There are no good movies about books and bibliomaniacs. Occasionally, some lover of the written word will be featured as a character in a film, but the delight in books as aesthetic objects or repositories of wisdom or even simply as a source of pleasure is relegated to the triviality of being merely incidental to the plot. (In Beauty and the Beast, Belle could have easily been an enthusiast for anything other than books; indeed, their stories really serve only as a counterpoint to the boredom of her quiet and provincial life.) Of course, the truly bookish movie would likely be a total failure. Undoubtedly the topic lacks sufficiently broad commercial appeal to make it palatable for studio executives, and those who already have a pronounced proclivity for books would just as soon read a book about books rather than watch a film.
It was with this understanding that Joel convinced me to watch one of the most execrable films in our apparently infinite treasury of media products, The Ninth Gate. Though he live-Tweeted my reactions to the movie, I nevertheless thought it worthwhile to set down some more articulate and continuous thoughts on the movie and its relation to reading culture more generally.
The plot is straightforward enough, and even for one paying as little attention as I did, it is entirely predictable after a few minutes. Totally lacking in energy or commitment to the project, Johnny Depp plays the rare book collector (detective and evaluator?) Dean Corso. He is hired by the ultra-wealthy Satan enthusiast Boris Balkan to determine the authenticity of his copy of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, a manual written in the 17th century by Aristide Torchia or, as rumor has it, the devil himself. Though there are three copies remaining in the world, it is rumored that only one is authentic – that is, only one of them has the power to summon the devil himself.
Each of these books possesses nine engravings supposedly crafted by Aristide Torchia, but Corso learns in comparing them that three of the engravings in each copy are not only different from the corresponding engravings in the other copies, but are in fact the work of Lucifer. As you might expect, the owners of these copies are mysteriously murdered as Corso pursues his line of inquiry, and Corso himself is nearly killed a few times, saved only by a combination of stout plot armor and the intervention of a mysterious (and obviously supernatural) green eyed woman. No surprise, Balkan had the owners of the other copies murdered, and attempted after collecting the nine true engravings to summon the devil and pledge his loyalty to the dark lord, only to accidentally burn himself to death. Corso then locates the last authentic engraving and goes to carry out the ritual himself.
As a film, it’s a total flop. If Balkan were going to resort to murder anyway, why not just murder the owners of the texts in the first place? The pacing is horrible, and the fights are worse than what a few kids could stage with a cell phone camera and a YouTube account.
Corso’s growing obsession with the authentic book is the main thread of the thinly-worn plot, and it is in effect simply a re-tooling of the Faust tale. He is an expert book collector, and in the opening minutes of the movie we see that he is able to score extremely rare editions of coveted works with little effort. While Faust summoned the devil out of boredom with the earthly disciplines he had mastered and in order to pursue more knowledge, Corso becomes obsessed with the rarest book in the world, and the attainment of the goal leads him to the devil.
What this suggests about bibliomaniacs and book culture is clear enough. In an age where science has created weapons which could annihilate all of human civilization within minutes, the dread specter of occult knowledge still has a tenacious grip on the collective mind. There’s something about all of those old tomes bound in leather, with mysteriously horrific engravings and (most mysterious of all) their impenetrable arcana locked in the secret vault of a dead language.
I suspect that the cultural associations of Latin have much to do with its frequent recurrence in movies like this. Indeed, we may only think that the devil speaks Latin because he did such a damn good job of it in Marlowe’s Tragedy of Dr. Faustus. Perhaps it makes sense that, in an age when learned doctors were apparently eager to summon the devil, and when all learned doctors knew Latin, that the devil might find it expedient for his business prospects to trudge through a grammar or two. Nevertheless, the idea that Latin is uniquely suited to spells and incantations is in fact entirely arbitrary, a sheer historical accident. One would expect that the devil exists in a kind of supralinguistic state, but even then, there is no reason for him or his demonic posse to speak and respond to Latin beyond the fact that Latin was widely employed by the Catholic Church. I strongly suspect that in places which were under not just the spiritual but also the linguistic influence of the Greek Orthodox Church there is no strongly pronounced association between demonic communication and the Latin language. The sole merit of the movie is that the production team had the decency to use grammatically functional Latin, and not the strange medley of Latin-like words which one sees most frequently either on screen or inked to someone’s skin.
Yet, as I think over the movie, it occurs to me that it really isn’t about bibliomania. Corso hardly seems like an enthusiastic intellectual, and did not appear to do much reading beyond the strict requirements of his job. Moreover, Hollywood apparently conceives of rare books as things which are regularly manhandled by any interested party. Throughout the movie, Corso carries the book with him everywhere (even through the rain), and it is rarely handled without a lit cigarette and/or drink in hand. Even reasonably rare but uninteresting books put together by second-rate hacks are guarded more carefully than this in archival rooms, but the book possibly written by the devil himself can be carted around like the latest James Patterson you picked up at the airport. (Then again, they may be rough equivalents.)
And so, you have here a movie that isn’t really about books or book lovers, and certainly has no appeal for anyone who is into cinema. I only made it through because Joel put me to it and seemed to be amused by my criticisms, and his cat kept me more or less distracted for the last horrific hour. Maybe one day Hollywood will give us a movie about bibliomania, but for now we just have to settle for the devil. I’d rather read anyway.