Welcome to my page of notes on the Hal Ashby film "Being There" starring Peter Sellers, and written by Jerzy Kosinski. These are, of course, only my own thoughts and ideas on a film which is open to a great variety of interpretations and I would be delighted to hear from anyone wishing to discuss the film or my thoughts on it. I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I saw this film when it was first released and well remember being very taken with it as a whole, but especially the thought-provoking "twist" at the end. I was particularly struck by the deceptively gentle pace which reflected Chance’s vision and approach to life, and served to underline what I took to be one of the central themes or "messages" of the film.
Although hardly a biting satire or wild comedy, "Being There" nevertheless contains very pertinent observations about life and society. It has been criticised by some for being too "arty" and for not being more overtly entertaining, but this is not a satire trying to take a rise out of political or social absurdities. At its core it is making serious points about life, the meaning we give it, and the society we are creating.
As gentle simpleton Chance is evicted from his life-long home (indeed his entire world, as he has never left the grounds), he is launched into a series of adventures propelled by a variety of misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Of very limited intellectual ability, Chance’s two areas of knowledge and interest are gardening and television.
A key element in the misunderstandings which advance the storyline is the way in which his interlocutors impose their own interpretation on Chance’s utterances. This applies to virtually every conversation Chance has, and the audience is party to the joke as we are aware of the genuine situation and the true import of Chance’s remarks (generally containing references to gardening, his only real area of competence). Thus, as various characters have conversations at cross purposes, we can see and understand how this happens, and feel superior to the wealthy and powerful characters as they impute significance to Chance’s banal gardening "metaphors".
Jerzy Kosinski (author of the novel and script) appears to be mocking the way we need and seek wisdom and inspiration to the point where we impose metaphoric meaning and symbolism on what may be no more than "normal" conversation. Man, and by extension, society, may be getting "too big for his boots" in that he tries too hard to be clever to the point where, by over analysing and intellectualising, he actually creates problems which need not be there. It is in this context, which leads to anxiety and overreaction, that man seeks wisdom and knowledge from others. It is also in this context that Chance’s gardening metaphors offer reassurance and comfort, and are seized upon by those in positions of responsibility in the film. As those in authority seek to control everything, and panic when they fail, Chance appears to offer hope in the form of calm confidence and a metaphoric return to nature.
Since we know that Chance’s remarks are nothing more than a desperate attempt to engage in conversation using his only source of knowledge, we may interpret the film as saying that there is no meaning other than that which we choose to give it, and that society is shaped by the chance meeting of minds, of being in the right place at the right time, and by the interpretation of what is said. Chance has exercised considerable influence simply by being there at the right time – it is only as the result of a series of accidents and misinterpretations that he reached such a position of influence, and perhaps the same can be said for many such people and events which have influenced history.
This might have been a "straight" comedy, even a farce, if the authorities had ended up with egg on their faces, but they don’t. In fact, Chance’s words actually offer solutions, or at least others’ interpretations of his words offer solutions and reassurance. It struck me at one point that Kosinski may be saying that what is important is not what is said, but the meaning taken from it by the interlocutor. Here Chance has managed to free people’s minds from intellectual clogging and emotional involvement to allow them to see a solution. However, the ending of the film put an entirely different slant on things for me.
The final image of Chance walking on water suggests (in my opinion) that Chance is a messenger from God and that perhaps credence should be accorded to his utterings and credit given to the effect he has had. God moves in mysterious ways, so they say, and Chance has indeed had a beneficial effect on those whose lives he has touched (and who put their faith in him). He managed to put them in touch with themselves by cutting through complications and intellectual argument to find a simpler and more natural solution. Chance may be regarded not so much as a vessel of knowledge but as a vessel of approach and attitude. He encourages us to appreciate simpler things and nature, be more accepting, and not to seek to control.
In fact Chance may even be regarded as wise since he has no perception of the problems he helps to resolve. Problems, then, may be seen as largely of our own making.
It seems to me that a worthy point of reference is Voltaire’s "Candide". At the end of that story the idealistic Candide has become thoroughly disillusioned with life and the various philosophies he has encountered. His solution is "Il faut cultiver notre jardin." (We must develop our garden). His friend Martin agrees and adds with even greater clarity, "Travaillons sans raisonner – c’est le seul moyen de rendre la vie supportable." (Let’s work without thinking – that’s the only way of making life bearable). Candide’s solution is to return to nature and the simple life, unquestioning, undoubting – this is the way to happiness as opposed to his wordly wise adventures which led to unhappiness and cynicism.
It could be suggested that Chance has cultivated his garden, and through the gardening metaphor hopes to help others cultivate their (simpler) garden of life.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page – I hope you have found it of some value.