Wonkette Movie Night: Being There
The movie begins with Peter Sellers’ character Chance sleeping as the TV awakens him to the sound of an orchestra playing Franz Schubert’s 8th(Unfinished Symphony.) Still in his bed clothes he waters plants and dusts an old automobile with the constant of a television in the background. He is an older man, ritualistic in his behavior, his pajamas buttoned all the way to the top. A remote control in his hand, clicking from Schubert to cartoons, to the weather and landing on Sesame Street as he waits for his breakfast which doesn’t come. Instead he is given news that will alter everything he knows but he cannot comprehend the changes ahead. You see that Chance doesn’t understand that there is a world outside the home where he has spent his whole life. As he sits on the edge of a bed where his deceased benefactor lays, he does what always brings him comfort, turns on the TV. That is the world beyond his own that he knows as reality.
As he is forced to leave the only home he has known, we see the change from the interior of a beautiful old mansion into garbage strewn streets. He starts walking, a person out of place, past graffiti that says:
“America aint shit cause the white man’s got a god complex”
It is a statement about the 1970’s America(and today) that he has been thrust into. He believes the remote control he carries in his pocket can control everything he sees. Chance still walks on, he doesn’t even know what he is looking for except maybe something to eat and a TV to watch, yet opportunity falls into his lap even though he does not even comprehend what that word means. But as Louise, the only one who really knew him says later in the film, that Chance was:
“shortchanged by the lord and dumb as a jackass. Look at him now. “
Everyone makes them. Sometimes they are correct, but usually we see what we want to see. Assumptions being a shortcut we take to understanding the things we encounter everyday. Many are made about Chance/Chauncey, his simplicity is seen as depth and everyone he meets has delusions that line up perfectly with his lack of expectations. Although even Chance/Chauncey makes an assumption about the Black man who x-rays his leg, assuming he must know the other Black man he encountered on his long walk. Some assumptions are seemingly inherent. The divisions of class and race are an undercurrent throughout Being There, even as we focus on the hope that Chance/Chauncey will succeed and in doing so lift up those around him.
The simple man that Peter Sellers so wonderfully portrays enchants those whose world he has been pulled into, reaching all the way to the top, meeting the U.S. president, he gives his description of the only wisdom he has, gardening.
“As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.”
He is literally talking about gardening, but his listeners hear more. They take it and find their own meaning. It is a thought that is easily attached to anything, the cycle of change, that most everything and everyone experiences. It is hopeful. And of those that have just started growing, he says:
“Young plants do much better if a person helps them.”
A truth that can be applied to life.
Chance/Chauncey could be the gardener for the Garden of Eden. As the movie progresses, Shirley MacLaine’s character named Eve tempts him with passion that he doesn’t understand. But she still finds what she needs in Chauncey and unlike in the bible she does not get tossed from the garden
At the movie’s end, Chance walks away from a funeral, the president’s soliloquy echoing in the background like all the TVs throughout the movie. Walking across the winter landscape of brown flecked with snow, he approaches a pond and stops to clear a dead branch that is leaning on new growth. He steps onto the pond and walks on water as the last line of the movie is heard,
“Life is a state of mind.”
Be sure to stick around for the blooper reel of Peter Sellers trying to relay the message to who he assumes is Rafael.
Free on YouTube with ads. $2.99 in the usual places.
Being There (1979) stars Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine and Jack Warden. Directed by Hal Ashby and based on a book by Jerzy Kosiński.
Tonight’s cartoon is Symphony in Slang from 1951 by Tex Avery.
Got your popcorn? Enjoy!
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