#864 Being There
1979 // USA // Hal Ashby
Criterion Collection (LINK)
Holyification of Innocence
The ending scene from Hal Ashby’s 1979 film Being There has been stuck in my mind perpetually after only viewing the film once several years ago, it’s arguably a WTF moment. The well-dressed gardener, played by Peter Sellers, that we have been following from beginning, is shown walking on a lake causally. Like Jesus Christ carrying out a miracle as he’s capable of, he’s literally walking on the surface of water like he ever used to. There’s no pavement under the water I suppose, at least the film doesn’t intend to make us think of that, so what does it mean? What massage does it try to convey?
Retrospectively, the “supernatural” ending is an echo to the absurd, almost hilariously horrifying premise of the film’s opening. In a upper-class townhouse, a simple minded man named Chance (Peter Sellers) has been living there as far as he can remember. He has been working as a gardener for the house’s owner who has passed away shortly after the film starts. Chance has never stepped outside the house once in his life, he has never get on an automobile before (even though there’s a readily available one in the garage). He gets his meals from the black maid Louise (Ruth Attaway) on time everyday. He doesn’t know how to read or write, his world is the house and the garden and his knowledge comes from television only. Chance speaks in a monochromatic tone with an amble and relaxed pace. Is he mentally challenging? Or more likely is he autistic? Why is he there? Could he be the old man, the house owner’s son? There’s never a definite answer provided in the film, and there shouldn’t be any since that would spoil the fun of the intriguingly confusing ending.
We are not the only one asking these questions. As fate plays out, Chance stumbles across a limousine owned by a wealthy woman Eve (Shirley MacLaine), and by that he meets Eve’s dying millionaire husband Benjamin (Melvyn Douglas). And subsequently he meets Benjamin’s friend Bobby (Jack Warden), as known as the President of the United States of America. His naive mind is mistaken as directness and humor, his gardening knowledge is read as insightful political and economic comments, Benjamin requests him to be his financial adviser, the President wants him as the consultant of the country, and eventually Chance is considered as a potential candidate for presidency. But no one can find out who Chance is, just as clueless as we are. Ben’s self-assured doctor Robert (Richard Dysart) maybe the only one has some reservation on Chance, and at the end he realizes it’s not Chance lying at all, instead it’s the whole world misunderstanding him.
It’s true that we all shape our impression on others with a presumption, and most of the time with prejudice as well. And all comes from our knowledge accumulated throughout the years in school and parental guidance, then developed with our environment including culture, history and social network. This can also apply on Chance, a man who apparently learns his social skills and knowledge from media, namely television. The film, thus the novel by Jerzy Kosinski the film based on, has an intriguing look on the effect of mass media in how it shapes a person. Chance is a blank figure, he learns to shake hands with the president from TV, he learns how to kiss and immediately perform a passionate kiss with Eve. His interest is TV and TV only. He repeatedly proclaims “I like to watch” like an addiction, so ain’t it the same, drugs and TV?
The television is the only channel for Chance to know the world, much like the child born and raised in a locked room with his kidnapped mother in Room (2015), yet at least the child has a mother to tell the “truth”, but Chance seems to be alone and has nobody to filter the messages from television in all his life, he’s like a sponge that absorbs all without finding right or wrong. So back to the last scene, it’s too ambivalent to have a definite reading, but what I take is the holyification of a figure by the mass misconception, and eventually materialized as a man walking on water literally. It’s what media can and would do, build a man’s image or destroy it, and it’s what people believe in.