Thursday, April 9, 2009
Life is a state of mind
I wonder as to what it means by living in the moment. Present is always a battlefield between past and future. The world, in order to run practically, programs a human being under an illusion of education. The mind is trained to plan for the future, to analyze the past – a person who doesn’t plan in today’s time is seen as an outcast of some extinct tribe! To certain extent planning is important too – but it is also true that seemingly simple act of living turns frustrating under the burden of past and future. Is there a state in which past is not cared for (off course the memories are always there to cherish) and future is not given a single thought or remains nonexistent until it transforms itself into present? Can anyone achieve that serenity?
When I started watching Hal Ashby’s Being There, my only intention was to watch a penultimate Peter Sellers performance, and the above question was nowhere in my mind. But the question emerged and grew as the film rolled. Sellers was a comic legend. Here he plays Chance the gardener, a man who has spent more than half of his life in a townhouse of a wealthy man. He takes care of the garden, and in the spare time watches television. That’s his favorite activity – to watch TV! He is like a child who keeps on doing things he is taught to do. There is an old maid who brings him his meals. He is allowed to wear the old man’s suits, he knows very little about ways the outside world functions, the only thing he knows too well is gardening, and he has never encountered the world that lies beyond the townhouse. Then one day the old man dies. Chance is forced to give up his cocooned existence and the scene in which he puts his first step in the outside world is backed by Richard Strauss’s classic symphony Also Spoke Zarathustra (a musical piece also used in 2001 space odyssey) – the effect is amusing. Chance wanders around the neighborhood and encounters a street gang. One of the gang members brings out a knife: finding the whole situation unpleasant he brings out his remote control from the overcoat and tries to switch the scene, only to get shocked and realize that life is not a television program. It was at once a hilarious and thoughtful situation. Just see the expressions on Peter Sellers’ face during the whole scene – he was a great actor.
The film then divulges a series of odd situations that make Chance the gardener a very important man. His name is confused as Chauncey Gardener by the wife of a rich political kingmaker, and he soon finds himself among the rich and famous – giving advices to the president of America! Chance is simple, can imitate gestures, and appears to be a man of good breeding: probably because of the gestures and demeanor he has acquired trough a life-time of television viewing and watching the wealthy old man. He talks innocently about the seasons of nature which is confused by others as metaphorical understanding of the country’s economy. Chance is ignorant about what is going on around him, and the beauty is that he is not aware of his ignorance. He appears to be living in the present – in the moment to be precise. He cannot plan. He just responds. The result is that he is the calmest person in the film, almost at peace with himself, because he is always in the here and now.
This is what triggered few thoughts in me – I think Chance lives in the moment because he is not participating in the affairs of the world. He just likes to watch. This is also apparent in one scene in which he tries to kiss the kingmaker’s wife by imitating the kissing scene that is running on television, but soon he releases her from his grip and starts watching the kissing scene on television instead. Peter Sellers had an ability to dissolve completely into his characters – he even called himself a chameleon. After watching Steve Martin’s version of inspector Clouseau in the new Pink Panther franchise, I told myself that no actor, not even someone as good as Martin, can make us forget that only Sellers could give Clouseau the downright stupidity we so much adore. Likewise, Chance the gardener is a role, I think, Sellers was meant to play.
Is it possible for us to achieve the calmness of Chance – to live in the moment like he does? He has not attained this state through Zen meditation or mind control; off course there is a famous scene in the end when he walks on water. That is an allegory, and can have various interpretations including a comparison with Christ. But I think the ‘walk on water’ scene suggests that he is not like us. Maybe, because he has not undergone the training and fundamental education required to function in the world. The film does not suggest that ignorance is bliss. It uses Chance’s presence to uncover the folly in educated beings. Because he behaves like an aristocrat, people search for meaning and find optimism in his absurd talks. He is even considered to be a contender in the next presidential elections. Are they not limiting themselves in judging Chance with strict and predefined notions? They confuse his peaceful composure with wisdom. When he says “spring, summer, autumn, winter . . . then spring again”, he means just that. The rest of them find it wise!
I still have doubts that a man like Chance can exist. But the purpose of art is to evoke thoughts and not to provide explanations – we have the sciences for that. And this film has evoked an array of thoughts, some of which are so delicate that I don’t know how to put them in words. Maybe this film is not as profound as I think it to be. Maybe it is the mood I am in from last few days that made me dig out in the movie what I was myself searching elsewhere. But it is a through-provoking film no less, and comic too. At least it should be watched to see Peter Sellers' finest performance to date.