Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Movie I Just Watched: Being There (1979)

I recently noticed that the number of Movie articles I've written for this blog has lagged behind the Gaming and Television content, so this new feature is an attempt to redress that balance. Movie I Just Watched does exactly what it says on the tin: a review of any movie I happen to come across on television, a rewatched DVD, a special event, and so forth. It will essentially be a random feature in terms of when it appears and what it covers, dependant entirely on external factors.

As well as my need for a greater number of movie-related articles, the feature was also inspired by one of my favourite films, Being There (1979; Dir: Hal Ashby), appearing unexpectedly on television over the weekend. I've wanted to write about it for a long time, so the creation of a new feature was a perfect excuse. Being There was the last film released before the death of its star Peter Sellers and though he starred in one more production before his death, the horrible The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu in 1980, his atypically serene performance in Hal Ashby's film is generally considered his true swansong.
Sellers plays Chance, a simple-minded gardener whose life consists of tending to the garden of his wealthy employer during the day and watching television at night. He has barely left the walls of the grounds where he works during his entire life. After his employer dies, the house is repossessed and Chance is thrown out into the real world, where following an accident he is picked up by a wealthy businessman, the aptly named 'Ben Rand', and his wife, Eve. Because of the way he is dressed - in a tailored suit that is his only possession, apart from the remote for the television he left behind at his old home - the couple assume Chance is of a similar social standing to them and invites him to dinner.

Because Chance's only experiences in life have come from his garden and what he has seen on television, he speaks in simple, allegorical epithets, which Rand interprets as being wise answers to the questions he poses about business, economics and politics. Rand introduces Chance to his high-powered friends, all of whom are equally enthralled by their misunderstanding of his simple utterings. Soon, Chance has become a media sensation and is tipped for big things, possibly including Presidential office.

It would be fair for anyone who hasn't seen the film to read my synopsis and assume this is another movie about a working man whose grounded wisdom charms a nation. The difference is that Chance is not spouting  any 'home-spun truths', but answering questions posed to him with brief and meaningless maxims, taken from what little of life he has experienced and given greater meaning by a culture obsessed with catchphrases and soundbytes.

The folly of those who misjudge Chance is not that they've forgotten something in ascending the social ladder, but that despite (or even because of) the never-ending stream of information they absorb through television, radio, newspapers and so forth, what they do know is so jumbled and confused that Chance's inanely basic answers to complex questions appeal to their desire to make sense of it all. Take this exchange, for example:
President: Mr. Gardner, do you agree with Ben, or do you think that we can stimulate growth through temporary incentives?
[Long pause]
Chance: As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.
President: In the garden.
Chance: Yes. In the garden, growth has its seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.
President: Spring and summer.
Chance: Yes.
President: Then fall and winter.
Chance: Yes.
Benjamin Rand: I think what our insightful young friend is saying is that we welcome the inevitable seasons of nature, but we're upset by the seasons of our economy.
Chance: Yes! There will be growth in the spring!
Benjamin Rand: Hmm!
Chance: Hmm!
President: Hmm. Well, Mr. Gardner, I must admit that is one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements I've heard in a very, very long time.
At no point are we allowed the delusion that Chance is a wise man, or that his answers have any authentic real world meaning. Like a child, he picks up on words he can understand in questions he can't ('growth') and formulates his responses around them, regardless of context or meaning.

Yet to call him a child seems unfair, because Chance is not trying to become anything other than what he already is. He has found the knowledge he requires - how to tend a garden - and sees no need to become part of a world beyond the flowerbeds when he can watch it all safely from in front of a television set. He may not know much, but he is completely at peace with what little he does know. That serenity with himself makes him all the more fascinating and baffling to those who try and uncover his hidden depths, which aren't there because he has no need for them.

The only truth to Chance seems to be that he IS the television he watches so obsessively. He has no identity of his own, but for that which is projected onto him. Everyone looks to him for truth because he speaks about complex issues in simple terms that everyone can rationalise in the way they most desire, making him seem prophetic when all he really does is add to the confusion. For those seeking guidance for problems whose complexities they can barely fathom, his few words are misread as being trustworthy for being able to appear simplistic, when in fact that is all they are. 

Chance is the personification of the catchphrase culture of every news report ever aired or published, and the madness of an audience buying into the belief that gaps in knowledge can be filled through assumption. Can we fully understand economics or politics or war from the snippets offered on television? No, but it gives us just enough that we can make an 'educated' guess (ho ho) at how those things work and fill in the vagaries of what we want them to be like to fit our needs. As Chance's name would suggest, its true meaning is random, defined only by the interpretation of each member of the audience.

Peter Sellers pushed hard for the role, and it's easy to see why he felt he was a perfect fit. Off camera, he was famously unpredictable and difficult. On camera, he could throw himself completely into a new persona, becoming whatever the audience wanted from him. In the role of Chance, he portrays the blank slate before a persona is added. He is the man onto whom a moustache and manic French accent were added for his most famous role of Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies, the tragic element of the actor who could become everyone except himself. People venerate movie stars not for themselves, but the characters they portray. Chance too is worshipped not for who he is, but how he is seen by others.

The film's final scene encapsulates these themes with a calm, haunting beauty. Chance wanders off from Rand's funeral, where high-powered members of Washington society have decided he should be the next Presidential candidate, and finds a sprouting tree being crushed by a piece of wood. He redresses the tree, then looks out over the lake behind it, and walks across the water. 

It begs the audience to invest it with meaning: is he really a new messiah? Does he literally walk on water? What does it all mean? In a film all about how we interpret information that we cannot understand, the audience is given a closing image that can have no literal meaning. If he is to be seen as a messiah, his walking on water is interpreted through the lens of religion. If the act is symbolic, it is based on our assumptions about the film's unspoken meaning. 

For me, he walks across the lake because I am watching a film, and that is what he does. We process amazing fictions into a form of reality every time we visit the cinema, or watch television, or read the news. He is Chance the gardener, who redresses the tree and puts the garden in order as per his life's purpose, but became Chauncey Gardener, the man whose simple insight can change the course of a nation and who walks on water because his followers worship him in the same light the only other man in history recorded with the ability to do so - if we believe those records.

'Life is a state of mind,' say the final words in Rand's eulogy, as Chance tests the depth of the lake he is standing on with his umbrella. Make of that what you will.


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