Being There (1979)
Directed by Hal Ashby
130 minutes (United Artists)
Being There (1971)
by Jerzy Kosinski
The Polish émigré writer Jerzy Kosinski provided distinctive bookends to the 1970s with his two brilliantly fashioned versions of Being There. He published his short, satirical novel in April 1971. Then, after many false starts, the film adaptation starring Peter Sellers—and for which Kosinski wrote the screenplay—appeared in the final months of 1979 to critical acclaim and commercial success. Betwixt book and film, America in the sullen Seventies was defined by defeat in a protracted Asian war, an almost equally protracted bout of economic mismanagement and stagnation, culture fracturing and confusion, and vitriolic partisanship. Set against the rising challenge abroad of a still formidable Soviet Union, many began to question deeply—and really for the first time in the postwar era—whether the United States still possessed the will, wisdom and wherewithal to “lead the free world”, as common parlance then had it.
Revisiting the two versions of Being There today, however, does not conjure up facile analogies between the 1970s and this new decade, another time of Asian wars, economic challenges, and an emerging potential “peer” competitor to American international leadership. Rather it offers, through the eyes and experiences of Chance the gardener, the main character in both book and film, a disturbing vision of how modern media machinery and habits are transforming how we think, and perhaps even how we govern. More than thirty years on, what once appeared to be light if enigmatic and far-fetched amusement now strikes us as darker, and possibly prophetic.
Kosinski’s fable chronicles a man’s transformation over a single week. Being There begins on a Sunday morning with Chance tending the garden of the “Old Man”, in whose house he has spent his entire life. Chance is a middling-aged man of limited intellect and of even more circumscribed ambition. He can neither read nor write. No record of him exists, since he has never been paid, seen a doctor or obtained a driver’s license. He is also essentially asexual, rendering him childlike to the reader and viewer. The old man’s maid, Louise, provides his meals; otherwise, he has no other face-to-face contact with humans. Television provides his only window on the world beyond the walls of the house and its walled garden, and it is television that provides the pivot upon which the story turns.
After the Old Man dies in his sleep, lawyers come to the house. They compel Chance and Louise to leave. Chance dons one of the Old Man’s fine, hand-tailored suits, complete with homburg hat, and for the first time emerges on the street in front of the house, which in the film turns out to be in a since-turned edgy neighborhood in Washington, DC. The limousine of Elizabeth Eve “EE” Rand, the young wife of aged and ailing business tycoon Benjamin Rand, then accidentally strikes Chance. Eve offers to take him to their family doctor, who is tending to her husband.
Once in the limo, Eve mistakenly hears Chance give his name as “Chauncey Gardiner” rather than “Chance the gardener”, and when she repeats it back to him, “he assumed that, as on TV, he must use his new name from now on.” Dressed in his 1920s-era finery, Chance appears to Eve as a man of means, a businessman whose “house has been closed up.” Chance, now Chauncey, mimics and tries to fit in based upon what he knows from television. He is, in effect, an empty vessel who fills himself with what others expect from him. When he speaks, his frequent pauses are heard as pregnant and incisive harbingers of deep thought. Chance’s vacuous simplicity, composed of television’s deliberately stunted vocabulary, is mistaken for sage-like wisdom. Chance deeply impresses Ben Rand as a man who “grasp[s] things quickly and state[s] them plainly.” His curt comments about gardening, which is after all the only subject he really knows anything about, unwittingly become metaphors for the economic challenges confronting the country and the robustness of American private enterprise.
After meeting Chance at the invitation of Ben Rand, the President quotes him in a major economic address. Chance becomes literally an overnight media sensation, and a hit at swank dinners and diplomatic power soirées. Men and women are attracted to him—intellectually, emotionally and sexually. Eve misinterprets his physical and emotional inability to respond to her initial efforts at seduction as extraordinary acts of caring and self-control. Eventually, he utters in her company his most famous line, “I like to watch”, referring to his preference for watching television. Eve interprets this innocent remark as an invitation to a solo sexual performance, which, in the film (thanks to an inspired performance by Shirley MacLaine) produces what many consider one of the most hilarious scenes in film history.
For intelligence agencies and reporters alike, Chance’s untraceable past only confirms his importance. His stature escalates with each improbable conversation. By the end of the week, and near the end of both book and film, this taciturn naif finds himself on the verge of high political office: in the novel, the vice presidency, and in the movie, the presidency itself.
Of Kosinski’s two creations, the novel has aged better. It is tighter, more economical, faster paced and more sharply satirical, if less plainly comical. The novel is set in New York; the film in Washington. While much of the movie’s dialogue is drawn verbatim from the novel, its progress is slowed by director Hal Ashby’s penchant for lingering perhaps too long in each scene. For instance, the novel moves immediately from Chance leaving the shelter of the garden to his accident with Eve outside the Old Man’s home, whereas the film meanders somewhat through sequences of Chance wandering the streets of Washington carrying an alligator skin suitcase. The film is also a bit coarser, with Ben Rand, for example, alluding to himself as a “kingmaker”, speaking down to the President of the United States and even calling him by his first name “Bobby.” A small sub-plot in the film about the President’s impotence leads nowhere.
The movie is nonetheless a classic and rightly deserves its place on many “best of” lists. Above all, Sellers’s performance is brilliant, as evidenced in his every step, gesture, expression and word, spoken and unspoken. He certainly deserved his Academy Award nomination as best actor (he lost to Dustin Hoffman for his performance in Kramer vs. Kramer). The supporting cast is excellent. Melvyn Douglas won his second Academy Award for his portrayal of Ben Rand. MacLaine as Eve is Sellers’s effective partner with whom he carries most of the film’s scenes. The film successfully adds tension by having Dr. Robert Allenby, Ben Rand’s doctor (Richard Dysert), emerge as a more central character than he is in the book. Here the doctor is Ben Rand’s protector, and the one who investigates and begins to understand that Chance really is just a gardener after all. The movie also skillfully weaves in questions of race. “It’s for sure a white man’s world in America”, the old maid Louise says when sees Chance on television. How else to explain why a man “stuck with rice pudding between the ears” could achieve such overnight fame?
Sellers’s real co-star, though, is the television set. The film exploits the almost omnipresent device to good comic effect. When sitting on bed next to the deceased Old Man, Chance turns on the set to be greeted by an upbeat “Sealy Posturepedic morning” commercial that heralds in song the mattress’s power to prevent a stiff back after a long night’s sleep. When Eve first tries to seduce him, he is watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. The film shrewdly drives home the absurdity of how television controls Chance, such as when he mimics whatever appears on the screen, whether it be a yoga instructor or a servant in an old movie.
The film’s final scene, however, is the most significant and challenging departure from the novel. During Ben Rand’s funeral Chance walks the grounds of the Rand estate. He soon comes to a pond and, without breaking stride, begins walking on its surface. Part way across he reaches down below the water line with his umbrella to reveal the pond’s depth. This scene was a last-minute revision to the script that has been attributed to both Ashby’s and Kosinksi’s inspiration. Its exact intent is unknown. Is this mere whimsy, meant to signify nothing in particular? Is it a more subtle satire of people’s belief in prophets than that offered by Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, which also appeared in 1979? Or is Kosinski, or Ashby, suggesting that Chance’s apparent innocence and simple-mindedness channel a mysterious godly purpose after all?
The enduring power of both the novel and movie springs in no small part from Kosinski and Sellers (so their biographers argue) because they had special affinities for Chance. They were men of public image rather than admirable inner qualities. They were brilliant cads, self-centered, abusive at times, womanizers, liars and, to a greater or lesser extent, empty men. James Park Sloan portrays Kosinski as a man, like Chance, “without a traceable past” who was engaged in a sort of “high-wire act” from which he could fall at any moment. For Kosinski, the risk was that his writing would be exposed as not fully his own, since he relied upon extensive assistance from others and he was eventually dogged by accusations of plagiarism, given the “extraordinary close resemblance” of Being There to a 1932 Polish novel, The Career of Nikodem Dyzma. Even his close friend Kurt Vonnegut described him as “a good guy who needed a lot of editing and admitted it.”1 He was, too, a well-known fabulist, habitually fictionalizing episodes in his own life, a man who recognized no clear line between truth and fiction. He did know how to work people (particularly women) to advance his ambitions, however. “The result [of Being There] was a portrait of himself at that moment”, Sloan concludes, “a man who felt unable to exist unless he was being seen.”2
Sellers’s compulsion to play Chance is perhaps even more obvious. Although he often made light of it, Sellers lacked a sense of himself as an individual. He could become other characters, but he had lost himself. “I would like to thank you very much for taking the trouble to probe accurately the deeper recesses of whatever the hell I am”, he once wrote an editor.3 After reading Being There, he spoke of playing Chance every day. He even went so far as to have calling cards printed with the name “Chauncey Gardiner,” and signed letters in that name. He courted Kosinski. Sellers became “obsessed”, Ed Sikov argues, “with playing a nobody who became a somebody nobody could really know.”4 Being There also promised to be the pinnacle of his acting career after years of many flops.
Given two such mercurial talents, one could have perhaps predicted that Kosinski and Sellers would have a falling out. The point of dispute as the film neared completion was the attribution of the screenplay’s authorship. Sellers and Hal Ashby supported Robert C. Jones in his appeal to the Writers Guild Association for credit as a co-author of the screenplay with Kosinski for his rewriting of the shooting script. Kosinski won the appeal, but the damage was done. For good measure, Kosinski spread word that Sellers had a face lift before the shooting began.5
For Sellers, Being There was his last great film. After filming the eminently forgettable The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980), he died of a heart attack at the age of 55, after years of hard living and a neglected heart condition. Kosinski didn’t fare much better. Accusations of plagiarism followed him in the next decade. At the least, his writing often relied upon the efforts of others, and he was loath to acknowledge fully the scale and scope of such assistance. After the best-selling The Painted Bird (1965), the National Book Award winning Steps (1968), and Being There, by the 1980s his most creative years were behind him, and his health began to slip. In May 1991, a few hours after attending a book party for Senator William Cohen, Kosinski swallowed a combination of drugs, tied a plastic bag tied around his neck and committed suicide in a way that he had described in his last novel, The Hermit of 69th Street (1988). His suicide notes suggested that his motive was to avoid burdening others with his failing health, but many feel that it was his other burdens that had become unbearable. He was 57.6
Being There hits home today in a way that Kosinski, Sellers and Ashby almost certainly could not have imagined. It does so not only because it remains clever satire but, more significantly, because today it appears all too prophetic in at least one important respect. The famous media scholar and cultural commentator Marshall McLuhan concluded in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964) with the insight, a paraphrasing of Churchill’s remark about buildings, that “we shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us.” Being There captured this same insight in a simple fable, by showing how supposedly serious people in serious positions of responsibility—businessmen, media magnates, diplomats and political leaders—fell over themselves for a man whose whole personality had been shaped by a vacuous media form. It may help us to understand the ineffable sense that clear thinking and “seriousness” are eroding in our public and private lives.
In Kosinski’s day, television was reshaping us and thus assumed center stage alongside Chance in Being There. Television also explains Kosinski’s choice of title. While writing the book he considered Dasein, a term Martin Heidegger used for “being” to denote a man who simultaneously “is” and “is not.” Kosinski eventually settled on Being There to suggest that the essence of man in the age of television was not to be, but to be seen. “To be even provisionally alive”, as Sloan puts it, “one must be seen by others, like actors in a play.”7
Television arguably still dominates Americans’ leisure time, but the Internet continues to increase its share of our attention. At work and school, communication now often takes the form of PowerPoint slides or “decks.” BlackBerries, iPhones and other portable communications devices slice our days down into seconds of “multitasking” through emails, calls, texts, web surfing, games, music and video bytes. In this environment, reading and thinking are being squeezed into ever-smaller packets of time.
Data, not just anecdata, support this observation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics 2009 survey of the time Americans spend on leisure and sport activities, for instance, shows that a man will spend more than three of his five total hours of leisure time during an average weekday watching television or on a computer, and only about 15 minutes reading and 15 minutes relaxing or thinking. What will happen if we no longer read except online, and no longer think for more than a few minutes at a time?
As Nicholas Carr describes in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains (2010), recent research in psychology and neuroscience suggest the answer: constant engagement with our visual and digital “tools” is literally rewiring our brains. The potential implications are profound. A growing body of empirical evidence suggests that “multitasking” makes us ultimately less efficient and may even lower our cognitive abilities. I, too, have felt, as Carr describes his own experiences, the disconcerting sensation that my mind was changing. I often feel the urge to skip to another web page or news story after ten seconds, and sometimes I don’t feel fully “there” in conversations with my own family.
I consider myself fortunate that I experienced reading and thinking before the Internet, and the written word before PowerPoint. I like to think that these experiences afford me some self-defense despite my own use of the Blackberry and other technologies. Particularly, I like to think that my study of history, philosophy, social science and hard science will give me more protection than those who have grown up in the digital age. (Social science research here, too, reinforces my confidence: We solidify our mental maps and styles of learning at a fairly early age, reaffirming the old advice that the wisest thing we can ever do is to choose good parents.)
Consider PowerPoint, the papyrus of my consulting profession, its essential medium of communication. I have no doubt of its potential corrosive effect upon thought and communication. As Ian Parker observed in the New Yorker a decade ago, PowerPoint
edits ideas. It is, almost surreptitiously, a business manual as well as a business suite, with an opinion—an oddly pedantic, prescriptive opinion—about the way we should think. It helps you make a case, but it also makes its own case: about how to organize information, how much information to organize, how to look at the world.
I know well the temptations of substituting adjustments in font size, color schemes, clip art and alignments for real thought. I am on to the common self-deception that equates activity with progress. I know a brave U.S. Army general who with good cause banned PowerPoint in his command in order to force his troops to explain themselves in clear, cogent English sentences. I envy him his power of command. But even PowerPoint has its uses. Not only can it be deployed effectively to clarify and explain if placed in the right hands; it can also supply a counterintuitive advantage. Whenever I can manage to write a “vertical” document, as my colleagues refer to prose with the normal alignment, these actual sentences often seem to convince associates that I am a master of some lost art like cuneiform.
The ability to explore a topic thoughtfully, in depth, also appears to be rapidly disappearing. Despite the Internet’s potential to support such endeavors, more often than not it provokes information overload—and information without context is really noise, not knowledge. But there is something even more insidious at work—namely, the acceptance of a new standard for research or “depth” of exploration. A scene from Being There eerily foreshadows this embrace of superficiality.
When Chance encounters a gaggle of reporters at a social function following his appearance on a television talk show, the journalists crowd around him as he exits a limousine, asking him in excited tones for his reaction to the Times and the Post’s commentary on his performance. He replies in deadpan earnest that he has not read the newspapers. When pressed, Chance finally explains: “I do not read any newspapers. I watch TV.” The novel continues:
The journalists stood, silent and embarrassed. “Do you mean,” one finally asked, “that you find TV’s coverage more objective than that of the newspapers?’
“As I’ve said,” explained Chance, “I watch TV.”
The older reporter half-turned away. “Thank you, Mr. Gardiner,” he said, “for what is probably the most honest admission to come from a public figure in recent years. Few men in public life have had the courage not to read newspapers. None have had the guts to admit it!”
In other words, “I don’t read” could be taken as a badge of honor or an occasion for droll humor in 1970s. It is no longer either. While this exchange can still provoke a surface chuckle, it more easily evokes concern, if not fear, among those who still do read. Entering the offices of the cognoscenti of the American political class and even the private sector you will see television sets tuned in at all times to the talking heads and 24-hour news programs with their distracting scrolling tickers of snippets, and staffers locked into their computer screens. Newspapers and magazines appear in waiting rooms and bathrooms, but printed publications are rarely read elsewhere.
For many of my colleagues, conducting research is now something to be outsourced to others. A good and justifiably well-respected friend recently commented with some awe on an essay I had written: “Your footnotes are amazing. Did you read all that stuff yourself?” That someone could be so surprised by those who actually read their own source materials, or by research efforts consisting of more than a quick Google search, is a sign of things to come.
There is an even more troubling sign lurking here. Another friend, now a leader of a major law firm, once explained to me the path to success within a professional services firm: “All that matters is the stories we tell to ourselves.” I knew this was a wise, practical observation that he had reached partnership as much because of his image as because of his achievements. Whether or not he has seen or read Being There, he could not have conveyed any more perfectly the meaning of Chance the gardener.
There is perhaps a lesson, too, in the observation that Chance’s rapid assent owes all to a special sort of circular reporting: His reputation is first assumed on account of mere appearances, then it expands in proportion to his failure to say anything of substance, while keeping his past, and any actual achievements that may reside in it, totally obscure. I have to ask myself if I have somehow gotten caught up in an out-take from the movie when I meet someone in the course of my professional life in Washington who, less than a decade out of college, refers to himself as a consultant or even “expert” but seems to have nothing of practical interest to say.
Not long ago, I met for the first time a respected and widely quoted author of books, articles and op-eds in all the major publications, who is, by the standard of our age, an “expert” on the Middle East, including Afghanistan. She knew the country well, she volunteered to me. She had made perhaps four short trips to Kabul during the past five years or so. At first, I was struck by her confidence in claiming to have a good feel for Afghanistan. I have spent some considerable amount of time there during the past 18 months—far more time than she in all her trips, and I have ventured far beyond Kabul as well. For all my experience, I know that I still don’t really understand that country’s bewildering reality. Yet others clearly believe her to be an expert; and she, without a hint of guile, agrees. Chance would have understood.
The upshot is that we seem to have difficulty these days distinguishing those with earned knowledge from those who only think they have it. This in turn triggers the troubling thought that if we as individuals no longer think, read, research and engage difficult topics seriously, then on what basis can we assess critically whether others do? What happens if we all become like those who encountered Chance and were unable to distinguish between the superficial and the serious in others? But what if we descend even further and become like Chance, and thereby lose any reference point against which to look critically at ourselves? Are we already there?
I can still remember when I first encountered Being There. That was a long time ago. Then the premise was amusing. I could howl at the absurdities of the “I don’t read; I watch television” scene. When I see it now, though, it’s just not funny to me in the same way. I suggest that you read Being There on your Kindle, or download the movie onto your tablet. See if you like to watch as much as Chance did.
1John Taylor, “The Haunted Bird; The Death and Life of Jerzy Kosinski”, New York Magazine, July 15, 1991.
2James Park Sloan, Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography (Plume, 1997), pp. 290–3.
3Quoted in Ed Sikov, Mr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers (Hyperion, 2002), p. 373.
4Sikov, Mr. Strangelove, p. 356.
5Sikov, Mr. Strangelove, p. 372.
6Sloan, Jerzy Kosinski, pp. 445–6; Taylor, “The Haunted Bird.”
7Sloan, , pp. 289, 291–2.