Blu-ray Review: Being There (1979)

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"Again and again throughout [Hal] Ashby’s films, his characters are confronted by authority figures and pressured to conform to societal norms, but they only gain a measure of humanity when they assert themselves and endeavor to experience life and to live it on their own terms.”
-- James A. Davidson; Images Journal:
"The Director that Time Forgot: Hal Ashby"
(Photo From Images Journal)

In the endless sea of film criticism, little ink has been spilled on editor turned director, Hal Ashby. When he is mentioned, journalists often attribute his success to his iconic collaborators (several of the actors in his films were nominated for Academy Awards) and most of the slanted coverage given surrounds his downfall to drug-induced paranoia.

Originally from Ogden, Utah, Hal Ashby was the youngest child born in 1929 to a Mormon family. His parents divorced when he was just six years old  forever-tainting young Hal’s view of marital relationships. After his father lost the family dairy farm in 1941, he committed suicide and Ashby found the body himself when he was twelve years old. This unfathomable event colored his filmmaking greatly as suicide and tragedy abound throughout his works, most notably in Harold and Maude, which when viewed with this in mind seems like Ashby’s cathartic and most personal work although the screenplay was written by Colin Higgins.

Before embarking on his Hollywood career, Ashby proved to be far worldlier than others his age, having been married and divorced twice before he turned twenty-one. He hitchhiked to L.A. at seventeen and worked at least fifty to sixty jobs before he walked into the California Board of Unemployment and asked for a position in a film studio in 1950.

He mimeographed scripts at Universal and eventually became a widely respected film editor, winning a richly deserved Oscar for his work with friend/mentor/collaborator Norman Jewison for editing In The Heat of the Night. Ashby has often stated that film editing provided him with the best film school background outside of traditional university study and he carried the techniques learned as an editor with him when he began directing.

While it was his skill as an editor that helped kick-start his career, becoming a director at the age of forty when an overworked Norman Jewison handed him the assignment to helm The Landlord, it's one that has helped make his direction nearly invisible as his work is so seamless – from Harold and Maude to Shampoo and Coming Home and ultimately up through his final work of the '70s, Being There, releasing onto Warner Brothers Blu-ray disc in honor of its thirtieth anniversary – that we just take it for granted.

The film boasts Peter Sellers in a role that Davidson noted was "Ashby's most fully-realized 'innocent' protagonist." And while on the surface it seems as though it's an archetypal Ashby free spirit, ultimately at the oft-debated end of Being There, it's left for viewers to decide whether or not Sellers' character – Chance the Gardener – may in fact be a higher being, brought in by the Gods to comment not on the '60s like Shampoo or Coming Home but on events as they were happening in the late '70s.

The film, you see, takes place as conservative sentiment began to creep into the pre-Reagan era foreshadowing the 1980s, that would find bearded, wandering Ashby not only “out” but ultimately dead, a literal testament that the idealistic era of the '60s and '70s was over for good.

In Being There, based on the 1971 novel by Jerzy Kosinski, who adapted his own work along with co-writer Robert C. Jones, Peter Sellers plays Chance the Gardener, a simple minded Forrest Gump meets To Kill a Mockingbird's Boo Radley-like character, who spends his days gardening for a rich man and every other moment is spent in front of the television.

When the master dies at the start of the film, Chance must leave the sole home he’s ever known – the only life lessons he packs with them were learned from the “idiot box,” and the music from Kubrick’s 2001 plays during his odyssey into the streets of Washington D.C. His journey eventually leads him to becoming involved in business matters, economic policy and politics in what Darren Hughes calls, “a satiric jab at the co-opting of the nation’s public discourse by television’s empty images and content-free rhetoric,” as Chance imitates the images that surround him, soaking it all up like a newborn child.

Some mistake his deadpan seriousness and naiveté for a sense of humor and others (mostly women) find him intense and seductive— disarming them with his genuine honest nature in a world comprised of double-talking politicians and others who conceal their real political motives. The president, I may add is impotent throughout the film, just like the only other major male character – an invalid with a sexually unsatisfied wife played by Shirley MacClaine — possibly serving as a symbol for the uselessness of figureheads and that the true power is hidden.

Although Chance never learned to read or write, he succeeds in this new gimmicky U.S. where sound bites thrive and ultimately appears on television (now dubbed Chauncey Gardiner) after his gardening comments are mistaken as political gems by the president of the U.S. Chance, who – like newspapers and television news – talks to audiences at a third grade level, is suddenly viewed as sexy not only by MacClaine, (ironically named Eve), but also by others including an attractive homosexual at a party who mistakes Chauncey’s earnest “I like to watch,” as an invitation to view him with another man.

Later, Chauncey is the subject of an investigation by no less than sixteen other countries until, after endless searching for a nonexistent past or any records indicating just who he may be, his character is mentioned by several characters near the end of the film as a likely candidate for the next presidential election.

Finally, as the film ends and Chauncey walks on water, the following quote from a deceased character is read – “life is a state of mind"– leaving viewers scratching their heads over whether or not Chance was merely a simpleton or a mystic/Christ-like figure sent to ease others approaching death (the film is book-ended by death, making one wonder if he is an angel).

The idea that life is a state of mind is fascinating when viewing the work of Ashby — a man with allegedly, as critics frequently state – no style. Upon closer inspection, one notices not only a signature style and recurring themes brought forth in his films, but also a greater understanding of the man behind the films, whose state of mind is echoed in the hearts and dialogues of the free-spirited wanderers who populate his films. Some, like George Roundy in Shampoo delude themselves, others like Harold in Harold and Maude finally find a way of accepting mortality in a cathartic celebration of life, until in Being There one actually walks on water.

Chance the Gardener was a man whose luck brought him wandering into all the right places at the right times, like Ashby whose life had taken numerous directions before he’d even turned twenty-one. Although, sadly, some consider him to be a casualty of the times as his dependency on drugs led to wildly erratic behavior that caused the studios to seize film away from him in the '80s as money entered studios minds more and more – yet, one cannot let this diminish the importance of his career.

He was a man of the times—possibly, like Chance, a mystic wanderer and as Hughes points out, “Being There is a strangely fitting conclusion to Ashby’s enviable run during the 1970s,” as his “politically motivated irreverence and his simple faith in humanity’s potential for radical change were suddenly an anachronism.” The tragedy may have indeed been with Ashby who began on a downhill spiral that ended with his excruciating last few years and death from liver cancer, but when viewed in retrospect with all honesty, the great tragedy was that as – to misquote Bob Dylan – "The times they [were] a-changin’."

Suddenly, a man whose characters made up their own life mottos as their lives were a state of mind went out of fashion and Reagan’s new-economy was in. Sadly, Ashby was the '70s and the '70s ended, for better or worse, and the new decade began. He perished before the dawn of the independent film boom and before a young man named Sean Penn, who stole an Ashby sign (violating Penn’s parole as was noted on the DVD of Coming Home) to bring to his memorial at the Director’s Guild of America, dedicated his first directorial effort to two men that defined the '60s and '70s: John Cassavetes and Hal Ashby. Ashby, through those of us whom he’d inspired, continues to live on and therefore so do the sentiments of the 1970’s.

Although to fans of Being There, the film is mostly synonymous with Peter Sellers who was so committed to the role that as revealed in the Warner Brothers press release, after Kosinski's novel was published, the author received a telegram from its lead character which read, "Available in my garden or outside of it." When a curious Kosinski called the number that accompanied the message, Peter Sellers himself answered the call and spent nine years committed to getting the film into production, which was greatly challenged until the success of his Pink Panther work solidified a deal with Lorimar.

Modeling the voice of Chance "after his idol Stan Laurel," Sellers, who once told Roger Ebert as quoted in his Great Movies series that he had "absolutely no personality at all. I am a chameleon. When I am not playing a role, I am nobody," was so deeply invested in the role that as a young Illeana Douglas reports on the Blu-ray, watching him in a scene was almost embarrassingly private as he nearly went into another dimension.

Douglas, the granddaughter of the film's Oscar winner Melvyn Douglas who was actually bequeathed his Oscar after his death, shares great insights and recollections in a wonderful intimate featurette on the Blu-ray – Memories From Being There – wherein she revealed the close relationship that her grandfather had with Sellers as incidentally they'd been stationed in Burma together when both were in the military (with Douglas in the American side and Sellers, the British one respectively) and she also elaborates on Sellers' complete concentration in his work.

Noting that he'd once said that the only enjoyment he ever had in life was when he was on the floor working or being in a scene – it seems like it was a natural fit for his best and penultimate work to star in a film where the final result or meaning is ultimately left up to the viewer – whether they want to assume it's indeed Christian or overtly religious is one interpretation or rather the way both Douglas and I ultimately believe, it simply celebrates the idea of being in the moment.

As the film ends with the idea that "life is a state of mind," it seems entirely practical that as such we can imagine walking on water and while there are those like Ebert who intriguingly share interesting and astute observations that the film could be a caution that perhaps we're all a bit like Chance the Gardener as passive participants in life, there's plenty of food for thought.

And ultimately, in my eyes and despite the film's slightly sluggish final hour involving a few scenes that should've been trimmed or abandoned altogether, I feel that it provides the precise and perfect final note for the careers of Ashby (who suffered terribly in the '80s) and Sellers, who died shortly thereafter and was amazingly denied an Oscar, which he blames on the inclusion of "outtakes" at the end that "broke the spell" of the film.

The film, which is captured in a rich high definition transfer from Warner Brothers also unearths two recently discovered scenes including the original alternate ending, a longer gag reel and the original trailer that fills widescreen television with Caleb Deschanel's gorgeous cinematography.

And in the end Being There seems to celebrate (at least in my eyes) the individual journeys we all take, choices and relationships we make, in going about our daily lives and the idea that not only is it okay to "like to watch" but it's equally important to process what we've seen as well and walk away from it with humanistic understanding on a deeper level, whatever that may be in our own states of mind.