Saturday, July 4, 2009

Thoughts About the film Being There

It's been awhile since I've seen it, but the movie Being There returns to my thoughts fairly often. What's written here contains spoilers and assumes the reader has seen the movie. It brings up some subjects peripheral to the movie itself that I think are interesting, but hey, it's a great movie, people should see it regardless.

The thing about the character Chance in Being There is not that he is a Christ figure, as implied in the film, but that he is like a Christ figure compared to the rest of us. Our intellectual and political icons (icons meaning the ones who’ve been publicized thus heard of) do not necessarily take the time to consider issues any more deeply than does Chance, and may rely on the quick “briefings” provided by television rather than the more time intensive articles printed in newspapers. The difference is that Chance admits to being molded by pop culture, (well, not in so many words, because he can only talk about what he understands, which is virtually nothing), which is of course what makes him adored by the masses: he seems to be one of us, but because he is seen as someone of importance each of his simple words is extrapolated into something of greater import.

Much of the story is about metaphors and symbolism: everything Chance says about the garden is treated as a metaphor (especially for the economy), and the story becomes about not what actually occurs but about how it is interpreted, both by the masses and by those in power. Chance is not Christ by any means—he is a fucking idiot, and if he is our Savior we are most likely doomed. But here Kosinski takes his stab at religion in general, for its inflating of conceivably inconsequential figures into Godlike ones–we know that Chance is not godly, but as he is treated that way he is eventually portrayed that way.

Is Kosinski then suggesting that those treated as Gods may eventually grow into such? Or, as a child who survived the holocaust and the megalomania that led to it, is his suggestion instead that people will believe anything and are fully capable of seeing any moron as God? The sheer cynicism of this would be easy to accept if not for the fact that Chance’s grand messianic moment occurs without an audience. It may instead be a moment in which a man, who by luck has been perceived to possess far greater attributes than he actually does, continues to not acknowledge the greatness that is an aspect of himself. And that lack of acknowledgement is a large part of what makes him admirable; his wisdom may be specific and not applicable to the rest of his life, but what really makes it wisdom is that it does not color his view of himself. Indeed, he seems to have no view of himself.

To a large degree this is a story about a man without ego dropped into a world rife with ego, and how that world embraces this stranger. Of course, they are embracing him because they are assuming things about him that are untrue, they see areas in which he is inept as areas in which he is superior, because they do not understand him to such an extreme that they fail to see how little there is to understand. And there is almost no doubt that there is something wishful to this aspect of the general concept: Kosinski was no mainstream socializer, was prone to hiding under tables at dinner parties.

Kosinski also knew a great deal about how fortuitous chance could be – he was supposed to be an overnight guest at the home of Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate the night that Tate was murdered, but his flight missed its connection (of course, that story is according to Kosinski, who reputedly lied about virtually everything, more concerned with a good story than with what really happened. As Kosinski has been accused of plagiarizing the bulk of his work, it’s possible that this happened to someone else and it’s their story, but for my purposes it’s more useful if in this instance Kosinski told the truth.)

And if Kosinski was a plagiarist, perhaps there is a connection between him and the character Chance – a man who is lauded for things he has not done. Except, of course, this theory doesn’t work if Kosinski actually wrote Being There.


Sean Craven said...

Not having read the book, I'm wondering if the walking-on-water scene was in there -- if that scene was Kosinski's or the filmmaker's.

And plagiarized or not, I quite like The Painted Bird.

robp said...

Kosinski gets a co-writing credit on the screenplay, and I'm pretty sure that scene's not in the book, although I've only read the book once and that was ages ago - the movie's better, both better written (the novel is only about 80 pages, the screenplay may actually be longer - the book feels more like an extended outline than an actual novel) and it stars Peter Sellers (who I guess was unavailable for the book.)

And The Painted Bird is the book singled out most for plagiarism, but unless Kosinsky had a knack for picking editorial assistants who could write really well and then not take the credit for it, he's been falsely accused of not writing pretty much all of his own material.