From time to time, I like to recommend a classic film to the readers of this column and, as I have been seeing promotions for the new fall television season, a great movie from the 1970’s came to mind.
Based on a novel by Jerzy Kosinski, Being There is a whimsical but biting commentary on our American obsession with image. Even more importantly, its spiritual message is succinctly conveyed in both the ad copy for and the last line of the film:
"Life is a state of mind."
Everything that Chance (Peter Sellers) does comes from a pure naiveté of spirit and, with absolutely no conscious intention except his love of gardening and television, he becomes a famous and important man.
Peter Sellers plays a gentle gardener who has lived his entire life caring for the garden of a very rich benefactor who has allowed Chance to completely retreat from any sense of contact from the outside world except for his television. Chance either gardens or watches television. That's all.
When his benefactor dies, Chance is forced out into a world for which he is completely unprepared (to an amusing jazz version of "Sprach Zarathtustra", the "2001" theme music, a nod of the head to Kubrick from director Hal Ashby).
Chance is so separated from any sense of the "real" world that, in a classic scene, he actually tries to prevent himself from being assaulted by pointing his television remote control at his potential attackers, believing that he can just switch the channel. If ever there was a searing image of the potential power of television to alter our perceptions of reality, that was it.
Mere "chance"(a very intentional pun) finds him being slightly hurt by the car of a wealthy woman named Eve (Shirley MacLaine) who takes Chance home to her palatial estate so that the doctor who is caring for her critically ill husband Ben (Melvyn Douglas) can look at Chance's injured leg. On the way, she gives Chance a drink and at the same time asks his name. Sputtering over his first ever drink of liquor (in his first ever car ride), Chance coughs out that he is Chance the gardener, but Eve hears Chauncey Gardner and the name sticks.
Once at this new home, Chance only wants a place to stay and work in the garden but everyone around him takes his gardening comments as metaphors, not pure intent. Ben is a powerful man who is close to the President of the United States (Jack Warden). Chance's comments to the President on the seasons of planting ("as long as the roots are not severed, all is well in the garden") are construed again as metaphors on the economy and Chance is thrust into the limelight, even finally appearing himself on his beloved television.
Chance is soon chosen by a dying Ben to watch out over both his business and Eve. At Ben's funeral, the President gives the eulogy while members of his own party are talking about Chance being a potential candidate for President as they act as pallbearers.
While the President is speaking, Chance wanders off into what I believe is one of the most memorable final shots ever in a movie. He is walking towards the estate and there is a pond before him. Having no concept of walking around, he walks out into the pond. Instead of sinking, he seems to be walking ON the water. He even puts his umbrella down in the water to test its depth. Right next to him, the water is very deep but he continues walking as we hear the last line of the President's eulogy: "Life is a state of mind."
There has always been a lot of controversy about that final sequence because, I believe, the walking on water aspect was misunderstood to be a reference to Jesus. I never saw it that way. "Life is a state of mind" is the way Chance lives. He literally lives in a separate reality from all those around him. His life has always been stress-free. Someone and something has always protected him from adversity, so much so that he has a pure and complete EXPECTATION that he will be protected no matter what. There is nothing in his experience that would cause him to think otherwise. He is serenely unaffected by anything around him that could connote danger to anyone else. He just expects things to be "fine".
When Chance walks out into the water, he just wants to get to the other side and his instincts tell him that he can go through the water. It is apparent that he is actually walking in shallow water, not ON the water. His intuitive sense tells him there is a safe way across the pond and he finds it. Period. If the water had been deep all the way through, he would have known to go around. Expectation creates reality. After all, "life is a state of mind".
Richard Matheson gave me a beautiful framed line etched in calligraphy from the novel of What Dreams May Come (which he wrote in the same year that Being There was released) that says THAT WHICH YOU THINK BECOMES YOUR WORLD.
If you haven't seen "Being There" for a while, (or if you've never seen it), look at it again in that context and I believe you will see the breathtaking beauty of its message in perhaps a new light.
Stephen Simon produced such films as Somewhere in Time and What Dreams May Come and will next be directing and producing the film version of Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversations with God. He also wrote The Force is With You: Mystical Movie Messages That Inspire Our Lives (this month’s column is adapted from his book) and co-founded The Spiritual Cinema Circle http://www.spiritualcinemacircle.com/ Stephen welcomes your comments by email: Stephen @spiritualcinemacircle.com.