My Intro For BEING THERE At The NC Museum Of Art

Last night, I introduced one of my all-time favorite films at the N.C. Museum of Art. Since some friends and family were unable to attend, I decided to post my opening remarks here.

Now, it’s a clichéd thing to do at a screening of an older movie but – who here has never seen BEING THERE?

That many? Okay, hold on while I cross out the spoilers.

Okay, there used to be a saying – I don’t hear it much these days – that the book is always better than the movie. Now, I think we can all agree that it isn’t always true.

For example, Mario Puzo’s THE GODFATHER, by, is a pulpy airport novel with very little of the gravitas that Francis Ford Coppola and the amazing ensemble brought to the material and made an immortal classic out of it.

There are many movies that are better than the books, but to my mind Hal Ashby’s adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s 1970 novel BEING THERE makes for one of the best cases. Not that the book is bad, no it’s a fine, witty, well written narrative that shares much of its dialogue with the movie; it’s just that the lead character is so much of a blank slate that he’s difficult to visualize.

But in the hands of Peter Sellers, the character whose name is Chance became fully formed and thoroughly nuanced, despite that the guy is certainly a blank slate whose life is entirely informed by what he has seen on television.

Now, basically the film is a about a simple minded, illiterate gardener whose talk about planting and the seasons is mistaken by many Washington insiders for political wisdom about shifts in the economy. Without any effort of his own, and aided by others’ perceptions of his persona, Chance the gardener unwittingly becomes Chauncey Gardiner.

Sellers had wanted to play Chance since reading Kosinski’s novel in the early ‘70s – it was his dream role. It took him seven years, in which time he made three Pink Panther movies and a bunch of hit or miss comedies, before he could get the film greenlit.

What helped is that the great hippy filmmaker Hal Ashby when approached to direct the project said ‘Sure, I’m interested, but only with Peter Sellers.’ You see, the book’s author, Kosinski, wanted Ryan O’Neal to play Chance. That is a version I just can’t imagine.

Now Ashby was just perfect for BEING THERE. He was coming off a run of some of the best movies of the ‘70s. HAROLD AND MAUDE, THE LAST DETAIL, SHAMPOO, BOUND FOR GLORY, COMING HOME. If you haven’t seen these – get on it.

So Ashby and Sellers, along with a great supporting cast including Shirley Maclaine, Richard A. Dysart, Jack Warden, and most importantly former ‘30s matinee idol Melvyn Douglas, who won the Best Supporting actor Oscar here for his role as Ben Rand, the dying rich billionaire whose world Chance gets wrapped up in.

Now Melvyn Douglas’ character owns a lavish, ginormous mansion that we all know is the Biltmore Estate in Asheville. The Biltmore could be considered a star of the movie itself as its exteriors and interiors dominate much of the movie.

But, it should be stressed that in BEING THERE, the Biltmore was the Rand Mansion and its location was in the outskirts of Washington DC. Movie magic!

Before BEING THERE, the Biltmore had only been in one film, a Grace Kelly film called THE SWAN which was made in 1956, so it wasn’t well known to most of the movie going public. But since BEING THERE, the house or the grounds (or both) have been in a bunch of movies including THE PRIVATE EYES, FOREST GUMP, RICHIE RICH, HANNIBAL, and LAST OF THE MOHICANS.

In a TV interview to promote BEING THERE, Gene Shallit asked Sellers to explain what BEING THERE is about. He said,“It’s Jerzy Kosinki’s comment on power and corruption, and the triumph of the innocent man, as Jesus Christ said, you know, the triumph of the simple man over power, over wealth, over corruption and it’s probably a comment on that because you can’t get a person more simple that Chance.”

Sellers’ masterful performance as Chance, which he said to Shalit was vaguely based on Stan Laurel (of Laurel and Hardy for you kids) sadly didn’t win him a Best Actor Academy Award, which was something he really wanted. Damn you Dustin Hoffman!

Sorry, I like Dustin Hoffman. It’s just he has had decades since then to win Oscars! This was Seller’s last chance.

Now as for BEING THERE having more relevance now than in 1979, it’s tempting to see it as a cautionary tale about imbeciles rising into scary positions of power. Comparisons to BEING THERE started during the George W. Bush era, but op eds about how prescient the movie seem to appear daily.

Maybe Daily Show correspondent Lewis Black summed it up best when he said of the current political climate: It’s like BEING THERE, if the guy was an asshole!

Lastly, there is one controversial element of the movie I need to tell you about. The original theatrical version of this movie, which is what we’re showing, has some bloopers – you know, outtakes of actors flubbing their lines – during the end credits.

There is another version of the movie that we were hoping to get, that has the credits play with only TV fuzz behind them. This version happened because Sellers hated the bloopers – he even thought they ruined his Oscar chances. Again, damn you Dustin Hoffman!

Now these clips are funny on their own but after the beautiful final shot– they have been criticized as breaking the flow of the film. We debated whether or not to cut off the projector, but we’re gonna let them roll as they are a part of the original motion picture. You can leave and not see them – it’s up to you.

So here’s Hal Ashby’s best film, and Peter Sellers’ best too, BEING THERE.

Thanks to Laura Boyes, Jackson Cooper, and everyone at the N.C. Museum of Art for making this event happen.

More later…

Full Frame 2018: Day Two

I was looking forward to the second day of Full Frame this year because it offered my most anticipated doc at the festival: Amy Scott’s HAL, about the legendary filmmaker Hal Ashby who made some of the greatest movies, and personal favorites of mine, of the ‘70s including HAROLD AND MAUDE, THE LAST DETAIL, SHAMPOO, COMING HOME, and BEING THERE.

The biodoc is the directorial debut of Amy Scott, whose many previous credits as an editor made me think that was one of the many factors that attracted her to Ashby as he started out the same way (even winning an Oscar for editing for IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT in 1968). 

HAL fittingly starts off with Cat Stevens on the soundtrack (singing Miles from Nowhere,” also fittingly), and goes on to tell the story of the great hippy director via lots of clips from his films, and testimonials by folks he worked with like Jon Voight, Jeff Bridges, and Norman Jewison, and disciples like Alexander Payne, Judd Apatow, and Adam McKay.

I teared up more than a few times because Ashbys movies are a large part of why I love movies. His comic yet simultaneously tragic depictions of such heavy subjects as love, race, and class spoke to me growing up, and I could tell I was among an audience full of people who could relate. 

Scotts choice is right to give the most screen time to recollections about the seven films Ashby made in the 70s (the five I listed above and THE LANDLORD, and BOUND FOR GLORY), what Payne calls an astonishing string of masterpieces,” then quickly breeze through his less successful run in the ‘80s before his untimely death at 59 in 1989 because even hardcore Ashby fans like me gloss over those sad years. I heard a woman in the row behind me at the screening say during the credits: I think I’ll have a Hal Ashby film fest of my own when I get home! I think I’ll be soon doing that too.

Not as big a crowd pleaser as last night’s RBG (how could it be?), but a moving, and highly amusing primer of one of the 20th centurys greatest filmmakers.

For the following film, I spent some more time in the 70s with Matt Tyrnauer’s STUDIO 54, which tells a tale that’s been told many times about the famous Manhattan nightclub that hosted scores of coked up A-listers enjoying a dance party/orgy-style atmosphere while doormen and bouncers kept the crowds outside at bay.

That is only for a little while as the place was horribly run with so much money skimmed that it was easy for the FBI to shut the establishment down shortly after its founder/co-owner, Steve Rubell, stupidly boasted only the Mafia made more money. 

I grew up hearing tales, and seeing tons of photos of celebrities like Mick Jagger (and his wives Bianca, and Jerry Hall), Truman Capote, Farrah Fawcett, Andy Warhol, Sylvester Stallone, Liza Minneli, and just about everyone who was a star during the Carter era, so a lot of the content of the doc wasn’t new to me, but to folks who have not a clue about these infamously sordid going-ons it should satisfactorily sum up the what went down. 

All the expected disco hits, and rise and fall tropes of many a doc about a doomed prospect gave me a big case of déjà vu, but hey, I’m old and jaded. Maybe I’m just saying that because I heard some youngin say I’ve never even seen a Hal Ashbury movie,” on the way out.

Next up, a couple of short (or shorter as one is nearly featurre length) docs that are paired together because they both deal with fake news, albeit under very different circumstances. First up, there’s Charlie LynePERSONAL TRUTH, which deals with his obsession with “Pizzagate,” and a home, named Elmm Guest House, in his London neighborhood that’s rumored to be a former headquarters to a pedophile network. Lynes conspiracy theories about these subjects are tongue-in-cheek (I think), and he scores some solid laughs with his delivery and clever edits, so I found it to be a worthwhile 17 minutes.

Maxim PozdorovkinOUR NEW PRESIDENT, which followed, is a lot more ambitious at looking at the scope of how propaganda proliferates. It’s a 77 minute compilation of clips largely from the Russian television network, RT (Russia Today), which overwhelmingly display a pro-Trump, anti-Hillary agenda.

It’s funny then terrifying, then funny then terrifying again how these segments outline how fake news spreads with flashy graphics, and taglines like “The longer you watch, the more upset Hillary Clinton becomes.” Intersperse that stuff with a lot of video of a smug Putin claiming he had no influence in the 2016 American election, an you’ve got video essay gold, right? 

Well, not really. While initially the impact of how insane the lengths that such propaganda goes to convince the populous of whatever ridiculous stance is substantial, the effect diminishes upon every news cycle that follows. It ultimately felt like a YouTube rabbit hole playlist that one might mistakenly make a friend to watch. After 30 minutes or so, they’ll be like “Okay, I get it – Russian influence is bad and nobody is taking it seriously enough. So what should we get for dinner? Anyway, thats how I felt, and I could tell that’s how the people I saw leaving early probably felt too. I did stick it out until the end though.

So that was Day Two of Full Frame 2018. If you havent already, please check out Day One

Coming soon: Day Three, which kicks off with Morgan Nevilles Mr. Rogers biodoc WONT YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? (another crowd pleasing biodoc, I bet).

More later…