Screen Education


‘I like to watch.’

That’s unquestionably the defining line from Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979). If you’ve seen the film, you’ll remember it as a punchline. It’s twice delivered by protagonist Chance (Peter Sellers) in response to being propositioned – once by a man at a ritzy Washington gala, then by Eve (Shirley MacLaine), the wife of political ‘kingmaker’ Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas) – and is interpreted as an admission of and invitation to voyeurism. In the latter case, it culminates in the famously funny scene of Eve writhing around the floor racked with performed self-pleasure as Chance, perched on the bed above her, remains oblivious to her efforts.

Chance has no perverse intent when he declares that he likes to watch. He’s simply professing his fondness for television; hence, he disregards Eve’s histrionics and instead mimics the television program before him. This scene arrives at the tail end of the film; at this point, Chance, a sheltered simpleton who has only ever known life as a gardener, has ensconced himself in the upper echelons of Washington society thanks to a comical series of misunderstandings. He now goes by the name of ‘Chauncey Gardiner’, and has the respect of foreign dignitaries, talk-show hosts and even the US president (Jack Warden). Despite this dramatic ascent, Chance’s fundamental qualities – his polite passivity and his unquenchable love for television – remain unchanged.

is a multifaceted film. It’s a lilting farce at times, a savage satire, as an anti-intellectual force; and, like Douglas Sirk’s 1955 film , it regards television as synonymous with loneliness. Chance certainly cuts a lonely figure, more drawn to screens than people.

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