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Reflections on "Being There"
Welcome to my page of notes on the Hal Ashby film "Being There" starring Peter Sellers, and written by Jerzy Kosinski. These are, of course, only my own thoughts and ideas on a film which is open to a great variety of interpretations and I would be delighted to hear from anyone wishing to discuss the film or my thoughts on it. I can be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org .
A video presentation of these notes is available here
I saw this film when it was first released and well remember being very taken with it as a whole, but especially the thought-provoking "twist" at the end. I was particularly struck by the deceptively gentle pace which reflected Chance's vision and approach to life, and served to underline what I took to be one of the central themes or "messages" of the film.
Although hardly a biting satire or wild comedy, "Being There" nevertheless contains very pertinent observations about life and society. It has been criticised by some for being too "arty" and for not being more overtly entertaining, but this is not a satire trying to take a rise out of political or social absurdities. At its core it is making serious points about life, the meaning we give it, and the society we are creating.
As gentle simpleton Chance is evicted from his life-long home (indeed his entire world, as he has never left the grounds), he is launched into a series of adventures propelled by a variety of misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Of very limited intellectual ability, Chance's two areas of knowledge and interest are gardening and television.
A key element in the misunderstandings which advance the storyline is the way in which his interlocutors impose their own interpretation on Chance's utterances. This applies to virtually every conversation Chance has, and the audience is party to the joke as we are aware of the genuine situation and the true import of Chance's remarks (generally containing references to gardening, his only real area of competence). Thus, as various characters have conversations at cross purposes, we can see and understand how this happens, and feel superior to the wealthy and powerful characters as they impute significance to Chance's banal gardening "metaphors".
Jerzy Kosinski (author of the novel and script) appears to be mocking the way we need and seek wisdom and inspiration to the point where we impose metaphoric meaning and symbolism on what may be no more than "normal" conversation. Man, and by extension, society, may be getting "too big for his boots" in that he tries too hard to be clever to the point where, by over analysing and intellectualising, he actually creates problems which need not be there. It is in this context, which leads to anxiety and overreaction, that man seeks wisdom and knowledge from others. It is also in this context that Chance's gardening metaphors offer reassurance and comfort, and are seized upon by those in positions of responsibility in the film. As those in authority seek to control everything, and panic when they fail, Chance appears to offer hope in the form of calm confidence and a metaphoric return to nature.
Since we know that Chance's remarks are nothing more than a desperate attempt to engage in conversation using his only source of knowledge, we may interpret the film as saying that there is no meaning other than that which we choose to give it, and that society is shaped by the chance meeting of minds, of being in the right place at the right time, and by the interpretation of what is said. Chance has exercised considerable influence simply by being there at the right time - it is only as the result of a series of accidents and misinterpretations that he reached such a position of influence, and perhaps the same can be said for many such people and events which have influenced history.
This might have been a "straight" comedy, even a farce, if the authorities had ended up with egg on their faces, but they don't. In fact, Chance's words actually offer solutions, or at least others' interpretations of his words offer solutions and reassurance. It struck me at one point that Kosinski may be saying that what is important is not what is said, but the meaning taken from it by the interlocutor. Here Chance has managed to free people's minds from intellectual clogging and emotional involvement to allow them to see a solution. However, the ending of the film put an entirely different slant on things for me.
The final image of Chance walking on water suggests (in my opinion) that Chance is a messenger from God and that perhaps credence should be accorded to his utterings and credit given to the effect he has had. God moves in mysterious ways, so they say, and Chance has indeed had a beneficial effect on those whose lives he has touched (and who put their faith in him). He managed to put them in touch with themselves by cutting through complications and intellectual argument to find a simpler and more natural solution. Chance may be regarded not so much as a vessel of knowledge but as a vessel of approach and attitude. He encourages us to appreciate simpler things and nature, be more accepting, and not to seek to control.
In fact Chance may even be regarded as wise since he has no perception of the problems he helps to resolve. Problems, then, may be seen as largely of our own making.
It seems to me that a worthy point of reference is Voltaire's "Candide". At the end of that story the idealistic Candide has become thoroughly disillusioned with life and the various philosophies he has encountered. His solution is "Il faut cultiver notre jardin." (We must develop our garden). His friend Martin agrees and adds with even greater clarity, "Travaillons sans raisonner - c'est le seul moyen de rendre la vie supportable." (Let's work without thinking - that's the only way of making life bearable). Candide's solution is to return to nature and the simple life, unquestioning, undoubting - this is the way to happiness as opposed to his wordly wise adventures which led to unhappiness and cynicism.
It could be suggested that Chance has cultivated his garden, and through the gardening metaphor hopes to help others cultivate their (simpler) garden of life.
Peter emailed me with a few of his illuminating thoughts:
• “Heidegger’s term “dasein” can be translated as “being-there”, an existence not contained to the mind or even to the body but to one’s frame of experience across time and space; essentially an active existence with reason, senses and context.
• Chance is the name of the main character. The concept of chance is anti-reason and therefore contrary to the tradition of Western philosophy from Plato onwards, especially since Descartes. Existentialism denies the supremacy of reason and acknowledges the place of irrationalism, the unconscious and the unknown. Truth is a greater thing than an intellectual understanding.
• The colourful, episodic period of Chance’s life begins when he is confronted by death and the void without sustenance from the “old man” Jennings. Later the death of Ben Rand brings him up against a greater loss but he has made progress without diluting his values and moves on to a situation with even greater potential for fulfilment. However, any meaning he makes of his existence is in unthinking response or coincidental to his meetings with death. Existentialism requires man to remain aware of death and the reality of nothingness in order to create a life of meaning.
• Nietzsche declared that “God is dead” and Chance’s benefactor and protector dies at the start of the movie, thus initiating a journey through a more complex and dangerous world. However Chance does not take control of his own destiny, he benefits from the attention of others – “the kindness of strangers” as Tennessee Williams would have it – and again he finds himself under the protection of a god-figure in Rand. Rand also dies without response from Chance.
• Real living – existence – begins outside of the predictable routine of the Jennings’ house, which is a construct for the order and routine of rational thought. Living is done in the real world.
• When he walks out Jennings’ door Chance is sound-tracked with funk music synonymous with the 1970s ghetto which he enters. The piece is an arrangement of Thus Spoke Zarathustra in an obvious link to Nietzsche and having (through a different, orchestral version) associations with space exploration and the leaving behind of the familiar and safe. (Nietzsche’s book by the same name was published in the previous decade.)
• Chance lives in the present, without ambition or plans, even for food and water. He reacts with the naïve simplicity of a child or an animal. Kierkegaard’s message was that (the Christian) life demands a meaningful existence through fundamental faith, simplicity and integrity; however Kierkegaard and the existentialists also require subjective awareness and Chance is not aware of the real meaning of his existence within a world of people, needs, temptations/opportunities and achievements.
• The irrational works for Chance, even though it is largely misinterpreted.
• Heidegger asserts the importance of language and defines this to include communicative silence, but in both speech and silence Chance’s use of language are tangential largely to his intentions.
• Sartre believes that true freedom is evident in the ability to say “no”. Chance does not ever confront his situation negatively; rather acquiescence and luck are how he flows through life.
• The movers and shakers of business, politics and the media can only make sense of Chance’s words through their own constructs and are satirised as broadly as the Laputins in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels as absurdly Cartesian. However, Chance survives because of (and despite) his honesty and acceptance of others.
• Chance shows none of Nietzsche’s will to power or Sartre’s will to action. He simply reacts. Existentialists require engagement in the world, a positive creative existence, familiar with struggle, not simply prospering in ignorance.
• The movie ends with Chauncey Gardiner commencing an existence with Eve in a world outside the pressures of society; the innocent, pre-Fall Eden of the Rand estate.
• Sartre says that a man is his life. This may be seen as true for Chance.
• More than promoting existentialism, the movie might be seen to espouse blind, unthinking faith (“Suffer the little children to come unto me for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven”, etc.); however to me it is more of a satire on the herd-like stupidity of systems in Western society and of the absurd cult of celebrity in which one would be happy to read more and more significance into the mundane actions of people to the extent that one might believe that Chauncey Gardiner even walked on water.
• The tag-line is “Life is a state of mind”. True in so many ways; not least in the mind of Chance, in the minds of all who met him, all who heard of his reputation, all who live in the real world outside fiction, all who watched the movie.
Bob Rosania shares his insights:
I happened to catch the last half of the movie, over a cup of coffee, on cable this morning and I really came to appreciate the greatness of this teleplay. It's a rare movie that allows its viewer to become an active observer and interpreter of the narrative that is "told." That is something I have found largely reserved for books.
I believe this movie, is entirely true to form as is the main character. The director leaving each of us to have our own individual perceptions with our interaction with the story, just as the characters we watched had with Chance. There are so many levels of interpretation to this movie, so much that can be analysed, it truly was a great achievement in film making history.
I have read one of Roger Ebert's review and found his take interesting, but I disagreed with his assertion that the narratives which included sexual overtones were out of place.
The study of Chance's character may be the focus for some, but I actually found the opposite to be more telling, the study of everyone around him, both as individuals who directly interacted with him as well as groups of individuals who were more removed, including:
1) The aspiring/ambitious: as embodied in the characters of the lawyer who kicked chance out of the home or the news media
2) The powerful or perceived powerful: as embodied in the President
3) The truly powerful who control the powerful: as embodied by Benjamin Rand and his close circle of other members of the Illuminati (as suggested in the visual of the pyramid with the all seeing eye).
There are certainly more, but these four stuck out in my mind..
With the first group, there was fear, cynicism, and perhaps even envy which came from the lack of understanding who or what Chance was or the desire to have his associations (and perceived power) and as a consequence worked to undermine his existence.
In some respects I feel it was a look at some of the "Seven Deadly Sins," and in this respect there were, I believe, religious undertones. This group generally consisted of those who desired to have something that they did not. They coveted.
With the second, there was also fear and doubt of how one was perceived as being authoritative or not requiring validation of others (especially Chance). With this group there was insecurity and fear of losing what they already had.
With these first two groups, the embodiment of Chance was generally perceived as a threat.
For the third group, Chance's character served to as a calming force, a force which was looked upon as eliminating fear...fear of death, fear of the forces of nature, fear of the future of existential things that cannot be controlled. This third group had the instinct to trust in Chance and trust in the Natural Order and yet remain comfortable in their positions of control. Perhaps to even use the perceptions of Chance as a means to control the society at large. This group represents the institutions of our global society.
The ending can be interpreted in so many ways.
Chance did strike me as a Christ-like character, but I actually didn't see him as a divine character, literally. The moral of the story is actually expressed concisely as the last spoken words, "Life is a state of mind."
I think the real message of this story is if Life is truly as state of mind, then anything is possible. We are only limited by our imagination.
On a blog that I started (and have yet to really feed), I wrote the following:
Is our universe constrained by physical boundaries or is its vastness limited only by the limits of our own imagination, placed upon ourselves?
Certainly there are parallels to spirituality that are being explored here. It's been my personal belief for some time that we all have the potential for divinity. The Bible says as much and I think for those who believe in a Divine Being, that we are indeed made in his image. Even if one discounts the written words of a religious book, it seems logical to me that this could be the case.
It felt to me the estate of Mr Rand could be reasonably interpreted as being the Garden of Eden. I believe the choice of name of McClain's character as "Eve" was quite deliberate to underscore this subtle notion.
With Chance, we have a character who was never taught the societal norms. He was not subject to the limitations that we often impose on ourselves or others. In some respects, knowledge comes with its own sets of limitations of what we as individuals can or cannot do, both within our society and within our interaction with the physical universe. It's as if he never took a bite of the Apple from the Tree of Knowledge and not having done that he remained free of the limitations of knowledge and the Sin that comes from it.
Chance was the Adam who never took the bite and therefore never had to leave the Garden of Eden--Chance was not successfully "tempted" by Eden. In the wake of Ben's death, it was made clear that Eve was going to stay on with the estate, with the clear implication so was Chance. It would be their protected space.
Without Original Sin, Chance (Adam) and Eve never would have left the Garden. And what would Adam have been if he stayed in the Garden of Eden? A Gardener, of course!
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