Being There (1979)

*. I’ll begin with a couple of observations on differences between then and now.
*. (1) The story is based on the 1970 novel of the same name by Jerzy Kosinski, who shared a co-writing credit on the script. I had only vague recollections of the book from years earlier and so thought I’d look at it again. My local library system, however, had no copies, even in storage, and as near as I can tell it’s now out of print. Admittedly, Kosinski’s reputation has taken some hits over the years (with accusations of plagiarism and fakery), but still this was surprising. It’s not that old a book and it was a bestseller. But I’ve noticed lately that a lot of books seem to be just . . . disappearing.
*. (2) Chance is fixated on television, which provides the background fabric of his life. This wasn’t strange at all in 1979 and part of the satire is directed at people who were literally being raised by the tube, learning through imitation of what they saw on it. Watching the film today I found this part of it nostalgic. Sure, we spend more time than ever looking at screens, but these are mostly on phones or tablets or laptops. Who actually watches TV anymore? It may be that in the future people will have a hard time understanding this part of the movie. Our relationship to the screen is very different in the twenty-first century. Less passive, I think, anyway.
*. I think it’s a movie with different messages, but they’re all connected to the idea of people projecting onto Chance, making him into something that will satisfy their own needs. This makes him the perfect politician, because as Roger Ebert observed “the higher up you get in American politics the more the platitude rules,” until you get to the very top and the platitudinous man, the man who has nothing at all to say, is king. But there’s more to this than just what Ebert castigates as the superficiality of public utterance or the dishonesty of democratic politics. The bromides of Chance are what the public demands, what they need, what makes them feel good.

*. I don’t want to lean on this too much. Chance is what a certain class of people need. Ben (Melvyn Douglas) and Eve (Shirley MacLaine) both need him, for different reasons. But for starters, they’re both rich and white. The racial angle of the movie is only really glanced at when the former maid Louise sees Chance on TV and explodes “It’s for sure a white man’s world in America!” With the right skin colour and a nice set of clothes you can fall upward all the way to the Biltmore Estate, or the presidency. I take it this is part of the meaning of the final shot too: that the system is set up so that people like Chance can’t fail, or fall, no matter what.
*. The matter of class is subtler. I don’t think it’s clear that everyone loves Chance, though he apparently does have high positive ratings from pollsters. It seems that poor people don’t care much for him and others find him creepy or strange. But Ben and Eve are damaged rich people.
*. That they are damaged should make them more interesting, but I find this is where the film falls a bit short. The thing is, if Chance himself is a blank slate for others to draw on, those others become the important part of the story. But what is Ben aside from a rich old guy? I couldn’t even get a track on what his politics were. And how sympathetic is Eve, being someone whose great wealth has only isolated her and made her lonely? One can’t help feeling she was a bit of a gold-digger, and the fact that Ben is on board with her adultery doesn’t make it any more palatable. Does she even deserve Chance?
*. Some people at the time found it prophetic, with Chance prefiguring Reagan. But I don’t think the analogy works. Reagan was a performer. This is something Chance, the holy fool, is not. He just likes to watch.
*. This brings me back to where I started, thinking about then and now. I keep looking at Chance and wondering if he’s our contemporary. He’s dressed in the fashions of the 1930s and ’40s, but as one character observes that style is now coming back. I think the only real point though is that he’s nothing at all except what you want to think he is or what you need him to be. So at any time in any place he fits right in.

3 thoughts on “Being There (1979)

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I didn’t have the outtake this latest rewatch. Those are almost always a bad idea. Can’t think of a movie where I liked them. I think Needham said he started them with Smokey and the Bandit, which wasn’t a movie I would think you’d want to imitate.

      1. tensecondsfromnow

        My understanding is that the original prints had out-takes, a big mistake for a film of this gravity. At 11, I was hoping for Pink Panther shenanigans, so the wintry tone felt like a shock. And as you say, they clearly couldn’t envisage a world where tv was not a dominant force…

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