Being There (1979)


Hal Ashby directs Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine and Melvyn Douglas in this tale of a very simple gardener who has never left his master’s (possibly father’s) house, made homeless after the old man’s death, who then somehow thrives in the high end house of a political power broker. 

An exceedingly gentle, simple, subtle film. It is essentially a screwball comedy with the posh and powerful universally mistaking a (most likely autistic) dim bulb for a font of economic wisdom. Despite Sellers presence, this is almost obtusely not played for laughs. A comedy without jokes, a clown without expression. Instead we are left to ponder the mystery of Chance’s back story, his preternatural success in navigating a world he has only previously witnessed on TV. One scene sees him avoiding the cracks in floor tiles like a first grader while everyone else sings lyrical about his intelligence. Is that how he makes it through life? Or is the final surprise shot of him walking on water the key to his enigmas? The above pictured graffiti is the only time we explicitly see his accidental achievements as a white man matched with any religious connotations. But Being There is a film so poker faced, that both or neither interpretations are valid. It can at concurrent times be a satire on the advantages and privileges of race in a capitalist world while also a fantasy fable. In many ways it is a sweeter less bludgeoning Forrest Gump. Like that contentious favourite, it is an experience I admire, more than love. Yet I cannot help but keep revisiting its open ended puzzles, its austere gorgeousness. Special mention and praise should go to Dianne Schroeder who assembled and edited all the TV footage that entrances and directs Chance through his journey. It is a magnificent collage of imagery and sound.


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