Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a strange movie. Part of the reason for that description is that it provoked in me a reaction I seldom recall having had. I came out of the film in a state of annoyed befuddlement, liking it very little beyond admiring various aspects of its execution. But the more I thought about it afterward, the more intrigued I was. The more intrigued I became, the more I liked the film.
Please understand: My liking didn’t increase despite my initial befuddlement, but because of it. In retrospect, I grew fascinated with the film’s apparent “failure” and the possibility that it was not only intentional but also meaningful, in an admittedly strange and unaccustomed way.
The movie is taken from a purported memoir by Chuck Barris, the impresario of the legendarily tasteless ’60s/’70s game shows The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show. I say “purported” because while the book (which I haven’t read) in part chronicles Barris’ rise as a bigtime TV producer, it also relates that, during these same years, he was a hit man for the CIA who killed dozens of people while escorting game-show winners on “dream vacations” in places like Helsinki and West Berlin.
The film follows the book in interweaving these two stories, or two extremely incongruous strands of the same life, and it does so with an entirely straight face. We see Barris zestfully participating in the creation of American pop culture, writing the hit song “Palisades Park” (he was a songwriter too) and orchestrating the idiocies of The Gong Show. Then we see him in the dark back alleys of Eastern Europe, killing Communists in a brutal, unblinking fashion. Nowhere does the film or Barris himself (who is brilliantly played by Sam Rockwell) voice any feeling about the schizoid split in his “career” or qualms about the dirty work he does for his government.
Can the CIA part of this story possibly be true? Strikingly, the film presents this aspect and the publicly known facets of Barris’ life as though they were equally veritable. Which is to say that the filmmakers give us no hint as to how we’re supposed to interpret their dizzily anomalous tale.
In trying to puzzle out the motives behind Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, we might well begin by asking what kind of film it is, and note its kinship to a recent subgenre of fillms associated with writer-producers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Although Alexander and Karaszewski had nothing to do with creating Confessions, they have established a paradigm for exploring trash-culture personalities in movies including Ed Wood, The People Vs. Larry Flynt, Man in the Moon (about comic Andy Kaufman) and last year’s Auto Focus (about TV star Bob Crane). The latter film in particular has a number of elements in common with Confessions, although its protagonist’s sideline was kinky sex, not contract killing.
As for the actual creators of Confessions, they notably include actor-director George Clooney (here making his directorial debut) and executive producer Steven Soderbergh. Clooney and Soderbergh have made a number of big-budget films together, the latest of which, Solaris, was as ambitiously and unapologetically arty as any major-studio movie of 2002. Soderbergh’s oeuvre, meanwhile, includes a number of offbeat items, such as Schizopolis and last year’s Full Frontal, that are nothing if not determinedly strange and playfully opaque.
In addition, Clooney and Soderbergh are partners in a production company called Section Eight, under whose aegis they produced Todd Haynes’ recent Far from Heaven. Both men are on record as being fervent admirers of Haynes’ Safe, a film legendary for refusing the audience any hint on how to interpret its extravagantly baffling story.
The final thing to note about Confessions‘ genealogy is that its script was written by Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriting auteur of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. That fact alone perhaps explains a lot. Kaufman will never be accused of conscientious, literal-minded realism. In Adaptation he not only injected himself into the story as a character but invented a screenwriting brother for himself who received screen credit and whose fictional nature Kaufman has steadfastly refused to acknowledge. If Chuck Barris did fabricate his double life, who better to transfer it to the screen than Charlie Kaufman, this specialist in specious doppelgangers?
To sum up: the various threads connecting Alexander-Karaszewski, Clooney-Soderbergh and Charlie Kaufman can, I think, be reduced to a single word–“postmodern.”
Am I suggesting the film is some kind of elaborate arty goof and that Chuck Barris never pulled a trigger for the CIA? Not exactly. If you’re interested in the game-show kingpin’s possible links to Cold War espionage, I suggest you see the film and decide for yourself. What I’m getting at is the thought that the makers of Confessions are far less interested in the facts of Barris’ life, or their dramatic potential, than they are in how filmmakers and viewers together construct a movie’s meaning.
Almost by any definition, any moviemaker with a postmodern agenda isn’t as impassioned about telling a story as he is about turning “story” inside-out and seeing what makes it tick. Likewise, he’s not out to convey a set of dramatic truths so much as he is trying to suggest the mutable, illusory and at least partly subjective nature of any “truth” the media give us.
Looked at in this way, Confessions is a lot more interesting–and in its own way, satisfying–than it is if considered merely as a movie that finally fails to give us a clear, coherent picture of Chuck Barris’ life. To begin with, if Barris wasn’t really a CIA killer, who’s going to disprove his assertion that he was? The CIA? Come on. The agency would surely never confirm such a claim, and almost as surely would never deny it. And if it did deny it, what would that likely mean? That it was false, or true? Ingeniously, Barris has asserted a secret life that, no matter how outlandish, deftly eludes verification.
In doing so, he puckishly invites us to ponder the parallel mythologies of show-biz and government. The former are, of course, all outward and pervasively apparent. In shows like The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show, what you see is what you get. In contrast, government at its deepest levels–the CIA, say–tends to be deeply interior and hidden.
Are we to believe that only the phenomena we can readily see are real? On the contrary, we inevitably sense that invisible entities like the CIA have far greater bearing on the way the world works than do diversions like The Gong Show. Yet, in fact, are these two sides of “reality” not in some way connected: the outward serving to conceal the inward, the hidden having an indeterminate influence on the apparent? If so, Chuck Barris has given us a tale that–“true” or not–ingeniously indicates the dual nature of American reality in the Cold War and beyond.
This, however, is a chilly and highly conceptual thesis for any movie to put forward. Clooney’s film has much going for it: His direction is extraordinarily imaginative and expressive, and the film contains appearances by Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and other Clooney cronies. Yet it’s hardly an old-fashioned fun night at the movies. Get in a postmodern mindset if you’re going, and prepare to get most of your pleasure from musing on the film long after it’s over.