Being There: An Interpretation

Note: I originally wrote this for my students in another context; it gives a bit of background for my interest in Nietzsche, so I’m putting it up here. I’ve taken the liberty of changing a couple of sentences.

Every now and then a movie comes out that viewers just know will endure as something to drink in and savour. Even more rarely, a movie is made that remains open to multiple interpretations while being decidedly difficult to pin down. Directed in 1979 by Hal Ashby and starring Peter Sellers, Being There is a such a film–and an unusually odd one it is, too. Delightful, philosophical, melancholic, hilarious, beautiful, relaxing, and elegantly-long, the movie is above all very “Zen” (as the term is used in a popular culture that rarely produces anything Zen-like). As other reviewers have noted, the nearly conflict-less Being There isn’t so much a 130 minute series of events as one event played again and again.

The story begins with Chance, the guest, gardener, and possible son of “the old man” of a very well-to-do household shut in against a dirty and run-down inner-city neighbourhood. When the old man dies and the maid leaves, Chance finds himself on the street with nothing but the old man’s fashionable clothes on his back and an empty briefcase–and a social naivete that others mistake for a deep inner sense of awareness. In a “chance” encounter with a billionaire’s wife, Eve Rand, Chance becomes injured, and in what follows is misunderstood to say his name is “Chauncey Gardiner” (instead of “Chance, the gardener”).

Thereafter he–completely unintentionally–pulls one leg after another of society’s upper crust by answering all their questions with the only thing he knows: the language of the garden. This is particularly true for economic issues, which he interprets as best as he can in an interview with the President himself in terms of spring and summer, autumn and winter. Chance goes into the meeting with his hands folded behind his back, empty. It’s an emptiness that is felt to be substance by the President, who reverses his policy direction based on Chance’s advice. Chance continues offering such advice until he is the dream of the publishing industry, the most sought-after guest on the talk show circuit, and the hope of an embattled political party that wants him to become the next president. His meteoric rise makes ladies swoon, homosexuals intrigued, and dying men comforted. His newfound fame causes the consternation of the spies of dozens of countries, points up the failure of the FBI, the CIA, and the Secret Service to get any kind of usable information about his identity, and renders the President himself immediately sexually impotent. In the end, there’s nothing that remains for the misunderstood Chance, the man who is always there for others, but to walk on water, which he does in the final scene.

So what are we to make of Being There? Many critics, such as Roger Ebert, have correctly characterized the movie as a satirical reflection on the characteristics of our culture: “The movie argues that if you look right, sound right, speak in platitudes and have powerful friends, you can go far in our society.” At the same time, I think there’s much more to the film than that, as Ebert himself hinted in another review.

For one thing, the aptly-named film is a testament to a tremendous human need: the need for others to “be there” for us. All of the silliness that gets in the way of this and that hurts us, personally and collectively, could be pared away, the movie is suggesting. All Chance does, apart from speak in the language of the garden, is to “be there” for others; this fills some of them with an intense loyalty to him that overrides on more than one occasion even sexual jealousy. At the same time, the scoundrels of the movie–not so much the street gangsters in the opening scene as the suspicious journalist, the philanderer attorney who wants to enter politics, and the back-room politicians themselves–come off looking very bad indeed in comparison. Compared to the Christ-figure Chance, they function only on the level of pedants of dishonest motives. When Chance is there for others, miracles happen. There is even one memorable scene in which Chance fools the Russian ambassador into thinking that he speaks Russian and enjoys Krylov. The ambassador comes to feel they have much in common personally as well as in terms of their countries’ positions–simply because Chance listens to him and smiles at him.

If the movie is well-named, so is its central character. Chance’s entire background is mysterious and rather uncertain. In the movie’s events, God plays no role, but Chance effects more change than anyone, and so Chance is in effect a character foil for divine interference in human affairs–a role that is part of a tradition going all the way back to the ancient Greek playwright Menander, who personified Chance in a position formerly reserved for Olympian deities. Being There invites us to consider the role of Chance in the universe and our dependence on it. Like the scene in which Chance tries to stand on his head while Eve masturbates on a bear-skin rug after being gently and unknowingly rejected, life’s chances are sometimes absurd.

And that brings us, in my opinion, to the heart of the movie. Life, the film is saying, is absurd. But in an absurd universe in which it seems that chance, and not God, plays any role at all, how does one live? For Chance the character, the answer is easy: with an open mind and heart. Chance has not been exposed to any of the hatreds and prejudices that have characterized humanity for so long. This is most clearly seen in matters sexual. Chance is able to show his friend Benjamin Rand that he loves Rand’s wife, Eve, without the slightest embarrassment, and he even says that he “loves” Eve “very much” to the family doctor–again, with no discomfort at all. Similarly, instead of recoiling in homophobic disgust when propositioned by a gay man at a cocktail party, he simply says very slowly that he doesn’t think he’s had sex with a man before. The sexual is a metonymy for everything else that counts, though. Without prejudice against black people, Chance grows fond of his African-American maid, and walks away unharmed from from a gang of black ruffians who could easily have killed an arrogant white man. When present at a party with the Russian ambassador, Chance naively answers the latter’s point about their positions not being so far from each other with the comment that their chairs are almost touching. It’s exactly that sense of freedom from the shackles of conventional prejudice that accounts for Chance’s entirely unintentional successes. In the last scene of the movie, when the President reads Rand’s quote that “Life is a state of mind”, Chance walks on water, clearly not recognizing the limitations imposed on the ordinary members of a society.

And so we have the ridiculous figure of our role model, Chance the unintentional √úbermensch. At the beginning, we had heard a satirically-ironic, jazzed-up version of Richard Strauss’s musical tribute to Friedrich Nietzsche’s book Also Sprach Zarathustra. Both music and book were a call to humanity to leave behind the shackles of traditional conventions for a bright new future. The music was used to great dramatic and intellectual effect in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Here, in a comedy, the musically-allusive effect comes off as merely humorous, but the message remains implicit in the film. Being There is deeply subversive of so much of what are called “traditional values”, but it does remain true to their core of wisdom: compassion for others and an uncluttered mind. Buddhism, in particular, has been preaching that for thousands of years. The paradox of Being There is that it is an empty mind that proves most fertile. It doesn’t get any more Zen-like than that.

Chance as Christ figure, Chance as the Serpent (see Genesis chapter 3). The relationship between and overlapping of Christ figures and Trickster figures is a subject for another post, but Chance fits both categories just as well as the Greek hero Prometheus does. I’ll write a post on Prometheus at some point in the future.