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?
      When some of his students attempted to explain the last scene—where the hero appears to be standing on water—suggesting that perhaps he was walking on a submerged pier, film critic Roger Ebert responded: “The movie presents us with an image, while you may discuss the meaning of the image, it is not permitted to devise explanations for it. Since Ashby does not show a pier, there is no pier—a movie is exactly what it shows us, and nothing more.”
      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. 
     Yet knowing that only reinforces what I feel about this work and its dishonesty. It is, ultimately, a mirror game which has no possible basis in the reality it pretends. And it becomes increasingly impossible to comprehend everyone’s sexual and intellectual attraction to this character’s smiling but bland looking face. Gradually, the entire endeavor begins to fall like a house of cards. Even its title seems to be hiding something from us. We want naturally to ask “being where?” And not quite knowing even where I have actually been by film’s end I am always left in something of a quandary; feeling a bit like the young lawyer who feels he’s been made a fool through his interview with Chance early in the film, I take my pleasure in this movie as a bit of a slap on the face.

*Apparently Sellers was opposed to the after-credits showing of an outtake, generally called the “Rafael episode,” in which the actor, in take after take, was unable to speak his lines in character, breaking out time and again in laughter as he attempted to utter his ludicrous dialogue. Although it’s wonderful to watch this, I can well understand his objections to it, for it reveals just how ridiculous was the “reality” of the film, and how broad the satire really was. The only thing that kept other such situations at bay was Sellers’ absolute dead-pan presentation of his lines.


Los Angeles, April 14, 2016

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