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Gong Shows

Hello again everyone, and welcome to the column that you really should have better things to
do than read. This week, our annual look at the Oscars ceremony, as well as - for the third
column in a row - a review of a movie from Steven Soderbergh's Section Eight production
company. Is this a job lot we haven't been informed of? Hmmm.

Black Ops, Cilla-style

The abiding image that's remained with me from George Clooney's Confessions of a
Dangerous Mind
is of a Japanese Elvis impersonator singing 'Can't Help Falling In Love' on
the soundtrack, whilst Julia Roberts and Sam Rockwell wrestle a recently-assassinated corpse
into a well. The really worrying thing is that in the context of the movie this seems entirely
reasonable and actually a little bit moving.

One of the good things about being the undisputed global hegemon is that you can release
bio-pics of obscure pop-culture figures abroad (i.e., here) and still expect them to make money.
Man in the Moon, about the almost-unknown-in-the-UK Andy Kaufman, was one, and
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is another. (Although knowing the British Film Council
it's only a matter of time before the life story of, say, Graeme Garden, hits the multiplexes
from Tallahassee to Bakersfield to near-unanimous indifference.) The subject on this occasion is
Chuck Barris, another total unknown over here (though his progeny have wreaked their insidious
influence upon our cultural landscape for decades).

Based on Barris' unauthorised autobiography, the movie boldly depicts the young Barris
(played by Sam Rockwell) as a sex-crazed loser with an ambition to get into television any way
he can. Along the way he hooks up with the sweet and uninhibited Penny (Drew Barrymore) who
inadvertently gives him the idea for the TV game show that launched his career, The Dating
(which is still running in the UK under the title Blind Date). But also around
this time, Barris is approached by CIA agent Jim Byrd (a deadpan, moustachioed Clooney,
supporting my thesis that actors directing for the first time always cast themselves) who
recruits him as an assassin for the government. But as Barris' TV shows (culminating in the
no-talent contest, The Gong Show) go from strength to strength, the dangers involved in
his double life become greater and greater, as does the strain of keeping them separate...

Well, Barris claims this is all true, but no-one really seems to believe him. Many of Barris'
real-life friends and colleagues appear and express their doubts on the subject, and the film
keeps its tongue firmly in cheek. (Barris himself, still alive and still sticking to his story,
appears in a mute cameo at the end of the film.) But the truth or not of the story doesn't really
matter as the film it's inspired is hugely entertaining.

This is, first and foremost, an absurd, deadpan black comedy. The central conceit - producer
of trash TV by day, government killer by night - is a ridiculously winning one and the script (by
current golden boy Charlie Kaufman) wisely pitches the whole film at a stylised, fantastical
level, avoiding the temptation to make Barris' 'real' life too naturalistic or his spy exploits too
far-fetched. But the characters of Barris and Penny are carefully drawn and fully rounded, and
apart from the opening section, which seems a little insubstantial and over-pacy, this is an
extremely classy screenplay.

It's directed with enormous energy and a great sense of fun by the debuting George Clooney.
He does a very stylish job - perhaps a little too stylish in places - and shows a good deal of
promise should he decide to do this on a regular basis. He's also managed to attract a first-rate
set of actors - Brad Pitt and Matt Damon appear very briefly, but further up the cast list we
find Rutger Hauer, who in the course of a quite small part dispels all memory of the rubbish he's
done lately and reminds you of just how damned good he can be. Julia Roberts sends herself up
winningly as a femme fatale spy, and Drew Barrymore affectingly provides the film's emotional
centre. (Clooney's pretty good too, though I suspect the director shot every scene in his favour.)
But the film really belongs to Sam Rockwell, who gives a superb performance in a challenging
and complex role. It's only through the nuances of his acting that we get any clue as to what
we're supposed to believe in this film, or what it's actually about.

And, without spoiling it too much (I hope), this film is really about not a dangerous mind but a
mind in the throes of crisis. It is entirely understandable that a man whose main achievement
was originating the format for Blind Date would want to embroider his life story just a
little - or more than a little in this case. This is the story of how the dreams of youth transform
into the fantasies of middle age. On the surface this is an absurd, deadpan comedy, but it has a
dark and serious heart. The whole package is sharp, intelligent, and tremendous fun.

The Academy A***ds

Yes, it's that time of year again, the American film industry's annual bout of
self-congratulation. The Oscars have never exactly been noted for having a stranglehold on
reality, but most of the time they're an amusing indulgence, more a reflection of the state of
mind of US celebrity-dom than a real statement concerning the respective merits of films and
filmmakers. This year, though, things were obviously different, as the ceremony desperately
tried to respond to and reflect real-world events.

Of course, this being Hollywood, 'react to current events' translates as 'pretend nothing's
happening for as long as possible' - the spirit of Basil Fawlty ruled as presenters and nominees
alike were apparently ordered to not mention the... well, you get the idea. Much has been made
of the so-called politicised nature of this year's ceremony but as someone who watched the
whole thing this seems like a bit of an exaggeration. The vast majority of the comments made
were wholly inoffensive platitudes. Michael Moore's barnstorming protest was a delight, but
then again it would have been much more remarkable had he not said something along those

Still, all this aside, it was a pretty good Oscars as these things go. Steve Martin was a more
than capable host and while a touch on the excruciatingly interminable side the ceremony even
came in at under the four hour mark, which by the Academy's standards counts as rushing it a

The big losers of the night were Martin Scorsese and Gangs of New York (ten
nominations, no awards) and Michael Douglas (upstaged by both his old man and his old lady).
Scorsese can take comfort in the fact that he's in the company of directors such as Kubrick and
Hitchcock, neither of whom ever received an Oscar either. One can only hope that the Academy
is saving all the honours so richly deserved by the Lord of the Rings trilogy for next
year (nine nominations, two awards - both technical). It was interesting that the major awards
were split fairly evenly between Chicago (best picture, best supporting actress) and
The Pianist (best director, best actor, best adapted screenplay). The Pianist's
success was surely a bona fide surprise - Adrien Brody was a relative unknown, certainly
compared to his fellow nominees, and very young to boot, while everyone expected Roman
Polanski's well-known legal problems with the US to count against him. But then again, recently
films about the Holocaust (think Schindler's List, Life is Beautiful, Jakob the Liar -
okay, maybe not the last one) have tended to do well for all manner of reasons, not least of
which is that the Academy scrabbles for gravitas like a starving mongrel after dog-biscuits, and
it's nice to see an artist of Polanski's calibre recognised this way.

With all that out of the way, it's time to batten down the hatches and get ready for the
onslaught of blockbuster season, due to kick off in a little over a month with the release of
X-Men 2 and The Matrix Reloaded in fairly quick succession. Fingers crossed
that next year's ceremony will be a more cheerfully absurd affair of the type we've come to
expect - and that Peter Jackson and the gang go home with the skip load of gilt statuettes they
surely have coming their way.


27.03.03 Front Page

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