Is the American political system really as soulless and empty as it appears? Are the elite really corrupt and self-serving? In Hal Ashby’s view— definitely. Ashby comments on these topics in his film Being There (1979) through the characterization of Chance, an uneducated and foolish man who is able to rise to the top of America’s economic and political ladder. Being effectively raised through the television, Chance lacks a personality and identity, and is extremely ignorant to the real world. While these don’t sound like the characteristics of an elite individual, these attributes are actually what helps Chance succeed the most.
He acts as a “mirror” to the individuals around him, telling them what they want to hear, and extinguishing their fears of uncertainty. In this way, Ashby comments on the emptiness of American politics, and how citizens must be critical of who they put in power. Further, through Chance’s undeserved success as a white man, Ashby comments on racial inequality in 1970s America. Although he begins with a low economic status on the streets of Washington D.C. he is quickly given several opportunities to succeed. Additionally, at the end of the film, as the white elites decide the future of the presidency, Ashby suggests that America is run by self-interested individuals, and that not all groups have a voice. Thus, in his film Being There Ashby utilizes Chance Gardener to offer a critique of American culture which prioritizes appearance over substance, self-interest, and sustaining societal domination.
Furthermore, Chance’s education through television leaves him completely ignorant to the world around him. Chance has a very unique relationship to television throughout the film. Without much parental guidance or education, Chance uses television to learn about the world. Mimicking the television in several scenes, one can suggest that Chance utilizes the television to learn how to be “human.” His attachment to television is immediately clear in the very first scene in the film. As Chance awakens, the first thing is does is sit up and watch an orchestra play on the TV in his room. Thus, it is clear how big of a role television plays in his daily life. Thus, due to his education being primarily from TV, Chance lacks real world knowledge. This is most primarily seen when he first leaves his home after his benefactor passes away. He approaches a black lady and asks her if she will make him some lunch. Because he had been taken care of another black woman named Louise, he assumes that this lady will also take care of him.
Another awkward interaction occurs when he approaches a gang of African-American teens, asking if there is a garden nearby he can work in. One of the teens, Abbaz, pulls a switchblade on him and Chance responds with trying to turn him “off” by pointing a remote control at him. These interactions demonstrate Chance’s lack of common sense, and how he views the world as a type of television. He attempts to switch “off” situations that he doesn’t like, similar to what he does on TV. Through this, Ashby claims that Chance possesses no real knowledge of the world, because he is able to turn away from the harsh realities that face the nation with a flick of a button. Thus, Ashby warns about the dangers of letting television be a form of education in replacement of authentic personal interaction.
Further, Chance appears to not possess an identity due to his TV upbringing and lack of personal interaction. He copies whatever the individuals on TV say or do and he appears to have no real character or personality. Frequently in conversation he will just respond in agreeance with whatever the other party says. He even changes his name from Chance to “Chauncey” with no hesitance upon Eve mishearing him when the two first meet. Here, through this theme of television, Ashby is suggesting two things. One, that television distorts individuals’ worldview by letting viewers decide what they want to see. In this way, individuals choose to watch positive, and idealistic versions of society, not the hardships of those living in such society. This resonates especially true in in 1970s to 1980s America where television was more censored and only 6% of characters on television were African American (Mastro & Greenberg 2000). Ashby is also warns not to get too sucked into media for fear of losing one’s true identity. He suggests that identity is not formed through watching people on a screen, but through interacting with people on a personal level.
Moreover, through his lack of personal identity Chance is able to succeed in the political and economic world by being a “mirror” for people’s wants and needs. Much like a television himself, Chance presents individuals with the idealism and positivity that they wish to see. He agrees with whatever people tell him and goes along with whatever people assume about his character. In the timeframe of the film, the 1970s, American society was at a point of economic and political uncertainty. There was an immense lack of trust in political figures after Watergate, and the formation of the conservative “New Right” in the face of liberal boom of the 1960s (History.com Editors 2010). In the face of this uncertainty, the characters within Being There just want someone to tell them that things will be okay— and Chance fulfills this role.
As Americans want an economic upturn, they interpret Chance’s gardener rhetoric as a metaphor for economic success. Thus, in reflecting what people want to hear, he begins to receive respect and admiration from the people around him. This theme of “mirroring” is also apparent in his love affair with Eve. With her husband, Ben, being considerably older than her and close to the end of his life, Eve desires someone to fill the gap that Ben’s death will leave her with. This is where Chance steps in. Despite his mediocre romantic interactions with Eve, Eve so desperately wants a new lover that she views him as her dream man. Thus, Chance’s success lies in him being a blank canvass for people’s wants and needs.
Further, Chance’s success is most certainly cemented at the very end of the film, where several of Ben’s colleagues suggest that they promote him as a candidate for the next US president. As he agrees with everything that people have assumed of him, they indicate that he, “hasn’t said anything that can be held against him,” and essentially has no past that can demonize him. In this way, Chance rises from what other people want him to be, not what he truly is. Here, Ashby suggests that Americans are more interested in appearance than substance. Chance has no education, he can’t read, can't write, but that doesn’t matter. Because he looks intelligent and knowledgeable, the people around him don’t analyze his words and actions and just accept him for what others think he is. Like the title suggests, Chance just “being there” is enough for him to garner success in this society. In this way, Ashby proposes that politicians be looked at more critically and not taken for who they present themselves to be, but for what their character is. Additionally, Americans must be more cognisant on projecting their wants and desires on someone without substance.
Additionally, through Chance’s success in society with no education and no real upbringing, Ashby suggests that the world is unfairly balanced in the white man’s favor. From essentially the moment Chance leaves his home and enters the real world for the first time, opportunity is handed to him. Once he meets Eve, he then goes on to become friends with her prominent husband, and then even manages to meet the president of the country— all through no work on his end. In this way, Ashby notes the “elitist” attitude of the upper class in America. Just because Chance is white and well-dressed, the elite assume he is one of them, despite his low intelligence. He is taken off the street in the ghettos of Washington D.C. and goes straight to becoming a successful politician. The inequality of this is highlighted by Louise in a scene towards the climax of the film when she watches his appearance on a television talk show. Having raised Chance she knows that he is intellectually challenged and is in disbelief at the fact that he is being taken as an economic “expert.” She notes that, “all you gotta be is white in America to get whatever you want.”
Further, the juxtaposition of Chance’s success in the face of racial inequality is noted towards the beginning of the film where he walks past a wall with graffiti, “America ain’t shit cause the white man’s gota God complex.” In this way, Chance can practically do anything because no one has told him he can’t. This rings especially true in the very last scene of the film, where he mysteriously walks on water. Being a white man, nothing is holding him back, and he can essentially do whatever he wants because no one tells him no. He isn’t deterred from success, unlike other individuals in American society. He is, in a way, like a god: capable of anything. Moreover, the idea of the elite staying in power is also apparent throughout the film. In the last few scenes, Ben’s pallbearers discuss who they want to promote as the next president. Here, it is six rich, white men who are deciding the future of the company. Thus, Ashby suggests that the country is run by individuals who have self-interest in mind, and that not everyone truly has a voice in the American polity.
Ashby’s biggest theme in Being There is appearance vs. reality, and this is best demonstrated through Chance's relationship with television. Being raised by television, Chance doesn’t have a true personality, but learns to be agreeable, cheerful, and optimistic. In this way, Chance is practically like a walking television to those around him. He appears as a well-dressed, refined, and educated man, so people believe him; he is an appearance without any real substance. So transfixed by his appearance, they don’t critique his words and whole-heartedly believe his conclusions about economics and politics. Further, in this way Ashby also suggests that Americans so badly want to believe that things are going well in the country that they will trust anyone who tells them so. Chance acts as a mirror to individuals’ deepest wants and desires. He is a new lover for a woman anticipating her husband’s death, and positive politician for a society in fear for their economic future.
Thus, Ashby warns Americans not to get so immersed in their hopes that they lose sight of reality. Chance’s immediate success also serves as a comment on race relations in America in the 1970s. Despite being not being academically inclined, success is handed to Chance and he doesn’t have to work for anything he has accomplished. Here, Ashby is providing a satirical take on “white America.” Chance isn’t smart, but has the right connections, and that’s enough. Chance’s essence serves as a warning to Americans to be aware of the effects of overarching media and the inherent inequality of Americna society. Ashby cautions to not let appearance overpower substance, or someone like Chance will someday actually be running America— if he’s not already.
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