Satire is a State of Mind

Being There: adapted by Jerzy Kosinski and Robert C. Jones from the 1971 novel by Kosinski; directed by Hal Ashby; starring Peter Sellers (Chance), Shirley MacLaine (Eve Rand), Melvyn Douglas (Ben Rand), Jack Warden (President ‘Bobby’), Richard Dysart (Dr. Robert Allenby), and Ruth Attaway (Louise) (1979): 

The last great performance of the inestimably great Peter Sellers should have nabbed him a Best Actor Oscar. But the Academy hates comedy. Hal Ashby’s film, adapted from Jerzy Kosinski’s partially plagiarized 1971 novel, was a pet project of Sellers for years. Only the success of the later Pink Panther films secured him the clout to get it made. And boy, is it dandy.

Sellers plays Chance, the live-in gardener for a Washington recluse known only as the Old Man. Chance is… well, simple. Very simple. Amiable and harmless and simple. And boy, does he love TV! And having apparently never left the Old Man’s house, no record of Chance’s existence seems to exist. When the Old Man dies, no provisions for Chance exist in the will. So he’s cast out to walk the streets of Washington, DC.  

Almost everything Chance knows about the world comes from the mediated world of television: he wants to watch TV all the time, if possible. And as he watches, he’ll sometimes imitate what he sees. He imitates the gestures of people around him.  He parrots back what people say to him (along with the occasional ‘I understand,’ which for Chance really means ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, I’m just being polite’). And when pressed, he’ll talk about gardening. There’s almost no there there. So of course some people view him as wise and insightful.

Sellers modeled some of his performance on the screen persona of Stan Laurel. It’s absolutely winning in any event, ranging from subtle bits that modulate Chance’s affably blank stare depending on the situation to moments of absurd slapstick. Chance reflects back to people what they want to see in him. None of his utterances are cryptic or wise, but people — and especially the rich people he falls in with — take his comments on proper gardening as wise thoughts on the U.S. economy.

Being There is a surprisingly bleak satire of American politics, sweetened by Chance’s utter simplicity and sweetness. He’s a holy fool who has fallen in with the Illuminati. And the Illuminati just aren’t all that bright. Indeed, the rulers of the world pretty much all seem to be idiots made idiotic by their own narcissistic self-involvement. Chance’s former housekeeper knows what he really is; as she observes when she sees him on a talk show, just being white in America can get a person almost anything.

Being There is in many ways the mirror-image of another great satire of the 1970’s, Network. But here, the sinister Cabal that really runs things is made up of people who’ve willed themselves into perfect blindness. What the last scene of the movie, made up on the set by director Ashby and Sellers, means to the overall movie is something for the individual viewer to decide. Me, I’m still not sure. Highly recommended.

Best in Show: written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy; directed by Christopher Guest; starring Parker Posey (Meg Swan), Michael Hitchcock (Hamilton Swan), Catherine O’Hara (Cookie Fleck), Eugene Levy (Gerry Fleck), Bob Balaban (Dr. Theodore W. Millbank, III), Christopher Guest (Harlan Pepper), Michael McKean (Stefan Vanderhoof), John Michael Higgins (Scott Donlan), Jennifer Coolidge (Sherri Ann Cabot), Jane Lynch (Christy Cummings), and Ed Begley Jr. (Hotel Manager) (2000):

Maybe the high point of movies made by Christopher Guest and his merry band of co-writers and performers, though some prefer Waiting for Guffman. I don’t include This is Spinal Tap because it has Rob Reiner directing. This one, focused on several people whose dogs are competing in a dog show based on the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, is a comic gem. 

While the characters all verge on being comic grotesques, they’re invested with enough warmth and sympathy to make Best in Show a rarity — a gentle satire. The performances are superb, the direction smoothly negotiates the faux-documentary approach, and the writing absolutely sparkles with wit and goofiness. Best in Show is an all-timer. Highly recommended.

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