Jerzy Kosinski's novel Being There appeared in the late 60s to much critical and popular acclaim. The book concerns a simple-minded man named Chance who tends the gardens of a wealthy Washington DC resident. Chance is a mysterious fellow. We know nothing about his background other than that he seems to have spent his entire life at his employer's estate, that he's a meticulous tender of plants, trees and shrubs and that the only thing he enjoys as much as gardening is watching TV.
Early in the novel Chance's patron dies and the enigmatic gardener is cast out into a cold harsh world. Though Chance is wholly unprepared to deal with anything more challenging than flickering images on the small screen he somehow manages to fall into the hands of an elderly political power broker and his attractive younger wife. Chance is like a child in a man's body who speaks in short, inscrutable sentences. Because we know something about Chance's origin we can take his words at face value but his new benefactors, both individuals searching for greater meaning in life, begin to read something greater into them. Chance (now renamed Chauncy Gardener) talks about a healthy garden and they hear pearls of philosophical wisdom. Before too long Chauncy becomes an advisor to the President and something of a media darling. Is there actually something to Chauncy or have we all just been projecting our own desires onto his clean slate?
Being There was adapted for the big screen in 1979 by director Hal Ashby. The movie follows the plot of Kosinski's book almost to the letter. That fact in and of itself would have made for a very good film but it's the casting of Peter Sellers in the role of Chauncy that makes Being There one of the finest pieces of cinema to come out of the latter half of the 20th century.
To Peter Sellers fans the irony is readily apparent. Sellers is best known for his kinetic, over-the-top comedic performances in films like A Shot in the Dark and Dr. Strangelove but his finest cinematic moment is in Being There where his performance is a study in quiet restraint. Sellers is masterful as Chauncy, using subtle facial expressions and impeccable vocal timing to give us an image of a man with a complex inner life. We have no idea what Chauncy is actually thinking but Sellers makes it clear that there's much more going on than meets the eye. Of course the tragedy is that this was both Seller's most accomplished film performance and his last. Peter Sellers died in 1980 at just 54 years of age.
I was very pleasantly surprised by Warner's treatment of the Being There transfer. The film elements used are a little battered, showing some pin holes and the occasional scratch but it's cleaner than any other source I've seen so far. The general color balance is a little off due to fading but flesh tones are accurate and the overall look is evenly saturated. Black levels are deep without losing too much shadow detail and, in a move that's somewhat rare for Warner, edge enhancement is kept to a bare minimum. The film is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen anamorphic.
Being There features its original monaural soundtrack and the quality is quite high. Dialogue, music and sound effects are all crisp and clear without the muddiness often associated with aging magnetic sound sources. A French dubbed track is also available.
As a fan of Being There I would have loved to have seen at least a few extras on the disc but alas, Warner included only the theatrical trailer.
Being There is a modern classic that explores themes including the hypnotic effect of television, the human need to find greater meaning in life, the bankruptcy of media driven politics and the transcendence of simplicity among others. Warner gives us a great work horse transfer and the usual spartan feature set so I'm unable to give this disc a Collector's Series rating. Highly Recomended.