I have a certain handful of films that I claim as my absolute favorites, and amongst this small, rarified collection, sits, with its casual sophistication, Being There. Most easily described as a more intelligent, less sentimental version of Forrest Gump, (and lacking the “aggressively conservative”, political view of that film), Being There is the rare film that is even more relevant thirty years later. The film is prescient of what politics has become; a beauty pageant of shallow sound-bites and talking points, and that, among other reasons, accounts for my deep respect for it.
Hal Ashby had a knack for showing his audience something funny, while somehow never misplacing the seriousness of his films or the humanity of his characters. As a director, Ashby was at his best with films like Harold and Maude and this reviews raison de entre, Being There—films that somehow breathed a touch of tragedy and balanced dark comedy with a seriousness of purpose that creates an end product unique and visionary. Being There abounds with great acting performances, including a performance from Sellers that can only be described as beautiful; an incredibly subtle, humanistic performance—Sellers manages to create a truly admirable character, a simple, but not idiotic, man-child, not awkward, but faintly childlike and fragile, and this is what truly sells the film, what drives it and enables it to work.
The movie begins slowly, with an enigmatic Sellers waking up, and as he begins his day the viewer notices the slow, careful delicate manner that his character, Chance, puts into all of his actions. He sits down to have breakfast, beginning the day like all his others, when the maid, an elderly black woman named Louise, informs him, “The Old Man is dead.” Who the old man is, the film never says, though there is considerable implication that Chance is his hidden, illegitimate son, and this event sets the movie on its course, a flawless, utterly natural course that takes its own pace and somehow manages to play its magic tricks without ever revealing its hand—Being There builds an enormous house of cards that manages not to collapse atop the viewer.
Chance is a simple person; he’s never left the confines of the townhouse, he’s never had any sort of education—he seems possibly autistic because he has trouble displaying his emotions and relating to other people but more than anything, childlike innocence and honesty form the quintessence of his character. With no sort of identification at all, Chance has no legal claims on the house, and told by a perplexed estate lawyer that he must pack his things and vacate the house immediately, Chance heads past the threshold of his isolated, ordered world, his garden, and steps out into a chaotic landscape of garbage, of homeless people huddled around flaming trashcans.
This is a world that Chance simply can’t comprehend; his sense of scope cannot account for everything, and so, with perfect, sincere honesty, without an ounce of actual malice, he asks a random black lady he passes by on the street if she could give him lunch—because the nature of his experience with Louise has left him with the impression that black ladies make him his meals. Chance doesn’t really understand races, and so confounds minorities as part of one small group.
Then, after wandering the streets for most of the day, Chance sees a television recording display, and the view of himself on the television fascinates him, so he tries to change the channel to see what will happen, and backs out into the street for a moment in order to get a better angle. At that moment, the limousine parked there backs up, pinning his leg against another car as he moans in pain and pounds the trunk. The limousine ambles forward and two worried chauffeurs come out brushing him off and fretting; this after all, an elegant looking man, a well-dressed white man with distinguished silver hair and a careful, elite accent.
This is, it so happens, the limousine of Eve Rand, the young, but genuinely affectionate wife of the aging industrialist and philanthropist, Ben Rand, one of the wealthiest men in the world. It is through little tugs and pushes, small and realistic accidents—happenstance—such as this, that Chance begins the film waking up in a small, bare-furnished gardener’s house, and ends the film with the great powerbrokers of American industry coalescing around him as their preferred candidate for the Presidency of the United States of America.
Chance never lies about a single thing, rather people universally mistake everything he says, filtering his honesty through the prisms of their own expectations and biases—in a sense the very blankness of Chance’s canvas seems to invite others to paint what they will on it. Even his name becomes their invention; he drinks a sip of alcohol and coughs in shock from it, and so when he manages to say Chance, the gardener, Eve mistakes him as having said Chauncey Gardiner. Everyone falls in love with him; his honest, terse comments about the elevator are taken as riotous wry humor by the servant wheeling him to his room, the Russian ambassador thinks he speaks Russian because he laughs at the correct point in a Krylov fable, and his interview on national television is a firestorm hit.
After arriving at the Rand’s, Chance is invited to dinner with the deeply ill Ben Rand, and those around him continue to misunderstand Chance, taking him for a down on his luck businessman who was shut down by the SEC. And Ben comes to genuinely admire this mysterious, but calm man who rarely speaks unless prodded, but through his punctilious manner and slow, careful way of speaking, emits an air of immense thoughtfulness and wisdom, with a penchant, he believes, for speaking in metaphorical terms, connecting business and the world with gardening— Chance tells the worried President visiting Ben for advice and political support “That is correct. In a garden, growth has its season. There is spring and summer, but there is also fall and winter. And then spring and summer again…”—because of course, all Chance has ever known is gardening; it dominates his lexicon; he truly is a gardener, as the doctor asks him late in the film after Ben’s death.
Ben says to Chance, “No one likes a dying man, my boy—because few know what death is. All we know is the terror of it. But you're an exception, Chauncey—that's what I admire in you, your marvelous balance. You don't stagger back and forth between fear and hope—you're a truly peaceful man.” Chance is peaceful; as a passive observer of the world around him, he maintains a certain emotional distance, like a child afraid of being hurt. His classic line, “I like to watch” is seemingly simple, but upon further reflection, surprisingly multifaceted. In the film’s context, Chance manages to watch the world, and yet somehow remains untainted by it, by the build up of knowledge and experience—he retains his phlegmatic lightness of being, to the point where, at the end of the film, he curiously walks out on top of the lake, and in an iconic image stands atop the water, a messianic figure to those around him.
Chance doesn’t exist in a vacuum of course. Being There’s larger cast of characters are all deep and grab the audience’s sympathies, particularly Ben Rand, driven by a powerful performance from veteran actor Melvyn Douglas who won an Oscar for his performance, (Peter Sellers always felt the inclusion of the bloopers during the credits, in which he was shown acting silly, cost him the Oscar for Best Actor). Ben is undeniably sententious, but has a sort of self-awareness of his proselytizing attitude, a strain of humility, that makes the viewer empathize with him, because whatever his foibles may be, even if his politics seem disagreeable (though not directly addressed in the film), Ben Rand appears to truly care about other people, and wants to do a duty he feels obligated to fulfill by his wealthy position in society. A supposed quote from him, read by the President at his funeral at the movie’s end, exemplifies his by turns sanctimonious and unostentatious character, “I have no use for those on welfare, no patience whatsoever... But if I am to be honest with myself, I must admit that they have no use for me, either.”
Eve Rand too, plays within a similar dynamic; she is quite shallow and petty at times, but then at other moments this tangibly complex, intelligent person shines through with her own humanity and her own worries and burdens. Regardless of her flaws, she actually does love Ben Rand, and he loves her; she doesn’t come off as a gold-digger and this sincere aspect of her love wins the audience over for her. Eve falls in love with an ideal of Chance, the same as everyone else, and as long as he passively and accidentally participates in her delusion, this ideal remains unbroken; she, like everyone else, believes what she wants to believe and sees what she hopes to see.
That is this by turns subtle and frank film’s core message: that the human condition is that most of our perspective consists of our own internal biases; that individual and societal reality are driven by the biases of hope and desire—to quote from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets “Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty./Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind/Cannot bear very much reality.” As a satirical comedy film, it takes much inspiration from its namesake, the influential philosophic term coined by Martin Heidegger, Dasein, and Jerzy Kosinski (who wrote the novel the film was based on) and Robert Jones do an excellent job of writing a script about politics while leaving politics in the foreground; Ben's are vaguely conservative, pro-business, while everyone else's remain illusive and generalized, highlighting the appeal of Chance’s seemingly metaphorical discussions of gardening.
Most interestingly of all, for me, Being There is a film obsessed with television; Ashby packs it with simple, extended shots of televisions playing; they are a reoccurring motif throughout the film. Chance watches cartoons, he watches incessantly, browsing between channels searching for a continuous stream of images, following nothing for very long. In a way, Chance’s mind works in much the same manner, and the necessary implication is that Chance embodies the shallowness of our media and entertainment, as he has never learned to read or write, nor, until middle age, left the townhouse where he gardens, and so he derives his perspective of the world solely from television and thus views it in the simple terms of stereotypes.
Being There certainly did not receive the slate of awards or the immense popular culture response that Forrest Gump did, perhaps because it does not shower its audience with flattering sentimentality. Immensely funny, and yet deeply serious and profound, Being There creates a brilliantly paced and plotted film—what Roger Ebert described as “the appeal of an ingenious intellectual game”. This movie presents an unflattering take on humankind; though Chance’s mental processing works at a rudimentary level, what he does and what the viewer sees, is essentially an image of what we all do, which is observe our surroundings and learn the preprogrammed responses necessary to get by. This is what makes Chance so quintessentially human, despite his sagely simplicity—and deep down the movie makes the audience question whether all of us are inherently false, inherently actors on the stages of own lives performing to our audiences, even if we are oblivious to it ourselves. The world is artifice, and the thing that saddens me most upon every viewing of this film, is that Chance’s platitudes—“As long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all will be well in the garden.”—are far superior and vastly more intelligent than “Yes we can”, “Drill baby drill”, “Believe in America”, “Restore America now”, and “The courage to fight for America”.
P.S. While Dkos does have reader guages, these aren't entirely accurate. I always appreciate users who vote in my poll as that gives a more accurate count of readership. Which is always nice to know for something you worked hard on; sucks to feel like you are talking to a wall.