Posts Tagged ‘Comedy’

Film theorist David Bordwell, author of such notable books as Narration in the Fiction Film (1985) and Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (1987), identifies four key features of film criticism: description, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation. Of the fourth critical activity, he asks that we consider the following slight, yet consequential, distinction:

[Evaluation] encompasses both judgment and taste. Taste is what gives you a buzz. There’s no accounting for it, we’re told, and a person’s tastes can be wholly unsystematic and logically inconsistent. Among my favorite movies are The Hunt for Red October, How Green Was My Valley, Choose Me, Back to the Future, Song of the South, Passing Fancy, Advise and Consent, Zorns Lemma, and Sanshiro Sugata. I’ll also watch June Allyson, Sandra Bullock, Henry Fonda, and Chishu Ryu in almost anything. I’m hard-pressed to find a logical principle here. (2011, p. 57; italics in original)

Judgment, on the other hand, operates beyond the subjective realm of personal preference, and within the (comparatively) objective realm of technical and artistic criteria. To have a productive discussion about film, Bordwell explains, that exchange must mainly (but not necessarily exclusively) base itself on “intersubjective standards and discernible things going on in [a] movie” (e.g., technical ability, thematic depth, creativity, emotional structure), as opposed to “whether you got a buzz from it and I didn’t” (p. 58). Indeed, “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it at all” won’t get you very far conversation-wise.

Films we enjoy but that aren’t considered particularly good when measured against higher-order criteria are collectively referred to as “guilty pleasures.” Many of us have them; few of us admit to having them. But if someone as distinguished as David Bordwell can say he’ll watch almost anything with Sandra Bullock in it, the rest of us can certainly do the same without shame. And so, in this spirit, I dedicate this post to my favorite guilty pleasure of all time. The question is: which one to choose? I could go with Miner’s delightfully kitschy Lake Placid (1999), or even Meyer’s delightfully corny The Holiday (2006). Or how about Hill’s equally silly Muppet vehicle Muppets from Space (1999)? No, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it right. So let’s go with my granddaddy of all guilty pleasures: Wolf’s The House Bunny (2008). You must understand: this is difficult for me to confess. While I’ve never shied away from, say, admitting I’ve watched pornography in my life, I’ve purposefully avoided ever talking about watching (not to mention *gasp* owning) Wolf’s irresistibly terrible film about a Playboy Bunny with a good heart. What movies have I seen recently, you ask? Why, I’ve just gone through all ten films from Kieslowski’s Dekalog (1989), being such a fan of his subsequent Trois couleurs trilogy (1993-1994). Oh, and what else? Um… OK, ok: The House Bunny. For the seventh time.

For reasons that will become clear shortly, The House Bunny doesn’t really lend itself to interpretation. Thus, I instead focus my review of the film on description, a bit of analysis, and, save for a few ventures into judgment, the “taste” component of evaluation. First, though, how did The House Bunny fare with critics? The comedy currently holds a 42% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. What do my two favorite film reviewers have to say about it, specifically? Roger Ebert didn’t even bother seeing it. As for James Berardinelli, who awarded the film one star out of four, his review starts like so:

The House Bunny has a screenplay written with ten-year olds in mind about a subject that deserves an R-rating. The resulting hodgepodge of unfunny, sophomoric humor and PG-13 T&A, frosted by a sheen of appallingly nauseous “drama,” makes for such a noxious brew that it’s amazing viewers stay in their seats for the entire production. Then again, it takes absorption of the full 100 minutes for the movie’s vomit-inducing power to become evident. (Berardinelli, 2008)

There you have it. This is the film that somehow managed past my quality filters.

The screenplay to The House Bunny, which Berardinelli so voraciously tears into, was penned by screenwriting duo Kirsten Smith and Karen McCullah Lutz. (Incidentally, this is also the pair behind the lawmedy Legally Blonde, Luketic, 2001, which spawned Legally Blonde: The Musical, Mitchell, 2007, my top theatrical guilty pleasure). It tells the tale of Shelley Darlington (Anna Faris), who is living the good life in the Playboy Mansion. While she is only now a lowly Playboy Bunny, she dreams of one day becoming a full-fledged Playboy Playmate. One morning, she is rather inexplicably ordered to leave the Mansion. At first devastated, she eventually finds a new home in a sorority house, where she must act as “house mother” to a bunch of socially awkward and drab-looking sisters. Being so unpopular, the sisters have brought their sorority to the edge of extinction: their university is threatening to shut them down if they don’t find more pledges. With her knowledge of what it takes to be cool and throw awesome parties, Darlington vows to help her new family find new members and save their home.

The House Bunny features an absurd storyline that unfolds in an entirely standard way: girl is happy, first obstacle takes happiness away from girl, girl finds new and better source of happiness, second obstacle takes happiness away from girl, girl is happy again. What else can be said of The House Bunny? Its soundtrack is laden with popular tunes, one of which plays over, of all aberrations, a makeover montage. And its message is borderline sexist: if you’re a woman and want people to pay attention to you, perhaps even respect you as a person, you better be pretty and wear sexy clothes.

And yet, despite all this, I keep coming back to it. Why? Because of how the film makes me feel. Whatever its faults—and I am the first to admit there are many—The House Bunny is a friendly and good-natured movie. It means so well, it is hard to blame it for being so bland and misguided. There is also one scene in The House Bunny that makes me laugh, and laugh hard. (I’m not kidding: harder even than the kitten that thinks of nothing but murder all day.) Every time I watch it, I end up rolling on the floor. I won’t say anything more about the scene, except that it involves a guttural mnemonic device Darlington uses to remember the names of people she meets for the first time.

I cannot guarantee The House Bunny will make you feel the way it makes me feel. Given this, is there anything observable about the film that makes it worth seeing? Most of what is on display within The House Bunny makes it very difficult to recommend as a worthwhile rental. That is, except for one thing: Anna Faris’ performance as Shelley Darlington. Ultimately, I don’t think I would keep returning to The House Bunny if Faris weren’t in it. She infuses Darlington with such bubbly optimism and genuinely good intentions, it is hard not to fall for both actress and character. (While she is not the only aspect responsible for the film’s affable quality, she remains a major source of it.) A welcome bonus, the cast also features another delightful actress, the striking Emma Stone. While Stone has gone on to play in much better films, like The Scarlett Letter-inspired Easy A (Gluck, 2010), Faris has unfortunately not been so lucky. Still, she can always count on me to watch any title carrying her name.

Just in case you think less of me now—and I wouldn’t blame you if you did—I am going to conclude this post by saying smart-sounding things, things which will hopefully boost your brain’s newly adjusted measure of my IQ. In Act II of The House Bunny, Darlington undergoes an intellectual makeover to impress a boy she fancies. By the end of my conclusion, I hope to have salvaged your impression of me to the point you think me at least as smart as Darlington, v.2.0! So here we go…

We have so far encountered in this post two sorts of films: a) films that we like but aren’t good (otherwise known as “guilty pleasures”) and b) films that are good (often referred to as “masterpieces” or, in time, “classics”). But, what of the role of enjoyment in that second category? I submit that this second class of film can further be divided into two subordinate categories: a) films that are good and we like, and b) films that are good and we don’t like (either at all or enough to revisit).

The second, mixed experience can occur when a good film provokes within us an unpleasant experience, like disorientation, frustration, or emotional pain. (While there is nothing wrong with not liking a film because it made us feel unpleasant things, this outcome should never bear on whether we judge the film to be good or bad. For those who are turned off by films which create uncomfortable states of feeling, and who wonder whether they can distinguish how a movie made them feel from how good or bad it is, Solondz’s brilliant, but challenging, dark comedy Happiness, 1998, happens to provide a perfect test of this ability.) For me, however, this second, mixed experience occurs for one reason only, and a nebulous one at that: I just didn’t “connect” with the material, however good it may be. Feelings of disorientation, frustration, or emotional pain will usually not prevent a sense of connection; in fact, they may very well promote it. Thus, by “connect,” I suppose I mean I feel like I have been impacted in some meaningful and seemingly permanent way.

Generally, the extent to which a film appeals to my aesthetic sensibilities (i.e., to which its many disparate, but interconnected, components are dispassionately perceived as technically and artistically accomplished) will determine whether I believe it to be good, and the extent to which a film appeals to my emotional sensibilities (i.e., to which it causes me to feel, or even think, passionately) will determine whether I like it. Films that only accomplish the former task are usually films I believe to be good, but do not like; films that only accomplish the latter task are usually “guilty pleasures”; and films that accomplish both tasks are usually films I both believe are good and that I like.

Of course, failings relating to the first task may overwhelm successes relating to the second: for example, while certain moments within Hadashi no Gen (Nakazawa, 1983) successfully compel the audience to consider what it was like to live in the aftermath of the Hiroshima atomic bombing, these deeply affecting moments are regrettably embedded within an overall clumsy narrative that ultimately diminishes their post-credits resonance (and certainly renders any comparisons to Hotaru no Haka, Takahata, 1988, absolutely moot). How the first task is carried out may also directly impact the success of the second: for example, the carefully constructed eerie mood of the gothic chiller The Innocents (Clayton, 1964) results in a more textured and ultimately satisfying sense of dread than the cheap scare tactics of most modern horror flicks. (The House Bunny’s infectious cheerfulness, on the other hand, appears miraculously immune to the contrived workings of a worn-out plot.)

An additional complication: because what speaks to us often varies depending on what is happening in our lives at the moment, films I don’t connect with now, I may connect with later. I predict, however, that films I connect with now, I will always connect with in some way or another. Even if a film stops speaking to me like it once did, the nostalgic memory that this film once left an impression on me will forever remain, indirectly satisfying my emotional sensibilities when re-watching it.

Just a few months ago, I compiled a list of films I both think are good and enjoy enough to revisit in the future. While I’ve never judged a film to be good and also not liked it at all, I’ve judged many films to be good and also not liked them enough to revisit them. For example, while watching Godard’s Bande à part (1964), my knowledge of standards regarding what constitutes competent filmmaking told me this film was impressively close to perfection. While I now fantasize about running through the Louvre in less than 9 minutes and 43 seconds, the film however didn’t speak to me on a deeper, more personal level. And so, I decided not to include it in my list of “good films that I also like.” The same reasoning excluded Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Truffaut’s Les 400 coups (1959), Fellini’s (1963), Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971), Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), Malle’s My Dinner With Andre (1984), etc.

While each of these films was undeniably aesthetically satisfying, I didn’t, as Bordwell puts it in an earlier quote, get a buzz from them. Of course, I still believe that a life lived without having once experienced each of these films has, in some small way, been wasted. According to my records, however, I watch over 100 new films a year, which leaves very little time for repeated viewings. And so, when I do find time in my schedule to watch films again, I typically prefer to revisit those I have so far connected with. The visceral sense of satisfaction these films provide compels me to choose them over films I am only able to appreciate on a cerebral level. And because I’ve connected with both good and bad films, these return visits may very well include anything from Haneke’s Der siebente Kontinent (1989), a powerfully cogent indictment of modern living, to, well, The House Bunny.

Reference

Bordwell, D. (2011). In critical condition. In D. Bordwell & K. Thompson (Eds.), Minding movies: Observations on the art, craft, and business of filmmaking (pp. 53-62). Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. (Chapter also available on David Bordwell’s Website on Cinema.)

On July 20th, an armed man walked into a midnight screening of the just released The Dark Knight Rises, and opened fire into the crowded theater, killing 12 people and wounding 58 others. In the wake of the massacre, the film’s director, Christopher Nolan, expressed “sorrow at the senseless tragedy,” adding: “I believe movies are one of the great American art forms and the shared experience of watching a story unfold on screen is an important and joyful pastime. The movie theatre is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me.” That someone turned out to be named James Holmes. While his identity is now known to the world, his motive remains a mystery. (And it is likely to remain so, even after many “experts” inevitably begin to pronounce themselves on the matter with apparent finality.) So, why would anyone commit such a vicious act against fellow humans? In The Dark Knight (2008), Alfred educates his master: “Some men just want to see the world burn.” Should that be the case, this is hardly a reassuring thought.

As Nolan implies in his statement, Holmes has infringed upon our sense of safety. By turning a movie theater—a place where we usually feel secure—into a death trap, he has reminded us we are never really totally out of harm’s way. In the cruelest way possible, he has reminded us of our inherent vulnerability. Through his senseless deed, perhaps Holmes has achieved something even more deplorable. Faced with actions such as those committed by men like him, we begin to question the current state of our society. We wonder: Is the world going to shit? In this way, Holmes has caused us to lose not only perspective, but also pride in ourselves and faith in our ongoing achievements. While we cannot reclaim the lives of those fellow humans Holmes stole from us, we still have the power to reclaim from him our self-image. We must contemplate with awe (and even respect) the destructive power of Homo sapiens, our ability to wreak so much havoc and pain. Still, we must never forget: since our humble beginnings as prehistoric cavemen, we have, from century to century, managed to slowly strip violence away from the fabric of our lives. When we decide to destroy, we can be darn good at it. Still, growing up as a species, we have been resisting this “talent” of ours more and more.

The fact of the matter is: while there certainly remains ample room for improvement, we live in the least violent century since man first became man. For a timely and ultimately comforting argument that supports this conclusion, see psychologist Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011). It is, of course, impossible to predict whether this downward trend in violence will continue to progress. If our past is any indication, however, our future looks rather promising. At 696 pages, Pinker’s book is a voluminous document amounting to a lengthy read. To restore your faith in humanity in a fraction of the time it would take to make your way through Better Angels, however, you cannot do better than watching director Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre, an endearing film about good people doing good things. I do not mean to be dismissive here: Le Havre is not a run-of-the-mill feel-good movie. There is absolutely nothing trite or corny about it, and I mean absolutely nothing at all. Le Havre does not revel in the goodness of humans, at least in a sickly sweet sort of way: it merely seeks to showcase it, for our benefit, and, in light of current events, our reassurance.

Le Havre is a modern-day fairy-tale. Our hero is Marcel Marx (André Wilms), an old bohemian who wanders the streets of the titular city, offering his services as a shoe-shiner. His wife, Arletty (Kati Outinen), tends to their home while he is away during the day, until she falls deathly ill and must be hospitalized for intensive treatment. On one fateful day, Marcel meets Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), a young illegal immigrant from Gabon, on the run from authorities seeking to deport him. With the help of his devoted neighbors, Marcel attempts to help Idrissa make his way to London, where his family waits for him.

Stylistically, Le Havre resembles the films of Wes Anderson, in that most of its characters display little affect. Anderson’s films, however, can be alienating: not only do his characters act as if little is happening inside of them, it is rarely clear whether something is actually happening inside of them. As a result, it is hard to feel connected to his characters. Marcel and company, on the other hand, are fully engaging. Under the sentimentally flat surface of Le Havre writhes a wellspring of tender emotion: its principle characters, while not emotionally demonstrative, are men and women of palpable integrity who evidently love and respect each other, as demonstrated by their willingness to stand together in the face of social adversity. And because each character in Le Havre feels they are undeserving of the affection they have been graced with, their lives seem to burn with good fortune. While the visual content of each frame may feature little warmth, these frames manage to soothe and replenish the heart. Indeed, there is something undeniably invigorating about Le Havre: I felt intoxicated after watching it, as if fully enveloped by a warm, pulsating glow.

As humans, we are sensitive to facial expressions, since they carry so much meaningful information. Typically, when watching a film, a significant portion of our attention is allocated to interpreting characters’ faces. This process often results in an emotional reaction in the audience that is either in line or discordant with an emoting character’s inner experience. In fact, to facilitate this reaction, directors often resort to close-ups, which invite us to inspect faces with greater precision. Le Havre allows us to deduce its characters’ psychical experiences in other ways, almost exclusively through easily interpretable words and gestures. By flattening characters’ affect, the film also allows us to deviate some of the attention we usually allocate to the interpretation of faces toward how these words and gestures are making us feel, thereby amplifying the feeling (that of being touched) in the process.

Le Havre will almost surely nurse your faith in humanity back to health, or at the very least give it a small, meaningful boost. Such faith, however, is not blind. It is based on an empirically demonstrable reality: under the right circumstances, humans can be a kind and gentle species. In fact, as we are carried forward in time, and conditions become more and more conducive to the development of our moral character, we appear to take the bait and grow even kinder and gentler. In these concerning times, when ruinous human action brings us to doubt and question our own value, without actual cause, we should all be thankful for and seek out films like Kaurismäki’s Le Havre: watching them allows us to escape and free ourselves, at least only for a moment, from the rapacious tyranny of unwarranted moral self-castigation.

Paul comes to us from the minds of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the comedic duo at the heart of the riotous Shawn of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007). Like these two preceding adventures, it does not disappoint. Directed by Greg Mottola, Paul is a particular sort of comedy. In an age when comedies try so hard to elicit nonstop laughs from their audiences, its ambitions prove, surprisingly, a little more modest: while Paul may not make you laugh out loud more than a few times, it will definitely put a smile on your face from opening to closing credits. A most welcome thing.

Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Collings (Frost) are two sci-fi enamored gentlemen from England, who travel to America to attend Comic-Con, the renowned comic book convention, and afterward travel from town to town in a rented RV, exploring famous UFO sites. On their way, they expectedly cross paths with an actual alien named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), on the run from men-in-black type agents. The agents’ mission: capture and return Paul to the military base where he has been kept captive since he crash-landed on Earth several decades ago. Moved by Paul’s story, Graeme and Clive vow to help him return home. The trio is eventually joined by Ruth Buggs (played by the consistently hilarious Kristen Wiig), the daughter of a trailer-park owner. While Graeme, Clive and Paul are perfectly likeable characters, Buggs effectively steals the show and the big laughs, undergoing an amusing transformation from fundamentalist Christian to levelheaded agnostic on the journey.

While the story is fairly standard, the execution is flawless. Paul is a road movie, following its characters from point A to point B. To be sure, this has been done and redone. But Paul doesn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel here, opting instead to do the road movie justice. I remember watching an episode of Cupcake Wars on the Food Network where the judges told the contestants: if you insist on baking us a vanilla cupcake, go right ahead, but in this competition, it better be the best vanilla cupcake we’ve ever tasted. I believe this philosophy applies to most artistic endeavors: if you’re going to do something that’s already been done, go ahead, but make it the best it’s ever been done. And Paul does this with the road movie. It takes the generic here to there formula, throws in a couple of amiable characters that slowly but steadily grow on you, thus making it a unique pleasure to hop on for the ride from A to B.

Like Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz before it, Paul pays homage to its genre, in this case, science-fiction and fantasy films and television shows. According to a website I used as a post-film reference, the film is brimming with allusions, some less obscure than others. I was proud of myself for recognizing a few, but certainly not the majority. Still, this shouldn’t affect your enjoyment of the film. Paul is not a parody, where the laughs are contingent upon the audience “getting it.” No, Paul is its own interstellar thing, giving a few reverent nods to all those other interstellar things that came before it.

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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