Great films – “Being There”

Being There poster

**WARNING THIS POST CONTAINS SERIOUS SPOILERS!!**

I first got interested by the work of Peter Sellers by my step-father; Paul. A life long Sellers fan, he regularly holds court in his home and plays the excellent Pink Panther films. Especially good is the first called “A shot in the dark”, which has comedic genius all the way through. However, it is in “Being There” that Sellers reached the true heights of perfection. The story seems very simple:

Sellers plays a mentally retarded gardener who has lived and worked all of his life inside the walls of an elegant Washington town house. The house and its garden are in a decaying inner city neighbourhood, but what goes on outside is of no concern to Sellers: He tends his garden, he watches television, he is fed on schedule by the domestic staff; he is content.

Then one day the master of the house dies. The household is disbanded. Sellers, impeccably dressed in his employer’s privately tailored wardrobe, wanders out into the city. He takes along the one possession he’ll probably need: His remote-control TV channel switcher. He uses it almost immediately; surrounded by hostile street kids, he imperturbably tries to switch channels to make them go away. He hasn’t figured out that, outside his garden, life isn’t television. (Rogerebert.com)

From such simple beginnings does a very deep philosophical story come. The films revolves around conversations Seller’s character “Chance” has in the film, where he is talking about gardening and the other side of the conversation mistakes this for deep musings about various subjects. This tone is set in the very first scenes. We know that Chance is a simpleton because we see his interactions with the one person who has known him since childhood; Louise the maid.

CHANCE
(watches news,flashes of season’s first snowfall)

…Yes, Lousie, it’s snowing in the garden today. Have you looked outside and seen the snow? It’s very white.

A beat of silence from Louise, then anger.

LOUISE
Gobbledegook! Dammit, Boy! Is that all you got to say? More gobbledegook?

(Chance smiles, is silent)

That Old Man’s layin’ up there dead as hell and it just don’t make any difference to you!

Lousie takes a long look at Chance, then softens, sits next to him.

LOUISE (Cont’d)
Oh, Lord, Chance – I don’t know what I was expectin’ from you… I’m sorry for yellin’ like I did… No sir, I just don’t know what I was expectin’…

This plot device is brilliantly placed right at the beginning to let us the viewer in on the joke. From this moment on, the more stupid things chance does or says are written off as jokes or plain speaking by those who are around him. Chance is soon thrust into the “real world” by the lawyers who come to sell off the “Old Mans” house and estate and have no records of Chance’s life in the garden.

FRANKLIN
Just how long have you been living here, Mr. Chance?

CHANCE
Ever since I can remember, since I was a child. I have always worked in the garden.

HAYES
…The you really are a gardener?

CHANCE
Yes.

(again points off)

…My roses…

FRANKLIN
…We will need some proof of your having resided here, Mr. Chance.

CHANCE
You have me, I am here. What more proof do you need?

(he starts toward rear building, points off)

That’s where Joe fixed the wall.

Forced to leave, Chance faces poverty, mugging or even death in a very short space of time. With considerable courage he leaves the house and wonders off into the city. This moment is momentous. Imagine… for Chance this is the crossing into the true unknown. Like Jim Carry’s character in “the Truman Show” he is crossing into something other than what he has known all his life. It is a moment of birth. When he is going from a place he has always been protected to one where life is real. Much like the leaving of the Garden of Eden by Adam and Eve, Chnce is moving into totally new worlds.

Chance has dressed in very expensive clothes handed down by the “OldMman” who liked his gardener to be well dressed. It is this that saves him. That and fate. After wandering (to the music of “thus spoke Zarathustra” no less) he quickly gets hit by a car. A common enough idea in a movie, but his total lack of outburst or emotional reaction, coupled with his fine clothes leads the cars owners (Eve; the daughter of millionaire and terminally ill political power player Rand) to mistake him for one of their own. His simple speech is quickly mistaken for good breeding and worried about the possibility of being sued they offer to take him to her father’s house to get medical attention from his doctors. Chance, of course, just goes along with it oblivious to what he is doing.

Arriving at the house another clever plot device comes to the fore. Often people speak in simple terms around those who are old or dying or both. They speak honestly in strange situations and often only allude to things or refer to metaphor. This is the case at the Rand household. Rand and Chance soon hit it off when Rand gets the impression (again led by his supposed well bred manor and fine duds) that Chance is a businessman like him, but fallen on hard times:

RAND
Do you need a secretary?

CHANCE
No, thank you. My house has been closed.

RAND
Oh, you mean to say that your business was shut down.

CHANCE
Yes. Shut down and locked by the attorneys.

RAND
What’d I tell you? …I know exactly what you mean. Today the businessman is at the mercy of kid-lawyers from the SEC. All they want to do is regulate our natural growth!

ALLENBY
It’s happening to everyone, I’m afraid. The way things are going they’ll probably legislate the Medical Profession, as we know it, right out of existence.

CHANCE
Yes. Right out of existence.

Sellers is now faced with the same acting challenge as Tom Hanks in “Forest Gump” and Brad Pitt in “Meet Joe Black”, he must portray nothing in his face but pure honesty. No childishness, no adult faces. Just honesty. This sets us up for the future movements.

Rand, taking a liking to Chance, asks him to sit with him in his meeting with the President of the United States. Chance does this and due to the President using the word “chance” thinks he is being asked a question. His body language interrupts the president, who asks him for an opinion on what has been saying. Chance, not knowing any better, can only talk about gardening. Happily this comes across as profound metaphor:

PRESIDENT
You don’t think I should take that chance, huh?

RAND
Absolutely not.

Chance has reacted to his name, but doesn’t know what to say. The President sits, turns, to Chance.

PRESIDENT
Do you agree with Ben, Mr. Gardiner? Or do you think we can stimulate growth through temporary incentives?

CHANCE
(a beat)
As long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all will be well in the garden.

PRESIDENT
(a pause)
…In the garden?

CHANCE
That is correct. In a garden, growth has its season. There is spring and summer, but there is also fall and winter. And
then spring and summer again…

PRESIDENT
(staring at Chance)

…Spring and summer…

(confused)

Yes, I see…Fall and winter.

(smiles at Chance)

Yes, indeed.

This script is beautiful. The layers of meaning are weaved with perfection and I began to see that is was actually leading somewhere and building up to something. The President, impressed by the “sound bite” nature of Chances comments, repeats them on TV that evening and suddenly the whole country want to hear more of Chances “wisdom”. Chance, still oblivious to the effect he is having, wanders through the emotions of these people. Eve finds herself attracted to Chance as he is “different” while Rand starts to see Chance as a potential captain of industry, able to take the reigns when he passess on. The President uses every means at his disposal to find out more about Chance and the people who watch power (the press) all court him. Eventually, Chance receives phone call to appear on TV. Because of his love of TV (the only teacher he has ever had) he agrees readily. His moments on TV are amazing to the audience. Chance shows no fear (he has none) and speaks, once again, in simple terms about gardens. This is taken to be political wisdom of the greatest kind. Chance talks about spring coming after winter, about growth (plant growth) and the nature of a good gardener. All of these things are taken to be allusions and metaphors for the economy and the leadership of the President:

BURNS (on TV)
(a beat)
Well, the President compared the economy of this country to a garden, and stated that after a period of decline a time of growth would naturally follow.

CHANCE (on TV)
Yes, I know the garden very well. I have worked in it all my life. It is a good garden and a healthy one;

Rand is in bed. Eve sits in a chair next to the bed and squeezes Rand’s hand in the excitement as they both watch Chance on television. Teresa and Constance watch in the Background.

CHANCE (on TV – cont’d)
its tress are healthy and so are its shrubs and flowers, as long as they are trimmed and watered in the right seasons. The garden needs a lot of care. I do agree with the President; everything will grow strong, and there is plenty of room in it for new trees and new flowers of all kinds.

The TV audience applauds Chance and Constance quietly leaves the room.

Convinced that Chance is a threat the President is unable to make love to his (rather thirsting) wife. Chance, on the other hand, is approached by a very turned on Eve who throws herself at him. Not knowing sex or passion, Chance just watches TV and tells Eve that “he likes to watch”. She takes this as a cue to pleasure herself, which she does:

EVE
…And I feel so free now, Chauncey. I never felt so acknowledged by a man…
Until I met you, I always had the feeling that I was just a vessel for a man, something that he could take hold of, pierce, and pollute. I was merely an aspect of
somebody’s lovemaking. Do you know what I mean?

Chance turns to her, says nothing, presses the cold snow-flakes to his face.

EVE
You uncoil my wants; desire flows within me, and when you watch me my passion dissolves it. You set me free. I reveal myself to myself and I am drenched and purged.

However, for Rand the end is near. Not a moment after waking and talking to Eve, Rand dies. Chance visits him with the Doctor and places his hand on the old mans head:

ALLENBY

(covers Rand’s face)

Yes, I suppose that’s true.

Chance reaches out, uncovers Rand’s face, gently touches the man’s forehead, feels the coldness. Allenby eyes him as Chance stays with Rand for a moment, then replaces the sheet.

Here the deeper meanings start to show. The Doctor realises the truth:

ALLENBY
I see…

(another beat)

…And you really are a gardener, aren’t you?

CHANCE
(brightens)
Yes, Robert – I am.

(a smile at Allenby)

I’ll got tell Eve about Ben now, Robert.

Chance leaves the bedroom. Allenby watches him go, then sits back in a chair, his head spinning.

The truth is not realised by anyone else and Chance is next found at the funeral of Rand. The powerful players that support the politics are discussing who they should support from election to President. They decide to support Chance. Away from this Chance walks down to the lake in the cemetery. He passes a broken branch and tends to it. He then comes to the waters edge.

He then steps out onto the water.

Actually waking on the water.

Wandering along we see him poke through the surface with his umbrella and then the film ends.

Like a lens the camera has been capturing one story all this time, only to suddenly focus and give us something else at the end. We have been inside the “joke” with Chance, right up until this revelation which shows that the joke isn’t actually there. It draws a new thread from the whole film, from every conversation, from Chances character and from us. This film, in the end isn’t a comedy. Only one kind of being can walk on water; a deity. However you take it. No normal human can perform that miracle. Suddenly we see that Chance is all at once:

True
Pure
Enlightened

He has no passion, no evil, nothing that could be called sin. His answers to everyone are from his heart. He is the Platonic ideal in a leader, true and disinterested. He hasn’t been speaking in hushed tones around the dead, nor has he been walking on eggshells. He is what he is. He has no idea of his limitations and thus he has none. He has reached the state of the Buddha. The escape from the pain of life and of death; escape from the cycle of life. He just is. In the moment. Not profound, nor proud. He loves only the life of a garden. He has no back story, no agenda, no hate and no other love than for the things he tends to. He knows the truth of live and death. What sort of leader would such a man make? Is he the “second coming”? No, he has no religious view, no claims of Godhood. Rather he is a new Buddha, the master of peace.

Up until his aquatic adventure, I wondered if he would be a puppet of those who really hold the reigns of power. After his walking on water I realised that he is not destined to stop at becoming President. Control of the US democracy holds no interest for him. He is beyond what is such a small aim. I suspect he will go on to usher in a new spiritual dawn in all parts of the world and humanities soul may finally be freed. Until this moment his commentary has been taken as economic simply because he has been with business people. Soon, his path of speaking simply and letting the other persons heart speak back to fill the void will come into new arenas.

I suspect this miracle will be the first of many totally natural miracles, and his way of speaking and thinking will cut through the chains of our minds that blind us all. People will actually want to be like him. Unfettered by the mental desegregation’s and loss of self that the modern world forces upon us.

This is shown in the film by the way that the public suck up his metaphors of the garden. Everyone want to be led by someone who is true and enlightened, they thirst for it. They need to believe in it and from it draw a feeling of peace. Imagine the modern world led by someone incapable of inciting fear! Not able to lie. Not able to be hateful or push any kind of agenda.

All of that came to me in under a second. The second he walked on the water. For me the, this must have been how the disciples felt when Jesus did the same. I don’t have Christian beliefs, but I can see why we are so fascinated with the enlightened. However they reach their state of bliss.

Truly beyond film.

I cried because it was so beautiful.

Sellers, who died not long after this film, has given us a performance of starling clarity. The script is tight, softly spoken and well measured (something the later films along the same general theme try desperately to follow) and the direction doesn’t give away the ending until it is there (an effect I love in other movies such as “Arlington Road” and “Usual Suspects”). All in all the film has stayed with me ever since watching it and if you allow yourself to be taken in by its charm the ending comes as a revelation.

I think it is in the top 10 best endings of all time and deserves to be in the top 20 best films of all time.

Yours,

Basho.

2016-10-18T18:54:59+00:00

About the Author:

Bio: Philosopher, film maker, writer and IT expert. Occupation: IT Consultant, film-maker and writer. Interests: Debate, cooking, computer-gaming, reading, writing, videoing, martial arts, air­soft, movies, diving, skiing… (The list goes on — Basho is a philosopher and therefore into everything!)