Confessions of a Dangerous Mind


There can hardly be anything more tiresome than someone bragging in the media about having worked for the intelligence services. The rule for this murky area is: those who know don't say, and those who say don't know - or if they do know, they invariably have some hidden motive, or psychopathic predisposition for making stuff up.

Chuck Barris, the television producer responsible for American trash classics in the 1960s and the 1970s like The Gong Show and The Dating Game - the hallowed predecessor of our very own Blind Date - has claimed that he was also an undercover operative for the CIA, carrying out over 30 assassinations, or "wet jobs". How did he do this? Well, it seems he did them while chaperoning his "dates" on their weekends abroad. (Gosh. Imagine Graham Skidmore from Blind Date topping Basque separatists while Kerry and Phil go jet-skiing in Majorca. Or how about Cilla in a false beard, pulling the plug on some al-Qaida operatives while Barry and Bronwyn are off checking out the Pyramids.)

Barris claims that the Agency kept him on with important missions despite the fact that he was becoming a household name from appearing in front of the camera. Sound convincing? The CIA scornfully denies his bragging, just as it poured scorn on the claims of Miles Copeland, father of pop star Stewart Copeland, who also immodestly trumpeted his supposed work for the Agency. Ah but then, in the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies, they would, wouldn't they?

The achievement of this sprightly and entertaining picture about Barris's unedifying life is that it absolutely skewers his fatuous and preposterous claims. Actor George Clooney here makes his directorial debut, working from a very smart script by Charlie Kaufman, and together they make Barris's mind look not dangerous, and certainly not "beautiful" like Russell Crowe's gibbering mathematician John Nash. He's a deeply delusional and creepy man, whose fantasies about covert killing transparently exist to rationalise failure: to pump up his ego and machismo which were deflated after he was washed up in TV, and his boorish intellectual pretensions, shattered when he became reviled for dumbing America down. Add to this a splash of alcoholism, a dash of paranoia and a dose of misogyny, and you have a pretty nasty piece of work.

But there's something else there, too. Not charm, exactly, but a kind of cheerily manic persuasiveness, perfect for the new breed of TV impresario, and Sam Rockwell plays Barris with tremendous gusto. He starts out as the nerd whose dates won't put out and whose frustration gets him into bar fights, where he is always the loser. It's after one of these that he gets recruited by the mysterious Jim Byrd, played by George Clooney himself, wearing a false moustache, and Barris is inveigled into "problem solving" work for Uncle Sam in Mexico. At least that's how he remembers it.

His career in television takes off when The Dating Game transfers from daytime to primetime Saturday nights, and here Clooney indulges himself with cameos from his A-list buddies playing two of the bachelors getting picked: Matt Damon and Brad Pitt. But as with Paul Schrader's movie Auto Focus, the loving reconstructions of classic old American TV shows might not mean a whole lot to British audiences. There's a real-life interview with Dick Clark of the wildly popular music show American Bandstand, a programme Barris produced. Sadly, moviegoers here are more likely to remember Dick Clark as the heartless oppressor of the underclass interviewed by Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine.

Barris begins his career as a page, conducting tours of rubbernecking tourists around the studio lobby in the 1950s and this is where the film's look reminded me very much of Richard Benjamin's funny and underrated My Favorite Year, a glowingly nostalgic look at Sid Caesar's TV variety classic Your Show of Shows. But it's also very like Robert Redford's Quiz Show, a film about the cynicism and mendacity that was infecting smallscreen entertainment - two things on which Barris was to found both his TV career and delirious CIA claims.

Success brings Barris what he longs for: women. His steady girl is Penny (Drew Barrymore), who has a penchant for Jewish men. She says Barris looks like an Ashkenazi Jew, which she unfortunately pronounces "Ashke-nazi". But Barris is supposedly cheating on her with Patricia, a beautiful and duplicitous spy played by Julia Roberts. After secreting a vitally important microfilm in the traditional orifice, Barris finds that the kinky Patricia wants sex: "Leave that microfilm where it is, baby!" Barris is to gain his revenge on her, and all women, with a secret phial of poison.

So what does it all add up to? The movie never actually makes it explicit that he is mad or lying, and that may for some make it just a little bit too lenient. But it is clear enough, and Barris's tacky fantasies are a symptom of the guilt and self-loathing among the mandarins of the mass entertainment revolution. Did poor, excitable Mr Barris once help out some government agency? Was he persuaded that his endeavours were instrumental, at some remove, in taking someone out? Who knows? A comic on The Gong Show asks: "What's the difference between toilet paper and shower curtains?" He points to the furious Barris: "He is!" This gag is surely the nearest the slimy, bedraggled Barris got to a wet job.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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