Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, actor George Clooney’s directorial debut, tells the ostensibly truthful but highly fanciful story of TV producer Chuck Barris, creator of some of the stupidest and most profitable game shows ever. It is not a pretty picture. Much of the film, especially the first half, depicts Barris’s joyless pursuit of sexual gratification, money, and power. In television, he finds a means to this end, making a fortune producing programs such as The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and The Gong Show.
Barris’s earliest hit shows, such as the first two named here, satirized 1960s America’s materialism, superficiality, and sensualism by exemplifying and exploiting them, a classic (and classically American) case of having it both ways. The Dating Game did so by turning the process of courtship — which should have a certain amount of dignity to it, after all, in being intended to result in the sacrament of marriage — into a public contest and a vehicle for cheap, vulgar humor. The Newlywed Game showed the nation’s declining respect for the institution of marriage, by, as Barris notes in the film, demonstrating that people will even sell out their own spouses to get on television. The prizes — great symbols of modern American domesticity such as refrigerators and washer-dryers — only confirmed the superficiality and vapidity of the contestants.
The Gong Show, produced several years later, took that idea to its logical extreme, demonstrating that people would do nearly anything whatever to be seen on national TV. Talentless fools sang, danced, or told bad jokes while under the perpetual threat that their chance at fame would be ended by one of the celebrity judges banging a gong to indicate the performer’s failure. The acts were supposedly so bad as to be funny, but the show clearly projected contempt for its audience by suggesting, correctly, that people would watch just about anything.
The public that stared at these programs may well have had complex motives: merely to pass some time, in many cases, but also the voyeuristic impulse of watching other people destroy themselves or demonstrate their degraded condition. One can imagine that a small part of the audience watched in fascinated horror, understanding exactly how sad and deluded the contestants had to be (such of them as were not obviously aspiring actors merely making an extra buck, a matter of different but perhaps equal hideousness). These sophisticated viewers, however, would surely assimilate all that such a show had to say within a few minutes, and would have no reason to watch again. Hence, the regular audience had to be as deluded and morally base as the contestants — more so, in a way, given that the TV viewers were not in line to win refrigerators.
Meanwhile, as the film recounts it, Barris had become a paid assassin for the CIA. Recruited as a “consultant” by a shadowy character played by George Clooney, Barris uses the vacations given as prizes to contestants on The Dating Game as cover for trips to foreign countries where he is to assassinate various unseemly characters. TV and death thus become natural partners. Late in the film, it becomes clear that Barris understands this, as he fantasizes a studio full of Gong Show audience members as corpses he has murdered. As a killer, Barris does his part in the fight against Soviet communism, but one is given to wonder toward what purpose. For the degraded, materialistic carnival of selfishness that his TV shows suggest America to be?
Well, yes and no. His work is in America’s interests, but the real reason he kills is simply that he likes to. In fact, he has to, as Clooney’s character explains to him late in the film. Barris’s biological father was a serial killer with whom his mother had an affair, suggesting (implausibly) that murder is in his genetic makeup. In addition, Barris shared his mother’s womb with a female twin, but his umbilical cord strangled her to death before birth — his first “hit,” as his CIA overseer puts it. Barris’s mother had wanted a daughter badly, so for the first few years of his life she dressed him as a girl.
That is standard Freudian nonsense, of course, however traumatic it would have actually been for the boy if true; and the situation is worsened by his mother’s habit of wearing black funeral clothes on his birthday. It is no wonder, then, that sex, death, love, and aggression have all become hopelessly mixed up in the protagonist’s mind. That mixture, one perceives, is what is supposed to make his mind such a dangerous one. Love has been ruined for him, indeed made impossible. And that is simply a hopeless situation for any human being.
Without love, there can be no real success, no real happiness, as Barris’s romantic travails and the generally bleak atmosphere of the film are clearly meant to demonstrate. Wordly success, moreover, is a fickle mistress. Soon the kind of smirky anti-entertainment in which Barris specialized was no longer either new or interesting, and his shows were all canceled.
Only after Barris loses his ABC television contract and writes his memoirs — explicitly characterized as an act of confession — is he able to marry the woman with whom he has lived for many years, and on whom he cheated repeatedly. After the wedding ceremony, there is an additional act of confession, as he divulges to his bride that he has been an assassin. She laughs and does not believe him, just as the audience is not expected to accept his alleged life story as true. But the honesty of his confession, the film suggests, is sufficient to enable him to take the sacrament of marriage. The couple’s laughter at his confession, however, is sardonic, not joyous. There is no certainty that he has even now really found what he needs.
A quotation from Nietzsche late in the film suggests that Barris and the filmmakers understand the real story here. Barris is a Superman, but not by way of any personal quality that makes him great. On the contrary, he is a Superman because of his utter lack of morality. In a state of nature, the crafty but short and weak Barris would be quickly destroyed. But in modern Western civilization, his immorality brings him greatness — of a kind and for a time — because his willingness to ignore the rules that constrain others gives him an advantage over everybody else. Thus he truly lives out the transvaluation of all values of which Nietzsche wrote, the logical outcome of a forthright denial of God.
At one point in the film, in fact, Barris refers to God as his “hero,” but he is only joking. It seems, however, a rather wistful joke, as it should be. For without God and without values, nothing has meaning. This is made explicit at the end of the narrative, when the real-life Chuck Barris appears on screen to tell of his idea for a television show in which three old men, each of whom has a loaded gun, sit around and talk about their lives. The winner is the one who doesn’t shoot himself. He receives a refrigerator.
Clearly, Barris has finally realized that his existence has had no real meaning. He has lived for nothing but his own pleasures, and has never found happiness. A more thorough refutation of utilitarianism and the pleasure principle is hard to imagine.
Thus there is something redemptive to be found in this confession, even if one takes Barris’s chronicle with a large amount of salt. But a person who can see the truth behind the events of this story does not need a movie to tell him that All Is Vanity, and those who do not already have this wisdom are ill-equipped to see the film as anything more than an unaccountably depressing shaggy-dog tale. Ultimately, then, although it provides a vivid portrait of what Samuel Johnson aptly called the vanity of human wishes, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is, as were the life and works on which is ostensibly based, utterly unnecessary.