“I like to watch”
– Dialogue from Being There
Hal Ashby’s 1979 classic Being There – now available through a rather excellent Criterion Blu-ray – perhaps speaks more loudly to the political climate of 2017 than it ever did during the Carter administration. It’s always tempting to look at any political satire and apply its messages to the contemporary zeitgeist – how many times can we evoke Dr. Strangelove? – but in the case of Being There, the satire has only become more pointed as political discourse has, if I may say it, devolved.
I recall the presidential races of the late 1980s and early 1990s with startling clarity. Perhaps it was the mere bubble I, a white male child, existed inside of, but I seem to remember that the actual politics of the time were dismissed over criticism of the way politics had come to be wielded. Louder than the platitudes of the politicians, or any sort of policy promises, were the voices of irritated editorialists and miffed analyzers over how the rhetoric of the modern American president had been reduced from Cicero-level linguistic architecture to 10-second soundbites, bland sloganeering, and other forms of intellectual junk food.
That was 1992. Here in 2017, where the president himself can throw the world into a fearful and outraged tizzy by casually tossing off badly-spelled lies and half-truths in 140 characters or less, that problem has clearly only intensified. Political rhetoric is, in the age of The Donald, now particularly reliant on snap judgments, quick answers, and vague platitudes (platitudes that are meant to foment fear and resentment and isolationism).
Being There is about a man named Chance (Peter Sellers) who, because of a mistaken name (the very upper-crust-sounding Chauncey Gardener), his manner (he is quiet, direct, and friendly), and his clothing (we wears the well-tailored suits of his former employer), is mistaken for an expert at easy-to-consume aphorisms, and embraced as a presidential adviser. He uses metaphors for gardening to explain the current state of the world, addresses the president (Jack Warden) by his first name, and seems very agreeable.
Chance is also afflicted with a form of autism. He doesn’t quite understand the difference between reality and what he sees on television – as enacted in a famous scene where he is intimidated by a would-be mugger, and is astonished to find that the mugger doesn’t vanish when he pushes a button on his remote control (mistaking TV for reality seems like a problem our current Commander in Chief also seems to have, repeating what he sees on inflammatory news programs without checking with the intelligence community if it’s true). Chance only speaks of a garden because that’s all he knows. He worked as a gardener, off the books, for a sympathetic wealthy man, and rarely left the mansion grounds. When the old man dies, Chance is left to wander the streets.
Chance is eventually found by another wealthy couple (Shirley MacLaine and Melvyn Douglas) and is assumed to be a lost rich man thanks to his suit, his name, and his race. It’s not long before he’s meeting statesmen.
Following the electoral win of our current president, many news outlets wrote extended and well thought-out essays as to how he won. Many have come to cite a new social media phenomenon wherein self-validating half-news editorials are being proliferated across multiple platforms without being fact-checked or, in many cases, even read. People are sharing headlines and forming their own version of a de facto truth, leading to a Cult of Slogans.
Being There was skewering that arc of the American political discourse nearly 40 years ago. Chance’s wisdom is easily consumed, open for interpretation, and definitely comes from an honest, innocent place. He is an outsider (now a virtue) who is too guileless to lie. But, in a masterful screenplay, each one of his platitudes is carefully misunderstood by those around him. It was broadly satirical at the time, but modern audiences can likely see the direct parallels to how we consume political information. Platitudes, we can now see, work better than ever.
Being There was Ashby’s last widely-celebrated film, and the director’s own turbulent life has been used by critics over the decades as a handy metaphor for American cinema in the 1970s. After the decade played itself out – and maybe because Reagan took office – Ashby was never at peak form again. He did direct six more features and a few TV shows before his death in 1988, but Beverly Hills Buntz, for example, is rarely mentioned in film classes.
But Being There is a quietly brilliant, slow-moving, intelligent fable for the ages. The film ends with a surprising scene wherein Chance appears to walk across the surface of a lake. This scene is open for interpretation, but I choose to see it as a declaration that Chance is perhaps a deity; “Chance” itself taken human form. Ashby was perhaps reminding us that power, wealth, and any sort of wisdom or fame we stumble upon happens entirely by accident. No one is destined to be president, and no one deserves their wealth and fame. It’s all just a matter of random chance.
Those in power would, perhaps, be humbled enough to remember that.
Top Image: United Artists
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.