Sunday Editor’s Pick: “Being There” (1979)

by on May 15, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sun May 15 at 3:00, 6:00 & 9:00 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]
Sam Wasson weighs in for Alt Screen:

Peter Sellers’s performance in Being There is one of the wonders of the movies. It is a wonder of personality, in its disparity to Sellers’s actual, miserable self; a wonder of skill, as a peerless feat of subatomic finesse; a wonder of cinematic history, in contrast to Sellers’ most iconic works of slapstick (which are no less nuanced themselves); a wonder of comedy, for remaining funny without trading a genuine moment for a laugh; and a wonder of compassion.
And who, exactly, is Chance the Gardener? Actually, a better question might be what is Chance the Gardener? An idiot, a retard? A Freaky Friday kid in grownup clothing? E.T.? It’s hard to imagine a precedent, which gives credence to the theory (totally my own, I admit) that the being of inquiry is on top of everything else a wholly original creation, a lone dot off the axis of tradition and unique on screen.

Ditto Dan Callahan:

[If] Ashby had only managed to make Being There, he would deserve a place in film history for a hushed comedy that is as sharp and precise a political satire as has ever been made in America. Ashby revered Preston Sturges, and Being There is a movie that Sturges might have admired, featuring a central performance by Sellers so slippery and bewilderingly addle-brained that the feeling grows as the film goes on that Chance might be some kind of holy fool. Ashby recognized this, and he himself decided to end the film with Chance walking on water and also made the larkish decision to run outtakes under the credits of a cut scene where Sellers couldn’t keep from laughing. Both of these decisions are huge risks, and both feel exactly right for a film that has the effect of a magic trick so convincing that not even seeing the way it was done can ruin the serene mystery of it.

And aren’t you curious to know what Judd Apatow has to say?

When I was asked to write about the film Being There, I thought it would be fun. I am a big fan of Hal Ashby’s work, and Being There has always been one of my favorite films. I thought it would be a blast. I quickly realized that I had not seen the film in a long time and that I probably should watch it again so I could refresh my memory. That was my mistake. After watching it again I got very depressed. It was even better than I remembered it to be. Fuck this article. Sometimes seeing a great film takes the wind out of you. Watching this film reminded me how far I have to go.
I prefer to watch shitty movies so I can feel good about myself…Being There is not one of those movies. It is completely original. The screenplay, by Jerzy Kosinski, based on his novel, is stunning. It is by turns hilarious, insightful, mysterious. I wish it inspired me to want to write that well, but it just inspires me to consider another career. It’s as if you were a member of Soft Cell and someone played you U2 for the first time. You would have to give up.
Here you have a film with the most outlandish premise that is presented with such wit and confidence that you never for a moment doubt it. As it pushes the envelope, step by step, it keeps its reality level and you never for a moment call bullshit on it. All comedy directors should be forced to watch this film so they will learn that comedies can be subtle, riotously funny, meaningful, well acted, and visually gorgeous all at the same time. I wish I could just get two of those characteristics in the same film.


Ian Nathan for Empire:

It’s an uncanny part for Sellers, who by repute was an empty vessel into which characters were poured. He gives a form of anti-performance stripped bare of every tic or nuance (this, after a career of slapstick antics), leaving only a ghostly imprint of a human. Perhaps it was too elusive; only Melvyn Douglas, as the rich old cove who takes Chance in, beguiled by his lack of guile, was awarded an Oscar.
The film too aspires to be the reverse of standard practice: the plot is unhurried and all but peters out; its many ironies feel sweet, while the broader ‘comedy’ is discomfiting. Shirley MacLaine loudly masturbating while grasping Chance’s indifferent calf counts as one of the ickiest sex scenes of the 70s. The mood is wistful and harmonious, any drama vaguely circling whether this blessed fool might be found out..

David Thompson for Film Comment (Sep/Oct 1980):

Peter Sellers had made a career out of being a famous nonentity. So often playing with bodiless voices, he claimed that he had lost his own in the filing system. He liked films in which he could play more than one part, and he had wanted to do Being There for years because of its premise: that a blank simpleton might be received in the world as a plastic oracle, Will Rogers unscrambled by Kubrick’s HAL. Like an unhappy man, or like someone who had read a little Pirandello before falling asleep, he suggested that the gallery of characters he had played were bodyguards for a sham and a vacuum.
The excuse of emptiness was probably the greatest evasion [of Seller’s self-assessment]. Maybe it was proffered with the hope of cool self-pity, still it indulged a very mechanical sense of character that was the strength and the limitation of his comedy. If the actor was really as bare as a stage, then characters could be wheeled on and off, a series of cardboard pretenses. They were often brilliant, but never real, and so Sellers came to need a framework of fantasy or stylization that few films supplied. The more realistic or sentimental his pictures, the more bereft he appeared. Yet as an artist he did not seem to appreciate that himself, for he never took charge of his work or explored the emptiness. Instead, he professed that he had no personality of his own and that he needed some exaggeration or disguise to exist.
Just about everything disappointed, except the good grace of Being There. If only Sellers had written, had been braver, had been more of a personality. [W]as there ever the susceptibility to pain or pleasure in Sellers that bespeaks a person and makes a great clown? He was very lucky to have the chance of Being There. It keeps alive the cosy possibility that he was a great actor, not just talent without substance.

Robert Ebert for the Chicago Sun Times:

There’s an exhilaration in seeing artists at the very top of their form: It almost doesn’t matter what the art form is, if they’re pushing their limits and going for broke and it’s working. We can sense their joy of achievement – and even more so if the project in question is a risky, off-the-wall idea that could just as easily have ended disastrously.
Hal Ashby’s Being There is a movie that inspires those feelings. It begins with a cockamamie notion, it’s basically one joke told for two hours, and it requires Peter Sellers to maintain an excruciatingly narrow tone of behavior in a role that has him onscreen almost constantly. It’s a movie based on an idea, and all the conventional wisdom agrees that emotions, not ideas, are the best to make movies from. But Being There pulls off its long shot and is one of the most confoundingly provocative movies of the year.

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