Thursday, April 14, 2016
Hal Ashby | Being There
by Douglas Messerli
Jerzy Kosiński with Robert C. Jones [uncredited] (screenplay, based on the book by Kosiński), Hall Ashby (director) Being There / 1979
But Chance (Peter Sellers), the “old man’s” gardener, is not just any innocent young man, but a near-idiot who has experienced the world only through the media. He does not even know what death means, and the television shows he watches are just things of moving action with utterly no narrative or meaning to him. Accordingly he is a permanent child, with little possibility of finding his way in the world; indeed, he does not even comprehend that the old man’s death might mean that he must leave the safety of the “house.”
The fact that this fool’s life should be so blessed also transforms him into a kind of Christ, often described as the holy fool—foolish, in the sense, for Christ’s total commitment to belief and his inexplicable love for all mankind.
By work’s end, he is seen, as in one of Christ’s most significant miracles, seemingly standing on water, while those burying the dead Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas) whisper about the possibility of helping to put Chance (renamed, by mistake, Chauncey Gardiner by Rand’s younger wife Eve [Shirley MacLaine]) into the White House.
Because the excellent cast, acting at top pitch, Being There, with these possible levels of significance, appears, accordingly to be a very entertaining myth: satire, fable, religious story, and even political commentary seem to come together effortlessly, particularly given the total convincingness of Seller’s character. As MacLaine has commented on Seller’s acting: "(Peter) believed he was Chauncey. He never had lunch with me... He was Chauncey Gardiner the whole shoot, but believing he was having a love affair with me."
I completely disagree. As Murat Nemat-Nejat has argued for photography (The Pheripheral Space of Photography), the most interesting aspects of a picture are often what are just out of the frame or hidden within the image itself. So too in film: it often greatly matters what the writer or director does not say or show, what he didn’t mean to say or show, or didn’t even know he was saying or showing us.
We know that a fable is not the same as a realist tale, but when this writer and director attempt to tell a fable through realist images, scenes from actual media broadcasts, and locations in very real place (in this case Washington, D.C. and environs), we naturally question the logic of inexplicable scenes such as the one above. We cannot help but wonder why Chance has been living his entire life in the old man’s house, and what was his relationship to the old man? Why does he believe that his bed faces in a direction other than it actually does? If he is allowed to wear the old man’s suits, what was his connection to him? Was he possibly the old man’s son? Even if we presume that the “old man” represents God the father, Chance being the holy son, how might we then explain God’s death? Is this work a secret Nietzschean commentary?
And if we cannot answer those questions (indeed to answer them might erase the sense of this being a fable), how do we explain all the other inconsistences with the world we know and the one imagined in the film. Is everybody in Washington, D.C. equally deluded? How can such a flesh and blood idiot—and Seller’s performance does indeed make him come to life*—happen to live in such a fairy tale world? It is, obviously, a highly constructed lie that, when played out in a realist context, helps to create the discontinuity we feel, and which, in turn, results in our laughter. Of course, this is not a real world; Being There is a satire dressed up as an experience close enough to “real” life that we recognize the near-truth of some of its targets.