Discussed in this review: Jerzy Kosinski's novel Being There, Grove Press, 1970 and Hal Ashby's 1979 film version Being There featuring Peter Sellers
I live in a foreign country but I teach literature to American and English students and I keep having to explain what the term privilege means. I try over and over again. When they look at me funny and tell me they have problems too. I try to come back with something clever, with a chart or an image or an anecdote they can maybe relate to. None of it works.
This is one kind of problem and it is resolvable, in the sense that the point of education is to make young people aware of things they weren’t aware of before. The true problems emerge when grown-ups living in the thick of it all fail to recognize their privilege or position. (We all know what I am referring to here.)
The odd thing is that Being There is on multiple lists for being one of the funniest films of all time. I’m not sure if funny is how I would define it. By the end of the film, actually by the middle, all you can think of is how ridiculous the whole situation is. How sad and how true to life.
The film was made in 1979. In thirty-six years is it possible the film is only less funny because the reality that it presents seems ever more daunting? Were people laughing in 1979 because they thought things were about to get better, or that things were getting better, or because sometimes that’s what we all do in the face of insurmountable hopelessness. The book by Jerzy Kosinski was published in 1970 but has less direct humor. Both stories tell the story of a intellectually challenged white male of about fifty years old who is suddenly without a job or home or any connections. He walks between two cars and one backs into him, injuring him slightly. From there he is transported to a world of wealth and promise, where he is assumed to be a man of business and sophistication: based on his finely tailor suite, based on his skin and cis-gender.
The film also has its way with us as viewers. Look at the opening scene. Chance seems like the nobleman everyone interprets him to be. As he rearranges his plants in the window listening to Schubert, there is no doubt that he is the master of the house. Then one minute later, he dusts and cleans, but that one minute is enough. The director Hal Ashby is convincing in teaching the audience to recognize their own capacity for granting privilege to certain members of society.
When Chance finally leaves the house it seems like he might be awakened. He is not in some gentrified haven but rather in the middle of city blocks, with people huddling around tin drum fires. There is the first telling sign, absent from the book, that the message here is to point out white male privilege. Chance walks by a tag on the side of a building that reads:
America ain’t shit cause the white mans gota god complex.
Maybe that is also why it is funny, the world outside is doing wild things, moving and bustling; people even stand up to him. Black men stand up to him and stare back at him; they too turn him into the character they imagine him to be. This is Chance’s first encounter with any kind of conflict at all. His defense is to take out his TV remote control and click it at the young men with whom he engages.
Chance stops to gaze at a group of kids playing basketball. He watches them smiling, just like he watches the television. He takes them in and makes them part of his imaginary world. Then he walks up to a random black woman and asks her to make him his lunch, just like “black Louise” used to.
Chance is raised by the television, left alone to understand life through the pictures he sees. He takes the images in and attempts to make sense of it all. Ideally, this is not the case when we look at one another but when Chance is taken in by the wealthy EE and the old man, and given a new name, “Chauncey Gardiner,” and a new identity, the simple gardener version of Chance disappears.
Kosinski’s original describes chances outlook on television,
Television reflected only people’s surfaces; it also kept peeling their images from their bodies until they were sucked into the caverns of their viewer’s eyes, forever beyond retrieval, to disappear.
Jerzy Kosinski’s novel provides a great deal of helpful insight into understanding Chance’s nonstop television watching that is also present in the film:
By changing the channel he could change himself. He could go through phases, as garden plants went through phases, be he could change as rapidly as he wished by twisting the dial backward and forward. In some cases he could spread out into the screen without stopping, just as on TV people spread out into the screen. By turning the dial, Chance could bring others inside his eyelids. Thus he came to believe that it was he, Chance, and no one else, who made himself to be.
He sees himself as a self-made man because he is always doing the watching, he is in control of every story before his eyes. Laura Mulvey has pointed out how the male gaze work’s in cinema in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,”
Going far beyond highlighting a woman’s to-be-looked-at-ness, cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself. Playing on the tension between film as controlling the dimension of time (editing, narrative) and film as controlling the dimension of space (changes in distance, editing), cinematic codes create a gaze, a world, and an object, thereby producing an illusion cut to the measure of desire.
Surely Chance engages in all the behavior described here. His need to pull out a remote as a weapon says it all. But Kosinski’s text and Ashby’s film ask a different kind of question surrounding the gaze: what happens when the white male is under so little scrutiny, what happens when he can become anyone’s and everyone’s fantasy because no one is actually looking, he passes for whatever they want him to be. From Chances’s point of view,
When one was addressed and viewed by others, one was safe. Whatever one did would then be interpreted by the others in the same way that one interpreted what they did. They could never know more about one than one knew about them.
Wouldn’t this be a lovely world to live in. For Chance the world is free of judgment; when he directs his gaze upon others he realizes he knows nothing, little does he understand that the others are projecting all kinds of identities onto him, he is a blank canvas. For Chance this is forgivable, he is a fictional character, a living trope. For real humans, real adult humans, this very common and real lack of awareness deserves little or no sympathy.