Thursday, January 13, 2011

BEING THERE: Blu-Ray (WB 1979) Warner Home Video

Based on Jerzy Kosinski’s quirky novel, director Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979) is, in retrospect, the last great Peter Seller’s comedy; a bizarre, often unsettling examination of an ethereal innocent cast adrift in a sea of mortal corruption. The film opens and closes with a death, both disruptive experiences for Chance, the gardener (Sellers).

To label either the book or film as mere black comedy is too much of a simplification of where the story takes us. Kosinski – who also wrote the screenplay – infuses his tale with rather cryptic references to the Bible and manages to convey a sense of the supernatural throughout, even as his subject seems all too grounded in the daily confusions of earthly mire.

The story begins with the death of Chance’s elderly employer. A gardener residing in the ‘old man’s’ cramped, if tranquil, townhouse, Chance’s entire life experiences are anchored to his perceptions of daily programming on television. He knows nothing of the world beyond these walls and thinks even less about what he sees on TV. His only confident, house maid Louise (Ruth Attaway) willingly abandons Chance after the old man dies in his sleep, while attorney for the estate, Jeffrey (Ernest McClure) promptly informs Chance that he is to vacate the premises by noon the following day or face a very prompt forced eviction.

Rather than fight the bureaucracy, Chance bravely ventures beyond the walls of the only home he has ever known, only to realize that the world outside is foreboding, full of danger and mischief. Unable to quantify what he sees, Chance flounders in his interaction with other people; that is, until he catches sight of his own image projected onto a large format storefront television screen; then accidentally wedges his leg against the chauffeur driven automobile of Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine).

Presuming him a gentleman – and one whose leg she has nearly broken – Eve offers to drive Chance to a nearby hospital to avoid a lawsuit. However, Eve thinks better of her initial offer and instead invites Chance to her home; a sprawling estate where her very sick husband, Benjamin (Melvyn Douglas) is being cared for by a private physician; Dr. Robert Allenby (Richard Dysart).

From here on in, misinformation seems to be the order of the day with Benjamin taking an instant liking to Chance – whom he rechristens as Chauncey Gardiner – while misinterpreting all of Chance’s garden references as being witty metaphors about the state of the U.S. economy. After an informal meeting with the President of the United States (Jack Warden), Benjamin launches plans for an economic task force that he hopes Chance will consider helming.

Meanwhile, the President uses one of Chance’s garden references in a televised speech, casting an immediate and very direct spotlight of public scrutiny on Chance. Who is he? Where did he come from? How is he involved in government affairs? To answer these questions, the media interviews Chance on a ‘Tonight Show’ styled talk show, then hounds his every move. Unaware of his inflated importance, Chance maintains a calm sense of bearing – yet again, misperceived by the press as being cagy and cool and playing his cards close to his chest.

Meanwhile, Benjamin senses a special bond developing between Eve and Chance. Knowing that his death is inevitable, Benjamin gives his blessing to a romance between Eve and Chance; a romantic circumstance fraught with comedy as Chance seemingly does not know, or even understand, what sex is. For example: Chance’s inference to Eve that “he likes to watch” – meaning television - is misperceived by Eve as a kinky invite for her to masturbate in his presence.

Meanwhile the President’s top aids are powerless to uncover any records or personal history on the mysterious man of the hour leading to yet another misperception: that Chance has had his life history expunged by both the CIA and FBI. At a state dinner, Chance wows the Russian Ambassador, Vladimir Skrapinov (Richard Basehart). Now, more rumors abound that he is in fact a world diplomat of the highest order.

Up till now, the story has been about Chance – a character no one knows anything about. The final scenes in this story, however, bear more fruitful analysis. Benjamin succumbs to his illness and dies in the presence of Dr. Allenby and Chance without ever completing his final thought – “Tell Eve…”

Chance, who had shown no emotion when his former employer died, now seems genuinely touched by this loss. As Benjamin’s board of directors quietly assess that the future of Rand Enterprises will be best managed by Chance, he wanders away from the funeral procession and, in the final moments of the film, casually walks across a lake of very deep water on the estate as the President proclaims in his eulogy that “living is a state of mind.”

In essence, Chance is a blank slate upon which those who come in contact with him write their own misperceptions down as part of his personal history. He migrates in the public estimation from lowly gardener to A-list political celebrity – transformed by lies, innuendo and rumors over which he has no control and has not helped to evolve or spread.

As the audience we are as guilty – if not more so – than the characters who place their blind speculation in Chance by making such snap analyses. We see Chance as a rather lost, childlike and somewhat mentally challenged individual who has been overwhelmingly lucky to encounter the kindness of total strangers within a world that might otherwise have swallowed him alive.

Director Ashby and writer Kosinski lead us down this path of misdirection. However, in the final few moments Chance reveals himself to be something much greater. His act of walking on water is at once startlingly Christ-like and yet, unsettling alien to us, begging the question: Have we been indulging in farce with a figure of fun, or are we witnessing the second coming?

Visually speaking, Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray is ahead of its 2 disc collector's set DVD, but not by much. Colors are more vibrantly rendered on this outing, though flesh tones seem to have retained their severe reddish hue. Interior scenes photographed at North Carolina’s Biltmore Estate continue to suffer from lower than adequate contrast levels and a rather fuzzy/soft patina. Grain, however, is more naturally rendered and the result is an image exhibiting less loss of fine detail than its DVD counterpart. Overall then, this visual presentation is just middle of the road instead of spectacular 1080p.

The audio is mono as originally recorded with all the natural inherent limitations one might expect. The extras are direct imports from the DVD and include a featurette, two deleted scenes, an alternate ending, gag reel and trailer. Of these the featurette is the most disappointing - 15 min. of superficial commentary from Illeana Douglas (Melvyn Douglas' granddaughter).

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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