Friday, October 17, 2008

Being There

Hey folks, it’s political season again—sort of like the baseball season come September, when you might be checking the standings daily, except now you may be checking the polls, & reading or listening to the pundits & talking heads to determine what’s what & who’s where. Of course, just as some TV stations will carry baseball flicks around the time of the World Series, so too, you can watch films about politics: if you’re the optimistic sort you can watch Mr Smith Goes to Washington & contemplate how one righteous person can set things straight—sort of like the Lamed Wufniks of Talmudic lore; the 16 righteous men who keep the world from being destroyed. I’ve actually seen conservative bloggers compare Sarah Palin to Jimmy Stewart’s Jefferson Smith character from the great Capra flick, a view which, to be brutally frank, strikes me as mind-bogglingly wrong-headed. Or if you’re of the pessimistic bent, you could watch All the King’s Men (the 1949 Broderick Crawford version, of course)—the epitome of the "power corrupts" theme.

But if you’re like me, the film you may tend to think of every four years when presidential election season comes around is Being There, director Hal Ashby’s take on Jerzy Kosinski’s 1971 novel of the same name. Although this film is certainly dystopic, it doesn’t really stress the "power corrupts" aspect of politics (though this is on display in the film) as much as examining how politics, in the sense of the "political game" we view each election cycle, involves a manipulation of perception, & how this perception exists on a different plane than “issues.”

For those who aren’t familiar with the film, Being There is the story of Chance the gardener (portrayed brilliantly by Peter Sellers), a "simpleton" (to use an old-fashioned word that does fit) who has lived all his life in the house of a rich man in Washington D.C. As long as Chance can remember, he worked in the old man’s garden & in return has had his needs met—in fact, the man has allowed Chance to wear his hand-me-downs, which result in the gardener actually appearing like a smartly-tailored well-to-do man. Chance’s only passion besides gardening is television—he watches constantly, compulsively switching channels & often imitating the action onscreen.

When the old man dies, Chance finds himself homeless. The film explores how, thru a series of misadventures, Chance is transformed into Chauncey Gardiner, an advisor to powerful businessmen & presidents, & finally into a powerful political figure himself. Without giving too much of the plot away, this transmogrification occurs without any actual change to Chance/Chauncey himself. He’s changed because of the way he’s perceived, & it seems each person perceives Chance in the way that person wishes him to be.

This seems the most profound statement Being There makes about the politics game. Of course, the fact that Chance’s statements really have nothing to do with the issues people think he’s addressing, & on top of that are the vapid musings of a simpleton certainly speaks to our "sound bite" culture. But more importantly, Being There describes an essential narcissism underlying our political culture.

Chauncey Gardiner becomes a powerful figure because that’s the way he’s interpreted by people in power who want to see him in this light. There are the superficial aspects: particularly that he dresses like a wealthy man; the film also suggests that he wouldn’t have been perceived in this manner unless he were a middle-aged white man. But beyond these considerations, Chauncey essentially becomes what other characters want him to be based on their own misprisons. Ben Rand (a wonderful role for Melvyn Douglas) the dying tycoon needs to see Chauncey first as a businessman victimized by all the appurtenances of bureaucracy he loathes—the SEC, taxes, litigiousness; later, Rand needs to see Chauncey as a sort of heir; both a "son" & a sort of reincarnation of himself, since he implicitly suggests that it’s ok for his wife to be intimate with the Sellers’ character. Eve Rand (a splendid characterization by Shirley MacLaine) needs intimacy with Chauncey, & so transforms him into a brilliant & magnetically attractive man. Critic Roger Ebert took exception to the Eve Rand character, saying that MacLaine "projects brains," & that the film would have been more intriguing had Eve discovered the truth about Chauncey. While I agree with Ebert that MacLaine’s Eve Rand is an intelligent person, she’s also clearly a "trophy wife" whose elderly husband is decrepit & dying; within the context of the film’s portrayal of narcissism, it makes sense that Eve would need Chauncey to be devastatingly attractive.

The President, played by Jack Warden, also needs to see Chauncey as a brilliant advisor. Even when the CIA & FBI can’t find any background information on Gardiner, the President must believe that Chauncey’s (apparent) metaphor about the US economy being like a garden is the product of an astute economic mind. The President has based an important speech on this, & is in an embattled position, in need of skilled advisors & powerful allies. In a similar way, Chauncey (without ever intending to) draws a major TV talk show host, powerful journalists, “king-making” businessmen, & the country at large into believing he is power broker & policy maker of the first order.

It’s a commonplace that romantic love, at least in its initial stages, often has a strong narcissistic component. The beloved is ideal simply because she/he must be that way; & we’ve all seen situations where a person has been quite mistaken about the true qualities of a lover. This narcissism is, of course, a mirroring because it involves seeing "the other side" of our selves—in Jungian terms, the animus or anima. But it’s also the narcissism of the Rorschach blot: the inkblot is actually nothing, a cipher. It is "what we make it," as Chauncey Gardiner is what the other characters make him—in that sense, the
Rorschach blot is in every case, our selves.

As people debate such "topics" as a Vice Presidential candidate’s use of phrases like "You betcha" & "Joe Sixpack"; as we debate what either party means by slogans proclaiming "a time for change"; as we look at men & women running for positions of power & portrayed to us largely thru Chauncey’s favorite medium, we have to ask: what of ourselves do we look for in, or project onto, these figures? This isn’t to say we should become so cynical that we abjure the whole political process—most of us (myself included) have a candidate they favor, & should vote their conscience come November 4th. Still, it’s important to see this process for what it is—a dialectic between "the powers that be" & our imaginative, projected world (in which, ultimately, those powers are yet another creation).

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