doubt that he has enriched the form. Thought by thought, word by word.
Keep writing, keep believing.