JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Images from Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

Dick Clark talking about Chuck Barris the man and the entertainer.

Barris inspired by televisions upon seeing the medium in a storefront window.

Barris's face integrated into the NBC logo, which is Clooney's commentary on Barris as myth and the industrial model of American broadcast television.

Barris goes to New York and sees how tv works up close and personal as a tourist at NBC studios in New York.

Barris shifts from a tourist to a tour guide and tries to convince other tourists that he has been instrumental in NBC's fortunes as a network.

Barris behind the scenes working on Dick Clark's American Bandstand experiencing producing for television firsthand.

Barris's pitches his idea for a new game show to network executives.

ABC passes on his show The Dating Game in favor of a country/hillbilly program, Hootenanny.

Jaye P. Morgan speaks out against Barris and his influence on the mass commercialization and crassness of U.S. television.

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Barris directing the pilot for his game show, or what he calls his "baby."

Network reacts negatively to the spontaneity and lewd nature of Barris's pilot for The Dating Game.

Government agent threatens contestants of The Dating Game promising to carry them to prison if there are any lewd comments, gestures, or thoughts enacted as filming occurs.

Barris watches a mock execution in training to become an assassin.

In training to be a killer he gets the inspiration for his next game show idea The Newlywed Game, which he sketches out as a cartoon.

Barris as a killer in Eastern Europe in the 1960s.

 

 

Confessions of A Dangerous Mind
and Good Night and Good Luck

George Clooney on U.S.
television, history, and politics

by Brian Faucette

Scholars and film critics struggle to recount the complicated and often bleak tale of the effects of consumerism and über-capitalism on U.S. film and television industries. For them television and film seem two separate institutions that operate in different ways, and for separate purposes. However, actor/ director George Clooney’s two films Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night and Good Luck paint a more complex picture of the industries. In fact, these films reveal how the ideologies of corporate capitalism, entertainment, and politics work together to create the nation and its people’s identity through television. In essence, Clooney’s films operate to deconstruct two myths: (1) that of the film and television industry as being nothing more than the locus for U.S. entertainment and (2) that the people involved in the industry are thinking about the welfare of the public.

Clooney’s films Confessions of A Dangerous Mind (2002) and Good Night and Good Luck (2005) continue a tradition within cinema of attempting to lay bare the harsh economic and social realities of television while reflecting postmodern ideas and values. This tradition began in the golden age of television with such films as King of New York (1957) and A Face in the Crowd (1957), two films that depict and critique the effects of corporate capitalism on the medium of television. In current times, Clooney's work still uses the elements of cinematic expression (mise-en-scene, lighting, film stock, and staging) as well as a thematic approach to comment on and critique the nature of broadcast television, Hollywood filmmaking and U.S. politics. Clooney’s films can be identified as “TV-centric films,” a term that film scholar Thomas Doherty[1][open endnotes in new window] coined to discuss the wave of films made in the late 1990s that dealt with the medium of television such as The Truman Show, EdTv, Pleasantville, and Quiz Show. In each of these films the central focus of the narrative is the television industry's politics and economics that shape the types of programming made for it. In each of the examples I have cited there is a critique based on an explicit fear that television’s potential to inform and educate has been undermined by the demands of corporate sponsors and networks.

These same fears shape Clooney’s scripts. In these two films he uses the two of the primary TV genres, the game show and the news, to comment on how corporate needs taint TV's democratic possibilities. In addition, Clooney illustrates how U.S. television in its quest for ratings and advertising dollars also creates onscreen personalities who seem to transcend the medium, but only if these personalities satisfy the wishes of corporate capital. Clooney thus portrays Chuck Barris and Edward R. Murrow as examples of televisual figures who could both satisfy the wishes of corporate capitalism and rise above the medium.

The films depict these two men as myths. Clooney relies on various kinds of sources, namely historical records such as documents, memoirs, letters, and the shows that the men were involved with and also representations of Murrow and Barris constructed by society’s popular cultural memory. I use the term myth to describe Clooney's form of characterization both to indicate that he stands at some distance from those mythic figures but also to indicate that he appreciates the power of the media to make people into myth.

Roland Barthes first used the concept of the myth to theorize how language systems operate. For him myth was a type of speech and more importantly

“it [myth] is a system of communication… a message.”[2]

What Barthes recognized is that all forms of communication create myth — including film, photographs, print advertisements and even money, thereby formulating a new project, post-structuralism. This shift in thinking allows us to analyze popular culture and how it functions to create meanings for people while also demonstrating that all forms of discourse, whether verbal or visual, are inherently linked to language. Language itself becomes complicated by this awareness. Several decades later from Barthes, an additional critical lens of post-structuralism enables an analysis of Clooney’s films to see how they deconstruct U.S. grand historical narratives, and in particular, the ironies of a television system as practiced by commercial enterprises.

These films reinterpret two areas of U.S. history and their impact on current political history. First, Clooney argues that the politics of the 1950s, a period in which U.S. broadcast television was born alongside the “Cold War,” has been responsible for creating a society supported by consumer spending. In turn, consumer spending moves the public’s attention away from larger issues such as media consolidation or the erosion of personal freedoms. Clooney indicates that "history" is not based on a sacred paradigm and, furthermore, that "history" is indeed more complex than what might be taught or read. Cinema becomes a force that can retell history, but it is ever more difficult to locate a "true" history.[3] In some ways, these two films echo Jean Baudrillard's claim that

“history is our lost referential, that is to say our myth. It is by virtue of this fact that it takes the place of myths on screen.”[4]

The second aspect of U.S. history that Clooney both challenges and uses to draw audiences in is personal history. He reveals how the stories of men like Barris and Murrow, as well as the average person’s stories can be transformed into history. Individuals' reactions to historical events can become part of “grand” and localized stories. In short it is the nature of the personal stories and how they connect to history that allows for these "localized narratives" to become part of a larger narrative, that of the United States or, more narrowly, its television industry.

Clooney uses large scale histories entwined with the personal stories of Barris and Murrow for two purposes. The first allows the viewer a vicarious experience of engaging in major moments of U.S. history. The second makes use of history to enhance the story's realism for the viewer. Together these two strategies entertain the viewer and simultaneously allow Clooney to comment on the harmful nature of corporate capital and free enterprise. Thus Clooney entertains and educates through a mass entertainment medium, fiction film, while taking up the theme of another medium, television.

Is it plausible to conceive of Clooney’s films as projects to re-educate their audiences by retelling U.S. history so that it criticizes the ideas and practices of the “free market” and “democracy”? Or are these films trying to account for the current low status of broadcast television or for the United States’ declining reputation in global affairs? An analysis of his first film will help to answer these questions.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

The film is based on Barris’ own memoir and so it deals with Barris’ purported claims to work as a secret assassin for the Central Intelligence Agency (a claim which has never been proven) and to be one of the few men responsible for changing the ways in which U.S. television operates and reaches audiences. Barris (played by Sam Rockwell) is shown in flashbacks and flashforwards as a man who possesses ideas and ingenuity but just never seems to get the breaks. He first becomes fascinated with television after leaving his first wife in Philadelphia in the 1950s. By the mid 1950s he works as an NBC page, then later as a member of the American Bandstand staff. While at Bandstand, he writes a pop tune about checking out girls and spending time at an amusement park entitled “Palisades Park.”

In the 1960s he convinces ABC executives to let him produce a pilot for his game show The Dating Game, which they do not air. Despondent, Barris begins to drink. One afternoon as he is drinking and getting into a bar fight, he meets Bert, (played by George Clooney) a C.I.A. agent who convinces Barris that if the entertainer will become a government killer then the agent will ensure that Barris becomes a TV success. However, Barris can never forget about television and his schemes even as he is supposed to be learning how to kill for the government. As he trains to become an assassin alongside the likes of Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby, Barris is still man who is unsure of himself and his own actions. This changes when he watches their instructor teach the men how to use electricity to interrogate prisoners. While watching the simulated torture of a mannequin, Barris wonders to himself whether this action might be similar to being newly married. This brutal exercise inspires him to come up with the format of his new show: The Newlywed Game. He finishes training and then he is sent off to perform his first kill for the government. When he returns to Penny, he discovers that one of the network bosses has called about his show, and Barris chooses the show over Penny. The rest of the film depicts his constant struggle with his roles as a TV producer and as a hitman and how these two jobs affect his personal life, U.S. history, and his status as an element of U.S. popular culture.

Confessions was released in December 2002 in order to make it eligible for the awards season. The film captured multiple awards for its screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Broadcast Film Critics Association, and National Board of Review). Actor Sam Rockwell (Chuck Barris) won a Silver Bear for best actor at the 2003 Berlin International Film Festival and George Clooney was also nominated for a Golden Bear but did not win. Clooney did, however, win the Chicago Film Critics Association Award for Most Promising Director in 2003.[5] His abilities as a director and the artistic impact of his first film may not have made the film a blockbuster hit, but the awards and nominations reveal that his skills as a director and the film were definitely garnering critical attention and praise. (The same level of critical attention and praise would be afforded Clooney again in 2005.) David Hunter of The Hollywood Reporter praised Confessions of a Dangerous Mind as “one of the most auspicious directing debuts by an actor since Charles Laughton’s unforgettable Night of the Hunter.”[6] Peter Travers also complimented Clooney, writing,

“Unlike some other actors turned directors, Clooney doesn’t take the easy way with his turn behind the camera. No intimate character piece like what Denzel Washington pulls off with Antwone Fisher and Nicholas Cage botches with Sonny.”[7]

The fact that Clooney’s first film was received with such high praise demonstrates how he made the transition from TV's limiting prospects to cinema's more expansive potential. Furthermore, Roger Ebert recognizes why Clooney would choose to direct a film like this one:

"That this would be the first project to attract George Clooney as a director is not surprising if you know that his father directed game shows and [young George] was often a backstage observer. That Clooney would direct it so well is a little surprising, and is part of the re-education by which we stop thinking of Clooney as a TV hunk and realize he is smart and curious.”[8]

Clooney highlights his curiosity and intelligence as he tells Barris’ life story while also exposing the hypocrisies within U.S. broadcast television programming (especially in game shows). In order to achieve this, Clooney embraces the playful spirit of Barris’ psychosis and the sheer pleasure of the game show. Travers echoes this point in his review of the film, when he asks,

“How does George Clooney handle his first job as a director? He makes a game of it. Smart move, since Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is more a game than a movie…”[9]

In other words, Clooney makes the film resemble a game show in its direction and theme.

The game show format has been a staple of U.S. television since the inception of broadcast television and its influence on this film is without question. John Fiske notes that there has been something like “over 300 different quiz and game shows, the majority in the daytime, or at least outside prime time.”[10] Furthermore, Fiske argues, the game show has been a major TV genre because of TV's connection to radio, and before that to party and community activities.[11] The game show acts as a field because, as Fiske argues,

“quiz shows use knowledge…to separate out winners from losers and to ground the classification in individual or natural differences.”[12]

While Fiske is dealing with the quiz show, his ideas are applicable to game shows such as those created by Barris (The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show). While these shows may not require the individuals to demonstrate any knowledge or talent, they still position the contestants as "winners" or "losers." Therefore, these shows act as a precursor to the current fascination with reality television because, like reality television, these shows rely on non-professionals and their supposed candid moments. Within this genre of television Barris would succeed. According to some of his critics, however, this was far from a positive development. Clooney makes this point clear when a reporter in the film proclaims,

“ … [Barris] represents more than just the decline of American television. … Chuck Barris will do more harm to our society than we seem to realize.”

The reporter’s statement in the film demonstrates that Barris is himself a type of myth, or three myths: Chuck Barris the man, Chuck Barris the supposed C.I.A. hitman, and Chuck Barris the genius producer of U.S. television. The three identities have a certain degree of slippage between them, which Kaufman’s script revels in and Barris’ autobiography perpetuates. Clooney’s reliance on hyper-stylistic choices encapsulates Barris' mythic qualities. One example occurs when Barris is shown in a bar fight and then he is tossed out into the street. There is a cut, and in the background we see a store front window with televisions in it. The image, with a silvery glow of the television picture on Barris’ face, is accompanied by Barris' voice over as he says,

“I had heard that television was an industry of the future. So I picked up and moved from Philly to Manhattan.”

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