In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
Hollywood movies, with almost zero exceptions, are made by rich people. There’s no way around that, really, because Hollywood movies are ridiculously expensive to create and market; complaining about it is like complaining about the wind. Nonetheless, it’s useful to bear it in mind, because it affects the way that Hollywood perceives everybody in the country who isn’t rich (to the negligible extent that it acknowledges them at all). Woody Allen, to cite just one example, has long been criticized for depicting, in film after film, an exclusively white and affluent enclave of New York City. That’s a legitimate observation, but whether it should be a criticism is trickier—“white and affluent” is what Allen knows and understands (despite having been born and raised in a poor section of Brooklyn), and his occasional attempts to look beyond his comfort zone, like Mighty Aphrodite, aren’t exactly what you’d call incisive. And he isn’t even technically a Hollywood filmmaker, having virtually never worked for a major studio. All in all, American directors who aren’t maxing out their own credit cards to get their movies made might be better off ignoring the impoverished rather than risking condescension or just sheer ignorance.
That said, when Hollywood does make the effort, it’s nearly always fascinating to watch. Recently, I took a long-overdue second look at Being There, Hal Ashby’s 1979 adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel about a simpleminded gardener who inadvertently becomes a major Washington player. The film begins with its protagonist, Chance (Peter Sellers), living in luxury, and then quickly transports him to a world of even greater luxury; 95 percent of the movie’s running time is devoted to the inner workings of the 1 percent. What I’d completely forgotten, however, is that Ashby also includes a lengthy sequence that takes Chance, newly ejected from the house where he’d lived his entire life, through one of D.C.’s less-posh neighborhoods. Kosinski’s book, which is set in New York City, features no such scene—it’s entirely Ashby’s invention (reportedly via a suggestion by production designer Michael Haller), and seems expressly designed as a reminder of the grim reality that the rest of the movie will perforce be ignoring. Though I retained no memory of it from my previous viewing, it now strikes me as Being There’s most vital, remarkable scene.
Let’s start with the music. Using the fanfare from Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra as a comic means of indicating that something revelatory is happening has been commonplace since 2001: A Space Odyssey cemented the piece into the public consciousness. Usually, though, a recording of the orchestral version is heard, to forge a blatant connection with Kubrick’s masterpiece. Ashby instead employs Deodato’s 1973 jazz/funk/whatever rendition, itself an amalgam of high culture and the street. This simultaneously conveys Chance’s wonder at the larger world, which he’s experiencing for the first time, and reflects the particular corner of it we’re currently seeing, which isn’t at all what we might expect given the interior of the house (which is all that’s been shown, along with a lot of TV footage, up to this moment in the film). No explanation is ever given for why Chance’s employer, clearly a wealthy man, was living in a ghetto; it’s probably safe to assume that the neighborhood was considerably more tony in decades past, and that “the old man” (as Chance always calls him) simply didn’t want to leave even after its wholesale transformation. Ashby’s decision not to address the matter directly is a savvy one. The situation really speaks for itself.
The shot of Chance walking in a crowd down a street filled with porn theaters and strip shows initially struck me as an allusion to Taxi Driver, which had been made just three years earlier. Looking at my copy of Scorsese’s film, however, I find that I was combining several different shots in my head—in the iconic early shot of Travis walking down the street, he’s completely alone, and there are no smut shops visible. (On the other hand, the cover image for Robert Kolker’s A Cinema Of Loneliness depicts more or less what I was remembering, minus the crowd. I can’t find the shot in the film itself, so maybe it was just a publicity still. Either that or it’s so brief that my remote’s 15-second skip button skipped right past it.) In any case, the discordant image of this nattily dressed man in that environment remains potent, and having Chance emerge from within a crowd of “ordinary” folks, while a bit of a cliché (one could probably construct a fun supercut of this particular device—Dustin Hoffman’s first appearance as Tootsie springs to mind), gets the point across very nicely. There’s a sharp reversal of expectation, too, when the black woman scurries away from Chance in alarm after he asks her to give him some lunch. Throughout the film, in fact, Chance makes unwarranted assumptions about black people based on what he’s gleaned from limited experience—a fairly pointed commentary that’s thankfully left implicit.
It’s not clear whether the graffito seen on a wall behind Chance at one point—“America ain’t shit cause the white man’s got a God complex”—was found or created. Both possibilities seem plausible, and Ashby is skilled enough, either way, to ensure that it’s clearly visible in the background without dwelling on it in a way that would seem didactic. Later in the movie, the maid who took care of Chance his entire life notes to her family, as they watch his appearance on a talk show, that white people lead such a charmed existence that even a simpleton like Chance can achieve more power and notoriety than almost any person of color, no matter how intelligent or capable. To the best of my recollection, that’s the only moment, apart from this sequence, that strays from a perspective of privilege, and it’s essentially foreshadowed by the graffito seen here, which makes me suspect that the latter was planted by the film. Certainly, it’s a cogent thought to have rattling around in your head during the rest of the picture.
Then, however, we come to Chance’s encounter with the group of black kids hanging out in front of TV World, which is a bit dicier. For one thing, they’re no less clueless than their white counterparts will be—rather than mistake Chance for a captain of industry, they mistake him for some low-level runner for a rival (which is pretty damn improbable, given his manner and the way he’s dressed). I can chalk that up to admirable egalitarianism, but it’s hard not to cringe at the stereotypical depiction of the black characters, who are collectively about as credible as the Sharks and Jets in West Side Story. When their leader pulls a switchblade on Chance to assert his dominance, he does so in such a blatantly artificial way that Chance’s response—pulling out his TV remote and trying in vain to change the channel—almost seems apropos rather than delusional. It just feels as if nobody involved with the movie has the remotest idea what these kids might actually do or say, and wind up defaulting to received notions gleaned largely from other movies and/or TV shows. Given that Chance’s entire conception of reality is based on what he’s learned from television, that’s a huge problem. Being There wants to confront him with something real, but when it comes to people living on the margins of society, it doesn’t know how.