Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Zen and the Art of Garden Maintenance

Film: Being There
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

Being There is a film that I watched far too early in my life. I was just a kid when I saw it the first (and only) time prior to today. If memory serves, I watched it because my mother really liked it. I can’t remember if I saw it with her or on my own, only that I did see it and that I really didn’t get it completely. That being the case, I wasn’t a huge fan of the film. I couldn’t get why no one twigged to the reality of the main character. It all seemed so silly.

So now I’ve watched it again, and my opinion hasn’t changed a bit. I still can’t see why no one understands that the main character is a child in a man’s body, an intellectual tabula rasa. As an adult, I see that this is where the comedy comes from. I still, though, don’t get what’s so funny about the whole thing. I freely admit that my earlier experience with this film may well be coloring my interpretation of it now.

The bulk of our time is spent with Chance the gardener (Peter Sellers), a simple-minded man who works in the large house of a wealthy old man. When the film begins, the old man has died. It soon becomes evident that Chance has no way to deal with this information, and in fact doesn’t really understand it. Chance, we learn, has always lived at this house for as long as he can remember. He has no education and cannot read or write. He’s never been outside of the grounds of the house, never ridden in a car, and doesn’t understand anything of how the world works. The maid, Louise (Ruth Attaway) is disturbed by his non-reaction of the old man’s death, but ultimately understands that Chance is incapable of really understanding what has happened. Later that day, Chance is kicked out of the house by the lawyers coming to deal with the old man’s estate, the old man having left no provision for Chance in his will. This seems needlessly cruel to me.

Left to his own devices, Chance would undoubtedly die of being mugged or from starvation in a few days. Fortunately for him, he is struck by the car of Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine), the wife of Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas), a wealthy and influential but very ill man. Chance is taken back to their house and wants only to work in their garden. However, his clothing and an unfortunate mishearing of his name causes everyone to believe that his name is Chauncey Gardiner. Everything Chance/Chauncey talks about is about the only two things he knows: gardening and television. Everyone assumes, however, that he is speaking in riddles and metaphorically, and everything he says is taken as deep and meaningful.

Soon the influence of Chauncey Gardiner extends as far as the White House, as the president and friend of the dying Ben Rand (Jack Warden) soon comes to value the garden-based advice he offers as insight into the economy.

This is a difficult film for me to judge for a number of reasons. On the positive side, it’s filled with a great many solid performances. Melvyn Douglas is stellar as always (and picked up a Supporting Oscar as proof). I also like Shirley MacLaine here fairly well. It’s also worth mentioning the underrated Richard Dysart as the family doctor who attends Ben Rand as well as Chance’s initial injury from the car accident. This film belongs entirely to Peter Sellers, though, who turns in perhaps the greatest performance of his career. It is very much an Oscar-bait role, and while nominated, he did not win. In his opinion, he lost because the film was initially released with a blooper real over the end credits, which he believed detracted from his performance. He may well be right. Within the context of the film, he never breaks character. According to IMDB, he patterned himself in many ways after Stan Laurel—I wouldn’t have made the connection initially, but once I knew that, it was impossible not to see it in every frame. For whatever it’s worth, it’s a tremendous performance all the way through.

But that’s not my issue here. What I don’t like about this film goes back to the very problem I had with it as a kid when my age was just a few years into the double digits: I just don’t get it. I can’t for the life of me understand how a collection of otherwise smart, dedicated, successful people can’t see that Chance is, intellectually, about five. Over and over again, they have to do all of the work in any conversation, and they’re willing to do it for whatever reason. In that sense, it’s almost a retelling of The Emperor’s New Clothes.

I said a month or so ago that Pinocchio was in many ways the purest na├»ve character ever created for a film. I had forgotten about Chance, who is equally devoid of personality and any basic skill. In his own way, Chance is sort of a Zen Buddhist saint, a person who is purely and totally in “the now” because he has no effective mental past and no real conception of the future. But how saintly is he if he got that way through no design of his own? How much wisdom really falls from his lips if he doesn’t understand the wisdom himself (Kevin, I expect an answer on this). The final (and I admit, truly wonderful) shot of the film only emphasizes this impression.

With that going against it, I have a hard time enjoying this film. Once I remembered where it was going, I just wanted it to finish up so I could be done with it. I get why people like it, or are enchanted by it, but I’m just not one of those people.

Why to watch Being There: It’s one of the great performance of Peter Sellers’s often-magnificent career.
Why not to watch: It’s ultimately difficult to buy into it with much conviction.


  1. Steve,

    I think I'll need to watch the film all the way through before I can comment intelligently on it. I've seen bits and pieces of it over the past few years, and my thoughts, like yours, zipped immediately to East Asian philosophy: that final water-walking scene, read through an East Asian filter, shows a person so utterly in harmony with the Tao that he can perform the sorts of miracles associated with Taoist saints: riding clouds, walking unscathed through pounding waterfalls, etc.-- never losing his inner equilibrium because he has achieved a mystical sort of freedom. (A Buddhist reading would say "freedom from the constraints of karma," here symbolized by natural physical laws which are, after all, a subset of the larger karmic context.)

    This makes me wonder what an actual, 21st-century East Asian might think of this film. Many modern East Asians, in their obsession with competing with the technologized, economically powerful West, know jack about Taoism these days. For all I know, they might end up bored with this film. Or they might not get it at all. (Perhaps the best Asian audience would be a small group of monks or religion profs. Heh.)

    My other thought from watching bits of "Being There": it's a precursor of "Forrest Gump," another simpleton whom people find profound. The analogy isn't perfect, of course: Gump is self-conscious enough to know he doesn't have much in the way of smarts (he fearfully asks whether his son is going to turn out "like me"), and when Jenny dies, he grieves intensely, in a way he never did for his beloved mom. But these differences aside, there's still something Gumpian about Chance for sure.

    Buddhist saints often do seem to lack personality. They're so infuriatingly self-complete, and unlike Christian saints, they're not exactly known for their screaming, intestine-roasting martyrdom.

  2. This reminds me: a Canuck friend of mine, Nathan, wrote an excellent, thoughtful exegesis of "Being There," which might interest you. It's a decidedly more positive analysis than yours is, but Nathan touches on some of the Asian themes and tropes I mentioned above. I doubt I could write a better commentary than he did.

  3. I appreciate the fact that it's difficult to comment on a film that you haven't fully seen--that was actually a thought running through my head when I wrote that. If you hadn't seen it, you wouldn't really have a place to come from to comment on the film much at all.

    It's funny that you bring up Forrest Gump. I didn't mention the connection here, but I did think about it. I always announce a new post on Twitter (I've found I get a bunch of immediate views when I do), and I did call this the Forrest Gump before Forrest Gump. But, as you mention, Forrest as a character is far more self-aware than Chance is.

  4. I, like you, saw this as a kid and hated it. I've never been interested in seeing it again and can't understand why so many people think it's deep or whatever.

    1. I get why people think it's deep--I just don't agree. Then again, a lot of people think Forrest Gump is deep, and I think it's twaddle.

  5. "Fortunately he is hit by the car..." That made me laugh.

    From what I read in this post, you get the movie perfectly; you just don't find it funny. The fact that all these supposed movers and shakers were completely swayed by idiotic ramblings is precisley the point. It shows just how full of themselves they are. John Waters explored similar ground, to much less fanfare, in his film Pecker where a young man just takes simple pictures and the New York Art crowd goes apeshit over them, reading all kinds of things into them when all the kid was doing was taking a picture of a bum. The parallel to movie critics is entirely intentional in both films, too.

    I've mentioned before here that I really dislike Sellers' performances when he's clowning around on screen. His pratfalls and silliness just come across as "Hey everybody! Look at me! Boy am I wacky!" That's why Being There is far and away my favorite Seller's film. He shed all that and gave a quietly commanding performance. I agree with you that it is the best of his career.

    On a related note I finally started watching Tati's films this month. I had been looking forward to them because I had heard that they were full of charming humor. Imagine my dismay when I saw that Sellers must have copied his schtick where he bumbles through every scene destroying things from Tati.

    1. Maybe you're right. I even get why people think it's funny even though I don't think it is. Any time I encounter a character like Chance, I'm not enchanted by him, but depressed by him. Zen saint status aside, I find this sort of intellectual cipher ultimately tragic.

      We'll disagree on Tati, though--I think he's great.

  6. Interesting review...maybe I liked it more because my first focused viewing came as an adult years after it was released. I enjoyed it as an almost pure satire and a scathing commentary on the state of politics, US style. Here is the opening paragraph of my review:

    A biting satire about the blank intellect that passes for political discourse, Being There was clever in its time but more prescient than even writer Jerzy Kosinski could have imagined. Since 1979, the game of politics has become ever more about the meaningless slogan and the trivial soundbite. It turns out that Chauncey Gardiner wasn't mocking politicians: he was foreshadowing what they would increasingly become.

    1. No, I get it. In that respect, it's not unlike Network in being prophetic and far ahead of its time.

      I think it really comes down to the fact that I don't find it funny, and it's supposed to be. I get why people think it is. I just don't think it is.

  7. Now I understand better where you are coming from. Wether or not it is funny is of course a personal thing and cannot be discussed. On the analysis side, the movie did make sense to me. I read it as Chance is a bit of an artifact that functions as a mirror. Everybody see in him what they want to see, a reflection of themselves and that reveals some of they deceit. Is that funny? Maybe, but it is certainly biting satire .

    1. I agree with Chance as a sort of mirror to those who see him. And I even agree that it's good satire in that respect. But ultimately, I find it frustrating and depressing, and there's no getting around that, even if it's only my take on it.