Well geez, it’s not too often you get this with a movie writer, but apparently this Charlie Kaufman guy can do no wrong. Between the brilliant BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and ADAPTATION and the underrated HUMAN NATURE and now this… I mean really, what more could you ask for from a writer? There is no other non-director writer working who has been so consistently inventive and surprising and at the same time so personal. In fact there are few who have ever worked who could be in this same category. These are all movies made by skilled directors but it is always the writer’s voice that comes through.
You hear that, motherfuckers, the WRITER.
This is Kaufman’s most straight forward and normal picture so far, but that’s not saying all that much. It’s adapted from Chuck Barris’ autobiographical novel, and the gimmick of course is that in the novel he claims to have been a CIA hitman while he was hosting the Gong Show, which seems pretty dubious. Also he talks about the genesis of The Gong Show, the Dating Game, the Newlywed Game, etc.
What surprised me about the movie is that Kaufman and director George Clooney (the guy from OUT OF SIGHT) adapt as if they take the novel completely at face value. It tells the story of his CIA intrigue completely deadpan, to the point that there are scenes where his murders come back to haunt him and he sees the audience of the Gong Show as a bunch of corpses. It is really a pretty serious biopic of this guy, but also faithful to the spirit of his works. There are funny gimmicks like a love montage set to a Gong Show contestant very badly singing an Elvis song. You’d think that would come across as a funny joke but to me it just worked as drama. The relationship in the montage is actually pretty sweet and given that it’s Chuck Barris it’s only fitting that it would be set to the tune of this bad singing.
It goes back and forth from gaudy, artificial game show sets to gloomy eastern european locations where he sneaks around in a fedora and trench coat and shoots people with a silenced revolver.
There are a few funny parts but really I didn’t see this as a comedy. It is not nearly as funny as Kaufman’s other pictures, but it is definitely as depressing. In fact the story opens with Barris standing naked in front of a tv in a hotel room, his hair and beard grown out John Walker Lindh style. Just standing there. When his girlfriend (the little girl from E.T.) tracks him to the hotel he has a brief, emotional conversation with her through the peephole and then tells her he has to go because he’s busy. Already Drew Barrymore’s hurt seems convincing enough that it’s more of a sad note than a funny one.
The theme of the movie is looking back on your life and seeing what you’ve accomplished. The way the movie Barris tells it, his goal in life was mainly looking for pussy, and now he regrets it. His work in television seems to be all about status. We don’t as much see his creation of something as we see his trying to take advantage of being the creator. We don’t see him writing a hit song but we see him bragging to Maggie Gyllenhall that he wrote it and then screwing her. His early career is about moving up through the ranks to impress the women. Hey look, I work at NBC. Hey look, I’m in management now. Hey look, I created a TV show.
I think this is a pretty insightful story because really, the young people today still think that way. If you created or hosted a tv show, you must be a success, right? Every week they unveil a new reality series where people (just like the contestants on Barris’ game shows) humiliate themselves – now a days not to win a refrigerator or a trip, but just to simply be on tv. They will eat ox testacles or backstab their friend or have sex with a stranger or take a lie detector test about their sexual preference or have a british guy tell them they have no talent or live in a house with Corey Feldman, and I’m sure they get paid for it but do you really think they would do it only for the money? I haven’t done the research on this myself but a friend told me that there is a neighborhood somewhere in L.A. with a large population of former reality tv show stars. People from The Real World or Survivor or what have you who go thinking that now that their face has been on tv they can get a job as an actor or a director. (He wants there to be a reality tv show about this neighborhood. We’ll see if it ever happens.)
Everybody tries to pawn whatever small fame they can find into whatever slightly larger fame they can possibly muster. If they had a web sight that became a fad they would try to turn it into a book or a tv show (hey, I’m not judging, I want a book too). Because if they have a book, they’re a success, right? I HAD A BOOK. Even if it ends up in the bargain bin and nobody wants it. Five years from now do you still really want to brag that you did Jump the Shark or Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon or you made up the dancing baby or you got laid on Elimidate or you starred in The Jeff Foxworthy Show? I HAD A TV SHOW. Even if it sucked, I had a TV show.
Seriously, think about it. Would you rather have your own tv show that is popular for a short period of time, and then is hated or forgotten… or would you rather work at a hardware store for your whole life? Is it worth it to be MC Hammer in the early ’90s, even if you then have to be MC Hammer in 2003? This is sort of the question the movie asks. In the movie Barris thinks TV is what it’s all about until he has actually created several very successful tv shows, and then is widely blamed for destroying television and american culture. There is one funny scene where a sexy woman at a party recognizes him as the host of the Gong Show. At first he thinks she’s seducing him, but she actually lures him into a scolding about his tv show.
What separates Chuck Barris from the others, according to this movie, is that he is aware of what he has done, and hates himself for it. I saw Clooney talking about the movie on Charlie Rose, and they compared Barris to Jerry Springer. Clooney thinks that Springer completely sold out, going from an idealistic democrat to a guy hosting a show where the lower classes pretend to have sex with stuffed animals and then yell at each other and pull each other’s hair. Barris’ show (which, for the record, I kind of liked) was much more playful, but he was painfully aware of the criticism that he was exploiting his contestants’ humilation or that he was lowering the bar for entertainment, and I don’t think he felt good about living his life just being Creator of the Gong Show.
Maybe that’s why he decided to claim that he was a CIA hitman, but in the movie it only serves as a parallel to his tv career. Again, working for the CIA is all about status for him. They try to serve him up some patriotic bullshit but he sees right through it. Still, he laughs at the idea of being a “secret agent” and takes the job. And like being creator of the Gong Show, it haunts him forever.
Maybe part of why it works is because these filmatists know what they’re talking about. Clooney himself must’ve faced this same internal dilemma a few years ago. Here he was a big success, a movie star, his name on the top of the marquee. He was playing an american icon, he was making millions of dollars, his movie made millions of dollars. And yet it was BATMAN & ROBIN, widely considered one of the worst movies of all time. Is it really worth being the star of BATMAN & ROBIN just to be a millionaire movie star? Well after that Clooney made a conscious decision to only do movies he really believed in, instead of ones that paid well or would be theoretically good for his career. So since then he’s made OUT OF SIGHT, OCEAN’S 11, SOLARIS, O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU, another one with the Coen brothers that doesn’t come out yet. And he produced FAR FROM HEAVEN and directed this. Not fuckin bad. And now he’s GEORGE FUCKIN CLOONEY, not Batman, not the guy from ER, not the creator of The Gong Show. He knew what to do.
As for Charlie Kaufman, this is very personal to him because he hates himself.
Some guy named Sam Rockwell plays Barris and he’s great. I guess he was the villain besides Crispin Glover in CHARLIE’S ANGELS, and I remember thinking he was bland in that. But as Barris he’s just spectacular, he does a great impression of the man’s hosting style and then carries those mannerisms wider into a full on portrait of his life. It’s as much of a transformation as Jim Carrey in MAN ON THE MOON but we have the advantage of not being familiar with Rockwell, so he just becomes Chuck Barris to the audience, not a guy imitating Chuck Barris.
Clooney is also very impressive as a first time director. Most actors turned directors have a hard time with the visuals, or aren’t very ambitious with them, or make very pedestrian use of the filmatic language. Even a pretty good one, like say Ed Harris’ POLLOCK, is going to be kind of more like a play, with good acting. Clooney surprises you though. His work with Steve Soderbergh has obviously rubbed off on him, judging from some tricky non-linear editing, some nice lighting, washed out colors and great uses of sound and lack of sound. But he also has a very clever and playful approach to transitions, lots of scenes where the camera closes in on one thing and comes out another or travels through time in one shot or goes around the corner while Barris is talking on the phone to reveal the office on the other end of the phone temporarily located inside Barris’ living room. Clooney said on Charlie Rose that he was fascinated with the game show sets like the one he played on as a kid which would fold down into the ground and transform into another set for another show later on in the afternoon. The transitions in this movie must be his visual equivalent of those sets.
I think this movie will do a couple things. First of all, it will give Chuck Barris some of the type of recognition that he has always wished for. Already many of the reviews are speaking more respectfully of his game shows or more often praising the ahead-of-his-time type cleverness of his fictionalized autobiography. I think this is sort of the ED WOOD effect. Before that movie came out, the director Ed Wood was constantly ridiculed. Because of those fuckers the Medved brothers, he became the official worst director of all time and people would sneer at his lack of talent.
The movie ED WOOD popularized the argument that his movies, while very bad on a technical level, were at least brave personal statements, especially in the case of GLEN OR GLENDA. Even now, you’re not going to have somebody doing an obvious autobiographical story about crossdressing that’s not going to camp it up. Ed Wood could not hide behind outlandish makeup and costumes. He could not sing “I Will Survive” or talk about how much loves Judy Garland or any of that shit. I’m not saying these drag queens today have it easy or that people don’t pick on them, but there are straight women all across america who just LOVE drag queens, they are so fun they love them. These are the women who adore PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT, HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, etc. These women would still think Ed Wood was a weirdo though because he was not about showing off. He just wanted to come home from work and have a beer and if he was more comfortable doing that in a dress, blond wig and angora sweater then what the fuck business was that of yours? He wanted people to understand that and he made a movie about it and it also had Bela Lugosi in it playing some kind of weird God/voodoo witch doctor.
I mean seriously, if somebody did that today they would be ridiculed but imagine the balls it took to do it in the ’50s, and cast himself in the lead! It’s incredible. ED WOOD the movie put those bad movies in an emotional context that was so appealing that many people have allowed the fiction to overcome the reality and now actually respect Mr. Wood and his movies on a number of levels that maybe he doesn’t even deserve to be respected on. But good for him. And this same thing seems to already be happening to Mr. Barris. Suddenly he is an innovator and a provacateur and has the soul of a poet. He’s not just the creator of the Gong Show, he’s the game show host who claimed he killed 32 people.
Also the movie treats the CIA story so seriously that I think alot more people will believe it now than before, or at least be confused by it, which is always a good thing.
yep it’s a good one
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.