Movie Review: Peter Sellers’ Being There

As Mark Twain said, fact is stranger than fiction because fiction needs to stick with possibilities.

Gobbledegook! All the time he talked gobbledegook! An’ it’s for sure a White man’s world in America, hell, I raised that boy since he was the size of a pissant an’ I’ll say right now he never learned to read an’ write – no sir! Had no brains at all, was stuffed with rice puddin’ between the ears! Short-changed by the Lord and dumb as a jackass an’ look at him now! Yes, sir –
all you gotta be is white in America an’ you get whatever you want! Just listen to that boy – gobbledegook!

The quote above is not about Bush (but it could very well be). Actually, it is from the Peter Seller’s film Being There. It is one of my favorite black comedies.

The film is about Chance, a mentally stunted gardner, who is suddenly rendered homeless after his employer dies. He had lived all his life within the confines of his employer’s house. His knowledge of outside world is limited by what he had gained from his childlike fascination for television. After he leaves the home, the outside world becomes a giant television for him. In an
encounter with a hostile street gang, he pulls out the remote to change the channel! Because he was cared for by a black maid at his previous home, he goes to an elderly black woman on the street and says I’m very hungry now. Would you please bring my lunch? Unfortunately, it is a seedy part of Washington D.C. and on a street selling adult material, and so the woman takes to her heels. Chance then meets with an accident involving a limousine belonging to Eve Rand
(Shirley MacLaine). She mistakes him for someone big, a Mr. Gardiner, and takes him to her mansion. Once there, his childishly simple answers and calm demeanour is mistaken for genius. His words I like to watch are about television but are mistaken for things more profound.

The President of the United States comes to visit the Rands and he gets to meet Chance. The President asks for his opinion about the economy, Chance being a gardner says, As long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all will be well in the garden. In a garden, growth has its season. There is spring and summer, but there is also fall and winter. And then spring and summer
. Rand re-interprets this as, I think what my most insightfult friend is building up to, Mr. President, is that we welcome the inevitable
seasons of nature, yet we are upset by the seasons of our economy
. And Chance concludes, There will be growth in the spring. The President then says, Well, Mr. Gardiner, I must admit, that is one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements I’ve heard in a very, very long time. He then reiterates this to the media and speaks highly of Mr. Gardiner. Chance then becomes a media celebrity. The CIA and the FBI are secretely asked to check out Mr. Gardiner but they draw a blank. Having lived in the same place all his life, Chance left no paper trail. This leaves the President in a quandry. The only intelligence they can provide is:

Suits hand-made by a tailor in Chicago in 1928. The tailor went out of business in 1933, then took his own life. His shoes were hand-made in 1936. The cobbler has long since been dead. Underwear, all of the finest cloth, factory destroyed by fire in 1948. The man carries no indentification; no wallet, no driver’s license, no credit cards. He carries one item along with
him, a fine Swiss Patek-Phillipe watch, made in 1887, but there is no record of where or when it was purchased. Computers have analyzed Gardiner’s vocal characteristics; it is impossible to determine his ethnic back-ground, they feel
his accent may be northeastern, but they will not commit to that. Fingerprint check proved negative, no identification possible. That’s it, Mr. President.

When a lady TV reporter asks him about his opinion about a The Washington Post editorial, he flatly says, I do not read any newspapers. I watch TV. The reports persists, Do you mean, Mr. Gardiner, that you find television’s coverage of the news superior to that of the
. To this, he replies with a deadpan expression, I like to watch TV. Then, the TV reporter faces the camera and says, Well, that is probably the most honest admission to come from a public figure in years. Few men in public life have the courage not to read newspapers. None, that this reporter has met, have the guts to admit it. She finishes off this with a priceless sombre squinting look in her face that only TV reporters can make and which words cannot describe.

When the film ends, the President had died of a heart attack and Chance is seriously being considered as a Presidential candidate. The outburst quoted above is by the black maid. The maid was the only person who knew Chance’s true identity.

The film tries to show that in politics, if you have powerful friends, you can can be anything you want. Or else, how can you explain George Bush? His solo press conferences look like adult versions of Bill Cosby’s Kids Say The Darndest Things.

His father George Bush Sr. was also a President. Before that he was Vice President under Reagan. He was also the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) before that. In the 50-50 Gore-Bush election, a large number of
votes in Florida (a state ruled by George W. Bush’s brother Jeb Bush) were subject of a controversy. The matter was taken to the U.S. Supreme Court and a judge who was originally appointed by George Bush Sr. picked George W. Bush as the winner.

If this had happened in some Third World country, then the US would have been the first one to make allegations of electoral fraud. I guess that in vibrant democracies like the U.S. or India, such things are bound to happen. As Mark Twain said, fact is stranger than fiction because fiction needs to stick with possibilities.