Being There (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Sidney Gottlieb
Produced by Andrew Braunsberg; directed by Hal Ashby; screenplay by Jerzy Kosinski (and Robert C. Jones, uncredited), based on the novel by Jerzy Kosinski; cinematography by Caleb Deschanel; production design by Michael Haller; edited by Don Zimmerman; music by Johnny Mandel; costume design by May Routh; starring Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas, Richard Dysart, and Jack Warden. Blu-ray, color, 130 min., 1979. A Criterion Collection release.
Jerzy Kosinski’s short novel, Being There, originally published in 1970, is one of the truly essential fables about the far-reaching dangers of electronic media to classical notions of what defines us as humans and to the prospects of shaping and maintaining a culture and society that help make us more fully human. There was much in Kosinski’s life to alert him to the real Orwellian threats to humankind that abound: he was born into a Jewish family in Poland in 1933, and even if the horrifying experiences of the young boy wandering in a landscape of war and Holocaust captured in his novel The Painted Bird (1965) were not all literally Kosinski’s own, he unquestionably had much first-hand experience of the iron and bloody hands of various forms of totalitarianism. But Being There demonstrates how attuned he was to a different perspective, one that we now tend to associate with the still not sufficiently heeded analyses and warnings of Neil Postman, whose classic study Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985) often reads like a scholarly and historical gloss on and deepening of Kosinski’s fable: both Kosinski and Postman insist that we need to be very worried about the Huxleyan threats that abound, and if these threats are subtler and often more disguised than the Orwellian ones, they may be no less dangerous. There is much evidence that we live in an electronically and, more recently, digitally enhanced version of the future-is-now environment described in Brave New World (1932), where the pursuit of pleasure via drugs, especially of the plug-in kind, keeps us distracted, selfish, and disconnected from a reality of things, facts, and other people. Freedom, the self, the soul (broadly defined, and not necessarily only in a religious context), and morality and a social order based on compassion and concern can be—in fact, are being—obliterated even without physical coercion and brutality.
Part of the sad prophetic truth of Being There is that, alas, there are unlikely to be many people these days who will read Kosinski’s fable. But it retains much of its power in a medium that can still gain widespread attention: the novel was made into a film in 1979, directed by Hal Ashby, with considerable involvement by Kosinski himself, which, along with many valuable contributions by other collaborators, helped make the film in many ways a “faithful” adaptation—not necessarily the end-all and be-all of a film based on a literary text, but also not necessarily the tabooed concern that some contemporary theorists of cinematic adaptation routinely make it out to be—and an intriguing reconsideration of the original. The reissuing of Being There in a Criterion Collection Blu-Ray edition, with several supplementary features (although not a commentary track, an extra I wish we could count on in every Criterion release) that give important insight into how the film came to be made, will put the film where it now certainly should be, on the home screen, and it will be a valuable reference point in the increasingly necessary discussion of the devastating effects of our irresistible and omnipresent screens.
Much of the film, like the novel, lends itself to what seems to be a straightforward critique of how television creates “videots,” to use a term Kosinski often mentioned in his interviews, speaking appearances, and essays. Chance (Peter Sellers), the main character, is the prime example of such a person, and while he is extraordinarily gentle, treated in a kindly manner by the few people he interacts with, and not derisively mocked by the narration, he lacks most of the qualities that we think define a developed human being, including reason, feeling, knowledge, and social engagement. But only one person sees these deficiencies fully and clearly, in a sequence in the film but not in the book, Louise (Ruth Attaway), the African-American maid who cared for him for many years, and she is outraged that such an inept character ultimately finds success in the world. For her, this is an illustration of racism, not of the broader ironic fact that perhaps should not surprise us: a videot is actually prepared for rather than disqualified from success in a world populated by other videots. Much of the first part of the film is taken up by showing how incapable Chance is of taking care of himself and doing anything else besides watching television and gardening. Much of the rest of the film is taken up with showing how a man without qualities other than gestures and expressions learned from watching television, and who speaks simply and literally about gardening to people wrapped up in and sometimes overwhelmed by the complexities of governance and finance can be—almost inevitably will be—taken for a wise master of metaphor, a healer, and a leader. Of course, it’s ridiculous, but it makes perfect sense.
Praise of the film usually, and rightly, begins with appreciations of Sellers’s remarkable embodiment of Chance. As we see in several of the Blu-Ray extras, Sellers often spoke of himself as the initiator of the film project, motivated by his conviction that he himself truly was Chance: someone without a stable sense of self; an impersonator rather than a person; a thoroughgoing orphan, fundamentally and irrevocably disconnected from others. This deeply felt autobiographical authenticity may well have helped Sellers in his portrayal of Chance, and the audience’s familiarity with Sellers’s memorable and masterful appearances in other films playing a range of eccentric bumblers, outsiders, and sad sacks also certainly adds a kind of extratextual charge to our response to him. But Sellers did more than simply show up for the role: he crafted a remarkably subtle and effective ensemble of techniques—including a slowness in movement and speaking that is a substitute for, not an expression of, thoughtfulness; an ongoing mimicry that guides all his actions; and facial gestures that convey an impression of openness, mysterious depths, and interrogatory concern even though he has no such qualities—that make Chance memorable, plausible, and perhaps most important, likable.
We are so used to critiques and satires that are savage and relentless that we may need to make an adjustment to recognize that Being There—perhaps the film even more than the novel—gains force by being under- rather than overplayed. Both Kosinski and Ashby know the limits of righteous indignation, even directed at problematic, if not reprehensible, figures and institutions of power, their fundamental targets. No one snarls in Being There: neither the objects of the satire nor the satirist. Mr. Rand (Melvyn Douglas), for example, the financier whose house Chance stays in after he is slightly injured in the most gentle of car accidents imaginable, bumped into by Rand’s limousine, is an embodiment of privilege, unelected governmental power, and antidemocratic isolation and distance from the masses, and any “ideas” that he accepts and speaks must pass through a filter that excludes whatever doesn’t serve his selfish interests. But he is kind and generous to those within his circle, including his wife Eve (Shirley MacLaine) and Chance, an odd couple in the making that he not only allows but encourages, and we never get to see directly what his undoubtedly pernicious influence is on those outside his circle (although the film, unlike the novel, at least briefly gives us glimpses of the economically disadvantaged areas that Chance walks through as he moves from living in one rich old man’s house to another). And the U.S. President (Jack Warden) too is not primarily a figure of reproach, even though he is exactly what a president should not be but invariably is: a figurehead summoned to do the bidding of the .01 Percenters. He is undignified, harried, and befuddled, in striking contrast to Chance, who seems poised and has no mind to confuse. But the worst effect of his befuddlement that we see in the film is not that the country is palpably suffering because of his ineptness but that he becomes sexually impotent. Still, we know that there is a serious satiric point here, one not lost but deflected as a man who is an abysmal failure when it comes to fulfilling the responsibilities of a governmental leader in a democracy is shown repeatedly as a man who is an abysmal failure when it comes to satisfying himself and his wife sexually.
Similarly, the satiric portrayal of the television environment, the central concern of the film, is subtle, and insistent without being overbearing or demonizing. Television is naturalized, as it is in real life: that is to say, it is shown as something we take for granted, ever-present, fully integrated into daily experience, anything but unusual, and not apparently threatening. This is especially so for Chance, who habitually turns on the television that seems to be always within reach, changes channels constantly, knows only and mimics what he sees on the screen, and summarizes his approach to life in the memorable phrase “I like to watch.” Even as we watch Chance and know that there is something eccentric, detached, and damaged about him, we are also struck by the appeal, charm, inescapability, and far from negligible benefits of the world of television to which he is attached. My point is not that the film’s critique and satire of television are slight or blunted, but that they are to a large extent low-key and implicit.
It’s useful to compare Being There to another one of the great cinematic fables of television, Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), which has a very similar theme and warning about the devastating psychological, social, and political effects of television, but is much different in tone and works by emphatically, dramatically, and explicitly stating its message. Network is characterized by rhetorical urgency, but Being There is structured around a rhetorical question implied but never hammered home, and the satiric work of the film is completed only if and when we, the spectators, are aware of and affirm the truth of the statement contained in that question, which is everywhere present but never specifically voiced: Shouldn’t there be more to life than “watching,” especially when a life of watching leaves us not only disconnected and undeveloped as human beings but also vulnerable to individuals and institutions that take advantage of our passivity, ignorance, and narcissism?
Even more than the novel, for better or worse the film of Being There has what the other great fables about media typically don’t have: ambiguities, perhaps even reservations. There is no doubt in Plato’s Parable of the Cave, for example, that the world of light is unquestionably to be preferred to the world of shadowy representations, the latter taken by modern interpreters as a prophecy of the unreliable and literally untrue media version of reality that currently envelops us. Nothing good can be said about the media-enhanced surveillance, numbing and controlling propaganda, and manipulation of logic, truth, and history in 1984 or the thoroughly misguided forces at work in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 to destroy not only books but also the print mentality. And, as noted above, the new owners, producers, and products of television in Network are unsympathetic monsters, humanoids at best, with no redeeming qualities.
Being There is more measured and complex in its satire and its media critique. Part of this, I think, is because both Kosinski and Ashby have a sense that while television exemplifies, exaggerates, and worsens some of the unfortunate aspects of our existential condition—especially alienation, anomie, blankness, selfishness, and emotional emptiness—it can’t be held completely responsible for all that. Both are willing to entertain the notion that Chance is something more or other than a pathetic case of stunted development at the hands of electronic media. The novel ends with growing acclaim for Chance because “he has no background” or known qualities, and therefore nothing in or about him to which people would object. This is both the basis of a cynical (and effective) PR strategy in manufacturing celebrities and candidates and a description of an existential hero, whose existence triumphs over any essence that would preclude true freedom: for some philosophers, being nothing, a “blank page” (one of the working titles for the novel), may be preferable to the restrictions of being something or someone. Accordingly, the last line of the novel confirms that “Peace filled his breast,” without any qualifying suggestion that this is the peace of lamentable ignorance or insentience.
The film goes even further in suggesting that we should at least be open to the possibility that what we have all through the story been tempted to consider as clear indications that Chance has been disabled by television may be signs that he is instead differently abled. We can take praise of Chance and his growing popularity and success as the story develops as ironic evidence that he is perfectly in tune with, indeed a pure product of, a corrupt culture. But what are we to make of the final sequence in the film where, with his usual inscrutable smile and aura of detachment and unconcern, Chance moves away from the transitory world of death (the funeral of Mr. Rand), politics (the prime topic of overheard discussion at the funeral), and nature (the forest where he had just tended to a sapling) and literally walks on water? Maybe the erstwhile videot is after all a wise fool, Christ- and Buddha-like in renouncing and rising above the trappings of self, emotions, other people, and physical reality, and a master metaphysician able to resolve the Heideggerian paradox of Dasein (literally “being there,” acknowledged frequently by Kosinski as one of the key reference points as he wrote his novel), “the state in which one is and is not at the same time.”
I don’t think that this ending is in any way intended to turn us into appreciators of and cheerleaders for the beneficence of television or that it fundamentally undermines the value of Being There as a critique of and warning against electronic media and culture. But it does leave us with a provocative reminder of the complexity of the issues addressed in a film that not only captures the deeply worrisome aspects of the new norms of character and culture shaped by new media but also shrewdly recognizes and alerts us that we need to be very careful and open-minded as well as principled and wary when we analyze and pass judgment on these developments that we do not yet fully understand.
Sidney Gottlieb is Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.
Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 4