“Being There” is a masterly study of people’s profound capacity and even eagerness for self-serving delusions about the nature of reality. Played as strong satire and with a finely understated sense of humor, the movie uses television as one of its two central emblems for commenting on and exploring the ways in which so many of us embrace precisely those highly idiosyncratic views of the world (and ourselves) that directly serve the interests of our most cherished prejudices; the other is that of the garden and the growth that it nurtures.
Chance the gardener is a witless man-child “with rice pudding between his ears,” as Louise, the black maid who had raised him from the age of five, puts it. As long as Chance can recall, he has lived in the “old man’s” house as the gardener, and when the old man dies, Chance is forced to vacate the premises by a sleaze of a lawyer, Thomas, who is in charge of probating the estate. Chance has always dressed in the immaculate suits of the old man, and since these were hand-tailored in the twenties and thirties, they are so old they have a fashionably conservative elegance in 1980. If ever anyone doubted that clothes can make the man in the eyes of the world, Chance gives a powerful corrective to such erroneous thinking.
Chance wanders out into the world for the first time in his life, and, like fools and children, he is under a miraculous kind of protection from its intrusive and ubiquitous evils. Up to this time, Chance has seen the world only through the controlling vision of the ubiquitous tube; with the unceasing fascination of the five-year old (his mental state), his remote control channel selector has allowed him to make the looped rounds of the programs, each of which he watches with equal interest and indifference: classical symphony, kiddie cartoons, news analyses, exercise hours, talk shows, advertisements, etc. etc. etc. It has all become a blur in his half-mind, a series of simple-minded discontinuities as meaningless and as significant as the flick of a button. Thus, in one splendid scene soon after he has left the house, Chance is confronted by a gang of angry young ghetto blacks. They have no love for honkies in homburgs, and when one of them pulls a switch-blade on him, Chance counters by pulling out his remote control selector and tries to tune out the threatening ‘channel’ by clicking furiously.
At one point Chance gets caught between two cars and suffers a minor bruise to his leg. The owner of one of the cars is the wife, Eve, of an enormously rich industrialist who is a personal friend of the president. Eve takes Chance to her estate for personal attendance by the medical team looking after her dying husband, Ben. It is at once clear that Eve has made an unconscious evaluation of Chance based on his dress and easy acceptance of her offer of help. His childlike and uncomprehending innocence she makes over in her own mind into a sophisticated cool. Asked his name, he replies mumblingly that it is Chance the gardener, which Eve hears as Chauncy Gardiner, and henceforth there is no stopping the cumulative piling of delusion upon delusion.
In the vast household to which he comes, Chance’s childish non-sequiturs and ingenuousness are taken as a special brand of wit and cleverness, and in conversations with Ben, the fascist Neanderthal and business tycoon, Chance once more becomes exactly what Ben wants to see in him: a shrewd, astute, worldly businessman who knows all about welfare chiselers and death-by-taxation and so forth. In that he is either silent, or nods, or drops cryptic comments phrased in the imagery of gardening and growth in nature, Chauncey acquires a reputation for punditry and worldly wisdom. It’s all an illustration of the fact that any bait will do if the victim is hungry enough: we flavor the most tasteless meat with the seasonings of our own imagination.
But not only does the industrialist himself put a kind of childlike faith in that which he has made of Chance (to the extent of wanting him to head up a business organization and, later, ‘look after’ Eve and Ben’s many other interests), but Eve falls passionately in lust with him. When Chance, who still functions at the level of the five-year old, has the responses of a five-year old to her fulminating advances, his utter failure to understand what she is up to makes her think he is a gentleman of utmost chivalry for not taking advantage of her. In a later attempt, he simply mimics a television program in kissing her, then tells her he likes to ‘watch.’ She gets the drift, all wrong, of course, but no matter.
At an embassy party the Russian ambassador converses freely with Chance in Russian, and the gardener smiles idiotically, nods sagely, and very soon it is bruited about that Chance is fluent in eight languages. His handling of the media, stemming from a total illiteracy and absorption with television, is seen as honest, courageous and refreshing. On a talk show he speaks in empty inanities that are understood by millions as profound commentary (!).
The most suggestive incident concerns the meeting with the president, who has come to visit Ben for advice on a speech he is going to give on the economy. Chance is present, and delivers himself of his thoughts on gardens and the cyclical nature of growth in plants, and both the president and Ben hear everything as metaphor. The president that evening gets on national television and quotes the theories of the economic expert Chauncey Gardiner. It is a cutting comment on society’s obsession with self-styled experts whose oracular formulations on social policy and economics prey on the insecurities and uncertainties of elected officials and the rest of us.
This film is of course very funny, but as with many humorously funny films, it is also serious in its look at the illusions and delusions that lie at the heart of human behavior and national life. Not the least of the consequential issues that are raised here is the very important one of language, of the way language and its wildly sprouting metaphors in the political arena tend ever more to obfuscate underlying realities in such a way that the language itself becomes the ultimate reality and reality itself merely a vehicle for the aggrandizing and self-important use of words.
Plato would have loved this movie; he would have seen just exactly the point that it so trenchantly makes. And, interestingly, it is Julius Caesar who most incisively comments from the first century B.C. [… alright, B.C.E. — if you must!] on the point of the film when he says, commenting in de bello gallico (3.18.6) on the folly of the scoundrel Viridovix and the ease with which he and all his Gauls are deluded by the trickery of the Roman commander Sabinus, fere libenter homines id quod volunt credunt (“for the most part people cheerfully believe what they want to believe”).
The film, then, toys delightfully with a very ancient theme of venerable validity.