Our review of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (Blu-ray), published November 7th, 2011, is also available.
When you lead two different lives, it's easy to forget what side you're on
Chuck Barris is a fallen idol, a forgotten cog in the glorious, gangrenous pop culture machine that has chugged and mugged its way into American living rooms since the early '40s. He is the founding father of television as tattletale, programs where over the course of thirty tacky minutes Joe and Jane Average would share deep personal secrets, soiled sexual entendres, and atonal aptitudes for a chance at glory and an avocado green washer and dryer. No one had their calloused thumb more readily poised on the pulse of a nation in naughty transition better than Chuckie Baby. From the chaperoned sexual hook-ups of The Dating Game through the misery loves matrimony of The Newlywed Game (and countless permutations on said premises), this off-color Oompa Loompa saw deep into the wounded psyche of a people burned by liberation and fear and winked a bloodshot eye. But his crowning achievement (as well as personal downfall) had to be the talent show as social enema known as The Gong Show. Here, for a few moments of fame and a couple hundred bucks, anyone with the vaguest notion of personal performance capability tried to avoid the Asian axe and enter that isolated realm of individual immortality. But now, like the silly fad or faded pop star, Barris is a lost relic, an irregular reminder that the pathway to Jerry Springer and Jackass was just a question about "whoopie" away. So it's not surprising that when he wrote his "unauthorized" autobiography, he called it Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. What is shocking however, is the moving mini-masterpiece that actor turned director George Clooney created from said tome: a celebration and examination of this true titan of trash television.
Facts of the Case
From the time he was a young man, Chuck Barris desired one thing: sex. Women and their feminine wiles fascinated and frustrated him. After a brief stint working for Dick Clark on American Bandstand and even writing a hit pop song (Freddie "Boom Boom" Cannon's "Palisades Park"), he moved to New York City to get a job in television. He began his illustrious career as an NBC page. Soon, he was part of middle management. But just as quickly as he was moving up, he was fired. During this frenetic time in his life, he met two important figures. One was Penny Pacino, a women whom he'd share his heart and his pain with for the rest of the better part of his life. The other was Jim Byrd, a shadowy figure with an even more mysterious offer. Claiming Barris "fit the profile," he offered him a job as a CIA hitman, an international assassin. Intrigued (and desperate for money), Barris agreed and was trained in the art of murder.
Thus began a strange bifurcated existence for the wannabe television producer and spy. No sooner had The Dating Game been rejected by ABC than he got the call to kill a man in Mexico. No sooner had he arrived back from South of the Border than ABC reconsidered and the show was picked up. When a prime time version was requested, Byrd gives Barris the idea of giving away trips to exotic locales as the final prize. This way, Barris as "chaperone" can travel to distant lands and "execute" his directives. On a trip to Helsinki, Barris meets Olivia/Patricia, an exotic fatal femme who becomes his international contact—and idealized love interest. Barris eventually becomes a famous television producer, loading the airwaves with shows like The Newlywed Game and How's Your Mother-in-Law?.
With the arrival of The Gong Show, Barris (as host) is confronted with superstardom and the scorn that comes with it. There is also a new threat from his undercover work. Seems there's a mole in the agency, a rogue out to get Byrd and his associates. As the pressures from both occupations overwhelm him, Barris has a massive breakdown and holes up in a New York hotel. There, he decides to exorcise his inner demons by writing his memoirs. He loads paper into his typewriter and out come his trials and tribulations, his faults and his fantasies. He entitles the book Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.
There's a stand-up comedy routine (the name of the comic is forgotten now) that links the concepts of laughter and murder together in a strange, yet significant manner. As the premise states, comedians and entertainers take the stage like assassins, hoping to confront the crowd gathered and "knock 'em dead." Using verbal "barbs" and "cutting" wit, he or she hopes to deliver a "knockout" performance that renders their "victims" "helpless." When a performer is indeed successful, he or she is said to have "killed," really "slaying" the audience. If they are bad, they "die" or "bomb. Chuck Barris believed in such a connection between amusement and massacre, maybe too much so. He learned early on that he could destroy an audience with a fresh gimmick or sly bit of luridness. He literally had the power of life and death in his hands, to help a network (and himself) achieve financial success or desperate ruin. But he also faced the wrath of such influence. He was labeled a pervert and a provocateur. At his lowest point in life, when every pundit worth his or her weight in newsprint was calling for his head, he still had to take the stage and execute, to pump more and more ammunition into his television productions so that, all over America (and the world) his programs would "beat" the others and achieve ratings "deadly" to the competition.
At the height of his fame and success, Barris was a marked man. Most of the attacks were aimed at his most notorious imploding fiasco, The Gong Show. Anyone who witnessed it first hand (this critic included) understood from the beginning that this was a show less about personal skill and achievement and more about human humiliation. No one who plays their inner thighs with spoons or licks popsicles as a "talent" could possibly demand aesthetic acknowledgement and acceptance. And yet they did. From the off-key old women with shifting dentures who warbled off-key show tunes to the obese dancers clad in skintight body suits, The Gong Show was a Pilgrim's Progress of those who had faith in the power of their own personal passion and the cathode ray tube to make them into something new and special. Barris traded on these dreams for a ratings share and a huge residual paycheck. For many, this was more hilarious than humanly possible. For others, it was a pitiful wake-up call to the nation, an admonition against false hope and cheap achievement. Unfortunately, over the years since Barris has been off the air, America failed the test and the situation has only gotten worse.
As an autobiography and a biopic, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a so-so effort of interesting, if incomplete factual details. But as a motion picture, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a work of genius. Actually, a better way of saying it would be that Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is the visionary work of several geniuses: the acting of its cast, the direction of George Clooney, the writing of Charles Kaufman, and the life of Chuck Barris. It is a staggering showcase of subtle insight, overt symbolism, and warped imagination. It's a masterwork of narrative mutation, of horrendous flights of fatal fantasy locked inside the brain of a truly troubled soul. Using the basic timeline reference points as a starting point, Clooney and Kaufman have decided to craft a cautionary look at celebrity, a brazen indictment of the new American dream of fame and fortune wrapped around the personal predicaments and reality programming that makes up most of modern television. For the audience and the characters in the film, this is an experiment, a meshing of old Hollywood techniques with pop culture phantoms to haunt our hubris and defy our expectations. Though a movie that factually follows Barris' career might have been more nostalgic and nutty, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind has much more to say about our media addicted culture than to merely mete out a re-creationist ideology.
At the heart of this film's narrative is the metaphor of television as the Higher Power and its programmers and producers as this false god's battle drones. Indeed, many who are confused by the style and schizophrenia of the narrative need only look around their home as they ponder this thought to see exactly what Barris (and in his film, Clooney) is on about. Seems that we have become a nation addicted to our glass teat, unable to feel connected to the world or part of the social scene without having a boob tube blaring in the background. It centers our lives. It orders our existence. It names our days (Must See, TGI) and fills in for babysitter, town hall, and personal companion. But television is also a criminal. It insults our intelligence, dumbs the global experience down for us into easily digestible particles, and lies when it could really enlighten. So naturally, television is the new church, the new religion, and in its holy order are the men and women who create the shows we yearn to watch and characters we come to adore. And all the while, like a poisonous gas seeping out from under a stagnant rock, the airwaves invade the population's home and slowly assassinate them, one share point at a time. No other form of technology, not even the computer or the cell phone, controls our lives like television. It's no wonder that when soul searching, Barris sees himself as a hired "gun."
It's interesting to note in the film that almost every time Barris has a breakthrough as a television producer, or issue with a show he is working on, he turns to his "life" as a killer to resolve his inner psychological conflict. The random spy work and underhanded double-crossing is the ultimate rush for Barris, again, speaking directly to his personality. This is a man who wanted fame, fortune, and pussy and drove himself in a hundred directions to get all three. But as the old adage says, be careful what you wish for, since you may just wind up getting it. So the high, the consciousness altering experience that was supposed to result from press attention, autograph seekers, unlimited bank accounts, and readily available nookie grows old and cold for Barris. So what is more daring, more intriguing and dangerous for a jaded mess like him? The '60s and '70s were blinded by Bond and In Like Flint, so the idea of working undercover for the government, resolving Cold War disputes and dictatorial vendettas via the sword and the sidearm was, perhaps, a mean mescaline martini for Barris, a deceptive drink best served hot and steamy. Like a Smith & Wesson Walter Mitty, Chuck Barris escapes from the dreams of La La Land, of the life he fought so hard to achieve, just so he can stalk and slay those he doesn't even know. Just like the programs he created, accused of destroying the minds of a nation, their creator seeks to destroy the life of others as an attempt at outrageous karmic realignment.
Some critics have argued that this dual existence foundation is too thin, to "trickster" to lend deep insight into Barris, his life, and his work. Indeed, if you are looking for a film that outlines how The Dating Game got away with some of the things it did or if the couples on The Newlywed Game were really that dense and desperate, this is not the movie for you. But if you want to know what really makes a television mind think, what drives them to entertain on a level below the high and mighty visions of artistic intent and socially consciousness, hang in there with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Barris is just an everyday genius, a man who held a key to human lowbrow mentality far more exactly and precisely than his fellow media makers. His shows just didn't become hits; they became cultural phenomena, the kind of programs discussed over a martini at a businessman's lunch or a cup of coffee with the rest of the secretarial pool. So it's only natural that when they hit too close to home, when they hold a mirror up to the panting demographic and showcase people's reprobate and mercenary nature, the target should retaliate. Barris, more than any other television producer before or since (with the exception of Jerry Springer and Geraldo ####Rivera) paid the price for exposing the true nature of man to himself. So why shouldn't he turn his back on them? Why shouldn't he envision himself a destroyer of people. That's the portrait the public painted of him. Is it so wrong for him to explode it into a allegorical fantasy?
But don't get the wrong idea that Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is all high-minded philosophy and personal torment. Over and above its nodding and winking at popular culture, this is a highly entertaining movie, one that moves from comedy to intrigue to tragedy in a subtle, sensational fashion. Most of the success for this concept working on so many levels must be laid at the door of Kaufman and Clooney. Kaufman has taken Barris' unwieldy, mock Mickey Spillane spy spoof and crafted a homage to film noir and the fine art of the nervous breakdown all in one recognizable TV show setting. Skittering over the iconography we would normally associate with Barris (we spend very little time in the realms of the Dating / Newlywed / Gong Show menagerie) Kaufman instead concentrates on the powers that compelled Barris, from young male sexcapades to the inevitable mid-life crisis. Kaufman relies on our knowledge of Barris' television output as a means of outlining his life, escorting us from the lustful youth of The Dating Game to the settling down and personal satisfaction of The Newlywed Game to the unhinged unhappiness of aging seen through the personal humliation-athon called The Gong Show. Once that talentless show was cancelled, Barris saw his life spin hopelessly out of control. Kaufman captures this final collapse brilliantly, and gives us one of the most satisfying closing speeches in recent film.
Clooney too takes advantage of his insider status and cinematic heritage to film and director check classic movies (The Parallax View, All the President's Men) and moviemakers (Pakula, Frankenheimer, the Coens). He utilizes unique visual styles and theatrical flourishes (vanishing walls, continuous takes, locked down cameras) to convey a rich tapestry of surrealism and behind the scenes celebrity super saturation. Some may find these nods to the forgotten days of filmmaking annoying or self-indulgent, but they underline the theme of duality in the movie. If nothing is like it seems onscreen, then nothing may be what it seems like in the real life of Barris. It's this "was he or wasn't he" guessing game that feeds Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.
However, none of the camera tricks or set design deception would work without actors able to infuse familiarity and humanity into the filmmaking fraud. On the periphery, George Clooney (as Byrd) and Julia Roberts (as Patricia) provide again a link back to classic studio system movies, where men were always perfectly groomed and as smooth as a dry sherry and women exuded sex with a lift of an upper lip. But this movie truly belongs to Sam Rockwell, channeling Barris from the inside out, capturing his spirit as well as his shtick with amazing perception. And by his side stands Drew Barrymore, giving her first fully released adult performance ever. Without seeming to age a day while Rockwell's Chuckie morphs from shlemiel to asshole, Drew's Penny is true love personified, uncomplicated and beautifully incorruptible.
Pulled together in a complicated vision of human integrity and ethics in freefall, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a movie that doesn't give up its insights readily. It buries them in pop culture references, loving glances back in hand colored nostalgia and precise, problematic vignettes. Multiple viewings unleash, like a putrid Pandora's box, a wealth of weird, clever tidbits: odd character names, ominous locations, hints, and clues. Like the stylized color scheme used in interview sequences of people who really knew Barris, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind paints a contorted portrait of a man who probably did more for daytime television than any other producer in the history of the genre. Whether he killed people in reality or just in the darkest recesses of his fertile, fevered brain, is something only God and Chuck know the actual answer to. But one thing is certain: the film made of his pursuit of notoriety, nookie, and nirvana resonates with a power that is matched only by the lasting impact of Barris' brainchildren on the world of entertainment. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a great film and marks George Clooney's emergence as an artist with a special, strong visual sense.
Miramax therefore deserves respect for treating this title to a nice, comprehensive DVD package. While not a full-out special edition (see The Rebuttal Witnesses for more on this), it is still a beautiful and bountiful offering. As said before, Clooney relied on several color and exposure tricks to render the amazing muted color palette of the film's first few sequences. He then quickly jumps into a more stylized old Hollywood feel of crisp contrast and shadows. All of this stunning eye candy is captured in full-blown hue hyperbole in the 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen image. Individuals with TVs smaller than 19" better beware: there are times when subtitles and title cards are used and even on a 32" screen they seem very small indeed. Overall, however, the movie is a magical optical experience that confronts and occasionally confuses the viewer, but leads to a prosperity of pleasures once discovered. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround is also an aural treat, an immersive experience in crowd noises, mood ambience, and channel-to-channel challenges. Together with a standard offering of trailers and pro-Miramax studio schmoozing, the bare bones DVD basics are all in place.
But then the wily Weinsteins let Clooney go crazy and they include a treasure trove of contextual and creative material that helps to flesh out exactly how a film like this got made. The Behind the Scenes featurette (which is far too short for how fun it is) gives us the necessary background on the film. The Real Chuck Barris incorporates all the interview footage from the film and adds in some actual Barris comments to offer a compelling, if cursory, look at the man behind the story. A series of Sam Rockwell screen tests show in vivid detail the exact qualities that the actor exhibited to get the gig and The Gong Show acts highlight the care and craft that went in to recreating Barris' mid-'70s mega-hit for the silver screen. But without a doubt, the best added bonus is the deleted scene section (with optional commentary track) and the actual full-length filmmaker's narrative with Clooney and cinematographer Newton Thomas Spiel. As to the edited scenes, they all provide more wonderful moments of Confessions' confused and kooky storytelling. Experiments in tone shift, split screen, and multiple cameras amaze as they (over) analyze their subject matter. Add on top Clooney and Spiel's dry, witty, and wise comments (they love to expose their homages and direct steals), and you have a fantastic look at moviemaking. The scene specific track is just about everything you could want from a DVD commentary. Clooney describes secrets, discusses problems, and tantalizes with missed opportunities. Together with the remaining relative extras, this is a fine, completely fleshed out DVD package.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If there is one missing thread in the Chuck Barris story, something that never seems to get mentioned in the many stories and statements about him, it's the long forgotten personal psyche evaluation called The Gong Show Movie. Imagine Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, or Fellini's 8 1/2 channeled through the weird and sadly surreal situation of Chuck Barris' final days on The Gong Show and you have just the beginning of what this horrifying, humiliating, and haunting film is all about. In many ways, The Gong Show Movie is the companion piece to Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, like the prelude to a provocative kiss. All the anger and hopelessness that weaves its way through Barris' murder scenarios are exemplified, documentary-style, in this attempt to explain the personal pain and torment the media feeding frenzy had on Barris and his fragile spirit. Long considered a silly sidebar to an otherwise successful producer's life, Barris's own Sullivan's Travels really should be seen to be appreciated. So why it's not offered as an extra on this DVD is a total mystery. Here is a chance to witness what the movie so lovingly recreates and there is no attempt to mention it, to add it as a separate disc or even provide a trailer or series of scenes. It's as if it never happened. Unlike Barris' CIA claims, The Gong Show Movie did occur, and it's just plain wrong to sweep it under the rug without nary a mention.
Looking back on it, one gets the distinct impression that The Gong Show's main failing was a lack of irony. Seems that in modern popular culture, people and productions can get away with anything as long as they layer in some self-referencing and ribbing material. They then get to scream "satire" and "sarcasm" and everyone goes home happy. Barris obviously saw no need to mess with his form of mockery. Like the Candid Camera of old, his tone-deaf talent show simply showed people in the act of being themselves. Oh sure, there were times when seasoned professionals took the stage and swept the scenario clean of all the sad housewives and nutsack college students. But never once did Chuck think he was doing anything worse than letting the sadly deluded hang themselves with their own rope of hope. He too understood the siren song of celebrity, the internal burn to be something more than ordinary. It's what drove him to bouts of personal depression and womanizing. But he also knew the pain of fame, the confusing conundrum of hero worship and hobbling that went on in the public and the press. And when that ache got too bad, when the scrutiny became too scarring, Barris' thoughts turned to death: maybe his, maybe that of others. In either case, he poured out his pathos in a volume called Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and thanks to the amazing work of some very talented people, Barris' brain damage is finally revealed for the entire world to see. And maybe that's for the best. After all, it wouldn't be too wise to let such a potentially lethal figure wander around the outskirts of society in semi-obscurity. Better to have his type out in the open. It's easier to keep tabs on him that way. Or then again, maybe it's not.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is found not guilty and is free to go. This court commends cast and crew for the fine job done in bringing this seemingly difficult proposition to life. This is one of the best movies of 2002.
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Scales of Justice
• Feature Commentary with Director George Clooney and Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel
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