Being There (film)

Being There (directed by Hal Ashby)/1979


I had seen glimpses of Peter Seller’s talent in Lolita and Dr Strangelove, yet I didn't realise the extent of it until I watched Being There.

Sellers plays a middle-aged man called Chance. He has lived his whole life in an older man’s house, working as a gardener and watching television. When the previous owner of the house dies, Chance is made to move out and begins an aimless wander into the outside word.

From Chance's first interaction with people, he is revealed as not having a personality. He has spent his whole life socializing with a television, and his mind has turned into one. He simply expresses what he hears, with the messages not being mixed with other ideas or reshaped by emotion. He does not have human emotion: emotion blended and shaped by ideas and desires. While he has a kind of fear, it comes across as the fear of a deer in the wild, rather than a human responding to a situation based on past experiences and future plans.

Being There suggests the human personality is shaped by socialisation: we are products of our interactions. Chance’s interactions have been with a television, and he has been shaped through those interactions. In this we hear both echoes of Locke’s notion of tabula rasa, and the Hegelian thought that our personalities are the result of our interactions with external beings, either good or bad.

The intention of the movie is not only to examine the creation of the human self, but also how we project our emotions and desires onto other people and create a social reality where truth is no longer clear. As Chance moves into the world, he encounters a range of people that project themselves onto him. He tells Eve (the wife of a wealthy businessman) that he is Chance the gardener; from this point on he is known as Chauncey Gardiner – a name one would not be surprised to hear in wealthy circles.

When he repeats something someone says to him, or something he heard on television, he is viewed as speaking words of wisdom: people take him to be a modern Confucius; a man who expresses great truths through vague statements. Others take him to be espousing economic theory, a tendency towards sexual deviance, or reflections on death.

Being There is a philosophical masterpiece but is also comedy. There is something hilarious about the seriousness of the people that project their agendas onto Chance. It is not incidental that the things taken by Chance to be statements of wisdom are taken straight from television or from the mouths of others. The movie is making fun of what humans take to be wisdom: of how we hear ideas and repeat them without truly reflecting on them. This perfect blend of comedy and deep insight is encapsulated by the music to that plays when Chance enters the world: a jazz/funk arrangement over Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss.

Sellers plays this role perfectly. Throughout the whole movie he never once fails to convince. A personality simply never emerges to make us sense that this is an actual person pretending to be nothing. It is simply astonishing that Sellers failed to win an Oscar for this performance: who really takes the Academy Awards seriously anyway? Hal Ashby, the director of Being There, is not well known in 2015. In researching I discovered that shortly after making this movie Ashby entered a downward spiral of mental illness and addiction, and never made another well-regarded movie. The movies Ashby made before Being There are also nowhere near its greatness. We are left to speculate whether Ashby had only one great idea, or whether the world was deprived of more masterpieces due to a premature decline.

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