Being There

Not only did I used to see double features all the time, when I was younger, I'd often sit through three movies back to back—but it's hard for me now to even see two movies in a single day, like at a film festival. But the timing just worked out the other day for me to view this new documentary about Hal Ashby, Hal (2018), and then right after that a one-time showing of Being There, on film, in the main auditorium of Milwaukee's Oriental Theatre. This movie came out in 1979, when I first saw it, and it was a huge influence on me as far as my love of the cinema goes, and generally my views of culture, society, politics, and even on a personal level. I've seen it a few times over the years, and now, even though I kind of pick it apart, its still very enjoyable. There's no reason for me summarize the plot for anyone who's seen it, and if you haven't seen it, you've probably already heard too much about it—but, still, you should see it some day—and if you're lucky, see it at a theater!

It's the last of Hal Ashby's string of great Seventies movies, based on a novel by Jerzy Kosinski, who is credited for the screenplay, though it was interesting, seeing that documentary—Ashby's longtime editor and collaborator, Bob Jones, tells us that he actually wrote the screenplay that's on screen. As you know, or should, official credits don't always line up with who did what in movies—one can never really get to the bottom of it—but for sure, anyway, film is a collaborative medium. How much Peter Sellers brought to the character of Chance, for instance—most likely quite a bit. It's funny, this character is so realized, that over the years I kind of forget that it's the same Peter Sellers as in his other movies, and even thinking about that consciously is hard to piece together. He's certainly more restrained than in any movie I've see him in, and what he's doing as an actor is deceptively simple—but there's something really powerful and subtle in his performance—maybe it's just the feeling that he might explode at any minute.

One thing that especially struck me, watching this movie again, is how it's like a giant sound collage piece, as there is television playing in either the foreground or background, constantly. What the movie says about TV in our culture feels a little dated, and too on-the-nose sometimes, but then it really hasn't ever gone away—and you can more or less apply the same ideas to the internet, smartphones, and social media. The constant TV excerpts throughout the movie do feel a little nostalgic at times, maybe even more comic now, in some cases, and in others, weirdly not dated. There are a couple of sequences that use entire songs which are particularly striking to watch now. I'm often critical of filmmakers using entire songs in montage sequences—even though there are some great ones—and these are a couple of them. First, when Chance leaves the urban mansion where he's lived his entire life and strikes out in the run-down, intense, Washington DC winter world—we have to try to imagine how mind-blowing that would be for him, or us in his place. Playing over this extended sequence is Eumir Deodato's version of Also Sprach Zarathustra—and that version of that music—it's really perfect. Even more weirdly, after Chance finds himself in a limousine (complete with TV, of course) approaching this enormous mansion, the center of wealth and power, where the rest of the movie will play out—he's watching, and we see and hear, the cartoon version of Cheech and Chong's Basketball Jones—an immensely popular song when I was in high school. It seemingly has absolutely nothing to do with the scene in which it's cross-cut, but somehow it works. It's like one of those times when you, in a fit of inspiration, throw two unrelated things together and through some magical alchemy it creates something odd and beautiful.

Thinking about this movie now, what it says and how it affected me, is very interesting to me, as I guess it was one of the things that formed who I am—but I'd never thought about it in that way. This idea that, politically, there are hidden pockets of powerful and influential people behind what we see on the surface, is nothing new, but worth reminding yourself, I guess. Also, the means to which rich, white men execute their power, and the hypocrisy inherent in everything, and also the idea that individuals are often weak, clueless, and kind of goofy, but that doesn't necessarily lessen their ability to do good or very harmful things. You can probably search online for multitudes of articles discussing Donald Trump in relation to this movie. The thing that struck me the most, though, watching it this time, on a personal level, is how much I was influenced by the character of Chance. I think I found something inspiring about him—even though it's not overt, or even intended—maybe it has to do with the performance, but also, I can relate to him. The best scenes are when he says almost nothing, or something so totally off, it causes the people around him to make their own interpretations. I'm not saying that I used this character as a role model—but maybe a little bit. It's kind of funny, as you go on in your life, when you come upon things that help you see the reasons you are who you are.

Randy Russell 10.4.18