Jan 11

Being There (1979)

At one point during the film, the financial editor of the Washington Post asks Chance (Peter Sellers), the protagonist: “Are you there?” The latter casually replies: “Yes, I’m here.” Chance is no doubt unaware of the existential weight of his answer. In fact, to anyone meeting Chance for the first time, it may seem like there is no one “there” at all, for he is a simple man, with an even simpler outlook on life. He loves watching television, and is inexplicably drawn to gardening. That is it. That is all that he is. No more. He is physically there, but he’s not paying much attention.

In his thoughtful analysis of the film, Roger Ebert (1997) observes: “The movie provides no diagnosis of [Chance’s] condition. He is able to respond to given cues, and can, within limits, adapt and learn.” It is true that we do not understand Chance, and that he is unlike most of us. When faced with something (or someone) we do not understand, our immediate reaction is typically to categorize or label, in other words, bring meaning to the unknown. While none of the characters attempt to label or diagnose Chance’s behavior, they only become attuned to him once his name is, well, re-tuned. Chance, that powerful event-altering force, is whitewashed into the less intimidating Chauncey Gardiner. While this re-naming happens through a misunderstanding, it is the moment in which Chance suddenly becomes relevant and valuable to the world around him. Indeed, Being There is less about (or not at all about) Chance, and more about (or entirely about) what people do with him.

Chance is the kind of character that you do not forget, probably because there is something indefinably archetypal about him. This is fitting, after all, as he is named after Opportunity itself, which is exactly what he gives the people lucky enough to cross paths with him: an occasion to think, and to think differently. The successful integration of an abstract force into a painfully ordinary man is a credit to screenwriter Jerzy Kosinski’s nuanced writing, and Sellers’s understated performance, which deservedly earned him an Oscar nomination.

Directed by Hal Ashby, and based off Kosinski’s own book, the film tells a rather simple story. Chance, having led a sheltered life as a gardener in his employer’s house, is evicted when the latter dies. Through a fortuitous encounter with Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine), he is given shelter in her expansive mansion. Her prominent husband, Ben (Melvyn Douglas), who happens to be dying, finds Chance a welcome addition to his last days. He introduces Chance to the president of the United States (Jack Warden), and Chance inadvertently becomes an influential financial advisor. Everyone who meets Chance is enamored by him, and if they are somewhat confounded by him, they quickly fill in the blanks and assume they understand what he has just said. As the film nears its end, Chance has become an international mystery of sorts; people, the media, and governments from around the world struggle to define him. Who is he? Everyone wants to know. Where is he from? No one finds out.

Chance involuntarily encourages people to see things, everything, simply. Perhaps because he tends to reflect people’s words back to them, people come to see in him a part of themselves and what they desire. Indeed, people interpret his passion for gardening as a hopeful metaphor promising better things to come. Chance’s metaphors can potentially clarify and elucidate the big issues of Life, provided that those who embrace them never forget that they are allegorical simplifications. There appears to be a danger, however, that his metaphors may confuse and misrepresent when those who embrace them do not recognize their limitations. As with the metaphor of mental illness (see Thomas Szasz’s The Myth of Mental Illness, 1961), when the characters do not understand that the frameworks they place on Chance’s ambiguous statements are merely adopted frameworks rather than Truth itself, they mistakenly attribute more to the metaphors than is reasonable. This muddies the waters of reality, and threatens to take away from Chance’s simple purity.

The sense of simplicity within Being There is endearing. The film is refreshingly minimalist in its approach, which is perfectly suited for its rich material. I shudder to think what the film would have been like had another director taken it on: likely a frenetically-paced and gag-laden mess. Here, however, everything is carefully and tastefully conveyed. The misunderstandings between Chance and other characters, for example, are never played for laughs. Sure, they put a smile to your face, but they do not serve to deride Chance or his confused companions, instead helping the audience fall for him, much in the same way as the characters on screen.

Although the tone of the ending stands at odds with that of the rest of the film, the transition feels so seamless that we accept what we see with no reservations. The final scene is surprising, and with this image, the film appears to comment on religion. As with Jesus, the world has become desperately infatuated with Chance, and in a similar way, the world has profoundly invested itself into him.

If Chance is understood to be a wise figure, then religion is portrayed as a legitimate answer to life’s mysteries. To me, however, there is a crucial difference between Chance and Jesus, in that Chance has no motivation nor is he on a special mission. Rather, Chance just is. And by just being (there), he mirrors humanity and reveals to us certain truths about ourselves in a dispassionate and, therefore, purer way. Chance does not pander or trivialize. The fact that he has no idea what he is saying only adds to his message; indeed, it is precisely because his message is so devoid of intention that it is able to carry so much meaning. Being unobtrusive, Chance allows us to see in him not only what we want to see, but what we so desperately need to see as well. Chance’s answers to life’s mysteries are our answers to life’s mysteries.

If Chance is understood to be no more than a dimwit, however, religion is portrayed as the simple man’s answer to life’s mysteries. It cannot be escaped that Chance is ultimately a light-minded man with nothing intentionally wise to offer. Perhaps, then, dimness is the secret to the ability to walk on water, so to speak.

Suffice it to say, Being There operates on several levels at once. However, after a second viewing, making sense of the film is no less exasperating. Despite encouraging multiple levels of meaning, the film suggests that there is no inherent, only subjective, meaning to life and the universe. The film itself mimics the process of assigning meaning where no objective meaning exists. My boyfriend was reminded of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (1957), a play that begs for interpretation every step of the way, but refuses to allow a satisfyingly coherent interpretation of the story’s metaphors and events. The audience is left with a mishmash of potential meanings, but never a fully-packaged understanding that would ease the discomfort of experiencing something inherently meaningless. While intriguing, this feature makes neither Being There nor Endgame a particularly pleasant viewing experience.

Chance (or Random Luck) not only drives the plot of the film, but also inadvertently dictates what happens to each character. Each character, too, is an archetype representing a different social system, including Science/Medicine, Government, Relationships, Business, and the Media. All attempt to capitalize on Chance, but refuse to admit this, possibly because it would be too overwhelming to face this reality. Similarly, we want to believe that all is meaningful and intentional, but nothing really is. Chance is just chance.  We can assign meaning to randomness (and the film might suggest this is not a bad way to live), but this certainly does not ensure that random variation in the Universe will ever be within our control.

Upon reflection, the closing scene of Being There is not as surprising as one that takes place after the death of the character named Ben. Ben’s doctor (Richard Dysart), representing Science, is the only one to figure out that Chance is truly a simple man, not the enigmatic philosopher everyone thinks he is. However, Dr. Allenby chooses to let Ben die thinking that Chance is a brilliant man; this comforts Ben, providing him repose. Following Ben’s death, the typically inexpressive Chance exhibits an emotion for the first time. Something has happened in Chance, something we suspect has never happened to him before. Perhaps Chance is grateful that a man died having never realized the truth about him. By blinding himself to the simplicity of Chance, Ben has elevated Chance to something greater than chance, infusing him with Meaning he does not inherently own. This is emotional stuff, for do we not cling to and cherish our own Meanings?

Being There takes place in winter. In his influential The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), the philosopher Thomas Kuhn described a rhythm to science, where hypotheses about our world and its mysteries are cyclically updated as time progresses. Likewise, there is a rhythm to Life itself. Chance methodically explains: “First comes Spring and Summer, but then we have Fall and Winter. And then we get Spring and Summer again.” Before the credits roll, we are told: Life is a state of mind. And if there is no inherent meaning to the Universe (besides meaning that is deliberately assigned), are all realities equally valid? If all is equally accurate (or equally inaccurate), which state of mind (or hypothesis) should we favor?

Note: I would like to thank Caleb Lloyd for discussing Being There with me, and for helping me, in the process, extend my thoughts about the film. This review would not have been possible without him.

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