of a Dangerous Mind
Ah, to be 18 again and watching The Gong Show on television in the late 1970s! Anyone who did not experience the surreal, subversive charm of this program – and the shambling antics of its creator-host, Chuck Barris – may find themselves a little behind the beat during George Clooney's directorial debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.
Clooney has schooled himself well in the modern ethos of flip, ironic, self-reflexive humour. He surrounds himself with Steven Soderbergh as his producer-mentor, Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, 2002) as his writer, a bunch of exotica music tracks and a design department ready to recreate any monument to '60s and '70s pop culture kitsch.
The impetus of this project is a remarkable book that was first slated for screen adaptation way back in the mid '80s (by the writer-director team of Jim McBride and L. M. Kit Carson), when Barris' cult glory was still a fresh memory. An "unauthorised autobiography", Barris' crazy memoir is structured on a grand, fictional conceit: during the time that he produced TV hit shows (including The Dating Game and The Newlyweds Game), he was also a hitman for the CIA, rubbing out enemies of the free world, in between chaperoning his contestants in foreign locations. Sam Rockwell's mimicry of Barris (especially in the Gong Show era) is uncannily precise.
Kaufman is both the best and worst person to adapt this inspired premise. He invents a great structure which maintains the intrigue and keeps upsetting our assumptions as to what is really going on. When we reach the section of the tale devoted to Barris' apparently Gothic upbringing, the film makes us rightly wonder whether such a 'suppressed memory' revelation is just another story spun by a brilliant liar – in this case, CIA henchman, Jim (Clooney).
But in a Kaufman script, nothing happens outside quotation marks. Scenes in Eastern European countries are marked – with Clooney's enthusiastic complicity as a director eager to impress – as film noir, right down to a ridiculous femme fatale, Patricia (Julia Roberts). The problems of Barris' love life, vacillating as he does between the insidious Patricia and his sweet, understanding, ever-forgiving hippie girlfriend Penny (Drew Barrymore) are dramatised via Elvis songs. All problems of self and identity are merely zany mirror games, send-ups of '60s art cinema.
There comes a point – say, when the film starts making lame jokes about CIA torture techniques in Latin America – when a viewer becomes terribly frustrated by all these glib gags in which nothing is sacred, and not a single character can elicit any conventional emotion of sympathy or anger in us.
All this is a pity, because Barris' book could have made a truly great film. Clooney and Kaufman never go to the heart of this material, even though all its key elements are clearly there. They muddy the waters with a crypto-gay undercurrent – no recent film is so much in love with the nudity of its male hero – and half a dozen too many hallucination sequences (reminiscent of the miscalculations in Schrader's Auto Focus , to which this film invites close comparison).
What is Confessions of a Dangerous Mind really about? Barris' brilliant idea was to invent a truly psychoanalytic fantasy, comprised in equal parts of repression, denial, self-loathing and wish-fulfilment. The entire story is a kind of extravagant, suicidal apologia for perpetrating trash culture like The Gong Show. Barris' deepest wish – when he is not quoting Nabokov in sleazy bars and wishing he were a respected New York intellectual – is to turn television against the society (and the self) he inchoately despises. The dream of being a paid murderer is a delirious transposition of what he did in reality: 'killing' contestants with the almighty gong, and scoring a mass media 'hit' as a result.
Clooney and Kaufman cannot work out whether Barris should be regarded as a psychotic wreck, a counterculture hero, or just a confused guy looking for love. (Abel Ferrara would have done a perfect job with this subject.) Barris himself may have no clearer notion about who he really is: without a doubt the most memorable moment of the film is when we finally glimpse the trashmeister as he is today, old and still full of nihilistic cynicism about the world that made him one of the oddest celebrities of the twentieth century.
MORE Clooney: Good Night, and Good Luck
© Adrian Martin July 2003