Very early on in BEING THERE, Chance the Gardner (Peter Sellers) leaves the house where he has lived his whole life for the first time and walks out into the city street. The soundtrack features a funkified version of Sprach Zarathustra (the music from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) and it plays for both comedic and emotional effect. We feel Chance's exhilarating and his sense of overwhelmed amazement at the very simplest things that an everyday urban dweller might take for granted. It's an oddly affecting scene (at least for me) in that it reminded me of something I think about a lot, which is being more present in my daily life. While BEING THERE takes place well before cell phones were even remotely a thing, Chance has his own technological obsession in the film. He's obsessed with television. As he goes from room to room in the house where he resides, he always has a television on. He is a child-like, mentally underdeveloped man and television is a calming and entrancing influence on him. I couldn't help but think of our present day society's addiction to our phones and though it is not necessarily the driving message behind the film, the combination of Chance's TV-induced, near comatose existence leading into a sort of awakening for him was very resonant to me. It's been many years since I last saw BEING THERE and I immediately remembered why after spending just a few moments becoming reacquainted with the Chance character. He's a character that makes me very sad. He is a nearly non-functional adult man who is forced to go out into the world on his own after the old man he has worked for all his life suddenly passes away. It's a character that, while very well portrayed by Peter Sellers, immediately evokes this incredible sense of melancholy in me. It's one of those performances that immediately makes you think academy awards. Peter Sellers was nominated for his turn in BEING THERE, but lost out to Dustin Hoffman for KRAMER VS. KRAMER. While I think Hoffman is terrific in that movie, Sellers so inhabits this character that he makes it difficult to ever forget him. Once I began to watch the film again I remembered how the character of Chance affected me. Sellers chooses to play his basically simple nature in this really captivating way. He is both heartbreaking and funny at the same time. Adorably heartbreaking is the phrase that comes to mind. My immediate impulse as a parent (which I wasn't the last time I watched it) was to say to myself, "Who is going to take care of you?". The whole setup of the character was so much more powerful this time. I sometimes find myself resisting the kind of performance that feels like an actor is just gunning for an Academy Award nomination, but Sellers' turn in BEING THERE is something truly special. The movie has a lot more going on with it than just being about a simple man trying to make his way in the world though. It's quite remarkable and funny how many of the extremely straightforward things that Chance the gardner says are interpreted as much more meaningful than he could possibly ever mean them to be. The idea that we project meaning on to people and the things they say to us is something I thing about a lot and perhaps overthink most of the time. What's most amusing here is the heights to which this projection rises and the influence that Chance eventually finds in his basic deployment of "wisdom". There's something timeless about this movie and it certainly has parallels that can be drawn to right now. Like some of Ashby's other films, BEING THERE is a fable of sorts. I feel this way about HAROLD AND MAUDE as well. There's a bit of surreality to the world's Ashby depicts in his movies, but he is also able to ground them which is a very tricky tonal thing to pull off. His subtle yet delightful sense of humor comes through and that helps a lot, but you can tell he is a guy who sees his characters as real people. And you can see that he is a person who cares about people in general. He is a true humanist and he's able to take his world view and create extremely profound and thought provoking cinema. He's also able to bring in political statements and ideas as well in a way that I've seen handled much more broadly in the hands of lesser directors. He is just one of those very singular directors that had a stellar run of amazing films and I am constantly reminded what a remarkable and gifted storyteller he was whenever I watch one of his movies.
Alan Spencer (a much wiser man than myself) shares his thoughts on BEING THERE here:
-New, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
-New documentary on the making of the film, featuring interviews with members of the production team
-Excerpts from a 1980 American Film Institute seminar with director Hal Ashby
-Author Jerzy Kosinski in a 1979 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show
-Appearances from 1980 by actor Peter Sellers on NBC’s Today and on The Don Lane Show
-Promo reel featuring Sellers and Ashby
-Trailer and TV spots
-Deleted scene, outtakes, and alternate ending
-PLUS: An essay by critic Mark Harris
This is a really nice disc in terms of the supplements. I think my favorite is the audio excerpts from the AFI seminar with Ashby. I've not heard him speak very much and this Q&A session is quite enlightening and inspiring in terms of getting a sense who Ashby was a person and a filmmaker. He is one of those absolutely fascinating individuals that seems to have remarkable instincts creatively, but who also seems very practical in terms of his approach to his craft. It's an audio only-feature, but I found myself quite transfixed while listening to him speak for the full 33 minutes.
Buy BEING THERE on Blu-ray here: