No 160 - Being There Director - Hal Ashby
A few months ago, hell it may have even been a year, I was in BlockBusters in Wantage when I found a load for films for £1.... One of these was The Life and Times of Peter Sellers starring Geoffrey Rush. I thought it looked quite good, and it was cheap so I bought it. And guess what folks.... IT WAS GOOD, a very intense performance from Rush and a really interesting look at the life (and death) of Peter Sellers. One of the central themes of the film follows Sellers as he wishes to have people take him seriously. His main quest is to have the book 'Being There' made into a film. Ever since then, I have wanted to watch the film.... so I am glad that Islington library was able to aid me.
I had no real idea what this film was going to be about. My main reason for watching was solely the fact that Sellers had wanted to make this film for so long as he related to the central character of Chance. So. as I came into this film blind, with no knowledge of what was going to happen ahead of me I feel I am in the perfect position to talk about my first impressions of this film. I loved it!
I was really taken by the central character of Chance, who is gloriously literal and naive and ignorant of everything except being a gardener. I think it is fair to draw parallels between this film and Forrest Gump as they both feature an 'idiot' making a massive difference to the people around him and subsequently to American as a whole. What this film has going for it that Gump didn't have is the simple addition of Sellers. As good an actor Tom Hanks is, he does not have the same amazing ability of being a fully convincing character actor, whilst Sellers fully inhabits his characters and makes them real - sometimes to the detriment of his own sanity (again I'm using Life and Death as a point of reference.... I just feel that I should mention it more because I bloody love the film and it is not in the list). Because of this, the film has a subtlety which Gump just can't touch. It is a film where, essentially, nothing happens and in films like that the cast and the characters have to be perfect. That is where the film truly shines. Shirley MacLaine and Melvyn Douglas play the marvellous couple who adopt Chance and they are truly fantastic in their roles of an Old man who comes to terms with his death and his younger wife who finds an release for her pent up passions. However, like all his films this is Sellers's show, but could be the best individual performance of his career. To see an actor so famed for his outlandish caricatures play such a subtle and nuanced character is truly fascinating, I can't help but feel that this helped pave the way for Jim Carrey to be in The Truman Show or for will Ferrell in Stranger Than Fiction.
Whilst this film isn't a comedy per se, their are sublimely comic moments - most of these coming from Chance wondering unaffected through his surroundings meeting ever more important people. They take his musings about gardening to be deep, meaningful a highly metaphorical statements about the state of America. This leads to massive levels of paranoia as the president can find no information of him having ever existed, whilst the rest of America endear to him and wish he could lead the country with his straight talking and fable like beauty with words.
It is also a very gentle film, Chance is constantly referred to as Chauncy Gardener due to MacLaine's Eve mishearing him say 'Chance the Gardener' the first time. Therefore, as he becomes more prominent in the public eye and background checks are made on him, no information is found. As Chance lives out his gentle unassuming life the CIA, FBI and Washington Post are trying desperately to find any information about him. And failing.
Even when they do find out that he is not a financial or political genius, and he is in fact just a gardener, it is not used as a negative twist in the film. They confront Chance with their knowledge and he admits it and walks off. Chance is too naive, too unaware of his surroundings to ever be in any trouble. It is a concept which is encapsulated by the final scene. At this point I wish to do something I never thought I would ever do, quote someone off the IMDB forum. But I feel it is OK, because they in turn are just paraphrasing the book on which Being There is based.
"Chance walks on water because he doesn't realize that he can't".
All the situations in this film are pretty much impossible - the concept of a simpleton like Chance moving through America's upper echelons of power is sublime in its ridiculousness (let us just not comment on old George W at this point), so the final scene where Chance walks across a lake to tend to a tree makes perfect sense. There is no way Chance should have been able to get through any of the scenes in this film, yet he does. So why not manage this final unachievable feat.
This is a man who is so naive that the world fails to affect him, and in this aspect even the literal laws of nature re not able to stop him.
Apart from that, I have only a couple of small points I want to make for the film:
Firstly, there is a really odd subplot in which the President is convinced that Chance will replace him as president and starts to worry, losing his erection. Cue some very dramatic cuts (sometimes mid sentence) from Chance's social hobnobbing to the President and his wife laying in bed together discussing why he can't get it up.... I didn't understand that.
Secondly, I just wanted to mention that there is a really cool version of Also Sprach Zarathustra in this film. The Original Strauss version is mostly famous for being the theme to 2001, so it is fitting thay this awesome Jazz funk version by Eumir Deodato is played as Chance leaves his master's house for the first time. It is Chance's exploration of a whole new world...
And it is really cool in bangin' retro way....