Thursday, March 15, 2012

Being There (1979) - Adam Cast Out of the Garden of Eden, Gets Another Chance

Being There 1979 Peter Sellers
"Being There" (1979).

The most important thing to know about "Being There" (1979) is that Peter Sellers gives one of the most startlingly brilliant performances of all time as Chauncey Gardner. How Sellers didn't win the Oscar for this (he was nominated, Melvyn Douglas won one in a supporting role) is a mystery of the ages. However, despite the wild assortment of talent associated with this project, it failed and now is remembered only by film buffs. Why? Let's see if we can figure out this riddle.

Being There 1979 Peter Sellers Melvyn Douglas
A lobby card for "Being There." The Great Seal of the US has been altered to say, "In Chance We Trust."

Sellers was obsessed with making "Being There," working on other projects throughout the 1970s to finance it, and he finally got "Being There" done. Bravo. He based his performance on the techniques of Stan Laurel, from whom he had taken master classes when he first started out. Thus, Sellers' character has an odd walk, wears a bowler, and carries an umbrella - all tricks that he learned from Laurel. He also patterned the voice of his character on Laurel, to whom he dedicated the film. This is the finest performance of Sellers' career, a real classic that does not rely on farce and slapstick as in the usual Sellers film. Instead, Sellers plays a character of pure innocence who is used as a mirror to reveal the machinations and predations of those around him. If you ever had any doubts about Sellers' talent, watch "Being There." It will remove any doubt.

Being There 1979 Peter Sellers Shirley MacLaine
Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine, both playing enigmatic characters.

There are so many allusions and references and double meanings in this film that it's impossible to list them all in a short review. It is a fable that depends on the viewer to draw the proper conclusions. In that way, it is like "2001: A Space Odyssey," which is brilliant because it does not try to explain the unexplainable. This is a film for an intelligent viewer who wants to think through to the real point of the film. However, it differs from "2001" in some key ways which make the difference between a film that is fondly remembered, and one that is largely forgotten.

Being There 1979 Peter Sellers

Speaking of "2001," there is a direct link to it in "Being There," and it is glaringly intentional. When Chance is forced to leave the only home he's known, we get perhaps the best 7-minute music video ever made, two years before MTV. It is set to a hip version of the theme from "2001," which of course is Richard Strauss' "Thus Sprach Zarathustra" (as arranged by Eumir Deodato). In "2001," it underlines the section entitled "The Dawn of Man." Here, one could say it shows the "Dawn of the Age of Chance." If there is one must-see sequence in the film, this is it.

Being There 1979 Peter Sellers

I'm going to give my take on the allegory of the film now. Chance in fact is Adam, cast out of the Garden (of Eden). He is tempted by Eve (Shirley MacLaine), but this time he does not succumb. He thus retains his divinity, which is revealed in the film's final scene, and becomes the potential savior of a world gone sour. All along, he speaks only in simple gardening homilies that are at once non sequitors but at the same time are astonishingly apt in every situation. He is mankind's Chance at redemption, which it may well take in light of the hints that he will be the next President. The fact that his simple bromides are so powerful reveals that the problem in modern society is that it indeed has lost its innocence and needs to get back to the simple truths that were left behind when corruption first entered the world.

Being There 1979 Peter Sellers Rafael

I could make a link here to the successful candidacy of the "simple" Ronald Reagan that directly followed the release of this film, but I'll spare you that. It is enough to say that, whatever we think of it, sometimes simple works. It is interesting to me that this film reveals a truth that Reagan seemed also to understand, that things were getting too complex and less indeed could be more. In "Being There," the President reads out a string of "deep quotes" by the now-deceased Melvyn Douglas character - and they wind up being as mundane as Chance's blatherings about gardening. The subtle point is that it is not so much that Chance is simple that makes him stand out, as that everyone else is not as profound as they wish to think they are - and Chance is the only one that articulates this. Truth is simple, and attempts to make it complicated will fail.

Being There 1979 Peter Sellers Jack Warden
Jack Warden plays the President.

Let's not quibble: "Being There" is a brilliant film. In its own way it is as deep as "2001," which of course it references. Okay, if I have a quibble, it is that it is a bit too ambiguous. Director Hal Ashby never provides any answers about Chance, which in a way is a good thing because it leaves everything open to interpretation, but it also eliminates a sense of direction. Chance exists, and that is good, or at least that is what we hope. The ambiguity is never resolved on any level, and in fact only grows deeper with each step. That makes the film a little too open to interpretation for my taste, and perhaps is the reason the film failed at the box office.

Being There 1979 Peter Sellers

A clue at the end of "Being There," anything to go on at all besides the closing implication of Chance's divine nature - such as the child in "2001" - would have made for a more satisfying and thought-provoking film. Instead, the filmmakers throw out some scattershot "clues" - such as the "Illuminati" pyramid at the end - that create only the illusion of deeper meaning. There is no coherence, only chaff blowing in the breeze. In fact, "Being There" uses the fortuneteller's or soothsayer's trick, providing merely a handle for you to grab and create your own meaning. If there is a fundamental layer of meaning in "Being There," it is solely what you choose to bring to it and graft onto the film - and most viewers don't want to work that hard for their entertainment. Perhaps for this reason, "Being There" does not receive the continuing critical attention that a true classic merits, because it offers no insight beyond some snide observations on modern pretensions. "Being There" is stuck in its time, fool's gold offering questions that never will be resolved because there is nothing there to resolve.

All that said - I still like "Being There." It captures the spirit of the late 1970s as well as any film ever made. I highly recommend it. Just don't expect it to tell you much about life that you don't already know.


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