Each month, we will induct a new film into the Panda Collection, our archive of great films that raise challenging questions. This month’s film is Hal Ashby’s Being There.
The thought of watching an intellectually deficient, TV-addled mind luck his way into the seat of national power seems like an almost perversely masochistic exercise in 2017. If John F. Kennedy was the first TV-ready president, then Donald Trump is certainly the first to be incubated and inculcated by that omnipresent box that occupies so much screen time in Hal Ashby’s landmark Being There.
Like Chance, the mentally-impaired protagonist of Being There, he spends an inordinate amount of his day parked in front of the television, attempting to learn from it and watching his inane pronouncements get repeated ad nauseam by those who would attempt to make coherent meaning of them. That said, Trump may be our TV-fried simpleton, but he is no Chance the Gardener.
We live in a time of almost unprecedented coarseness and bone-deep piggishness on display for the world to see. In response to troubled times, we rightly hope for satire that cuts deep, penetrating mountains of bullshit with a pitiless and uncompromising commitment to speaking truth to power. In other words, it needs to be mean. It should be unafraid to shock, to ruffle feathers, or to offend and alienate. Being There, though, stands as a notable exception to this, and the balancing act it performs is key to its brilliance.
Starring Peter Sellers in one of his final performances—do not look up what his actual last performance was unless you want to be profoundly depressed—Being There tells the story of Chance, a mentally handicapped man raised as a gardener inside the walls of a beautiful Washington, D.C. estate. After the owner (likely Chance’s father) dies, Chance is left to walk the streets of D.C. alone and incapable of caring for himself, despite his sharp wardrobe of hand-me-down tailored suits. A small accident leads to a fortuitous meeting with the wife (Shirley MacLaine) of a mega-wealthy industrialist Benjamin Rand (Melvin Douglas), and Chance is taken into their home under the misheard moniker Chauncey Gardener.
Throughout the film, Ashby (along with screenwriter/novelist Jerzy Kosinski) consistently mocks the empty-headedness and egocentricism of the ruling class, including the President of the United States, whom Rand counts as a personal friend and protege. Unlike much satire, though, they do this in a way that informs and deepens the characters on display instead of dismissing them. When the characters look at Chance, they project onto him their greatest desires or deepest insecurities.
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Even as Chance remains blithely unaware of his own circumstances, we are privy to the depths of these people’s souls, and we can still laugh at their self-centeredness and oblivious ignorance of Chance’s true nature. And while the satire is pointed broadly at the politically empowered and ultra-capitalistic, it is nominally nonpartisan. Just as one can draw Trumpian parallels within the story, one could also uncharitably compare Chance to the initial rise of Barack Obama, who initially functioned as an inoffensive blank slate to voters. It is, for lack of a better word, timeless in its observations. This tonal balance is central to Being There’s status as a film of both uncommon gentleness and exceptional satirical insight.
Chance, too, exemplifies this balance. Unlike so many other developmentally disabled film characters (such as Forrest Gump, which has frequently been a point of comparison), Chance is never anything more than he is when we first meet him. He is a truly gentle, accommodating spirit and seems capable of a rudimentary emotional understanding, but he never behaves in a manner outside of our understanding of him or shows himself to be secretly exceptional in some form or another. His gaze throughout remains at once blank and deeply soulful, and as his circumstances change, he consistently returns to familiar patterns of behavior, chiefly focusing all of his attention on any television that may be in his view. He is a fundamentally static character largely defined by other’s reactions to him, yet the particularities of his disposition and a perfectly calibrated performance give him a depth and humanity far exceeding most of Hollywood’s portrayals of mental disability.
It says a lot about the sorry state of the present day when a work of art as pointed and trenchant as Being There can make one nostalgic for a bygone era. That one could opine for “better days” of the post-Watergate, Jimmy Carter malaise of D.C. politics is absurd on its face, and yet my first rewatch of Being There in the Trump era left me feeling just that. The evils of this era seem so much more benign, more manageable, and more civil. Donald Trump may have a grasp of issues and overall mental faculty comparable to Chance, but he lacks the gardener’s even temperament, humility, or unwaveringly reassuring demeanor. That Chance would likely be looked over as soft or ineffectual today in favor of the gaggle of vulgarians and petty strongmen taking prominence today only heightens the sense that Being There comes from a no less troubled, but more fundamentally humane and adult era of public discourse.
As a satire, Being There is unique in its emotional tenderness and overall gentleness of spirit, yet its rhetorical targets remain clear. The wealthy political class of Being There are self-centered, air headed, neurotic, and constantly in search of easy answers and a calm voice of reassurance, even if Ashby deigns to explore the depths of these selfish people. In that sense, Being There feels fresh and novel to the contemporary viewer. In an era where so much of the prevailing political discourse in built upon dismissing and dehumanizing those that question the current administration, finding the core humanity in those we intend to savagely satirize is an almost revelatory act of compassion.