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Being There

Being There, 1979

A developmentally delayed man named Chance (Peter Sellers) lives in the home of an old man, where he works as a gardener. When the old man dies, Chance is evicted from the home, the only life he has ever known. Accidentally struck by a car that belongs to a well-connected political figure, Chance is brought to their home. The man, Ben (Melvyn Douglas), is seriously ill. As Chance sends time in the home, he becomes close to the man's wife, Eve (Shirley MacLaine). Espousing his simple beliefs about gardening (and always on the lookout for a TV to watch), Chance is quickly mistaken for a savvy, enigmatic political player.

I can distinctly remember being shown part of this movie when I was like 10 years old and just . . . not getting it at all. I don't think that I was able to understand this kind of satire.

On one level, the dynamic of the film is very straightforward. Chance makes a simple statement and everyone around him sees and hears what they want to see and hear. A simple statement about planting schedules translates into a television appearance to discuss the health of the economy.

While the surface level humor of course exists in the space between what Chance says and does and how others interpret that (for example, a feverish rush to find out who he is leads several politicians to assume he may be a high-level operative), what gives the film an extra lift is simply the contrast between the simplicity and kindness of Chance's basic outlook on life and the greed and self-interest of those around him.

Normally in a film of this kind, the main character becomes a sort of angel, bettering all of those around him. And while it is true that Chance does seem to have an impact on some of the characters--such as the family doctor treating Ben--it holds onto a degree of cynicism about the ability of many of the characters to even make a change.

Generally speaking, this is something of a subdued film, but there is still a degree of bite to it. There is a jarring cutaway during the film to the family of another employee of the place where Chance used to work. Using the poor reception of their television set as an unspoken metric of privilege, Chance's former co-worker watches Chance on the TV and muses that being white is all it takes to be successful in the United States. While her speech might seem a bit on the nose and a bit simplistic, it is interesting the way that Chance's improbable rise to prominence confirms some of the worst cultural tropes.

My one area of trepidation with the film were the sequences in which different characters, and particularly Eve, attempt to seduce or otherwise sexually engage with Chance. While this dynamic does result in one very funny scene--Eve misinterpreting Chance saying "I like to watch" and compliantly masturbating for him while he watches a yoga program on the TV--other times I felt it went a bit too far. I think that if you imagine swapping the genders, it seems pretty clear. The idea that other characters assume that Chance wants sex makes sense with the rest of the film. But even within the trappings of satire, watching a woman try to seduce a man who is watching an episode of Mr. Rogers sounded some alarms for me. I think that some of it has to do with the version of developmental disability in the film, which is very much a Hollywood version of such a character.

Overall, though, I enjoyed it, and particularly the audacity of the final 3 or 4 minutes. It's not a film I really anticipate revisiting, but I'm glad I watched it.