Monday Movie: Being There, by Aaron Pinkston
Every Monday, we’ll highlight a piece of writing from our vaults. This review of Being There originally ran as part of our Ebertfest 2017 coverage.
Finally, my last screening of the festival was another film that looks a little bit different in our current political climate and pop culture society: Hal Ashby’s Being There. This was one to check off my cinematic shame list, though I never felt particularly compelled to see it—despite knowing how great and underrated Hal Ashby is as a filmmaker (and you can check out Battleship Pretension Ep. 527 for plenty more on that). For some reason I hadn’t considered Being There as part of Ebertfest’s overlooked mission but, after finally seeing it, I’m a little peeved more cinephiles don’t talk about it as one of the great films of its era and maybe even Ashby’s best film.
Being There is a completely bizarre mix of comedy and drama with a straight-faced monotone that only gets funnier and funnier as the low-key hijinks go on. The film stars Peter Sellers as Chance, a lonesome man who tends the garden at a Washington D.C. estate. When the old man he resides with dies, the lawyers are surprised to meet Chance, who has no identification or legal documentation or specific ties to the old man or the outside world. Because of this, he is forced to leave the estate and into the world, as we understand it for the very first time. After this strange set-up, Being There shows the improbable rise of Chance (who through miscommunication is thought to be named Chauncey Gardiner) in the world of D.C. politics.
Over the past few months, there have been a number of essays online comparing President Donald Trump to Chauncey Gardiner and there are certainly many similarities. The major difference is clear: the fiery temperament of President Trump is about 180 degrees from Chance’s subdued willingness to be liked by everyone he meets. In that way, they don’t rise to prominence in the same way but the fact that either man was able to come into so much political influence is a head-scratcher. While some might consider Trump to be “simple,” his bravado and lack of filter are seen as positive leadership traits to some; Chance, on the other hand, says little and often just repeats words back as confirmation.
Their strangest similarity is so weird and specific that it seems almost prophetic. Chance’s favorite activity is watching television, anything from late-night talk shows to Saturday morning cartoons. He borders on obsession, looking for televisions everywhere he goes and obviously prefers the company to other people. Furthermore, most of his knowledge and vocabulary comes directly from what he sees on television. He constantly parrots everything he hears. Sound like someone else you know?
It is impossible not to read Being There without this real-world context, though that shouldn’t take away from what is an excellently entertaining film. Sellers, of course, is phenomenal as Chance, a unique character that is both otherworldly and completely believable. He is able to sell every line of dialogue, every misunderstanding and miscommunication to keep the film from floating off into unbelievable fantasy. A comedy of errors like Being There has to manage some sort of realism to work—if character decisions or narrative circumstances go too far, the humor would lose its edge.
Overall, the 2017 Roger Ebert’s Film Festival was a great success. The line-up was probably not as high profile as previous years, but I found it to be really balanced, and probably for the first year I’ve attended I would recommend every film to varying degrees. Finally seeing Being There was the capper, it might be the best film I’ve discovered at the festival and immediately one of my favorite theatergoing experiences. It’s that good. No matter how exhausting the festival can be and how much I miss my own bed while I’m away, it remains a highlight of my year. Next April I’ll be itching to return.