Thursday 22 September 2022

Article: Refrigerator Prize

By Leslie Byron Pitt

The best thing that Charlie’s Angels (2000) did for me was introducing me to Sam Rockwell. I had seen him in films before McG’s sugary gloss fest for sure. He was fun in Galaxy Quest (1999), intense in The Green Mile (1999) and I’m sure he knocked it out of the park as “Head Thug” in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie (1990). I don’t remember. I’ve only seen that film once over 20 years ago. I was more of a Secret of the Ooze guy. I digress. It was Rockwell’s performance as Tech Nerd/Draw Barrymore’s love interest Eric Knox that grabbed my attention.  Moreover, it was his shimmying and shuffling to Pharaoh Monche’s Simon Says after becoming a turncoat to the angels and dear old Drew which piqued my interest. It was suave villainy that was not only enjoyable for the outlandish movie it appeared in. It deserved to be in a better movie. The kind of movie moment which convinces an impressionable young mind to track this actor and see whatever film they might be in next.

The next notable performance for Rockwell was Welcome to Collingwood (2002) directed by Marvel stalwarts The Russo Brothers. A film which had desires to be Coen-like and ended up being mildly enjoyable yet wholly forgettable. Collingwood teamed Rockwell up with George Clooney who soon embarked on his directorial career with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, released in the same year. I was fortunate enough to catch both movies at the UCI cinema where I worked. At the time, the cinema had a weekly slot named “The Director’s Chair” in which films, both old and new, which were worlds apart from things like Charlie’s Angels, were allowed one showing for supposedly more discerning cineastes. Collingwood faded from my mind quicker than the running time of its end credits. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, however, bored me. Still perhaps Clooney’s most interesting directorial feature, the film solidified Rockwell as a preferred performer of mine. His freewheeling performance is still a notable turn in my cinema-going. The film itself I still consider one of my favourites.

The story of Confessions of Dangerous Mind is the semi-autobiographical, fully bat-crap crazy memoir of one Chuck Barris (Rockwell). Known to American audiences as the creator of The Dating Game (U.K folk, think Blind Date) and The Gong Show. Barris was a multi-faceted performer and producer who did everything from hosting the shows he produced to writing hit pop songs. What his cult autobiography reveals however is that he also led a double life as a C.I.A operative. Utilising his hit T.V show as cover, he moonlighted as a hitman for his country. So, he says.

David O Russell allegedly turned down the chance to direct Confessions saying that the film was “just not about anything but a guy who liked to fuck girls and say that he shot people in the head." It’s slightly amusing that Clooney, who had an altercation with O Russell on the set of Three Kings (1999) due to his treatment of cast and crew, clearly saw something within the story and picked it up as his debut feature. Clooney doesn’t do anything too radical in terms of insight. At the base level, Barris is a man who is struggling with his feelings of inferiority. However, Confessions of a Dangerous mind still stands out as Clooney's most playful movie since he moved into directing. It’s hard not to sense a feeling of mimicry when watching Confessions. There’s Coen-lite energy to things. Something that makes sense given Clooney’s then-recent collaborations. Yet Clooney’s indulgent decision to overload the movie with a flurry of visual flourishes is not just a sign of the first-time director revelling in the creative sandbox. Even now it still feels like the last time Clooney let loose behind the camera.

Confessions is less engaged with its directors’ political leanings, yet much like Clooney’s sophomore effort Good Night and Good Luck (2005), the film delves into a period when television rubbed up against communist ideals. Good Night and Good Luck stoically focuses on McCarthyism and press freedom.  Confessions toys with the idea that gains could be made in the cold war via the host of The Dating Game shooting agents in the face while acting as a chaperone for his unwitting contestants.  Both films utilise American TV as an instrument to either reflect or neglect the fear and paranoia the American people had with communism. Albeit Confessions stays broadly focused on Barris’ sexual and mental fragility, with the Cold War as a side dish

The Barris story's madness and what could be Clooney’s naivety behind the camera instead of in front of it allow the Ocean’s 11 star to deliver a film that is off the chain with visual “moments”. A Delightfully assured tracking shot has Barris touring the halls of NBC only to be the host of the same tour an instant later. Meanwhile briskly cold silhouettes situate the frosty European countries that the TV presenter must navigate to find his targets. When time allows Clooney slots, Rockwell, in front of mirrors to implicate the duplicity. That’s not when he’s having telephone calls meld into the same location or having C.I.A agents bleed artfully into swimming pools while sitting on diving boards.  A late sequence has Barris having a mental breakdown in front of an imagined slaughtered audience. A terrifying vision of a CIA hitman losing the plot? Or are we watching a deeply troubled producer seeing his brain-dead shows kill off the smarts of the audience? This is contrasted with an earlier scene in which a desperate Barris sits in a full auditorium glumly watching a movie while everyone around him is kissing. When Barris meets the free-spirited love interest Penny (An enjoyable Drew Barrymore), they’re seen necking in the theatre while everyone watches the movie intently. Seems that ol' Chuck never seems to fit in with the crowd. So why not envision them dead? It’s a moment which feels strangely apt for such a cracked mind. All this is delivered with a brightly lit retro colour palette and a wink to his usual collaborators. Blink and you’ll miss some friends of Clooney’s looking flummoxed on the dating game.

It's no surprise that it can all feel a bit much for some. Maybe a feeling of Clooney enjoying himself a copious amount. The film’s screenplay was written by Charlie Kauffman, the misanthropic creator of such gems as Synecdoche, New York (2008), and I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020). Two incredibly cynical mind benders. Kauffman has stated his frustration with the finished film, with talk of a drug addiction subplot excised from the final film. Confessions is all a bit too sprightly for the dark trappings that inhabit most of Kaufman’s work. The screenwriter highlighted that this was more of a script on order, which had lounged in development hell for years than anything else. Jumping from director to director before finally landing on Clooney’s lap. As accomplished as Kaufman’s creations usually are, this is far from his more sardonic imaginings. And considering the grimness which inhabited I’m Thinking of Ending Things, that’s perhaps for the best.

Weirdly enough, Confessions still has enough Kaufman DNA inhabiting it to remind you of the scribe. This is a film about a self-loathing white male talent, wracked with self-doubt despite his success. This of course runs through the likes of Adaptation (2002) and Synecdoche, New York (2008). Although what’s perhaps lacking in this over the likes of films such as Being John Malkovich (1999), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), and Anomalisa (2015) is the element of communication breakdown between the film’s lead and everyone around them. If anything, Chuck Barris is a superb communicator. With the likes of Dick Clark leading the famous parade of known talking heads informing us of Chuck’s brilliance. Barris perhaps has too keen an ear on what the people want. His shows are not only still being observed in similar ways today, but also seem to be the type of “low culture trash” that can draw in huge crowds. The Gong Show feels no different from the most popular element of X-Factor. Praying on normal people who seek attention, despite maybe not having the inherent media talent for true success.

“…To mock some poor, lonely people who just crave a little attention in their lives. To destroy them. So everybody’s not brilliantly talented. They’re still people. They deserve respect and compassion. I mean, who the hell are you? What the fuck have you ever done that elevates you above the pathetic masses? Oh, I forgot, you created “The Dating Game”. Wow, right up there with the Sistine Chapel.”  - Pretty Woman

This quote is perhaps the most stinging moment of the film. And perhaps one of the most crucial. A withering blow to the strutting male ego. A beautiful, unknown woman dissecting Barris for what he is. Suddenly no matter how often we frequent Barris’ more dangerous alternative life, this woman’s burning critique feels seared onto Barris like a branded cow.  This is a man who wished he was more than what he became. Even when at the point of success, he is haunted by what could be considered imposter syndrome. George Clooney is interested in the moment where media & politics collide. But that truly comes later. In Confessions, this is the filmmaker going down a road well-travelled. That of a mad male talent and his demons. Is Barris telling the truth? The answer perhaps lies in how much you feel about appealing to the lowest common denominator and when you’re called out on it.  The film ends with perhaps one of my favourite quotes as the actual Barris is sat down, much like the docu-style talking heads from earlier. The lighting is harsh and bright. Blasting out any wrinkle or detail. The final moments are as earnest as they are depressing. Barris’ last quote is as follows:

"I came up with a new game-show idea recently. It's called The Old Game. You got three old guys with loaded guns onstage. They look back at their lives, see who they were, what they accomplished, how close they came to realizing their dreams. The winner is the one who doesn't blow his brains out. He gets a refrigerator."

I think it tells us all we need to know.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is on various streaming platforms. I dug out an old DVD.

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