The wise man's folly is anatomized
Even by the squandering glances of the fool.
Invest me in my motley; give me leave
To speak my mind, and I will through and through
Cleanse the foul body of the infected world,
If they will patiently receive my medicine.
Shakespeare, "As You Like It"
George Clooney’s Confessions of A Dangerous Mind is a film about failure, humiliation paranoia, betrayal and murder. Naturally it’s a comedy. Based on Chuck Barris’ 1982 fictionalized memoir of the same name, the hero of Clooney’s movie is a self-styled Average Joe named Chuck Barris. Chuck leads a most peculiar double life. In public he is the lowbrow “game show king”, a salacious champion of all that is tasteless and tacky in American pop culture. Secretly, he is a CIA agent, working undercover to rid America of her nefarious enemies in the sinister world of international espionage. Killing for the CIA is as much a part of his life as fixing an car engine on a summer afternoon or sharing a beer with his buddies, a matter-of-fact occupation as important for the far-flung locales he gets to visit as for the work he does for his country.
Much of the humor of both the book and the film comes from Chuck’s ho-hum attitude toward his spy work. Barris tells us one whopper after another as if recounting what he ate for lunch the day before, presenting himself as an earthy, occasionally nebbish, fun-loving guy out for laughs, money, and as many women as possible. Barris has no agenda to spiff up his image, rarely letting a page go by without offering up some self-abasing nugget. These range from the merely vulgar-- his favorite epithet is “Shit! Piss! Fuck!”-- to the truly stomach-turning-- complaining “I must have spent $20,000 on abortions for that girl”. His anecdotes ooze with the native sleaze of the stereotypical television producer, and Clooney allows his Chuck the same fearless, almost childlike lewdness.
Eventually, as they usually will, things start going wrong. Chuck’s TV work inspires legions of critics to lash out at his lowbrow brand of entertainment. If that weren’t worrisome enough, after many years of contract killings for “the company” Barris discovers that a double agent, the Mole, has targeted him for death. And, as all this is going on, Chuck’s ceaseless philandering might finally cost him the love of Penny Pacino, played in the film by Drew Barrymore in a performance suffused with her usual sunshiny charm. To solve the third crisis, Chuck first rids himself of the first two; Chuck’s tale traces his slow movement away from the trappings of Hollywood toward Penny’s irrepressible good-heartedness, and both the book and the movie end with their marriage. To reach the altar, Chuck disposes of the Mole, Patricia Watson, and leaves the CIA shortly after getting out of show business. Exile and oblivion await Chuck at the dawn of the Eighties, but at last he has found his salvation in Penny Pacino.
His redemption in a book called “Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind: An Unauthorized Autoiography”. Far from the lurid Hollywood confessional the name of the author would seem to indicate, Chuck’s confessions are modeled after an older paradigm. Through the tabloid procession of fun-loving lust and vitriol there emerges, now and then, the debasement and self-loathing of one of Dostoevsky’s ink-stained wretches, and even some of the disturbing honesty of Rousseau. Going back even further, Barris’ narrative has something in common with the “Confessions” of Saint Augustine, the model of all Christian confessions to follow. For at bottom Barris’ autobiography is a spiritual autobiography, if heavily tinged with pop culture and a peculiarly crude form of existentialism (‘Go tell God. If you can find the fuck’). The Christian confession dramatizes the internal struggle for redemption and salvation, a dynamic which Barris follows, with no small degree of crudeness and self-deprecation, to reach a specific end:
The book would hopefully act as a catharsis, exorcising from my mind and body the agonizing frustration, anger, and bitterness that had been brewing there for too long a time. Perhaps, upon completing “Confessions”, I would understand why some of my peers had been nailing me with such fury to the cross for trying to make people laugh...
Kaufman picked up on the Christian theme. At one point Chuck speaks to Gracie, the maid in his hotel, asking her what she imagines God thinks of him (the scene was cut; it is available on the DVD). Early in the film Chuck says “This book will be my redemption”. Later a show will be his “salvation”. The image of a Mary-like figure outside the church in Mexico where he makes his first hit is seared into his brain. There are little clues about resurrection like the name of the hotel (‘Phoenix’, renamed from the book’s ‘Parker’) and the word “Easter” in the Scrabble game Chuck and Penny play. Sam Rockwell adds the final touch by scarecrowing his arms in a pose of crucifixion, as mentioned above (and acknowledged as such by Clooney in the DVD commentary).
This gives his confessions a problematic dignity. The clash between the banality of television and anything resembling seriousness in either political or spiritual matters is deliciously absurd, and Barris milks it. The impossibility of believing the sincerity of his memoir is the point, and bth the book and the film are gleeful affronts to the good sense of his audience. There is the obvious stretcher-- Barris as both game show producer and CIA assassin-- but numerous smaller ones as well. Barris, in both 'Confessions' and his second autobiography, “The Game Show King”, fudges the date of his birth (he is variously born in 1929, 1930, and 1932). He mentions that he is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, but standard biographies of Barris reveal that he is actually an alumnus of Drexel. In the film he has a dead sister and an executed mass murderer for a father, but this is scoffed at by his friends and associates. Plainly Barris can’t be trusted, and he never quite asks to be.
But Barris’ quest for redemption at least demands a closer look at his narrative, and whoever else he claims to be, Chuck gradually becomes a more interesting figure for who he is not. Here is a partial list of the writers mentioned by name or quoted by Barris in various places in the narrative: Albert Einstein, Gunter Grass, Euripides, Samuel Butler, Marcel Proust, Iris Murdoch, Albert Camus, Pascal, Somerset Maugham, Vladimir Nabokov, Marcus Aurelius, and, as in the movie, Thomas Carlyle. All this despite the fact that, as Chuck tells Patricia late in the novel, he never read “the old classics” as a kid. Eventually the reader comes to suspect what he finally makes explicit: “I wanted to be a writer”, he tells Patricia. “I wanted to write something that someday some lesser person would quote. I’m the lesser person, Treesh. I am disposable. I dispose of people and I am disposable.” At the end of the book, this much is clear: Chuck is not a successful low-brow but a failed high-brow.
The fact that his smallness is apparent to him is a victory; he has freed himself from what Lionel Trilling described as the burden of the modern man who must come to grips with the fact that he is not a genius. By admitting his failure as a serious writer and writing a quasi-Christian confessional, he humbly acknowledges that he is in fact a failed artist. This humility, so essential to the writings of both Augustine and Rousseau, is his saving grace. Chuck walks away from the circus his life has become to escape worldliness. If TV has made him famous, and the CIA has given him a life of glamour and excitement, these become so empty and pernicious to Chuck that he is willing to accept his own smallness as a person. As Kaufman has Barris lament at the beginning of the movie:
When you’re young, your potential is infinite. You might do anything, really. You might be Einstein. You might be DiMaggio. Then you get to an age where what you might have been gives way to what you have been. You weren’t Einstein. You weren’t anything.
‘Confessions’ accept and even welcomes worldly failure even as it records the positive resolution of a deep spiritual crisis.
Chuck marries Penny Pacino and disappears from the public eye. Kaufman expresses Chuck’s abdication in the bluntest (and characteristically Barris-like) terms imaginable. “I have a new idea for a show”, Rockwell narrates as we see the real Barris’ battle-scarred face at the end of the film.
“It’s called The Old Game. Three men sit on a stage, each with a loaded gun. They look over their lives, what they’ve accomplished, how close they got to realizing their dreams. The one who doesn’t blow his brains out is the winner. He gets a new refrigerator.”
Recasting life is an existential game show, Chuck’s grand prize is mere survival, with the possibility of love as a bonus. Survival is the only inheritance for which the damned dare hope.
Still, if “Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind” can be seen as a dignified, if problematical, confession of sins and a search for spiritual rebirth, there is still the obvious question which confronts us when we read the book or watch the film. Why did Chuck Barris claim he was a spy for the CIA? The book can be read as a transparently outrageous attempt to valorize himself in the grand tradition of American self-mythologizers. He who had seemed most disposable—the patron saint of the disposable, the high priest of ephemera—attempts to shame us with tales of how he fought the Commies to defend our freedom.
But, again, a closer reading of Barris’ narrative reveals another, deeper strain of intentions. There’s a hole in Chuck’s narrative: in his CIA missions, Chuck doesn’t speculate about the larger political ramifications of his work. He says he joined the CIA in 1963 simply by answering an ad in the paper; in the film, Chuck is recruited by Byrd at a bar. His reasons for joining are twofold. On the one hand there is lunch-pail patriotism, illustrated several times in the book by phrases like “I’d be the first fucking patriot in the history of my entire family!” On the other there’s the more scurrilous urges typical of Chuck-- lust and glamour. He thrills at the chance to “fuck beautiful Eastern European women”. As for his employers, serving America through the CIA and Jim Byrd is serving the good guys. Even less abstractly than patriotism, besides the training scenes, his work for the CIA feels more like working as a henchman for Byrd rather than for the government; Byrd even tells Chuck that he works for “the United States of Jim Byrd”, not the CIA. Kaufman goes one further, adding the alter ego motif. Being recruited in a bar rather than answering an ad in the paper implies that Byrd is a phantom of Chuck’s imagination and, accordingly, Byrd rarely appears to anyone in the film except Chuck. The film thus pushes his career in the CIA into an even smaller, more personal sphere, one approaching schizophrenia.
A true showbiz type, megalomania is also a key ingredient for Chuck. His description of his power as a CIA hit man matches his hubris as a TV producer:
The entire proposition of being an accomplished killer seemed to instill in me—perhaps inappropriately—omnipotent powers, outrageous confidence, and a superhuman ego. I was larger than life, bigger than the biggest man. If I didn’t like you, I could actually kill you, with anonymity and impunity. If not now, then later. At least, that’s what I led myself to believe.
The impulse to serve America is thus of a personal nature, an ego steroid. Politics play no part. It could be a manifestation of his Jesus complex, or part of some secret homicidal fantasy, or perhaps just something made up to sell a few books. In any case, Hollywood trappings aside, Barris insists that he is salt of the earth. He is an uncomplicated man looking for a good time, endowed with some intelligence but too narrow a vision to comprehend fully what’s taking place around him. Idealism is grand—if it can get him laid. He is part of the anti-elite, one of Thomas Pynchon’s praeterite. He feels at a remove from the historical forces shaping the nation and the world. After all, whatever myth-making we have seen in the last forty years, the vast majority of Americans during the Sixties were neither hippies or hawks. When he comes back from Mexico he finds that Penny has become a hippie, but her conversion means nothing to him. In the book Barris mentions a contemporary Newsweek piece which calls him and his production staff “a bunch of hippies laughing all the way to the bank”. Now, card-carrying hippies aren’t generally thought to be interested in money. This attitude typifies most Americans—most people anywhere—who were much more like Barris than the idealists who have come to symbolize the Sixties.
Chuck’s failure to feel himself a part of the forces of history does not mean that he is not playing a role in shaping them, be it as hit man or hit maker. The strand of his work as a CIA operative is threaded through contemporary American history like a double helix. Spanning three decades, his personal life is mirrored in his work as a CIA operative. The CIA plot is introduced in one of the livelier passages of “Confessions of A Dangerous Mind”, Barris’s adventure in Selma, Alabama in 1965. He is drawn into the issue of segregation accidentally. While searching for the basketball game of the week on TV, he is shocked at the scenes of oppression on TV—black faces contorted in pain, white faces calm with smugness—and decides then and there, to become a part of the Civil Rights movement. From there he travels to Selma to participate in the march led by Dr. King. ‘Reverend Jackson’ (you can almost see Barris winking at us) takes Chuck to Selma in his car. The march takes place on March 7, 1965, with about 600 protestors walking east on Route 80 out of Selma to fight poll taxes and literacy tests which kept blacks in the south from voting. Barris is there; nothing much happens.
Shortly after we get the truth-- he has been on a mission for the CIA. Meeting Byrd on the plane back to Los Angeles, we find out that Barris was on assignment all along, one that did not come to fruition. “It was on”, said Byrd. “One of the boys turned it off.” (This is actually the second of his infiltrations; the first was “a stint in Harlem doing some surveillance on a Malcolm X cell”).
They come to possess metaphorical potency. His work as a spy is meant as a darker, reversed image of his work as a television producer—or, put differently, Chuck’s persona is split in two, public and private. This is nowhere more apparent than in a brilliant structural irony in Barris’ book. He receives a private medal and letter of commendation from the American government at the very same moment he is publicly called an enemy of the American public as a TV producer. The book is littered with the many brutal excoriations he suffered in the American press, which vilifies him not as a harmless Hollywood producer but an actual threat to the national fabric, a harbinger of the Decline of Western Civilization. He comes to be known as ‘The King of Schlock’. Clifton Fadiman writes “there is no way of reconciling the vision offered by Shakespeare or Newton with the vision of life offered by ‘The Gong Show’”. Chuck chances across a televised Princeton University debate in July 1976, at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. “Chuck Barris symbolizes everything that’s wrong with television”, an unnamed critic announces, before receiving a standing ovation from the audience. (“I slid down deep into my chair, hiding in an empty room” he writes.) In the Saturday Review critic Peter Andrews calls Barris’s shows “unremittingly witless, tasteless, illiterate, and stupid”. Barris reads this on a plane, and he can’t help himself from reading-- and re-reading-- the article, mystified at its rancor:
Included with the article was a picture of me jumping in the air. The caption read: “Barris reveals his passion for self-debasement”.
I stared at the magazine in my lap. Reading the article, I felt a surge of nausea. I began rereading until I came to the part that turned my stomach.
Psychotic hatred of women. Systematic assassination of women. Victims skip to the executioner’s block.
I ran to the airliner’s toilet. I had a violent case of diarrhea.
Bits about his abuse at the hands of the press play a smaller role in the film, but they are equally virulent. Newspaper headlines, TV reports, and a characteristically Kaufmanesque sexual humiliation at the Playboy Mansion give an indication of just how badly Chuck is viewed by the rest of the world.
The shadowy betrayals in his CIA work provides Clooney an abundance of parodic firecrackers. Jokes about the tricky games of espionage and deceit abound in the film. Some of them are easy visual spoofs, such as the password-phrase first meeting with Patricia, the anally smuggled microfilm, or crawling under the Berlin wall. Some involve double agents betraying various people, as with the mole, Patricia, and the two Dating Game contestants who turn out to be Soviet agents. Chuck and Patricia’s final confrontation turns on a maneuver that wouldn’t be out of place in Mad Magazine. Most of these are used for comic effect, and, again, all point to the private betrayal of Chuck— the fact that they are all figments of his imagination means he is by definition his own Judas. A typical trope of spy movies, and Barris and Clooney both make good use of it. Chuck exists in a world of lies, and your best intentions are meaningless when you’re not the one giving the orders.
Clooney’s best touch was unplanned. Two men with whom Chuck trains during the CIA training sequence do not appear in Kaufman’s published draft, and seem to have been enlisted on the set; in the DVD commentary Clooney intimates that it was a last-minute detail thrown in as a prank. The two men are Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby, and the gag is that they are fellow recruits at the CIA training facility. Their name tags are seen clearly in a pan shot in a training barrack. A minute later they are seen on the firing range (Oswald’s rifle keeps jamming). Finally they shake hands with Chuck and head to different buses: on the page Kaufman aptly describes the scene as “the end of summer camp”, and in the film Chuck waves off his campmates: “Alright, Jack. Take care Lee!” The Ruby/Oswald joke is perfect because no two figures in recent American history reveal as much about the through-the-looking-glass state of national affairs. Talk of a conspiracy in the Kennedy assassination is unappealing for most Americans; for some, enraging. Wisely, the improvised joke is not an assertion of conspiracy. It is a known fact that both Ruby and Oswald worked for the U.S. government at some point in their lives. Rather, their symbolic importance in the film is that, as trainees serving the same masters as Chuck, they will both go on to impact America in very public, dramatic ways. They telescope Chuck’s fate.
Clooney and Kaufman found perfect expression for it at the end of a critical scene that is entirely their invention. By 1979, Chuck’s paranoia has grown more and more vivid until it hits a dizzying high point onstage during a taping of “The Gong Show”. Chuck knows the Mole is near, ready to strike, but he doesn’t know where. Everyone is a suspect. The Unknown Comic, faceless behind a brown paper bag, cuts a farcical figure of masked treachery. Chuck threatens him with a pistol, believing he is about to unmask the Mole. “Who are you? What’s your name?” he demands of the befuddled comedian. It might get messy—after all, Chuck has supposedly killed 33 people-- but his cue comes to take the stage. Ever the true professional, he heads out into the scorching studio lights. Barely holding it together, his instincts as host kick in long enough to boot some bagpipers off the stage. The Unknown Comic appears to abuse him with scripted banter, much to the delight of the crowd, but Chuck’s in no mood to humor him, so off he goes. Alone before the cameras, defenseless, and sweating hellishly, Chuck stares back at all the faces gazing expectantly at his, wondering who will finally reveal himself to be the triggerman. “Take me away. What’re you waitin’ for? C’mon, c’mon”, Chuck challenges his invisible tormentor, his arms outstretched like Christ on the cross.
No one comes to “take” Chuck in any sense of the word. There is neither assassination nor divine ascension. A pin-drop pause-- an old stagehand stares down at him without pity in what seems to Chuck, a visible sign of God’s indifference—and then the band leader strikes up a typical Gong Show-style party: Chuck’s ego has been downsized, his martyr fantasies destroyed, but the show must go on. There are crowds to amuse, sponsors to placate. The pageant of vacuous fun he helped usher onto the stage of American television sweeps by him. This is certainly the culmination of his spiritual struggle: his life of lies becomes untenable for Chuck and he leaves it behind. But Clooney and Kaufman added another layer of meaning, a sudden widening of Chuck’s consciousness which is not in the book.
The extra meaning is provided by the song. The soundtrack of this pivotal scene is Peter, Paul and Mary’s “If I Had A Hammer (The Hammer Song)”, and it plays only in Chuck’s mind. The song has special resonance for him, tied up as it is with the genesis of “The Gong Show” and therefore, by extension, his fame—or infamy. Clooney uses the song early in the film. A two-woman novelty act at an open talent audition performs the song with all the usual grating amateurishness. Chuck is so weary of these amateurs that he fantasizes about shooting the second one. The thought process is evident on his face: in his imagination, he whimsically changes the song’s words (‘If I had a hammer...’ to ‘If I had a gun...’), and then, in a stroke of inspiration, he swaps a gun for a more socially acceptable tool (‘If I had a gong...’). The catalyst for his celebrity—and the lightning rod for the most bitter attacks against him yet—is born in the form of “The Gong Show”.
During his meltdown in 1979, it is the original version of “The Hammer Song” playing in Chuck’s head. The Peter, Paul and Mary version confronts Chuck with his utter failure to produce anything of real, lasting beauty, anything that might be regarded as genuinely affecting (all the more galling as Chuck started out as a songwriter). And just as his private life has a public dimension, so too does the song. Seeger and Hayes’ “The Hammer Song” was recorded by Peter, Paul, and Mary for their self-titled debut album released in May, 1962. Over a year later, the folk trio sang the song live on CBS on August 28, 1963, in front of the Lincoln Memorial at the culmination of Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. Performed on national television, the song inaugurated a decade of pivotal cultural battles in American society. The song is a warning that the wolves may already be among the sheep, yet brims with optimism and the uprolling of sleeves that characterized the early days of the Civil Rights movement:
If I had a hammer, I'd hammer in the morning
I'd hammer in the evening, all over this land
I'd hammer out danger, I'd hammer out a warning,
I'd hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters,
all over this land.
If I had a bell, I'd ring it in the morning,
I'd ring it in the evening, all over this land
I'd ring out danger, I'd ring out a warning
I'd ring out love between my brothers and my sisters,
all over this land.
As the song plays in Chuck’s mind, the camera sweeps over the audience members clapping along to the music. Notable among them are two relics from the Sixties, a pair of hippies in tie-dye, every bit as synchronized with the rest of middle America as the rest of the crowd. The disconnect is chilling. Oblivious in their TV bubble, they are unable or unwilling to hear the ‘danger warning’.
The irony is savage, perhaps one of the most strikingly ironic images ever to appear in American cinema. Chuck perceives that the song’s symbolic worth has been trivialized and ignored, the warning in Seeger and Hayes’ words gone unheeded. “The Gong Show” went on the air in 1976; Chuck seems to realize that in less than thirteen years the hammer to defeat injustice had been reforged as a gong to humiliate the talentless on a trashy game show. It is the one truly heartbreaking moment in the movie. His ego is destroyed, but he is also affected by observing that the struggle for civil rights is over, the good guys have lost, and—most poignantly—that he has had a hand in their defeat.
This is the irony Barris himself underscored when he told of the medal and certificate from the government even as critics were labeling him an assassin of all good taste and intelligence in American public life. Just as his professional life as a hit man turns against him, so to does his legitimate life in TV turn against him. The parallel merges neatly in Clooney’s visual metaphor: he wasn’t a killer moonlighting as a TV producer, he was always a killer. On screen, the audience appears as a grim landscape of slaughtered sheep, strewn across the seats and the studio floor in puddles of oozing blood. Whatever the imagined deaths he is responsible for, here, at least, is a metaphorical body count we might see as real. Here is the death of Chuck’s dream; and as Rockwell’s face hints, so terrifyingly aghast, here too may be the death of America. In the commentary Clooney puts it best: “Chuck’s hits were the American viewing audience”.
For this masterful scene the credit goes to Clooney and Kaufman. The grim admission that, yes, TV is harmful, is one Barris would never make. Personal sins aside, Barris’ book was not intended as a mea culpa to his critics. There was no reason to apologize. As naive as Barris likes to make himself out to be, his work as a TV producer was shrewd. Despite the crucifixion he claims he suffered at the hands of his critics, he is said to have told Jim Lange, the host of “The Newlywed Game”, that “a good game show review is the kiss of death. If for some strange reason the critic liked it, the public won’t. A really bad review means the show will be on for years.” In the Sixties, Barris reportedly told his staff, “If you can make something happen on the program that will stop their forks halfway between their plates and their mouths at least once each half-hour, you’ll have a hit television show.” He was far too media savvy, and, as is obvious, his writing can’t be trusted at face value. Writing in 1982, Barris gave only a personal account of his redemption, and it is for his own profit—spiritual and, of course, financial—that the book exists.
But if Clooney and Kaufman take his story to a conclusion he would eschew, in the twenty-odd years between their movie and the book’s publication they offer a mild vindication of Barris’ work. They have seen what Barris couldn’t. His brand of humor has become an ineradicable part of the pop cultural landscape in America. “Reality TV” is a staple on both cable and network, and much of it can be traced back to The Dating Game and its variants and, of course, “The Gong Show”. Barris’ game shows made stars of average Americans, and the public has not lost its urge to gawk at those who would seek even a minute or two of fleeting fame. As King Kaufman notes in his profile of Barris in Salon, much of our comedians’ humor comes from Barris. The “found” comedy of David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Conan O’Brien would be unthinkable without Barris. The masterminds behind “American Idol” probably think it owes its appeal to “The Miss America Pageant” or “Star Search”, but in reality it, like its many spin-offs, resembles “The Gong Show” as much as anything else.
This vindication gives the film its satiric strength. Barris proved to be not the exception but the first of the new order. The film “Confessions of A Dangerous Mind”, enjoying the benefit of historical distance, captures this and more. TV is regarded almost universally as the single biggest dumbing-down agent in our culture, even by proponents of ‘good’ TV, even by people who watch TV regularly. And it came of age in a period of upheaval in American history that briefly threatened to be as fractious as the Civil War. The fate of the nation hung in the balance just as TV was becoming more and more a part of civic consciousness. But TV faltered, and Clooney gives us an unforgettable image of it faltering, capturing in a fictional burst the very moment when television’s promise died. Perhaps there were many such moments, but Clooney’s prankish sense of humor found it on the “Gong Show” stage, and the result is unforgettable.
Clooney and Kaufman did not set out to make a ‘message movie’. If they shaped Barris’ book to hint at a broader political consciousness, they did not remove his story from the realm of the personal. Yet in keeping Chuck’s story personal they make its social and political commentary so much more trenchant. Indeed, Clooney’s film succeeds because it is free of the Shakespearean bombast of Oliver Stone, the dubious polemics of Michael Moore, the ponderousness of “Quiz Show”, the conventionality of “Broadcast News”, or the ‘high-concept’ feel of “Nurse Betty” or “The Truman Show”. Although they are very different movies, for the artistry and importance of its commentary ‘Confessions’ deserves mention with “Network” as one of the best films ever made about the relationship between television and the American public. Kaufman and Clooney mapped the downward spiral of popular taste, which begins as a mildly shocking travesty of established standards and ends as received routine. Media does not reflect the disintegration of the public’s standards but is perhaps the corrosive factor, even if one factor of several. The spy tropes are apt: we are lost in the fog of a cloak-and-dagger battlezone where allies are enemies and enemies are allies. Like Chuck, we are both assassin and victim. Our public artists either do not know their responsibility to the public or have abdicated it. All of this amounts to the same sense of personal guilt that Chuck feels, however vague and numbing it may be. His story dramatizes the dual nature of citizenship in a democracy: the acts of citizens belong to the private and public domains. What happens in one impacts the other.
Embracing this condition, Chuck types out the last line of "Confessions of A Dangerous Mind", “I am damned to hell”, before dancing a little jig and leaving for his wedding. But if Barris is let off the hook, Clooney has done him a favor. He has answered the open “if” in “The Hammer Song”. “Confessions of A Dangerous Mind” might itself be seen as the rebuttal to Chuck’s humiliation over having produced nothing of real value. With Clooney’s help, the movie might in fact become Barris’ own “Hammer Song”: a warning, or as Chuck puts it, “a cautionary tale”. And if he sings to us in the voice of a showbiz con-artist, it is because he knows it’s the one and only voice we are conditioned to hear. His is the voice of a fool, a paranoid, and an exile; in other words, perhaps, the voice of a prophet.