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Being All Things by Being Nothing: The Enigma of 'Being There'

Peter Sellers as Chance

Being There provides a gentle rumination on the aimless beauty of hope.

Being There

Director: Hal Ashby
Cast: Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas
Distributor: Criterion Collection
Year: 1979
Blu-Ray: Being There: A Hal Ashby Film
US Release Date: 2017-03-21
Are we so gullible and mindless that we accept any platitude as gospel as long as we find it sufficiently reassuring?
In a key scene from director Hal Ashby’s greatest achievement, Being There, Louise (Ruth Attaway), a black woman and former maid, is watching a talk show on television. She sees her former charge, a gardener named Chance (Peter Sellers) -- a man she raised and whom she knows to be illiterate and uneducated, with “rice pudding between his ears” -- being interviewed about the current state of politics and economics as though he were an expert on such subjects.

He is now being called Chauncey Gardiner (owing to his real name being misheard) and is presented as some kind of soft-spoken sage, a prognosticator of future prosperity, a beacon of hope in dark times. Every sentence he utters is a platitude, a soundbite. He dresses in a sophisticated manner (wearing the old, dapper suits of his and Louise’s former employer) and speaks with a beguilingly calm assurance. He looks the part of a member of the establishment but is a complete unknown. The public, the newspapers, the television talk show hosts all take him to be what he seems: a mysterious man in the know, a heretofore unrecognized leader of men, a genius with the sensibility of a guru.

Chauncey has gathered whatever wisdom he seems to exude from watching an unfathomable amount of television. Chauncey delivers himself of platitudes because that is what he has imbibed through his incessant consumption of the garbage streaming over the airwaves. Chauncey himself is a blank slate, a tabula rasa in an absurdly exaggerated configuration of a sort of Lockean sublime. What the public sees as his calm demeanor derives from his expressionlessness. What his admirers view as his wisdom is nothing but the detritus of our cultural landscape, the mere nothings we bandy about to sell products, to make ourselves feel better, to make sense of the world by tacitly acknowledging the world makes no sense.

When he's not offering up gardening advice that others mistake for metaphors concerning the nation's economic well-being, he responds to his interlocutors with the casual phrases that we employ to fill up space, to demonstrate that we are listening without actually participating in the conversation. His constant utterance is “I understand”. “I understand” is, of course, a rather enigmatic statement. On the one hand, it acknowledges the other, it assures our conversation partner that we are listening. On the other hand, it really says nothing at all. It’s a platitude, it’s nothing. It’s no different than uttering “um” or some other guttural non-rejoinder.

And yet that phrase, “I understand”, has a certain power to it. It says more, or pretends to say more, than simply “I heard you”. It implies a level of insight, a sort of camaraderie, a spiritual connection that goes beyond “I heard you” and becomes “I hear you”, “I resonate with you”, “you are safe confiding in me”. Spoken in Chauncey’s measured tones, “I understand” unwittingly becomes a most persuasive form of rhetoric, of reassurance.

But Louise knows better. She stares dumbfounded at the television. “It’s for sure a white man’s world in America,” she sputters, “all you’ve gotta be is white in America to get whatever you want.” To an extent, it would be easy to accept this as the point of the film. Privilege and power are so pervasive, so overwhelming, so deeply stabilized that they merely perpetuate themselves, regardless of our better interests and our better sense. A man who appears to be privileged and is able to assuage our fears with what appear to be sagacious proclamations from on high will be accepted, will be venerated simply because he occupies a station reserved for people who look and sound the way that he does.

There's a sense, however, in which Louise gets it wrong. She implies that Chauncey is manipulating the system to get what he wants. The misunderstanding here is that Chauncey, in fact, wants nothing. He’s incapable of wanting; he’s incapable of selfish thought. He’s unable to feed his ego because he has no ego to feed. Chauncey doesn’t desire, he merely watches (this is another constant refrain: “I like to watch”). His television obsession is not some id-driven desire for constant entertainment, but rather the television serves as the medium in which he finds himself suspended in this life to which he does not fully belong.

Indeed, Chauncey watches the world around him as though it were a television program. He observes in a bemused manner as the world unfolds before him. In a running gag early in the film, Chauncey carries a remote control with him wherever he goes, and when he finds himself displeased with the surroundings or his situation he attempts to change the channel. This is not goal-directed behavior. It's an attempt to maintain the status quo. Chauncey’s tale is one of displacement followed by re-found equilibrium. The constancy of television, the variety within an overriding sameness, serves as the ultimate metaphor for the placidity Chauncey both seeks and exudes.

Because he comes off as something of a blank slate, because he offers platitudinous assurance rather than substantive rejoinders, Chauncey is all things to all men, depending on what it is that they need. He can be all things because intrinsically he is nothing, an absence, a cipher. He becomes the trusted confidante of a millionaire (Melvyn Douglas), an ad hoc adviser and then rival to the president (Jack Warden), a source of amusement and attraction to the strangers he meets, and a sort of sexual savior to the millionaire’s wife, Eve (Shirley MacLaine). If Chauncey inspires hope, then that is because hope, too, is aimless. Sure, we hope for actual things but when we attain them, hope continues. The objects of hope are nearly incidental. What we need is hope itself.

Some part of the film clearly intends to be a political satire but Chauncey is a strange character to be at the center of such as satire. At once malleable and immutable, having no real desires of his own, Chauncey floats through his life and the film floats along with him. Being There is charming in its aimlessness but as alluring as this narrative drift may be, it presents something of a problem when it comes to an ending. The original ending, included in the Blu-ray edition by Criterion Collection, has Chauncey wandering away from the funeral of the millionaire. He attends to a small tree. Eve joins him and they depart the scene together, arm in arm. The uncredited screenwriter, Robert C. Jones, the author of the scene, prefers this to the familiar ending actually included in the film.

The actual ending was devised during filming by Ashby. Once again, we find Chauncey wandering in a field next to the lake. He nurses the tree and then moves toward the water. He walks out across the lake, walking on the water itself. Chauncey leans over and dips his umbrella into the water, proving that it's not shallow, and yet he doesn’t sink. This ending, of course, has been analyzed, discussed, and criticized innumerable times. The obvious question to ask is what does this tell us about Chauncey, what does it say about the true nature of this fellow who seems so absent from his own life? The obvious connection to make is to Jesus. In this reading, we are to see Chauncey as an innocent, a blessed innocent at that. We are to believe that his purity of heart makes him a sort of latter-day redeemer.

But of course, Jesus was not a naif; he was not absent of affect as Chauncey nearly is. Moreover, the notion of Chauncey as a modern-era Christ negates what seems to be the primary satirical thrust of the film itself: that we are all so gullible and mindless that we accept any platitude as gospel as long as we find it sufficiently reassuring. If Chauncey is an actual savior then we need not question our willingness to accept his truisms (and the film clearly wants us to question our credulity).

I disagree with the critics of the ending. I think it works. However, I don’t think that it reveals much to us about Chauncey’s character. It fails to unveil the enigma of the character we have been admiring for two hours. Rather, I think the ending works because it solves a structural problem in the film. If, as I have suggested, the film charms by being directionless, if it holds our attention by meandering aimlessly, then any ending that fits with the narrative up to this point would be a non-ending. It would simply suggest that this state of affairs will continue. To provide a true ending, the film has to transcend its narrative, it has to lift itself out of its own story.

That final scene doesn’t provide any explanations concerning Chauncey’s character and it offers no real hope for redemption. Rather, it's a poetic act of leave-taking. In crossing the lake in this peculiar manner, Chauncey still goes nowhere, meanders aimlessly. He will still be on Eve’s property (perhaps now his property as well). He will still be the cipher at the center of other people’s schemes and hopes. And so, things are likely to continue as before -- except that for us, the viewers, it has all changed. We have seen the improbable, and we smile, and we say goodbye.

* * *

Criterion Collection has released a Blu-ray edition of Being There that beautifully transfers the film in all of its rich charm and awkward profundity. The edition includes several extras: a new documentary on the making of the film; excerpts from a seminar with Hal Ashby; an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show by the author of the novel on which the film is based, Jerzy Kosinski; TV appearances from the time by Peter Sellers; some deleted scenes and an alternative ending (the documentary features many differing opinions concerning which ending is superior -- but it's pretty clear to me that the actual ending is so perfect that any other option is sacrilege); and an essay by critic Mark Harris. These extras are a slight cut above the usual run of such things and certainly enhance our enjoyment of this wonderful film.


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