For Whom the Gong Tolls

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind offers entertaining penance.

click to enlarge STRANGE BEDFELLOW: Sam Rockwell plays - eccentric game show host and purported CIA agent - Chuck Barris, and Drew Barrymore portrays his - girlfriend in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. - TAKASHI SEIDA
TAKASHI SEIDA
STRANGE BEDFELLOW: Sam Rockwell plays eccentric game show host and purported CIA agent Chuck Barris, and Drew Barrymore portrays his girlfriend in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

There are those who'd like to hold Chuck Barris single-handedly responsible for the Decline of Western Civilization. That's a stretch, of course, but maybe not by as much as you'd think. There's certainly lots to be said for the argument that Barris-produced TV oddities like The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game demonstrated that he was an active cheerleader in the demise of the whole notion of what used to be fondly referred to as Quality Programming. Without Barris' supreme (and supremely tacky) achievement, The Gong Show, there'd be no Jackass, no Jerry Springer, no Osbournes, no Anna Nicole, no Anti-Television as we know it.

By publicly blurring the lines between "good" and "bad" entertainment, and by diminishing the value of value itself, the Gong Show producer/ host unwittingly became one of the boob tube's first bona fide postmodernists. How fitting then, that Barris' life story now finds a place on the big screen courtesy of a screenplay by none other than cinema's reigning pomo boundary-smasher, Adaptation/Being John Malkovich idea-man, Charlie Kaufman.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is based on Barris' 1982 "unauthorized autobiography," but the book is only a jumping-off place for what is essentially a feature-length fever dream. The movie diverges at will from Barris and splits apart his already fractured reality in much the same way that Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief became a mere conversation starter for the long, eloquent rant that is Adaptation. Kaufman's fingerprints are all over Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, a movie as personal, edgy and just plain odd as anything we've seen from this writer. It's a strange little film that manages to operate simultaneously on several different levels, directed in an understated but surprisingly sure-footed style by hunk-turned auteur George Clooney.

Clooney's film unfolds as a loopy, extended flashback, a peek inside the aggressive but weirdly fragile personality of genius-cum- village-idiot Barris (a hound dog-mugged, superlatively rumpled Sam Rockwell). On the surface, the movie might sound a bit like the evil twin (or at least a more beautifully twisted counterpart) of A Beautiful Mind, but there's much more going on here than that.

Any movie about Chuck Barris is also going to be about the process by which pop came to eat itself, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is certainly that. And any movie written by Charlie Kaufman (so far, anyway) is going to be more concerned with what lies beneath, behind and to the sides of the picture than with the picture itself. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is that too. There's an actual life story skittering about somewhere within the decidedly nonlinear narrative of Clooney's movie, but this darkly comic vision is far closer to meta-fiction than it is to anything remotely resembling a standard bio-pic.

So we get Barris, bearded, wild-eyed and utterly consumed with paranoia, boarded up in a seedy hotel room waiting for the end but forced to cast his thoughts back to the beginnings of his so-called career. In typically atypical Kaufman fashion, the movie begins in the middle, then snakes back on itself, following the progress of our cynical, dopey, deeply neurotic huckster-hero as he works his way up the food chain of network television. Drew Barrymore provides an appealingly kooky diversion along the way (as Barris' bubble-brained sometimes-girlfriend), but the movie really finds its cruising altitude when it seizes upon one of the more outrageous tidbits in Barris' book and runs with it.

It's impossible to tell how seriously we're supposed to take the claim that Barris, in between his duties as a TV game show maven, served as a hired assassin for the CIA, but it sure makes for one fascinating and funny side trip. The film teases us with the possibility that the ludicrous suggestion might actually be true, occasionally going so far as to cast itself as a gonzo espionage thriller, complete with elaborately orchestrated hits in exotic locations and Julia Roberts doing a first class impersonation of a femme fatale.

Beyond all that, of course, is the more credible possibility that the notion of a nerdy little TV producer blowing off steam by killing people is just one more figment of a deranged mind. And beyond that hallucination is Kaufman's sneaky, meaty little metaphor equating murder with the manufacture of pop culture crap.

The film flits back and forth between all of these possibilities in a fashion as scattered and gleefully random as the processes of Barris' own brain. Clooney's style is sometimes a bit dry (one wonders what a wild man like Terry Gilliam would have made of this material), but the film rarely fails to engage us, builds to a convincingly crackpot crescendo and, generally, manages to make all the right moves. The best bits in this material exist between the lines, and that's where Clooney allows us to find them.

You might say Barris wasn't so much encouraging the death of Culture as We Know It as he was drawing attention to an already rotten core — anyone remember Queen For a Day? — but in the end, Kaufman and Clooney aren't telling. Much like Hustler's self-styled martyr Larry Flynt, the Chuck Barris of Confessions comes off as a visionary by accident, a misanthrope channeling his anti-social impulses into his "art," a crusader opening doors mainly as a way of lowering bars. Ultimately we don't know anything for sure, but the movie's good enough that we barely notice.

Sarasota Film FestThere's something for just about everybody at this year's Sarasota Film Festival. From Jan. 24 to Feb. 2, the fifth annual Sarasota Film Festival will present a dizzying array of artsy independent films, mainstream crowd-pleasers, exotic foreign fare, children's programming, filmmaker's forums and seminars, and more parties than you can shake a socialite at.

The mix may not sound all that different from other film festivals, but the scope and extremity of it is. There are 65 features and dozens of short films being presented this year, with beloved Hollywood classics standing comfortably cheek to jowl with all manner of exotica. West Side Story (Jan. 30, 6 p.m.) holds hands with such extremist fare as brilliant Canadian surrealist Guy Maddin's film of the Royal Winnipeg's ballet Dracula: A Virgin's Diary (Jan. 29, 8:45; Feb. 1, 6:30). The Wizard of Oz (Jan. 25, 2 p.m.) is a prelude to Gigantic, a skewed doc on musical iconoclasts They Might Be Giants (Jan. 30, 6:15; Feb. 1, 1:15).

Among the highlights of this year's fest (besides the Maddin film, which I'm recommending sight unseen) are Karmen Gei (Jan. 26, 6:30; Jan. 30, 4:15) and Together (Jan. 29, 5:30; Jan. 30, 1:30). The former is an exhilarating adaptation of Bizet's Carmen from Senegal, bursting with sound, color, imagination and ripe sensuality. The latter is a slice of life taking place in a commune outside of Stockholm in the mid-1970s, and just about as finely drawn a portrait of the failed Hippie Dream as you'll find on screen.

Together is that rare movie where all the characters are so thoroughly human that we find ourselves inexplicably rooting for absolutely everyone, including those characters we might normally find flat-out unlikable.

Perhaps the best film at the festival, but also the most problematic, is Divine Intervention (Jan. 28, 4 p.m.; Jan. 29, 6:30), a film that I saw at this year's Toronto Film Festival and can't stop thinking about. Divine Intervention depicts life in a run-down neighborhood in the Palestinian West Bank, and it unfolds as a series of absurd, largely wordless vignettes in which everybody is both ridiculous and childlike. The film is full of sly, droll humor that often recalls the silent comedies of Buster Keaton by way of Jim Jarmusch, but the movie's politics eventually become too heavy-handed and, frankly, mean-spirited. Ultimately, Divine Intervention is an infuriating mix of brilliant filmmaking and disingenuous propaganda.

Lots of lavish parties are on the schedule, as well as seminars on all the usual subjects (Florida filmmaking, marketing your film, digital technologies, etc.), but the most exciting event looks to be the one planned for Saturday, Jan. 25. That's when Elmer Bernstein will be on hand to conduct the Florida West Coast Symphony performing a medley of his greatest hits, from The Magnificent Seven to Far From Heaven (which also plays at the festival, and whose director, Todd Haynes, will also be around).

Other notable film screenings include Benoit Jacquot's sumptuous Tosca, the Indian romantic comedy Bollywood/ Hollywood and the Sigourney Weaver 9/11-themed The Guys (which was still not officially booked at press time but will probably show up anyway). I promised the festival programmers I wouldn't say too much about Nicolas Cage's directorial debut Sonny (insert sly cough here), so the less said the better.

There's far too much else to even begin listing here, so let's just refer you to the festival's website, which contains pretty much everything you need to know, at www.sararsotafilmfest.com. For those inclined toward talking to a real human being, call 941-364-9514. Ticket prices are a reasonable $7 (more for special events, much more for the high-end parties), and screenings take place at the Regal Hollywood 20 and Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in lovely downtown Sarasota.

Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.

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