*/**** Image C+ Sound C+ Extras D
starring Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Jack Warden, Melvyn Douglas
screenplay by Jerzy Kosinski, based on his novel
directed by Hal Ashby
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Arguably the last film of note for New American Cinema director Hal Ashby, Being There (adapted from the Jerzy Kosinski novel by Kosinski himself) is oft-cited as a withering satire of punditry when to me it appears to be more a rather winsome look at the relationship between the artist and the audience. It suggests, after all, that it's not the messenger but the message--that a piece of art is only as important as the degree to which it's raked over by historians and critics, and that if there's a fundamental emptiness, a senselessness, in the creation of that art, then so be it. So long as the conduit is a true vessel for a larger cultural movement (like that reflected by television, for instance), 'gives a shit about the vessel anyway? More, Being There implies that the only true vessels might be empty ones.
Befitting a true auteur, each of Ashby's heroes is a reflection of Ashby: wearied, broken, puzzled by the establishment, diseased to the bone, and desperate for a few moments of stolen bliss in the middle of wastelands upon wastelands. And each of them ends in Chauncey Gardiner (Peter Sellers), who in truth has no name but the misunderstanding that one bequeaths on him upon the death of his mentor/father/employer/jailor. Chance the gardener--or carpenter, if you prefer (or Christ, if you must)--is the proverbial god created in Blake's heart of men. He is at once the need that humanity demonstrates for an answer and the representation of that golden mean of Romanticism that it is only through melancholy that we understand the first testament of divinity to be nature. When Chauncey gives the world advice on how to tend a garden, it's no accident that the world understands it as clearly as allegory as every single viewer of Being There understands the film to be a metaphor.
Because Chauncey isn't mentally defective in any recognizable way, Sellers's portrayal of him as a cross between a dull child and Stan Laurel is subject to no empirical criticism. It's ridiculous to say that it's a good performance, because what the fuck is he doing? Better to say that as far as Being There goes, it requires--indeed demands--a blank screen upon which the audience can project its own expectations for enlightenment, and on that score Sellers doesn't disappoint. There are jokes that work (though fewer than you maybe remember), while the crushing smugness of the rest of it is obviously a product not of Ashby's essential modesty but of Kosinski's essential egoism. Consider that the sequence where Chauncey is evicted from his pastoral oubliette and ventures into the ghetto for the first time in his blighted life is scored with Deodato's unlistenable disco version of "Also Sprach Zarathustra"--which, by 1979, was already forever tied to 2001--and provides the picture a cheap, dated rimshot of the babe in the nigger wood.
It's racist without question without ever addressing the race issue, but what's interesting is that the picture's first racist in the old-fashioned bigoted way, then transitions into being racist in the pandering way (eg., Chauncey empty-headedly wondering if his black doctor could know the black lads who menaced him), before finally becoming racist in a paternalistic way (i.e., when Chauncey's one-time compatriot (Ruth Attaway) identifies him as an idiot and marvels at how that cracker gets all the breaks). It's the idea that awareness of racism is somehow excuse for it--that patting the lawn jockey on the head is somehow liberal enough to rationalize owning one. (See: Tom McCarthy's The Visitor.) What it isn't is satire. Chauncey is only allowed free range in ironic Eden for a few minutes before he's harvested by Eve (Shirley MacLaine--and of course her character's name is "Eve"), the much-younger wife of dying industrialist Ben (the great Melvyn Douglas), and brought into the "inner circle," as it were, as Ben introduces him to the POTUS (Jack Warden) and Chauncey says a few calming nothings about when to plant seeds and how to water.
It's easy to read Being There as critical of religion, particularly as the much-discussed last image of the film is of our naïf actually walking on water, but forgive me for thinking this is just Ashby fucking with us. Chauncey is no man and every man and syllogistically worthless. The picture, for all the things it could be, seemingly boils down to Ashby saying that he feels absent in the control and dissemination of his work; what's good in what he's done is as mysterious to him as it isn't to his admirers, and in the end he's standing on his head while someone masturbates next to him. In that pursuit, he's found the perfect "someone" in Kosinski, the ideal companion to one's literary youth (when garbage like Pinball, The Painted Bird, and Blind Date--possibly plagiarized, possibly ghost-written, definitely reeking of self-promotion and the stink of fakery--strikes one as profound) and the perfect author for a piece that's basically a joke on us. In terms of its palimpsest of extra-textual deceptions, it's almost Wellesian.
At the end of the day, it's a Melvyn Douglas line from a better film, Hud, that clarifies the fact, not the moral, of Being There: "Little by little the look of the country changes because of the men we admire." Being There isn't about false prophets, it's about a true prophet. It's not about putting your faith in things that don't exist, in stupid things--it's about itself as an article of faith that you may have believed in, which, in a way, makes you a fool and, in another, makes itself a god. It's an arrogant movie, a smug movie, and until this one it didn't seem like Ashby had made many of those. It's the moment, in other words, that Ashby turns passive-aggressive. There's nothing wrong with people following the simple-minded pronouncements of Chauncey as gospel--nothing wrong with the idea that Chauncey might be elected President one day. There's no outrage in the film and none, I suspect, in its audience, either. By 1979, was there much controversy left in whether or not politics were rigged and the American people were etherized dupes lobotomized with cathode probes? Was it shocking that the Church was corrupt, or industry? These are issues that American film had been dealing with for decades and consistently in the '70s, in parades of classics. Being There, then, can only have any kind of relevance if it's read as this individual artist's statement that he's about to become obsolete. Already at this point, it's the only self-awareness that matters.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Warner brings Being There to Blu-ray in a 1.85:1, 1080p transfer undermined by a great deal of wonky noise-reduction. It'd be fine for a high-speed download on a Roku device--it's not so fine for the format of now. The colours are lovely, though, with the richness of Caleb Deschanel's palette in the old man's mansion brought home in syrupy, '70s mochas and caramels. Blacks betray that grain-freeze of DVNR overused, but from Douglas's cadaverous to MacLaine's flush, flesh tones have real range. The 2.0 Dolby TrueHD audio--mislabelled 1.0 on the cover art--isn't the default option, nor is it accessible anywhere except through the pop-up menu as the film is playing. Once accessed, the track offers little discernible improvement on the DD 1.0 alternative(s) despite the lossless encode, although there's an admirable lack of that tinniness common to mixes of the period.
"Memories from Being There" (15 mins., SD) consists of Douglas's granddaughter Illeana sitting on a chair, vaguely recalling her experience of visiting Melvyn on the set of the film in question. It's extremely clips-heavy and insight-light, but I did appreciate her appreciation of Ashby (even though she can only name three of his movies--and not the ones you'd assume). There's not much there, there. An "Alternate Ending" (1 min., SD) finds Chauncey and Eve running into the woods, and two quick deleted scenes have almost literally nothing worth talking about. Much has been made of Sellers's irritation that bloopers played over the ending credits of Being There--he blamed them for his losing out on an Oscar for this performance--but here's another gag reel (6 mins., SD), immaculately restored, that's really the same thing only longer. The 'Blu-ray, gotta get one!' montage of hype cues up on startup and a cropped yet cleaned-up trailer (SD) rounds out the platter. Not a great flick, not a good disc, but give this to the aforementioned trailer: it makes the whole thing look like a friggin' horror movie. Originally published: May 19, 2009.