Kultur, Zoologi og metafysisk spekulasjon

Review: Being There (1979)

In Film, Filosofi, Kultur on april 6, 2011 at 2:30 pm

In the documentary Zizek (2005), Slavoj Zizek refers to Being There as his all time favorite film. No wonder, as more than anything else, Being There is about communism – although the word itself is never spoken.

The narrative in Being There is focused on the protagonist Chance Gardner, portrayed by Peter Sellers. This was the last film featuring Sellers while he was still among the living. His role as Gardner is, as always, superb.

Chance Gardner stays at a house, which is more like an estate, in Washington DC. There he has been living his whole life, working as a gardener for the owner of the house. And yes, he has been living there his whole life; he can neither write nor read; he is more or less like a three year old trapped in the body of a grown man. That fact that Mr. Gardner is a gardener gives us an early hint on how the film communicates with the viewers.

–          He is a gardener.

–          He does talk like one. But I think he’s brilliant.

The owner of the house is dead and Chance is forced to move out. But what will happen now? Chance Gardner is not even his real name, if he even has one. He does not even know himself who he is. He never talked to anyone outside the house (he never went outside the house) only the owner and the maid. Everything he knows of social convention in the western civilized world he learnt via radio or TV.

While walking down the streets of DC, he stops to watch TV through a window. A car hits him. There is no serious damage, but the lady in the car invites him home – hospitals are not personal enough these days, and the paperwork is overwhelming. It turns out the lady, Eve, works for one of the richest men in the country. Ben, a man with a huge influence on the US economy, is old and ill, being kept alive by his personal doctor who also treats Chance. The two men become good friends. “You seem truly peaceful”, Ben tells Chance. Through some comedic scenes, Chance succeeds in never mentioning his past, and everyone thinks he is reliable, handsome, and actually quite intelligent.

–          My house was shut down, by attorneys.

–          You mean your work?

–          Yes.

Chance and Ben in conversation

Ben is amazed at how Chance talks about the economy. Since he actually knows nothing about it, he always speaks in terms of gardening. Ben agrees with him that “A productive business man is a laborer in a vineyard”. Naturally, Ben means this in a metaphorical sense, while Chance is quite serious. After some days at Ben’s estate, he realizes that Chance by far is the most qualified man to take over his business after him. When the president, Bobby, comes to visit Ben, Chance joins them in their conversation. Bobby is also amazed by the metaphorical language of Chance. He even paraphrases him during his next official speech being aired on TV. And consequently, the CIA and the FBI informs Bobby that there is no one by the name of Chance Gardner living in the US. Who is this guy?

–          What do you mean he has no background? That’s impossible!

Bobby (The President)

Despite this catastrophic situation – that Bobby paraphrased an unknown man in a public speech about the future of the US economy – he does not panic. And since Chance is such a nice guy, he gets invited to television shows and fancy parties. At one party, he meets a Russian politician, and they quickly find the right tone.

–          You may find, my friend, that we are not so far from each other.

Vladimir Skrabinov to Chance

If it was not clear before the introduction of the Russian in the narrative, it is now apparent that the theme of the movie is communism – communism and its relation to capitalism in the political milieu of western civilization, and especially the US. No wonder Zizek loves this movie, as there are a lot of similarities between him and Chance Gardener.

Gardener was raised in a home, between borders. DC was his world, and the house was his country. Being the gardener, he had only job, delegated to him as a child. At home he never earned any money; his payment was food, (very expensive) clothes, and entertainment (radio and TV). In this respect, his situation is quite similar to how Zizek has described himself in Slovenia during the cold war. Slovenia was, according to Zizek, communist, but at the same time indulging in the wealth of capitalism. Chance lives like a communist, but he enjoys American television more than anything, just like Zizek, who has written books and made documentaries analyzing films.

As Chance grew older, his home, his communism, was shut down. In a similar sense, the communism of Slovenia was shut down, and Zizek was let loose. So in this sense, when Chance is set free from his country, he goes on preaching communism in a new world. But he does this without speaking of communism; the word itself is never mentioned at all in the film. Instead, people experience him as “a breath of fresh air”, exactly what America needs.

Ben’s attraction to Chance is rooted in his worldview. He always talks in terms of gardening, which Ben interprets as metaphors. For instance, Chance naturalizes the evolution of the economy by comparing it to the different seasons of the year, where summer and spring implies growth. Now this way of modeling the economy (and society) is not central in tradition capitalism, where it is the people, not nature or God, who controls the growth. Rules are made by people, not nature. Gardner even talks of the president as the gardener of the country, something Bobby finds inspiring. But by avoiding the word communism, Chance is not recognized as a communist. In that way, his ideas are applauded by his fellow citizens/comrades, even by the president.

–          I’m a very serious gardener.

–          I’m sure you are, Mr. Gardner.

Chance and the television talk-show host

And so it becomes evident that Ben – portrayed as the symbol of capitalism, he even controls the president – is attracted to Chance because of his communism, which remains unspoken of explicitly. The old and wise man – he must know what is right, what is true. Like the economy, knowledge develops according the biology of the human body. The economic system will evidently develop to a greater stage, and capitalism will be overthrown by communism. We can sense Marx lurking in every scene of the film.

The thematic of Being There goes even deeper. We know that Ben is in a situation where he could die at any moment. His life hangs in a thread, and he has always feared death. Too bad for him, everyone else around him lives under the same fear. At an early scene of the film, we see graffiti on the wall of a brick building in the suburbs of Washington DC, saying that America is not great because the white man has a God complex. That is, everyone except Chance Gardener; he shows no fear of death at all. As Ben tells him, “You seem to be an exception”. Who needs a God when we have communism?

In one on the last scenes of the film, Eve has an intimate and revealing conversation with Chance. Like so many other characters, she too was moved by his brilliancy. She tells him; “You revealed myself to myself”. And here, she is actually speaking on behalf of everyone, of the characters, of the economy, even the country. Chance Gardner has exposed the rhetoric of the cold war (without knowing it), and in the process he revealed America to itself (without knowing how). Deep down, in our own biology, in our own natures, we are all communists. Zizek; this one was too obvious.


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