One of the nice things about living in America is that you get to choose your own reality. Cable television has endless options for this very thing. Are you a liberal? There’s a television channel for that. Are you a conservative? Look no further than Fox News. The nice thing about television stations targeting demographics for advertising dollars—something that began around the mid-seventies—was that it became much easier to categorize certain realities into their own exclusive dimensions. And if you get bored with the endless soundbites coming out of your televised version of reality, you can just go online and get news and realities tailored to any perspective you want. This is the beautiful thing about tunnel vision in America—reality is just a state of mind. You can always change the channel.
In Being There, Chance the gardener understands the importance of changing the channel. He is the quintessential child of television—a television that’s always on in every room and “rice pudding between the ears.” In our world, the best example we have of such a child is Donald Trump. He’s our president now, while Chance remains a creation of fiction. But Chance has been used recently by some of those media outlets as an example or allegory to help explain the rise of Donald Trump to some people.
Trump supporters, it has been said, live in a reality shaped by television—as does Trump himself. Trump, like Chance, seems to view reality only as far as the limited scope of his television set will allow him. But unlike Chance, Trump understands how to use this reality to his own advantage. A comparison between the two might be unfair because while Trump is sadistically aware of his actions, Chance is transcendently ignorant.
To be clear, there are two Chances existing in both Hal Ashby’s film and Jerzy Kosinski’s novel. Chance the gardener represents reality and the truth of concrete existence, while Chauncey Gardiner is a man constructed from the image others project onto him. Chance is “rooted” [forgive the easy pun] in reality when he is in his garden, away from television. But when he watches television, is looking out of window. He mimics what he sees—whether it be handshakes, romance, or exercise—as a way to construct an image of reality for himself. It is this image which fools those he encounters.
When he is taken out of this self-imposed duality and into a world that doesn’t understand the difference, it is confusing for both Chance and the people who exist to interpret his actions. Chance can only assess the world through television, such as when he first rides in a car and comments that it seems like “watching television, only you can see much farther.” Similarly, the people who try to interpret Chance can only assess him through a reality they have groomed for themselves out of him.
Television is as much of a focal point for Hal Ashby’s direction as it is for Chance himself. This is because it is so important to the dual natures of Chance—the film uses television constantly to show how Chance constructs his reality from it. A television is in most scenes, and sometimes the film seems to take a brief detour into the set, allowing the audience—like Chance—to watch. This constant reflection showcases the difference of contexts that exists in interpreting reality, particularly between existence and image. What is the reality of Chance? His zen nature is a projection. His intelligence? Another projection. The duality of who Chance is to who he appears to be for others is constant. Even the last image is one of duality that sets expectations against the audience. Was Chance a messiah all along? Not really—but the televised reality is the one that matters.
This duality looms large throughout the entire film and extends to other aspects as well, such as the difference between a life constructed from television against one of print. Newspapers are supposed to report on reality, but television constructs reality out of a need for ratings. It allows millions of people to quickly absorb information onto which they can project whatever hopes and fears and beliefs they want to.
If you want to see this concept in drastic action, look no further than the 2016 election, when a reality television star won the election based off his television viewership. Donald Trump has since gone on to praise his own television ratings while berating the “fake news” of printed words. This is, of course, mostly because he is illiterate, but it also illustrates that difference between contextual realities that exists for everyone today. Chance has a similar opinion. When Chance is interviewed and indicates that he doesn’t read newspapers, but watches television, his comment is seen as being insightful and progressive. The truth is nothing progressive at all—he’s just a dimwit. But the profundity given to him marks those around him as even greater dimwits than Chance can ever hope to be.
For dimwits like Chance, watching television over newspapers may seem harmless enough, but the image construction coming from television has dangerous results. For instance, in our world television viewers have a much greater level of fear than those who subscribe to newspapers—this is a fear Trump can channel and generate votes from. Studies show that those who watch television over print feel a greater threat from crime, which tends to make those voters come out for elections when a conservative fearmonger is one of the choices.
Newspapers do not report on local crime and terrorism as much as television does, which distorts the contexts of reality one gets from television versus the one received from a newspaper. The reality is split. As a television watcher, Chance understands local crime. As we see in the film, when Chance encounters a knife-wielding hoodlum, he tries to change the channel.
Of course, the other major difference between the realities of television and those of actual existence comes down to language, which is another important element of the film. The language of television is set a constant grade-school level, while the language of print [and reality] is set at a higher and more complex level of literacy. The biggest example of this difference of language can be seen in the concept—new to the 1970s—of soundbites, those short clips of television that sell ratings like hotcakes to an attention-less audience. Trump is a powerful figure because he uses soundbites to sell his message and knows how to do it. To compare this to Chance is incorrect—Chance doesn’t even realize he’s doing it. Chance’s gardening metaphors make perfect soundbites to sell to a television public that is willing to believe in the image of a well-bred intelligent white man. The people that make Chauncey into the sage that he is not are simply projecting their own complexities onto the matter. This is what helps him become an image of profundity for the upper-class, the President, and finally millions of viewers across the country. It is what makes the pallbearers at the end of the film believe that he, a man without a corrupted past that people think is a prophet, will make a good candidate for the presidency. Even then, politicians seemed to know that ratings equal power. The power that Chance [as Chauncey] creates comes through the televised image. It is through this image that people in the film replace real existence with emptiness. Emptiness is good because you can put anything you want to into the void.
Chauncey becomes then a social reconstruction of what reality could be, much as Donald Trump has become for his base. Any and all hopes or desires can be placed on them because they have an image of success, or intelligence, or anything else the viewer might want.
Television is a window INTO the audience’s life, not out. Society’s expectations are placed on Chauncey even if he does not know it. Trump is different. Trump knows that ratings are power. His tweets are broadcast almost simultaneously across multiple television channels. Chance is less interested in his own television identity. Watching his major network interview, he changes the channel out of boredom. This is because Chauncey is really Chance the Gardener—a traveler who is just “there.” There are two Chances—but only one Trump.
The final image of the film blends the two contexts completely. It takes the reality of existence and upends it with the fantasy abstraction of the supernatural. This collision of duality makes its final point in the film’s last line—“Life is a state of mind.” There are multiple realities and different truths in the worlds we read or watch or interact with, and an inherent difference between seeking truth through image as opposed to reality. This dueling realities are what can divide a country’s population in half. When there are multiple telelvisions running in multiple rooms of the same house, every family member can exist in their own bubble of exclusive reality. The answer to understanding might be in balancing the options. It could be as easy as turning the television off and reading a damn newspaper. Or conversely, putting down the newspaper and watching some damn television. If life is a state of mind, it’s good to have options.