Being There (1979)
Written by Jerzy Kosinski
Directed by Hal Ashby
Chance is a gardener who has never left the grounds of the Washington, D.C. townhouse where he was born. One day, his wealthy employer dies, and Chance is left entirely alone in the world. Forced out of his home by the estate lawyer, the mentally disabled man stumbles through the modern world until befriending business mogul Ben Rand and his wife Eve through accident. The mistakingly hear his name as Chauncey Gardener and believe him to be a struggling business person who speaks in metaphor and parables. His relationship with the Rands leads to his meeting with the president of the United States and the public becoming obsessed with this visionary stranger.
Being There is one my favorite films of all-time, with my first viewing, come in Doctor Paul Prill’s media criticism class while I was attending Lipscomb University in Nashville. It was a film I knew nothing about but opened the door to exploring director Hal Ashby’s filmography, almost proto-Wes Anderson, particularly when compared to Anderson’s early films. Being There doesn’t feel explicitly political at the start unlike the previous films in this series which advertise their political angles. Instead, there is a slow build to the film’s actual focus as we follow Chance’s journey deep into the heart of the D.C. elite.
There is a knee-jerk reaction when you see Being There the first time to think it oddly prescient of current times. However, Chance the Gardener is a figure that has always been present in contemporary American politics and likely further back. I saw the film at the height of the W. Bush presidency as the Iraq War was unfolding and it felt like it nailed the sort of dimwit persona that president espoused. Watching the film last night a scene stood out to me in being reflective of the current Trump administration. As Chance walks the red carpet at a fundraiser, he’s asked by reporters about what he thought of articles in papers about him. He responds honestly that he hasn’t read them and they follow up asking about which newspapers he does read. Chance replies that he just likes to watch television.
There’s also profound commentary about white privilege embedded in the film, and in fact, after this viewing, it feels like Ashby made the movie as a response to seeing a succession of incompetent white men in suits continually making society worse. The black maid who worked in the townhouse alongside Chance comes across his interview on a late night talk show and remarks to her friends that all you have to be is white in America and you can do anything. Graffiti glimpsed on a wall makes a similar statement. When Chance approaches a group of young black men, they regard him with first suspicion and then aggression. The very next scene finds a police officer outside the gates of the White House treating Chance with complete unquestioning respect. The officer sees a well groomed and softly spoken white man in a nice suit. He has to be somebody important, right?
Being There is a beautiful companion piece to Sidney Lumet’s Network, both biting critiques on modern television media. While Network examines the institution of television, Being There’s focus is on the effects of the medium on an individual. Chance is utterly disinterested in interpersonal relationships to the point that a sex scene involves his partner on the floor loudly satisfying herself while Chance flips through channels. Our protagonist is such a non-entity that I would argue the film isn’t even about him. Instead, it is about the people around him and how they use Chance as a tabula rasa for their own projections. Chance does nothing and learns nothing over the course of the movie, all of the arcs happen to the supporting figures. But Chance is never deeply unhappy, he does seem to mourn characters when they die but only momentarily. Instead, he lives in a reasonably passive daze, and life seems good for him. As the final line of the film goes “ Life is a state of mind.”