Sep 11, 2020
Movies that Predicted Trump: Being There (1979)
This is part of a series of reviews we’re calling Movies that Predicted Trump, where we discuss the films that foretold (in ways both large and small) the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. (Read the other reviews in this series!)
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from doing this column, it’s that satire, as a general concept, has taken quite the beating over the past two years. Studying political satires from years past has borne out my hypothesis that satire is locked into a sort of arms race with reality. Its power depends on being able to exaggerate, to invent scenarios more absurd than those that are actually happening, but how can it stay on top when literal reality keeps doggedly outpacing its most feverish visions? Can you believe that A Face in the Crowd was once a cautionary tale about a farfetched nightmare scenario? What do we do with that vision now that reality has exceeded it in every relevant way? Can you believe that a movie like The Candidate was once considered satirical? We’d be blessed to have a race that “normal” today. Is satire obsolete? Are fantasy and reality about to pass an event horizon and collapse in on each other in some sort of epistemological black hole? Or has that already happened?
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These questions kept running through my mind during Being There, the most “absurd” satire I’ve reviewed for this series so far, but still uncomfortably prescient. Being There features Peter Sellers in his highly lauded final role as Chance, a mentally arrested middle-aged man living in the townhouse of an elderly rich benefactor. He has never been outside the house in his life and no one knows he exists beyond the old man and Louise, an older black woman who is the old man’s maid and Chance’s surrogate mother. Chance works dutifully in the rich man’s garden, and during his off hours he obsessively watches television, seemingly without regard to what is on.
In the movie’s opening scenes, Louise tells an uncomprehending Chance that the old man has died. A couple of lawyers listen to his story with mild bemusement before turning him out on the mean streets of Washington, D.C. with nothing but one of the old man’s sumptuous suits on his back. After a few hours wandering the streets, Chance is struck by a limousine transporting Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine), trophy wife of billionaire D.C. power broker Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas). Eve mistakenly identifies Chance by his dress as a fellow blue-blooded plutocrat. Chance gives his name to Eve as “Chance the gardener”, which she naturally mishears as “Chauncey Gardiner”, kicking off a series of absurd misunderstandings that catapult an oblivious Chance up the ladders of power.
Chance recuperates at the Rand mansion, where he makes quite the favorable impression on his hosts. When Chance doesn’t understand what is going on, which is most of the time, he either talks about gardening or tries to imitate people he’s seen in similar situations on TV. A series of mundane statements about gardening is interpreted by the Rands as profound metaphors about business and political affairs. Benjamin is so impressed with Chance that he invites him to sit in on a meeting with the President of the United States (Jack Warden) the next day as his “close friend and advisor”. The president quotes Chance in a televised address, which leads to Chance being booked on a talk show, where his simple, digestible brand of gardening-based “wisdom” is a big hit. And the farce only grows from there.
What separates the plot of Being There from a standard screwball-comedy formula is the decidedly sober direction and the subtle, skillful characterization, both of which serve to highlight the asinine obliviousness of Chance and of everyone around him. Chance’s placid bearing, his manners, the soft-spoken and guileless manner of his speech, and the blandness of his personality, appeal to the image-obsessed upper-crust folks around him. Chance is a blank TV screen upon which everyone projects their own prejudices. At no point does Chance intentionally mislead anyone, but it doesn’t matter. No one ever doubts Chance enough to do any minimal follow-up to check their first impressions, and of course Chance, not understanding the bulk of what’s going on, doesn’t know enough to correct anyone’s misapprehensions. Chance smiles blandly at a diplomat’s aside in Russian, so it is assumed that he speaks Russian. Chance tells a reporter, “I don’t read newspapers, I watch TV”, who then assumes that Chance finds TV news coverage superior to newspapers and praises him for his willingness to admit it. Even when Chance flat-out says things like, “I can’t read,” his interlocutor jocularly responds, “Of course you can’t! No one has the time!”
Not even Chance’s enemies can assess him accurately. The lawyers who kicked him out of his house catch him on TV and assume they’ve been the first targets of a huge, elaborate con job of obscure purpose: “Oh ho ho, he was very clever, keeping it at a third-grade level; that’s what they understand”. (Sound familiar?) The president tries to put together a background file on Chance, which, of course, yields nothing: the FBI and CIA blame each other for a supposed cover-up and speculate that Chance could be a deep-cover spy or mole. Despite the various factions trying to “expose” him, the banal reality behind Chance is never discovered. The film ends with party power brokers coming to the agreement that Chance’s popularity, and the lack of any scandals in his past, make him a perfect candidate to be the next President.
Comparing Chance to Donald Trump yields a number of obvious parallels. Both are ignoramuses who’ve spent their entire lives in a bubble of upper-crust privilege. Both readily admit that they don’t read; rather, both are obsessed with television and use it more or less exclusively to inform themselves about how the world works and what’s going on in it. Both speak of situations they don’t understand in reductively simple, catchall platitudes, a habit which impresses people with their “directness” and “good sense”.
This exercise will only get us so far, though. You can find just as many fundamental differences as fundamental similarities, and ultimately, comparing the two is missing the point. What really makes Being There a Movie that Predicted Trump is how Chance is received by the political establishment and society at large. Being There isn’t really about Chance, it’s about the dysfunctionality of a ruling class and a media establishment full of blinkered, image-obsessed twits too caught up in a fantasy world of appearances to recognize an obvious clown. Jerzy Kosinski, the writer of the novel upon which Being There is based, said as much in an interview:
As for Being There, the reaction focuses on Chauncey Gardiner, a formidable tribute to corporate image making. There is more and more preoccupation with the visual aspects of American political life. Think of the priority given to the looks of our candidates. They all come across well on TV… [c]an you imagine an American politician, however bright, with a damaged face, or with one eye?
Neither Chance nor Trump succeeded in a vacuum. Neither would have gone anywhere without the tacit complicity of an American public that’s been trained to accept a big box of nothing so long as it’s in a pretty package. Chance’s optics are perfect, totally by accident; Donald Trump’s are the result of decades of constant practice in front of the camera, but the result is the same. How much actual policy did you hear out of Trump during the campaign? If you asked him what he really believes about, say, gun control, do you think the answer you would get would be substantively different from the answer that Chauncey Gardiner would give? The 2016 election may have put the final nail in the coffin of substance in politics, but as Being There shows, we’ve been hammering for a while.
Look at Trump’s business career. For all his supposed business success, Trump has scarcely had an enterprise that made any money since the late 1980s, when he began a string of six Chapter 11 bankruptcies involving Trump-owned businesses. Most of his money since then has come from licensing his name and brand to established properties, The Apprentice being the most notable example. He’s able to make money off his brand not because he’s successful, but because he looks successful and is able to associate his name with success; an enterprise at which has ironically brought him lots of success. Like Chance, people look at him, they see that his suit, his personality, his demeanor, are all that of a successful person, decide that he’s successful, and that’s that.
Look at Trump’s relationship with the Republican establishment. Trump certainly wasn’t the ideal candidate from their perspective. He had never held office, wasn’t a solid conservative ideologue (he had professed liberal beliefs in the past, and had donated money to Democratic campaigns), he had no serious platform or policies of his own, and he didn’t know much of anything. So how did he get the GOP on his side? Because he made sure he looked the part. He already had the Republican uniform down—a shit-eating sneer, an expensive but ill-fitting suit, and a tragically un-self-aware hairstyle—and all that was left was to spout some magically vague words that the GOP invested with their own specific meanings. Words about law and order, about protecting America and hitting ISIS hard, about busting corruption and getting things done and standing up to political correctness. Like Chance, he said some good-sounding stuff and the Republicans just filled in the specifics. Trump’s image trumped reality.
And his supporters. Well… without getting too far into it, I’ll just mention that one of the characters in Being There says “I heard [Chance] speaks eight languages, and on top of everything else, holds a degree in medicine as well as law!” Go ahead and have a good laugh at that, but is it any more delusional than believing Trump to be a “godly man”, or “a man of his word”, or someone who is “always willing to admit when he was wrong”? Because these are things that people really believe about him. There’s a certain subset of people who find that the things Trump says sound smart and profound, and they’ll ascribe an entire suite of positive personality traits to him on that basis. Unfortunately, there’s no Constitutional way to keep these people from voting (I checked).
If anyone was supposed to correct any of these misinterpretations, it’s the news media. I think we can all agree that the press really stepped on their dicks hard during this election. At no point were they covering Trump’s campaign in the way we needed it covered. In the beginning, they considered the Trump campaign a joke, a sideshow, a sham for the sake of publicity, so they had no compunction about giving him lots and lots of free airtime because his wacky bullshit got clicks and ratings. He propelled himself to the Republican nomination on the back of all the controversy they helped create. And once he actually won the nomination, and the media decided they had to start taking him “seriously”, things got even worse. It was physically painful for me to watch news reporters asking him policy questions with the apparent expectation that they were going to get serious answers, reading deep strategy into his offensive statements and buffoonery, failing to hold his feet to the fire on constant and outrageous lies, dutifully going through all the traditional steps of covering a presidential campaign, transparent in their desperation to normalize him. The way they kept expecting him to start acting worthy of the job bordered on magical thinking. Maybe they were creating a “horse race” narrative to drive up ratings; maybe they were driven by a vague, misplaced desire to be “fair”. Maybe, as everyone did with Chance, they just read into him what they desperately wanted him to be.
There was a scene in Being There that put me in mind of something I heard Ta-Nehisi Coates say on The Daily Show:
“If I have to jump six feet to get the same thing that you have to jump two feet for ― that’s how racism works. To be president, [Obama] had to be scholarly, intelligent, president of the Harvard Law Review, the product of some of our greatest educational institutions, capable of talking to two different worlds … Donald Trump had to be rich and white. That was it. That’s the difference.”
What brought this to my mind was what Louise, the Old Man’s former maid, said while watching Chance on TV from the rec room of her new retirement home:
“It’s for sure a white man’s world in America. I raised that boy since he was the size of a pissant, and I’ll say right now he never learned to read and write. No sir. He had no brains at all. Stuffed with rice pudding between the ears. Short-changed by the Lord and dumb as a jackass. Look at him now. Yes sir, all you got to be is white in America to get whatever you want.”
For all of Chance’s extreme good fortune, there’s no denying that his biggest bit of fortune is the body he lives in. Part of the reason people find it easy to believe great and incredible things of Chance is that our culture has taught them to apply different standards to people who look like him than to people who do not. As a white man, Chance is seen by American culture at large as prototypical, the default setting human being. That’s what makes him such a good screen upon which to project one’s own hopes and dreams. He’s a blank slate. The way that Louise delivers her line, you can tell she’s quite familiar with this phenomenon.
Being There may appear to present an extremely pessimistic view of the average person’s gullibility. But that’s only because almost everyone we see interacting with Chance is either rich, or they work in politics or the media, all realms where image is king, and fantasy and reality are interchangeable, and concrete realities can be dialed down or shut out as if with a TV remote. As Louise’s scene shows, not everyone is so easily fooled. I’d bet there are plenty of folks within the movie’s universe who can see Chance for just what he is. The problem they have is the same problem we have in our own world: the people who have that kind of clear understanding, and the people with the ability and willingness to do anything about it, are so very rarely the same people.