Chuck Barris In Film & Not: A Review of Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/24/04
recently stumbled across a used DVD copy of George Clooney’s 1st
film as director, Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, at a Hollywood
Video. I had heard good things about the film, but was wary for several
reasons- 1) most films directed by actors suck & are self-indulgent, 2) most
autobiographical films take no chances, & try to tell far too much of a
person’s life than is needed for a 2 hour film, instead of merely viewing a
life from a particular point, & 3) the film was about Chuck Barris- an
iconic schlock tv producer of wacky game shows from the 1960s & 1970s. While
I liked his shows & thought he was unfairly denigrated for years, the book
the film was made from was a 1980s attempt at publicity where CB claimed he was
a CIA hitman. Not that the premise was not promising- but to do it seriously
would be really difficult, & to spoof it would make the whole film little
more than another ‘The Gong Show Movie’- a 1980 flop of a film.
To my surprise, most of the critics who praised the film were correct. It’s an excellent ‘little’ film that stays within its bounds, exhibits relentless energy & creativity by director GC (whose career grows more & more admirable with each project), & provides a devastating portrait of a profoundly sad & depressed little man- not a delusional 1. CB had it all, & then gave up. Still, he’s a multi-millionaire who’s lived in France the last 20 years, so 1 wonders why he is so put off by something as ephemeral as a ‘reputation’?
As for the film, it is ostensibly told in flashbacks as CB pens the book in the early 1980s. We open to see him in 1981, standing naked in front of a tv, in a shit hotel in NYC, & then get a series of intercuts of CB’s life story, yet we are often brought back to the narrative present, & beyond- to the ‘real’ present, as former tv co-stars (the Unknown Comic, Jaye P. Morgan, & Gene Gene the Dancing Machine, from The Gong Show) & cohorts (Dick Clark & Jim Lange, host of The Dating Game) recount anecdotes in cinema verité style, although unusually- but interestingly filmed in infrared. Here GC shows his penchant to experiment & crib from others he’s worked with- notably directors Steven Soderbergh & the Coen Brothers, who helped produce the film. CB is played by a marginally known actor named Sam Rockwell- a good choice because CB is generally forgotten these days & the original choice- Johnny Depp- although a good actor, is too well-known & ‘Johnny Depp’. SR does a terrific job of nailing CB’s voice & bodily moves, even though he does not mimic nor parody. It’s 1 of the best fleshings out of a real person I can recall.
This is the 1st clue to tell the viewer to keep an eye out for probable schisms- & not just the obvious 1s, like where when CB is in a CIA training school he’s seated near 2 fellows named Oswald & Ruby, who sit next to each other. Early on, the film goes in to very brief snippets of CB’s childhood, but the 1st lengthy flashbacks detail CB’s sneaky entrée into the tv world, & his assorted rises & falls, his meeting up with his lifelong partner, Penny, & his recruitment into the CIA by a shady character named Jim Byrd (Clooney himself). The 1st meeting ends particularly poetically, with Jim seemingly perched on CB’s right shoulder as CB is foregrounded & intrigued by Jim’s offer. The character of CB obviously goes along with the scheme for he figures the CIA can help him break into tv. This is the filmic motivation. In real life it’s obvious that CB is trying to pardon his own hard work & thereby lessen some of the ‘success’ he suffered, & which he apparently rues.
We get more background on the early successes of The Dating Game & The Newlywed Game, more spy thriller intrigue (with Julia Roberts as a Mata Hari-like mole named Patricia Watson) as CB carries out CIA hits (a claimed 33 in all) while escorting game show winners on their prize trips abroad, & the slow deterioration of CB’s esteem & mental health. GC does a wise thing by emphasizing all these different aspects of the character by using different film stocks, color schemes & motifs, as well as different aspects of CB, himself. The tv biz sections are pasteled in a 1960s way, & show a comic & self-effacing CB, the spy stuff a calculating & increasingly cool CB drenched in dark bues & shadows, while the truly darker & self-destructive CB (& 1 thinks closest to the real) shines in the more personal scenes, which are hell-mell & show no cohesion in look. GC’s father’s background as a tv game show director also shows through as we see well intercut behind-the-scenes action on the game shows using real footage from the actual shows, & get a sense of the increasingly discomfited CB. This discomfiture is only highlighted when we learn that CB has a vast store of knowledge about literature, history, & the arts. Why is a potential Renaissance Man making schlock? Because he desired lucre to compensate for his lack of selfness, as well a lack of ability to enjoy the good things in his life. CB is the pessimist shown to the Nth degree. When he gets success, & is critically pummeled for it he does not blithely ignore it, nor does he get a bloated opinion of himself- instead, he implodes. In this regard the film is vastly darker than the biopics made of schlock filmmaker Ed Wood (Ed Wood) & Hogan’s Heroes tv star & porno addict Bob Crane (Auto Focus). While EW was an unhappy man, generally, there’s little doubt that he loved his actual craft (such as it was) & angora sweaters! CB has nothing to hang his griefs upon. Even his on again-off again girlfriend Penny (Drew Barrymore) cannot inspire real deep love. When CB explains this to her after sex it is oddly touching in how little CB actually is touched by the admission. As for the comparison of CB to BC, CB lacked BC’s immanent hedonism. BC paid for his personal indulgences with the loss of his life, while CB paid for his private indulgences with the loss of his self.
This is most apt when CB, not unlike BC, uses his fame & wealth to indulge in sex- often cheating on Penny. Unlike BC, however, CB uses sex as a diversion from pain, not as an end to itself. Yet, we know what’s ‘real’ & what’s not throughout the film, as far as CB’s claims, with ease. What’s more difficult to discern for the average viewer is the degree the personal pain influenced the comforting fictions. A scene which illustrates the pain & fiction perfectly comes in the late 1970s or so, when CB is a guest at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion. With drink in hand he is walking by a pool where a gorgeous Playmate (Kristen Wilson) is swimming in the nude. She bewitches CB, who follows her into a private alcove. In any other film this would have been where either the hero says something humorous & then we cut to the duo fucking their brains out- or, in a comedy (think Woody Allen), we’d get a snarky dismissal from the goddess to the protagonist. We get neither here. Instead, the goddess recites a psychologically laced screed to CB, which cuts him down. CB, in his memoirs & in the film, points to this as the nadir, yet- in reality- CB was probably dissed in the Woody Allen way, but he HEARD it as the film projects. No 1970s era college age Playboy Bunny would be 1) so politically correctly offended by ‘The Gong Show’ considering where she has just made her money, & 2) wise enough to lace into CB with such a diatribe. The scene is obviously a projection, but a more telling scene because of it! A later scene, where the Julia Roberts character attempts to kill CB, only to have him do her in 1st, is far more obviously a scene of projection, but it’s the scene with the Playboy Bunny (or rather its meaning vis-à-vis the rest of the film) that is the axle the rest of the film turns upon.
There are also plenty of funny scenes, where a chubby bachelor wins a date over 2 studly bachelors played by GC pals Brad Pitt & Matt Damon, & where another bachelor CB escorts to Europe turns out to be a KGB spy who is exchanged for CB after he is captured in East Berlin. In the end, though, the film succeeds on the chances taken by GC- from casting the little known Sam Rockwell as CB, to all the little filmic tricks described above, to ending the film on a very odd note- a pan & scan of the aged CB’s visage. The most quoted passage in the film, & the book it came from, is ‘My name is Charles Hirsch Barris. I have written pop songs, I have been a television producer. I am responsible for polluting the airwaves with mind-numbing puerile entertainment. In addition, I have murdered 33 human beings.’ Too many critics focused on the veracity of the last sentence, while ignoring the import of the 1st 3- which truly are at the heart of this film. Take my advice if you watch this film- ignore that last sentence & the rest of the film makes alot more sense.
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