Tuesday, March 8, 2016

True stories?

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2003)

The common view – and I’ve pushed it as much as anyone – is that Hollywood doesn’t take on the same range of material it did thirty years ago, but it could be much much worse. This Christmas season, with About Schmidt and The Hours and Chicago and Gangs of New York, we certainly had diversity, and not a little quality. And on New Year’s Eve, they were joined by perhaps the most marginal project of all: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, adapted from the autobiography of Chuck Barris, who created TV shows like The Dating Game and The Gong Show.

Chuck Barris

If you think trash culture put the Western world on the slow road to hell, Barris must resemble the devil incarnate. As the movie presents it, his sole motive was to be rich and get laid – no thought for art or quality or taste. His talent was for coming up with easy-to-grasp gimmicks and then for socking them to the audience with a cotton-candy irresistibility that kept you watching, no matter how much you knew it was bad for you. His heyday was in the 60’s and 70’s – by the more ironic, savvy 80’s, he was basically a has-been.

He then wrote Confessions, in which he claimed that throughout his career as a TV producer, he’d also been working as an undercover CIA assassin, and had killed more than 30 people. I haven’t read the book, and don’t know how convincing it seemed to anyone, but presumably it was all just a fantasy, or an exercise in conceptual humour. The film version is directed – his first movie as such – by George Clooney, who also plays a supporting role as the CIA agent who recruits Barris. Barris is played by Sam Rockwell, who has an appropriately flaky quality. Drew Barrymore and Julia Roberts play the key women on the official and unofficial side respectively of Barris’ life.

The film’s most appealing notion is that this double life makes a fiendish sense. It posits that the chaperoned trips taken by the winners on The Dating Game provided cover for Barris to travel on his murderous missions (there’s a nice shot of a contestant’s crestfallen expression as she learns of her prize – an all-expenses paid trip to…West Berlin). More fundamentally, it draws a link between the cultural impact of mass-audience TV and the CIA’s political “engineering.” Some Barris shows, with their prize washer dryers and refrigerators, fetishize the consumerist side of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; others, like The Gong Show, sacrifice self-respect and decorum for the sake of the shortest term buzz.

You can imagine it as a kind of two-pronged attack – a subtle calibration to herd the audience right where someone (Nixon?) wanted them. Their trashiness seemed even at the time to define new cultural territory; now – in an age where we’re accustomed to assuming that all trash might have a subtext – it seems in some ways prophetic. Barris might have been more significant than he knew (maybe his importance depended on him not knowing), and wouldn’t it round it all out  nicely, to have a hand in killing off designated enemies of the state?

Or maybe he’s just a buffoon and a liar.

Clooney’s career

Although Clooney’s appeared now in several big box office hits (The Perfect Storm, Ocean’s Eleven), I’m not sure he’s yet shaken off the sense of a TV actor who got lucky. He’s unquestionably charismatic, but extremely low-key about it – he speaks in a quiet, even tone; using his softly piercing eyes for modulation. Recently he’s seemed ambivalent about his career: he’s been quoted as saying he’s not that interested in the big multi-million paydays, and intends to make more of the films he likes. He’s working on his second Coen Brothers film after already making three with Steven Soderbergh. Along with Three Kings, these choices show a genuine adventurousness and artistic integrity, but it’s doubtful that those attributes have done much to shape his image yet.

Confessions, consequently, is a crazy piece of material, with a surprisingly even tone. Clooney surrounds the piece in shadow and discreet angles. He gets more flashy here and there, but stays far away from the constant pyrotechnics of something like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (a direction in which this kind of material could easily have gone, I think). Overall, it’s an effective, insinuating style, deftly bringing out the material’s ambiguities and possibilities.

Everyone always says in interviews what a nice guy Clooney is, and accordingly he enticed half the cast of his last movie Ocean’s Eleven to help him out here. Roberts plays a minor supporting role and Matt Damon and Brad Pitt take on blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos as contestants on The Dating Game. The use of Damon and Pitt is interesting; they stand there as losers while the woman on the other side of the screen gets seduced by the silver tongue of the third contestant who, of course, isn’t in the same league as a looker. It’s a good visual joke, but depends entirely on us stepping outside the movie to acknowledge the presence of the two star actors. As a tip-off not to get too wrapped up in this, it confirms Clooney’s skepticism, and his confidence.

There’s no business…

Clooney also breaks up the action through brief interviews with Barris’ contemporaries – none of whom, of course, has anything to say on the central question of whether any of this stuff could possibly be true: they serve only to confirm the least contentious stuff about the man. I’m unsure whether this is an explicit parody of the “witnesses” in a movie like Reds.

There’s a hilarious scene where Robert John Burke, as an FCC guy, gives a group of contestants a pre-taping lecture on network standards and practices, identifying lasciviousness with un-Americanness and referring to “sick, subversive remarks.” It’s patently absurd, and yet not so far removed from some cultural debates that still recur nowadays. I think the movie could have profited from spending more time in that territory. As it is, it gets bogged down in the spy stuff, becoming increasingly repetitive and murky as it goes on (as though Clooney were aiming to evoke, of all things, the last passage of Apocalypse Now).

In the end though, he finishes on a recording of Rosemary Clooney (his aunt) in an unapologetically upbeat version of There’s No Business Like Show Business. I don’t think the implications of the choice run that deep, but they might. That uncertainty partly reflects the film’s own confusion, but also its genuine success in sowing ambiguity and dislocation. Which, for a movie about Chuck Barris, may be as great an artistic payoff as anyone could ever have expected.

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