Tuesday, March 3, 2009
As Long As The Roots Are Not Severed
I’ve been thinking a lot about the films of Hal Ashby lately. Not that I haven’t done that before, but this time just feels different. This current train of thought started a few weeks ago with a screening of HAROLD AND MAUDE at the New Beverly, followed by first-time viewings of THE LANDLORD and COMING HOME. I’ve seen SHAMPOO so many times over the years that for all I know I mutter “George is great” in my sleep so certainly that film is never far from my mind and I just took a look at the new DVD of Ashby’s BEING THERE, my first exposure to that film in who knows how many years. More than anything, looking at these films so close together makes me think of the overriding humanistic feel that runs through them but for a variety of reasons BEING THERE seems to stand out. I don’t know if I think it’s his best film or even some kind of ultimate statement by the director, but it does feel like an achievement in a way beyond what I could really express and as brilliant as Peter Sellers is in the film, it feels like whatever Ashby brought to it has been vastly underappreciated through the years. It might very well be a case of a lead actor being as much of an auteur on a project as the director, but what this director pulled off shouldn’t be discounted. Just as I once said that SORCERER was the most Friedkin of all William Friedkin films, BEING THERE may very well be the most Ashby Hal Ashby film. In some ways it stylistically stands apart from the others but it’s nevertheless hard not to think that maybe everything he ever wanted to say can be found in here.
Written by Jerzy Kosinski from his novel, the story of the simple-minded, television obsessed Chance the Gardner (Peter Sellers) and his entrance by chance (ha) into the world of Washington politics doesn’t at first glance contain the amount of plot needed for a 130 minute film. Not all that much really happens during this story that only seems to span a handful of days. In fact, the overall rhythm and style of BEING THERE is slightly different from most of Ashby’s other works. It comes off as less freewheeling, which is honestly the only way I can think to put it. It could be a way to find the correct pace to go with the steadiness of Sellers’ performance, but also the vast amount of medium shots that gives us the correct amount of distance from these people—is there a true close-up in the entire film?--as well as the wide expanses of the almost absurdly huge Rand Estate lends itself to letting this story take its time. And within the satire which is so deadpan it feels like one should come up with a different word for it, it never feels snide or superior to what we’re seeing. I find myself continually trying to read the characters and their responses to Chance—Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas) is of course projecting his own need for peace (and to meet “a reasonable man”) at the end of his life on to him as much as anything, but the film never treats it as a joke, which the brief scene of his sitting up in bed thinking just before the big party scene (a beat which actually does feel like vintage Ashby) makes clear. And even though Rand’s wife Eve (Shirley MacLaine) is part of the most broadly comical scene the film doesn’t treat her needs as a joke either—she tells Chance that “she doesn’t have many friends” in a brief moment that I find rather touching. What is the possible backstory between Ben and Eve, anyway? Of course, there are a number of things we never learn about. Exactly who is ‘the old man’ and what did he think of Chance? Where did Chance really come from? For that matter, why is the use of “Basketball Jones” as Chance first enters the Rand Estate so absolutely perfect? Is it possible that none of the possible answers to any of these questions even matter?
Part of my own response to the film is personal—this recent viewing makes me think that in its own way it’s pretty damn close to being perfect. But I actually have a memory of being taken to see it when I was around eight and maybe the very nature of the film causes me to connect to that memory. Why did my mother take me to see this movie anyway? Still, when you think about it, is it possible that an eight year-old is actually the most appropriate sort of person to see this film? It’s easy to mention the social commentary and how the film seems to anticipate certain elements of culture, to put it mildly. Events in recent months certainly made the fuss over Chance saying he “doesn’t read newspapers” stand out that much more. Coming out just a few weeks before the end of 1979, it almost feels like BEING THERE really is the last film of the seventies. It was the last triumph of Ashby’s career, not to mention Sellers, and it could almost be looked at as the last gasp of the notion of a cinema of possibilities before the Chauncey Gardiners of the world took over….both in Hollywood and elsewhere.
Like each of Ashby’s films, the supporting cast feels like perfection, particularly Melvyn Douglas in his Oscar-winning role but also Shirley MacLaine as Rand's lonely wife, the great Jack Warden as the President, David Clennon (also in COMING HOME) and Fran Brill as the attorneys who give Chance the brush-off and Richard Dysart (he’ll always be Leland Mackenzie to me) as the doctor who becomes genuinely interested in Chance. Even the smallest roles throughout feel perfectly cast.
One thing that occurs to me about Sellers is that in between his second time working for Kubrick in 1964 to the production of BEING THERE in 1979, with the obvious exception of Blake Edwards, the directors he worked with were for the most part journeymen who were never going to put any real stamp on their films. They just simply let him do what he did without trying to hold him back—maybe that’s why so few of those films are remembered today. But whatever went on between Sellers and Ashby on BEING THERE seems to be an ideal fusion of two minds coming together to create this character—it’s impossible to imagine somebody like Sellers in THE LAST DETAIL or SHAMPOO but these minds from two worlds collide here in a way that is beautiful. One thing that is missing from this new DVD is any discussion of the controversial decision to include outtakes of Sellers breaking character and laughing through some dialogue. Such a choice was certainly more unorthodox in those pre-CANNONBALL RUN days, but it seems odd even now considering it’s not the sort of wacky comedy that something like that usually is attached to. Sellers by all accounts hated this choice, angrily exclaiming that “It breaks the spell!” in a letter to the producers and felt that it may have resulted in his losing the Best Actor Oscar to Dustin Hoffman for KRAMER VS. KRAMER (Roy Scheider was also nominated for ALL THAT JAZZ—hey, it was a tough year). Whatever Ashby’s motivations were, to me it honestly feels like it does break the spell. Coming after that completely transcendent final shot, by all accounts an inspiration of Ashby’s during production (the music here couldn’t be more perfect) it feels like maybe the film should have just left us there at that point, forcing us to ponder what we’ve just seen on our own without any distractions.
“Life is a state of mind.”
That ending also makes me think of the closing moments of COMING HOME—if feels like there’s a line to draw from Bruce Dern’s last scene to the final time we see Chance. What that link is, I don’t know but the provocative nature of both of them are as if Ashby himself is saying, this is all you need to know. Make of this what you will. Less than a year after BEING THERE was released, Sellers died from a massive heart attack at the age of 54. It wasn’t his final screen performance—we don’t need to go into that film right now—but the way he leaves us here is like the way he left us in life. Gazing in wonderment, bafflement and trying to decide what we’re supposed to make of any of it. Ashby directed a few other films before his premature death in 1988, none with any significant acclaim. I still need to see a few of those films, but if there is anything to the idea that BEING THERE really was a personal statement for him, then maybe it’s the last one that really matters. It doesn’t really make any difference what I say about the film—just like anyone who encounters Chance, it’s designed for anyone to take from it what they wish. That’s part of what makes it so brilliant.
“And you really are a gardener, aren’t you.”