Cumartesi, Haziran 03, 2006

Being There

Being There (U.S., 1979) * * * *
D: Hal Ashby

Chance (Peter Sellers) is a gardener in the D.C. area who has always been, to put a point on it, either autistic or mildly retarded. I put a point on it because the idea of the film is that only one other person, of all the high society folks, and literati, politicians, and various famous personalities that meet him, will not put a point on it, or even notice. He has literally wandered into their midst after his master has died, and for the first time in his life he's put out of a home. He doesn't even know how to speak into a telephone: he's been sheltered and shielded within the same walls since he was a child, and he has lived comfortably dividing his time between tending to his small garden and watching television, the programs of which he obsessively imitates, sometimes physically. He is not quite present, but on the other hand, he cares deeply that others are never put out, either over him or for anything else that might be troubling them. That, as it turns out, makes a substantial difference in the way strangers will treat him.

While walking persistently forward down the streets of D.C. when he finds himself homeless, gradually growing hungry, but fascinated by the streetlife he's never before seen (including a gang of kids who threaten him with a switchblade and give him a message "for Raphael" that he will carry obligingly on), he steps into the path of a limousine backing up, and injurs his legs. The passenger, Eve (Shirley MacLaine), is the wife of a wealthy, elderly businessman, and offers to take him not to a hospital, but back to their lavish estate, where her husband's doctor and nurses can treat him. She finds him "intense," but doesn't pick up on why he speaks in such short, simple sentences and stares fixedly at the limo's TV screen. Misunderstanding his clipped speech, she thinks him to be a man named Chauncey Gardiner. At the estate, he'll be further confused as a fellow distinguished businessman by Eve's husband, Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas), who takes to his mild, softspoken nature, and is immediately impressed at how Chauncey likens running a business to tending a garden. In fact, Chance is talking about tending a garden. Still, he has a deep effect upon Mr. Rand, and when the millionaire asks Chance to call him Ben, Chance doesn't know the unspoken society rule that he should really, really still call him Mr. Rand, no matter how much he protests. There's something, I think, about the way Chance calls his new friend by his first name, and reassures him, and speaks of the garden and "the room upstairs" (which Ben takes to be Heaven, but is in fact the room upstairs), that helps Ben confront his impending death of a grave illness--and Ben admits as much. You would expect, in a scenario like this, that Ben would stick up for his friend as all others begin to see through Chance's persona--which Chance never intended, and is not aware of, in the first place--but no, they too see him for what he could be, rather than what he is. Ben introduces him to the President of the United States (Jack Warden), and when Chance hears Ben call him Bobby, he calls him Bobby too. He also offers advice on the President's economic policy, but not so much with details, but simply by picking up on the word "growth" and speaking of when to plant and when to expect growth, as follows seasonal cycles. In spring, there will be rebirth. This should be obvious, but it never occurred to Mr. President.

Before he gets the results of a background check on Chauncey Gardiner (which never turns up anything), the President goes on television to quote him extensively. Chance appears on a talk show and it looks like it's about to be a great disaster, but Chance is Chance, and he's delighted when the audience applauds what's mistaken for wit and what's mistaken for--all right, what might well be--insight. He becomes a sensation for a greater public that will eagerly devour any TV personality that has the courage to state the obvious, and one quickly thinks of Tony Robbins and Dr. Phil and whoever is the pop-psych guru of the week. You also can't avoid thinking of George W. Bush when Chance says he doesn't read the newspaper, and others act impressed that someone so influential upon the government would avoid reading current events (Bush once bragged he never reads a paper, and Dick Cheney has admitted that he always has a TV turned on to FOX news). The similarities with the current administration end there. You're much more sympathetically inclined toward Chance, who might, at any moment, be found out for who he really is, even though he's never made the slightest effort to deceive anyone.

His most significant relationship, or at least the most amusing, is with Eve, who is set up with him by her husband--ever putting things in clear perspective since Chance started hanging around. Eve can't resist her romantic overtures toward Chance, and they are overtures, melodramatic and grand and worthy of her particular level of society. Chance has no idea how to respond to them until he sees a TV show with lots of making out, and he begins to imitiate--Eve just has no idea how lucky she is that she happens to be standing in front of him while he's mimicking the program. But Chance genuinely cares for her, and when he finally tells his doctor--who has found Chance out--that he loves her, he's not lying. It's just not clear that he loves her any more than he loves anyone else.

There's no doubt that Being There is a high satire. The background chatter of television has never been so prominent in a film as it is here; in fact, it's not background at all, but shares equal space with the dialogue that's vying for Chance's attention. It's fascinating, a quarter-century on, to see some of these clips and commercials. (I'm dying to know what the animated clip of the singing basketball star comes from.) The ease with which Chance's simple, factual statements about gardening translate into whatever the listener wants them to be speaks for itself, satirically speaking. What's more interesting is how it all plays: not like that other classic Sellers satire, Dr. Strangelove, which is Kubrickian removed and merciless, but with great heart and sympathy for all the players. That's rare, but it makes sense. It takes Chance's point of view. In a culture that seems to be increasingly sardonic and, well, snarky, it's easy to appreciate the value of a satire that's also wise enough to contain empathy. Much credit for the tone must go to the Polish-born novelist and screenwriter, Jerzy Kosinski, whose life was intertwined with tragedy: a friend of Roman Polanski's, he very nearly became one of the victims of the slaughter that took Polanski's wife, Sharon Tate, and the other guests of the party that evening in 1969. After Being There, his reputation was damaged by a Village Voice article accusing him of plagiarism (for this film, which was found to be similar to an earlier novel published in Poland). He committed suicide in 1991. Hal Ashby deserves credit, too; Ashby, I'm coming to think, may well have been the finest filmmaker of the 1970's; with this, Harold and Maude, Shampoo, and The Last Detail, he proves himself adept at tackling a wide array of material but keeping the same strangely melancholy atmosphere, and always with great attention to the humanity of the characters. (I've yet to see Coming Home, but will and as soon as I can.)

The final shot is relatively famous. I think the meaning goes no further than a warm reassurance: all the players have not misplaced their trust in Chauncey Gardiner. Which hardly makes it feel like a satire at all, does it?

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