A story of chance.
In Being There, the deceptively soft sway of television is omnipresent. Chance (Peter Sellers, The Pink Panther) – a simple-minded gardener who lives in the home of a wealthy older man – spends nearly all of his free time in front of the TV, absorbing a constant stream of entertainment/edutainment and using what he learns to shape his limited view of the world (everything that happens to him either makes sense or doesn’t depending on whether he’s seen something like that on television). Little excerpts of everything from workout videos to news programs to Sesame Street constantly occupy the background space in the film: a barrage of banalities that fill the spaces we might have otherwise devoted to free thinking.
Eventually, the owner of the house dies, and Chance is forced to leave his home. He steps out into the real world (to the strains of a disco version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” – much like the apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey, he is making life-changing new discoveries) and is subsequently hit by a chauffered car belonging to the wealthy businessman Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas, Hud). He is taken to Rand’s lavish home to recover, and introduces himself as “Chance the gardener.” Rand’s wife Eve (Shirley Maclaine, Terms of Endearment) mishears the name as “Chauncey Gardiner,” and his expensive wardrobe – given to him by his previous employer – lead the Rands to mistakenly believe that he, too, is a man of wealth and influence.
Through a series of misunderstandings, Chance ends up stumbling into a position of great influence. His simple thoughts on gardening are misinterpreted as deep metaphors, and in no time at all Chance finds himself in the unlikely position of advising the President of the United States (Jack Warden, Brian’s Song). He becomes a buzzed-about figure in the media, and makes a talk show appearance that causes the country to fall in love with him.
It’s not Chance’s fault that television holds powerful influence over him. He has mental limitations and doesn’t really know any better. However, there isn’t really a good excuse for the rest of America, which collectively decides that everything Chance is saying makes perfect sense and contains great depth. Chance absorbs and accepts television, and the world absorbs and accepts Chance. Being There is many things and should never be reduced to a simple message movie, but the film offers a striking, absurdist illustration of naïve delusion on a national scale (watching the film today, it’s impossible not to think of our current stranger-than-fiction political atmosphere: Ashby pinpoints our dumbness but wildly underestimates our meanness).
Peter Sellers does some of the most strangely inspired work of his career as Chance, playing the character as a blank slate who occasionally produces accurate reproductions of things he has seen or heard. He seems nice enough on the surface: he smiles, he has good manners, he speaks in a pleasant monotone. And yet, there’s a slightly unsettling lack of… well, anything… beneath the surface. One could not accurately describe him as “good” or “bad.” He’s simply an empty vessel, lacking any genuine feeling or sense of purpose. He is merely a conduit in the middle of an endless loop of static.
It’s easy to overlook – or at least set aside – the troubling philosophical questions at Being There‘s core, because the film presents itself as a genial comedy. It places Chance in a lot of sitcom-ish situations, including a pretty goofy subplot involving Maclaine’s desire to have an affair with him (he responds to her sexual overtures with his usual blankness, which she interprets as an extraordinary display of self-control). Indeed, if we do manage to overlook the ideas beneath all of the gags, perhaps we prove the film’s suggestion: that many of us are ultimately incapable of anything resembling genuine self-reflection. Perhaps we’re all simply following a series of behavioral patterns – some more complex than others, and some offering the illusion of free thought and free will – because it’s what we’re programmed to do. Perhaps technology doesn’t actually open our minds, but instead works to further synchronize our adherence to those behavioral patterns.
I won’t spoil the details of the film’s iconic ending, which takes the movie to an entirely new place of philosophical inquiry. It’s a moment that challenges viewers, demanding that they consider how to interpret something that defies simple explanation. And then, the film immediately undercuts itself by shifting to an extended outtake of Sellers flubbing his lines over the end credits. This has been criticized by many as a disastrous artistic misstep (one of the film’s few mistakes), and perhaps it is. However, it also reinforces the film’s notion of just how easily distractions prevent us from really thinking about something. Hmmmm.
Being There (Blu-ray) Criterion offers a fine 1080p/1.85:1 transfer (a brand-new restoration, naturally, not merely a repeat of the presented offered by the 2009 Blu-ray release). Depth is particularly impressive here, and there’s a very pleasing layer of natural grain left intact. Colors look warm and healthy, and detail is strong. The LPCM 1.0 Mono track is a rich one, giving the score a healthy boost and capturing the dialogue with clarity. Supplements include a 48-minute making-of documentary, an excerpt from an AFI speech by Hal Ashby, archival interviews with Peter Sellers, an excerpt from The Dick Cavett Show featuring writer Jerzy Kosinski, deleted scenes, outtakes, trailers and a leaflet featuring an essay by Mark Harris.
Being There marks the conclusion to a remarkable run of Ashby films released throughout the 1970s, and remains an enigmatic gem well worth exploring.