Classic Film: Being There (1979)

Not so long ago in America, when privacy was still an option and TV was the dominant medium, we feared that maybe this box could prove us idiots, that it could be used to dupe us at the highest levels, that Trilateral Commissions could fool us with Manchurian Candidates, that we could elect a President who was a propped-up simpleton or even an enemy among us. Now, of course, with the Internet’s constant flow of information and crowdsourcing vetting each candidate, all of those fears should be banished. But, of course, they’ve just been heightened. Hal Ashby’s picture-perfect realization of Jerzy Kosinski’s rich 1971 novella, Being There, written during the era when television was considered the problem with us, provides some clues to this phenomenon, though probably not the ones it intended.

Chance (Peter Sellers) is a mentally-challenged gardener who’s worked his entire life at the Washington D.C. home of man who has just passed away. Chance, who’s never left the grounds or learned to read or write, has learned all his life lessons from watching television. (“I like to watch,” he tells all he meets, often having has mantra to passivity misunderstood.) Since he’s not mentioned in the old man’s will, he’s evicted by lawyers. Forced into a spinning world he’s previously encountered only on the static tube, the bewildered man has unlikely good luck when he is hit by a limo carrying the wife of a political power broker. His injury is slight, but Eve (Shirley MacLaine) takes Chance in, and she and her sickly kingmaker husband (Melvyn Douglas) are enchanted by him, mistaking his opacity for wisdom, believing through a series of misunderstandings that he is a financial hotshot named “Chauncey Gardner.” Soon, Chance has met with the President (Jack Warden) and been quoted on TV by the beleaguered Commander in Chief. A lonely nation turns its eyes to Chance, and in addition to advising the President, he is soon being considered a potential candidate himself for the nation’s highest office.

George W. Bush was essentially the final TV candidate, so why have conspiracy theories been trumped up in an age when so little can be hidden? Perhaps if there is no unknown to fear we create it. Perhaps, like Chance, we like to watch, but what we really love is to see what we want to see.•


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