"Being There" Review
© 1997 Fontaine L.
- spoiler warning -

Okay, time to switch gears. This is the first time I've reviewed a movie that was before my time--its release was in 1979, before I was even born. I know little of that era, I admit, and there may be several incidents where the older among you may feel I am not doing the movie justice by critiquing it with a youthful eye. Just a warning. . .you should also know that I saw this movie in English class--my teacher raved about it.

A little introduction. For young'uns, and for those who remember, "Being There" was a little piece of satire starring Peter Seller and Shirley McClaine and directed by Hal Ashby. It details the story of the transformation of a man from idiot to social icon, from Chance the Gardener to socialite Chauncey Gardener (portrayed by Peter Seller). Spoiled as I am by the 90's loud, straightforward, visually thrilling movies, it took a little getting-used to this quiet, unassuming piece. Nowadays the dramatic film is accompanied by an interminable score, enhancing colors, and "riveting performances." In contrast, "Being There" seems bland.

But as I said, it takes a little getting used to (for me at least.) Amused though almost falling asleep in the beginning of the movie, by the end I became spellbound by Seller's subtlety in his performance, the film's witty composition, and the rich layers of meaning. Point taken. This movie doesn't need special effects, dramatic music, "meaningful" dialogue. The film is meaningful in its own spontaneous, seemingly effortless way. That is, when we view this film, we don't go, "Ah, they are going for an Oscar." But the meaning's there. Everywhere, in fact. Aided by a few lectures by my teacher, I was able to look at the movie from several points of views, each one different, each one revealing multitudes.

The film's pace is slow, almost unbearably so to me at first. This slowness in the end serves to emphasize the calmness of Chance's spirit. The film doesn't use a lot of music, but when it does, it does so wisely. The scene where Chance strides toward Capitol Hill accompanied by the "2001: Space Odyssey" theme is a classic; and the ripples of piano that slither by every now and then strikes chords in our hearts. The music's there, but it doesn't get in our way. (There is nothing more annoying than incessant music in action films.) Seller's performance is rich with nuances varying from irresponsiveness to bewilderment, him being funny without having to contort his face. He becomes Chance, with body and soul. I have not seen Seller's other works, but obviously his reputation is well-earned. His Chance the Intellectually Impaired is one of the greatest characters of TV history, original, convincing, inspiring. Furthermore, Seller is surrounded by a myriad of obviously capable thespians, among them Shirley McClaine (who plays Eve Rand).

It is obvious the film attempts at humor, and it does so mostly by way of miscommunication and misunderstanding between the characters. While its acerbic humor lightens the film's tone, it is more suitably viewed as a satire, IMO. Television sets are abundant, and Chance bases his everyday actions on what he sees in television. He has no real intellect, but when his image is distorted by human gullibility and media exaggeration, he becomes a famous philosopher and potential presidential candidate. While the world about him is a-frenzy about this new found celebrity, Chance himself remains unperturbed, unaffected. This is most cleverly illustrated at the very end of the film when he apparently walks on water -- a scene that would seem ludicrous if placed in another movie -- symbolizing that he is "floating" through life, unattached, without woe. Chance never understands the media frenzy, he never understands why people seem to adore him.. He doesn't even know what "adore" means. He doesn't take things seriously -- he doesn't know how to -- and he faces the world with naivete and earnestness. In contrast, the characters around him seem frighteningly melodramatic, fussy, and arrogant. Those people are us.

"Life is a state of mind," proclaims the President of the United States at a eulogy at the end of the film. In this sense the film not only satirizes politics, media, and mass delusion; but it is a metaphor about life itself.

Rating: B+ (First viewing, 11/20/97)