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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Hal Ashby | Being There


being where?
by Douglas Messerli

Jerzy Kosiński with Robert C. Jones [uncredited] (screenplay, based on the book by Kosiński), Hall Ashby (director) Being There / 1979

Hal Ashby’s Being There, based on the fiction by Polish writer Jerzy Kosiński, represents several overlaying stories and genres. At its base, it is a fable about becoming an adult. The Father (a kind of god) dies, forcing the innocent son to go out in the world and become what he was destined to become. 
     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 his adventures into the real world, despite his simple-minded skills at social interaction, quickly leads to living in one the wealthiest homes in the country and, soon after, an entry into the political world that involves giving advice to the President, turns Kosińki’s tale into a quite cynical view of wealth, white bigotry, and politics. Those at the top of the society are clearly the most gullible, filling in Chance’s simple responses with their own words and thoughts, presuming that his comments on gardening are metaphors predicting shifts in the economy and the quite literal “room above” is a comment on heaven. 
     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 of Chance’s complete immersion in media—time and again he states, “I like to watch”—director Ashby, moreover, fills this film with images of ads, cartoons, news, and other daily distractions which suggest how most Americans have lost their ability to recognize the difference between idiocy and deep knowledge, allowing the film to function as a satire of modern-day American culture. One of the grandest mansions in the country—the Biltmore Estate near Asheville, North Carolina serving as the Rand’s home—sits next door to a dive-in Hamburger stand, suggesting that American democracy has failed to make distinctions between the meaningful and meaningless, between the exalted and the crassly commercial.
      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."
      Yet I have also felt, the many times I’ve watched this film, that there is something phony about its various messages, that in its total cynicism of the political world—even though we might truly despise politics and politicians these days—the comedy gradually turns sour. Can we really believe that the only truly sane people in this world are the old man’s black servant (Ruth Attaway) and the Rand’s personal doctor (Richard Dysart)? Perceiving that truth, how can the servant simply leave such a man, incapable for caring for himself, without telling someone?; why doesn’t the doctor, when he perceives Chauncey is truly a gardener, not a Gardiner, tell Rand’s widow, who apparently is planning to marry him or, at least, keep him as a permanent guest in her vast house?