The Wide-Eyed Look of Being There

A stately satire of modern media consumption and American politics, Hal Ashby’s 1979 film Being There follows the fortunes of a childlike gardener named Chance (Peter Sellers), who becomes an unlikely celebrity of D.C. high society after attracting the attention of an elderly industrialist (Melvyn Douglas, in an Oscar-winning performance) and his much younger wife (Shirley MacLaine). In his spare time, Chance does little but passively watch television, and in one of his final roles, Sellers gives a subtle comic performance that beautifully conveys the man’s serene equanimity—a quality that leads others to misinterpret his blankly delivered pronouncements as pearls of wisdom. In the clip above, taken from a documentary on our new edition of the film, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and editor Don Zimmerman explain how the protagonist’s naïveté is reflected in the film’s unadorned visual style, which makes consistent use of eye-level angles and long lenses that had the added bonus of giving the actors more room to work.

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