Thursday, March 15, 2012

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

The most important thing to know about this must-see film is that Peter Sellers gives one  of the most startlingly brilliant performances of all time.  How he didn't win the Oscar for this (he was nominated, Melvyn Douglas won one in a supporting role) is a mystery of the ages.

Sellers was obsessed with making this film, and he finally got it done. Bravo. This is the finest performance of his 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 this film.  It will remove any doubt.

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.

Speaking of "2001," there is a direct link to it in "Being There," and it is glaringly intentional. When Chauncey 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 Wagner's "Thus Sprake Zarathustra." 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.

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 McLaine), 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.

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.

This is a brilliant film. In its own way it is as deep as "2001." 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, but it also removes 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.  A clue at the end - anything to go on at all - such as the child in "2001" would have made for a more satisfying and thought-provoking film.  For this reason, "Being There" does not receive the continuing attention that a true classic merits.  It is stuck in its time, an enigma that never will be resolved.

"Being There" captures the spirit of the late 1970s as well as any film ever made. I highly recommend it.

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