Thoughts on Film: “Being There” (1979, Hal Ashby)

“Being There” is a film highly recommended by our late Reverend. There were (and are still) so many thoughts on the film that I really want to capture as much of it as I can.

Chance is a gardener who works for his master and benefactor in a huge house. We come to understand that Chance has never left the house and the only access he has to the world outside, is through television. When his old master dies and he is forced to move out of the house, Chance’s ignorant but simple gardening philosophies begin to impact the people and relationships he comes into contact with. For a start, a rich couple he eventually moves in to live with mistakes his name to be “Chauncey Gardiner” when he introduced himself as “Chance the gardener”. This comedic bathos is the premise for the rest of the film.

The misinterpretation of his name catapults him from a blue-collared labourer without a last name to an aristocratic well-educated gentleman. In contrast, his second polysyllabic name reveals the complexities of the world in which we live in, and Chance is thrust into. His newfound identity does not seem to match the simplistic nature with which he sprouts his thoughts and words. Despite this incongruity, his simple, although not childlike nature, draws people towards his supposedly deep wisdom and insight, his “down to earth philosophy”.

Experiencing most things for the first time, Chance’s reactions and behaviour are not informed or influenced by the social proprieties and ideological norms. As a result, he does not understand the existence of political temptations or relational complications, and is therefore not hindered by them. He calls the President “Bobby” at the end of their first meeting, is very forthcoming about speaking his mind, and always thinks the best of another.

One of the complicated situations posed by Chance in the Rand household is his strong friendship with Ben and the growing affection and comfort Eve finds in the proximity of his company. Not knowing love or betrayal, Chance does not realize the temptation he poses to Eve. His ignorance however, is what makes him respectable to her and what protects her from losing her respect, when he succumbs not to her advances. Her claim that “I feel save with you” is true on more than a single level in the film.

Ben Rand is the eyes of the audience in this film, for he suggests how we should understand the enigmatic character of Chance the Gardener. Ben Rand is perhaps the only character in the film who recognizes how Chance is different from the world – he harbours no ill intent; looks at death, the worst possibility, squarely in the face; speaks his mind without deception or scheme. These qualities in Chance that are rare amongst men in Ben’s social circle convince Ben that Chance is deserving of his high regard and trust. “You don’t play games with words to protect yourself,” Ben tells Chance after their meeting with the President.

Ben also tells Chance that “You seem to be a truly peaceful man.” Chance’s honest and simple nature, unadulterated by the evils and contamination in the world, allows him to preserve his goodness and steadfastness of character. The culmination of Ben’s praise for Chance is perhaps in the line, “You have the gift of being natural. That’s a great talent, my boy.” Here Ben is referring to Chance’s ability to remain true and honest even in his dealings with highly politically-sensitive affairs. Chance finds no eagerness or joy in appearing on national television, in reading what the papers write about him, or in finding out what the President speaks of him. Such political and national fame and recognition does not appeal to him.

To me, Chance the Gardener embodies also contentment and a simple life. Despite being thrown into an affluent world so different from the world he knew growing up, he is able to ward off the undesirable influences of wealth, reputation, social prejudice etc. because he cares nothing for them. Chance cares nothing for the matters of the world because he is content living on his own within the confines of the house as an attentive and faithful gardener.

Discontent fuels the emotions the rest of the men in the film face. Eve Rand had little friendship being in the company of her old and dying husband Ben. Needless to say she longed for a sexual relationship with and emotional support from another man, something her stricken husband was unable to provide. Ben Rand was discontent having to suffer from a grief illness supposed to be for “younger men”. He only finds peace and tranquillity to face the end of his life after he meets Chance. The President and those in office worry about the economic prospects of the nation; they seem to be battling a downward spiral until the President meets Chance, who persuades the President to believe that the nation will see spring and summer again after fall and winter. The attorney Thomas was filled with angst upon seeing Chance’s good fortune and rise to fame and social standing. We learn that it is because he was bitter at losing an opportunity to be a politician himself.

Apart from the Rands, the other characters do not seem to fully understand Chance’s simple-minded nature. The family doctor Robert Allenby eyes Chance warily even after Ben’s last breath, undecided of Chance’s intentions in maintaining such close relations with the Rands, although convinced he does not pose a threat. The President insists on finding out Chance’s background, although positively taken aback by his refreshing insight, suggesting a suspicion towards such a breath of fresh air. Similarly, the attorneys Thomas and Sally are speechless toward his idiosyncracies and strange behaviour. These characters seem unconvinced of Chance’s good and honest nature – their scepticism founded justifiably on the rarity of such character in the world they know.

What Chance is described and presented to be, we the audience are to think that we are not. Conversely, what Chance is not, we happen to be. The film runs on a serious, non-comedic tone, but Chance the Gardener is the Comedy of the film himself because his extraordinariness as an uneducated labourer stands him apart from the rest of the socially well-off, educated characters in the film. Furthermore, people, not Chance, conclude that a man in the “most expensive suits and finest underwear” can only be a socially powerful man. His words are therefore assumed to be laden with metaphors and underlying philosophies and meaning, when they are in actuality, the simplest truths Chance the Gardener knows of. It is disheartening that only a person decked in expensive suits is given the attention and respect every ordinary being deserves.

It is such a poor background that offers him the fortune of being untempered and unadultered by the world he is introduced to after the death of his master. The reversal of roles in the film is a sweet, refreshing change to the world we, as the audience, are so used to living in without question. It is also this reversal of roles that unsettles us – like it unsettles the characters in the film – because it presents to us how unconscious we are of our state of being, and how prone to the adulterations of the world we are exposed to. Is it only such a character like Chance the Gardener himself, who with his simple-mindedness, ignorance and lack of knowledge of the world, able to thrive above the world? Are we either to choose between being a “Chance the Gardener” in an unfamiliar world to stay afloat above its complications; or to be comfortably a part of the world but blinded by its complexities and unable to feel contentment?

The closing quote uttered by the President “Life is a state of mind” directs us back to Chance the Gardener, who manages to walk on water, and the choice we ultimately have to make. The scene is bleak, because there is only but one Chance the Gardener, to impress his philosophy of life on the world.

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