“Life is a state of mind.”
In today’s political climate, begins so many articles these days. I asked myself while watching Being There, a slow 1979 film with poignant political commentary, is this a movie for today’s political climate? Will I begin this review with the phrase “in today’s political climate”? It appears the answer is yes in both cases. As with almost all great films, Being There isn’t bound to its time, for it takes aim at not only the tiring aspects of American politics that will never change, but the film swings wider and has a few things to say about how one should live their life in such a system.
Comedic legend Peter Sellers takes on a quiet, fascinating role as Chance (or Chauncey, as he is later called), a gardener who is left to wander aimlessly after his housekeeper dies. With no formal education and poor social skills, life seems dismal for Chance in the cold streets of Washington, D.C. By a stroke of luck, he is struck by the car of wealthy businessman Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas). Though Chance is far from a smart man, Rand perceives his humble manner as intelligence as the two form a friendship of sorts. Rand eventually introduces Chance to the President of the United States, and “Chauncey” becomes a public figure for his simple, very simple, sense of wisdom that others find admirable about him.
I first watched Being There in high school in a United States government class. My teacher claimed that he loved showing the movie to his students because of how slow it was, and how it forced us to reflect on its ideas with its deliberate pace. I didn’t know much about slow cinema at the time, but I still found myself captivated by the film’s strange, simple reality. Peter Sellers portrays a man who has no business deserving any attention but finds it anyway, and that’s more than enough to keep this movie exciting in its middling scenes. I’ve always thought the film played like Forrest Gump without the fanfare. There are some outrageous moments, but it finds its grounding in its slow conversations and endlessly watchable protagonist.
Being There could have been something I rolled my eyes at, and on paper it seems like a preachy movie. But this is a film with nothing to hide, one that opens a window into a story and offers us its view on the world: a view that we can accept or not accept, though there’s a strong case to accept it. With its wonderful screenplay by Jerzy Kosiński, the movie puts you in a trance that helps you soak in its ideas and laugh a lot along the way. The film’s final image is a bit on the nose, but on a second viewing I think I’ve been sold on its importance. When you think about it, the whole movie is on the nose, so I think the ending is a fitting conclusion. It’s also hilariously beautiful; I’m smiling just thinking about it.
This movie is a solemn lesson wrapped around a silly story. Its structure is unique, its camerawork engaging, and it’s an important triumph of artistry for what it has to say about America. Every ounce of it holds up in “our current political climate,” and in many ways, it’s more current than it’s every been.
Films Left to Watch: 873