Right away in Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate, Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) swindles a valuable four-volume edition of Don Quixote from the collection of a stroke-silenced patriarch. He deals with the book collector's greedy heirs, who wouldn't know what he's talking about when he references the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili but are wowed by his estimation of their father's library's value. The tack Polanski takes here is that of the unbeliever changing money in the temple: literature and the occult have their prices, and their predators and prey. The truth of a thing? Beside the point.
A thought: Johnny Depp and Robert Downey, Jr. are Hollywood's two best fortysomething male stars. (Sean Penn gets mentioned for this sort of honor a lot, but he doesn't really "act" these days, does he? In the normally even-keel Clint Eastwood's most frenetic and frenzied film (that I've seen), Mystic River, Penn spews out his lines too much like tortured poetry. I couldn't take it.) If Depp is indeed to play the Riddler in the next Batman movie, I may actually have to see it—though it's bound to be even worse than the painfully mediocre Dark Knight.
Nolan's Batman films are not very interesting to me, though the embrace he's received from most onlookers suggests he's found his element, so maybe I should just shut my mouth. (The indie filmmakers who debuted in the 1990s have shown that their inexpensive calling cards deservedly land them what they've wanted to do deep down all along: make expensive, accessible pop art. Still, I'm inclined to think that veteran Sam Raimi is doing a better job than Nolan, Singer, et al.) The most interesting Batman scenes Nolan made were the first half-hour (ish) of Batman Begins, which I perversely enjoyed for its almost mistakenly open militaristic-fascistic inclinations. Of course then the film goes back into the safe, muddled waters of the spectacular mainstream, and its follow-up The Dark Knight hardly deviates from this lucrative comfort zone. ("Ambiguity" is the hoped-for interpretation plastered like a salve over the film's deliberately muddled status quo politics, methinks.)
(Speaking of Downey and of superhero films, I still have yet to see Iron Man...)
Back to The Ninth Gate—a good, basic, "termitish" movie. What's not to like? In the blockbuster age it is refreshing when a mainstream film (about rare book collections and the occult, no less) keeps its claims modest, makes no huge gestures by the end. Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, suggests this is a fault. I don't think it is; I like these mainstream genre films that gently stir up huge questions but don't presume to provide summary philosophical answers. The film tickles you, but doesn't scratch the itch: you must look elsewhere, outside the film, to continue the thread. I watched this film years ago, and took another look at it (in about thirteen segments) on YouTube, where I've enjoyed watching several contemporary Hollywood movies over the last few weeks. (Call it a "new media research project" with a team of one.) There's a difference between the ambiguity of a film that is all over the place, over-reaching itself and its own sense of importance, and the ambiguity of a film that never presumes its own high value, that plays its hand close the chest.