#19 — Being There (Hal Ashby, 1979)
A few months ago, I wrote about Hal Ashby’s Being There, proposing it as an excellent choice for the film geek debate over which work represented the true end of the artistic boom in American cinema during the nineteen-seventies. In rewatching the film in preparation for that piece, my first viewing in many years, I was struck by the enduring pertinence of its most scathing points. It’s not prescient in the manner of, say, Robert Altman’s Nashville. In fact, one of the film’s great strengths is how firmly it’s set in own time in telling the story of a simple gardener named Chance, played with tender grace by the great Peter Sellers. But in the savage indictment of the politics, media and easily manipulated public of American society, Ashby created a work that has a dismaying longevity in its aghast honest.
The story begins as Chance’s longtime employer, referred to only as “the Old Man,” has died. Presumably because of Chance’s gentle nature, intellectual lacking and complete absence of cunning, his boss and benefactor perpetuated a withdrawal from the world, apparently encouraging Chance to remain locked safely in the the rambling mansion he helped tend. Chance’s only exposure to the outside world is through the television, which he watches with a rapt placidity, changing channels on a whim, occasionally parroting the words he hears but never engaging with what he sees in a way that suggests he’s processing or retaining any of the information being broadcast.
When Chance is cast out of the rambling home, circumstance brings him into the life of a wealthy industrialist named Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas, who won his second Oscar for the role), living out his last days with a profound distaste for the erosion of America he sees. When Chance blandly shares the knowledge he has from decades of tending a garden, Rand mistakes it, almost willfully, for metaphorical profundities about how to heal a wounded, aching nation. Rand introduces Chance to his powerful friends and the unassuming man becomes a media hero to the moneyed interests who are really pulling the strings behind the government figures who supposedly rose to prominence by the collective will of the people. It just so happens that the collective will in question is caressed and coerced into shape at the very top. The system isn’t rigged. It’s far worse than that: the rich have figured out how to turn democracy on itself, conning the populace to cast votes against their own interest. Emptiness in a political figure is the greatest virtue because the electorate will simply impose their own preferred views upon the human void. Chance says all things by saying nothing at all.
Being There is based on Jerzy Kosinski’s 1971 novella of the same name, and the author wrote the adapted screenplay (with a little help from Ashby’s regular collaborator Robert C. Jones, though he wasn’t officially credited). Sellers had reportedly been trying to get the film made for the years and a shared passion for the material is evident throughout the film. There’s a striking delicacy to the satire, a prevailing sense that any misstep could tragically unbalance the fable-like tale. Paradoxically, that great care opens the film up for moments of great daring, most notably the final scene, which finds Chance literally walking on water. Ashby resolutely refuses to spell out the purpose of this choice, leaving it as an image that is largely inscrutable and yet feels infused with thematic power. I like to think of it as Ashby infusing Chance’s phantom attributes onto the film itself: when there’s no ready, clear explanation, the inevitable result is a mad rush to impose great meaning. After spending two hours laughing at the dupes who find Chance’s inanities the height of statesmanlike authority, the audience becomes the final collection of suckers, happily corralled into seeing the character as something more than he actually is.