Posted by J on October 7, 2008
Just in time for another election extravaganza! Being There is a devastating commentary on national politics in an era of television. Those readers who gained much from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death will immediately recognize its artistic counterpart in this movie. But while Postman argued that serious political issues are undermined by the medium of television — where everything is marketed for viewers to consume, and the serious tone of “Breaking News” collides with commercial jingles and cackling celebrities — Being There is less a critique of television itself and more a critique of the political, monied classes of Washington DC.
It all starts with Chance. Chance is a gardener working for a wealthy Washingtonian, a simpleton who has never left the grounds he keeps. Chance cannot read or write, but he loves to watch television at every opportunity. Chance’s life, in fact, is shaped by TV and by the simple platitudes he has learned from decades of gardening. One day, Chance’s employer dies and, with nowhere else to go, Chance must leave the house.
Chance’s journey takes him through the slums of DC into the wealthiest part of town, to a vast estate owned by the big businessman Benjamin Rand. Two days after leaving his former home, Chance finds himself in the good graces of the Rand family and has the opportunity to meet the President. Chance’s simple ways and folksy slogans earn him enormous respect, so much respect in fact that the President quotes Chance’s garden metaphors in a nationally televised speech: “This is the winter of our economy, but spring is sure to come.” Or something like that. Chance becomes an immediate celebrity, whose platitudes are taken as profundities by Russian ambassadors and book publishers who want to give him six-figure advances for his thoughts on politics.
(SPOILERS FOLLOW.) As audience members, we’re required to willingly suspend our belief that Chance would immediately be seen for the dummy he is. All of Washington is abuzz for days about this mysterious Chance (known as Chauncey Gardener to them), a man with no past but with now tremendous influence.
As a satire of a TV culture and of Washington’s good-old-boy politics, Being There is effective. But those are just two aspects of a complex and contradictory work that jabs at laissez-faire conservatives throughout. The President, for example, rubs noses with the uber-wealthy Rand, who has apparently helped elect the President and thus aids him in determining economic policy. At Rand’s funeral, the President decides to read a selection of Rand’s quotes, the first of which bashes welfare recipients. The movie tries to ironize Rand’s position, but it has already given Rand too much sympathy to bash his economic views — we watch him slowly and graciously die first, and then we are supposed to be shocked at his anti-welfare statements and his creepy, Masonic grave. The irony doesn’t work.
The voice of reason in Being There is Chance’s former coworker, a black maid whom the movie inserts as a critique of the white elite of Washington. She is one of only two people who are not duped by Chance’s appearance of genius, and she is quick to claim that if he weren’t white, he wouldn’t be treated as a great political thinker and a celebrity. Being There, in two or three scenes, practically screams about the injustice of the racial divide in Washington DC. Whatever you think of this, artwork that screams never lasts long, so Being There suffers as a result.
The movie’s final image is at once baffling and crude. We didn’t think the movie earned the right to use it. Even though he is being considered as a Presidential candidate, Chance is not a Christ-figure in any sense. Readers who have a theory about why he walks on water should let us know; this is one image we cannot figure out.
Chance is like lots of people we know. We don’t mean that in a bad way either. They are simple folks, people who tend their personal affairs well and enjoy outdoor life. Agrarians like Chance tend to have cultivated morals, but they also get duped by mass media. It is rare that a Chance the Gardener has great influence on Washington and stuns the political classes there. Being There, if it is serious, gets things backwards. The Chances of the world are merely influenced by TV, and those who control the TV set influence (to an extent) the Chances of the world. Propaganda is a one-way street, and the political manipulators of the world understand which way the traffic flows.
Morality : 7 (one brief unnecessary scene; you’ll know)