I recently had the pleasure of re-watching the 1979 Hal Ashby classic, Being There. It stars an aging Peter Sellers and was the last film of his released during his lifetime. If you enjoy thoughtful stories with deep currents under their surface, this is a must-see, a best-of-breed. The film was critically acclaimed, and Sellers and the screenplay rightfully won a number of awards.
A core motif of the film is mistaken identity with hints of The Emperor’s New Clothes contrasted with our reaction to authenticity. It’s also a political satire and a look at the ever-growing relationship we have with television.
That’s a lot to bite off, but it does it almost flawlessly!
You can read more detail on the Wiki page, but basically the plot involves a character named Chance (Peter Sellers). No real last name is ever provided, and we are left to wonder at how he got the name, Chance. A tag line of the film is, “A story of Chance.”
As the plot unfolds, his self-identification as “Chance, the gardener” is mistaken for “Chauncey Gardiner” — a name that, of course, turns up no back history for those who end up investigating him.
Two important things about Chance are that he has never, in his entire life, left the confines of the townhouse in which he was born and where he works as gardener for “the old man.” The only other human in his life is the maid, Louise, who has raised him (Louise is an older black woman, clearly not his mother).
The other key thing about Chance is that, other than gardening, everything he knows comes from television, which he watches during all his waking hours. Any television program seems to compel his complete attention. He is, in almost every way, a middle-aged child.
The death of “the old man” forces Chance to leave the townhouse and venture, utterly unprepared and ignorant, into the outer world of Washington, D.C. (where the film takes place).
Everyone he encounters — with one notable exception — read into his innocence and ignorance their own ideas. Chance is an inkblot — there truly is nothing there but a smear of ink — but that lack of anything allows us to see our selves reflected back.
This seems to operate on two levels. Firstly, there is the idea from the fable The Emperor’s New Clothes. That ancient tale is about phonies and pretenders. No one — except an innocent young lad — is willing to say what they really see. Everyone plays the game of “going along” with what they’re supposed to believe.
I’ve long thought the fable plays out with some art critics, particularly some film critics. There is a complex language of film that experience and education teaches. One does learn to see the things behind the things. I’m not saying art or film criticism is always pretense.
But the danger of art analysis is reading yourself and your own ideas into what you see. Most art has some degree of ink blot property that enables this, some much more than others. Abstract and surreal art, for example.
[As an aside, I’ve never “gotten” the films of David Lynch. They seem like gibberish to me. And yet some critics rave over his films. I’ve never been sure if I’m just not astute enough to understand them, or if David Lynch is a naked emperor. I definitely lean towards the latter, but maybe they’re just above me.]
There is a second way to look at what happens when people encounter Chance (a name that is, ironically, absolutely is not chance).
There is nothing inauthentic about Chance. He is as pure and genuine as a human can be.
Sometimes, when confronted with an apparently naked emperor, calmness and authenticity lead us to an abiding certainty that we simply can’t see the clothes, that we have somehow missed the point.
[Which is exactly my dilemma with David Lynch… minus the authenticity. Lynch famously refuses to discuss or explain his films, and I — a life-long believer in clarity and explanation — find that very suspicious and definitely not authentic. I can’t help but think Lynch creates deliberate ink blots in which others see things. I just see… ink.]
In seeking that missing point, in looking for understanding in the ink blot, we find only ourselves. And yet Chance’s purity seems to open a door into our better selves. Those who interact with Chance seem to benefit from that interaction. It may be that Chance’s innate goodness, rather than his perspicacity, is what drives this.
A central idea expressed by Chance (and mistaken for meaning far more than it means) has to do with nurturing a garden and the inevitable change of seasons. But perhaps it is no mistake at all to enlarge Chance’s meaning this way. A very wealthy dying man (Melvyn Douglas), and his widow-to-be (Shirley MacLaine), both find peace and beauty through knowing Chance.
The one man who seems not to see his own reflection in Chance is a kindly medical doctor (played by Richard Dysart). The politicians (even the POTUS, Jack Warden) and the business-minded, in particular, fail to see the truth, and so does Eve Rand (MacLaine).
The doctor gradually comes to realize that what he sees is exactly what is there. Yet, due to Chance’s purity and innocence, this realization just explains a puzzle. It doesn’t discommode the doctor, but comforts him.
There are suggestions of a sort of divinity: We never meet Chance’s mother or hear about the circumstances of his birth. We never meet “the old man” he works for except after his death. Just to be clear, two old men die during the film: “the old man” — Chance’s employer (father?) — and Ben Rand, who adopts Chance (second father?).
We have no real sense of Chance’s past and upbringing. He is as much tabula rasa to us as he is to others. It’s the final scene makes it hard to ignore the idea that Chance is something special, perhaps even something divine.
Attending the funeral of Ben Rand (Eve’s husband, and isn’t “Rand” a suggestive name), Chance wanders away from the service (while the pall bearers quietly discuss the idea of making Chance the next President — something that, if you think it through, would probably lead to his “crucifixion” by the media, politicians, and public).
Alone in the woods, Chance removes a large dead branch from a small evergreen and straightens — nurtures — the little tree. He pauses, then, looking out over a small lake and then walks out over the water towards some tree branches growing from the lake.
At one point he pauses and sticks his umbrella down into the water all the way to the handle. Then he continues to walk out across the water, and that is the final image of the film.
Which all begs the question: Huh?!
Can Chance walk on water because he doesn’t know any better? That seems a stretch for a gardener. The bit can’t help but evoke the idea of the one other guy who famously walked on water.
The bit with the umbrella is what really intrigues me. What does it suggest about Chance’s understanding of walking on water? Is he surprised? (He’s too far away to see the expression on his face.) Is he merely testing the depth, or playing like a child?
We, like everyone who meets Chance, are left to see ourselves and our own ideas reflected back to us. And, also like everyone else in the film, we tend to be uplifted by that reflection. Perhaps Chance is a mirror for our better selves.
Being There touches us and makes us think and leaves us joyful. And perhaps there is a greater lesson to be had about our own approach to the world, our own (often lost) innocence, and our own child-like nature.
Incidentally, you might want to skip the credits at the end. They roll over a long outtake where Peter Sellers is delivering (or trying to) a funny bit of monologue in a dead-pan voice. He fails again and again. It’s very humorous, but it completely breaks the fourth wall of the film and steps on the mood established by the final scene. Maybe stop the film at that point and watch it later.
I’ll leave you with a bit from the film. Music is used sparingly. What little does appear is mostly classical, but the single notable exception is a really tasty jazz rendition of Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra by Brazilian musician Eumir Deodato. The music is used under the scenes where Chance leaves the townhouse for the outer world. That is, when he is born. It’s a great piece of music and a great fit to that part of the film.