August 05, 2014

Being There: Understanding Sociology through Film

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

It’s summer, and for me that means a chance to watch movies. I tend to prefer classics to the latest releases, and I recently re-watched the 1979 film Being There, starring Peter Sellers. It is filled with sociological (and political) insights about the ways in which our social interactions create meaning.

The film is about a mentally challenged man named Chance who works as a gardener for an elderly man. When the man passes away, Chance is on his own. No provisions are made for his care, so he wanders the streets, hungry and unsure of how to appropriately interact with others. When a group of young men seem menacing, he points his television remote at them, hoping to change the channel.

 

Without giving away too much of the plot, Chance (called Chauncey Gardener due to a misunderstanding when he was asked his name) meets a super-wealthy and politically connected man. Chance impresses the man with his simple responses to complicated questions about business and economics.

This eventually leads to a meeting with the president of the United States, featured in the clip below. Chance knows nothing about anything but gardening, but his slow, deliberate speech about the seasons is interpreted as sage, metaphorical advice:

 

The president then goes on to echo Chance’s statement in a speech of his own, leading news organizations to clamor for Chance's attention, seeking quotes on matters that he doesn’t understand. When he tells them he can’t read or write, his admissions are taken as bold, honest statements about how no one has time to read anymore. Virtually no one seems to understand that Chance is illiterate, despite these admissions. Chance makes no attempt to “pass” or use the newfound attention to his benefit; he doesn’t understand what is going on well enough to do that.

This film is a great example of symbolic interactionism, or the study of how meaning is created through social interactions with others. Being There leads us to ask how a mentally challenged man could be interpreted as brilliant by supposedly highly sophisticated business leaders and political officials.

For one, Chance looks like the sort of person who fit within their elite group. As a middle-aged white male who lived in the home of a wealthy white male his entire life, his speech patterns reflect an elite background, even if he had no formal education. We learn early in the film that Chance wears his former employer’s clothes—whom he refers to as “the old man”—which were tailored for the old man in the 1920s and 1930s from the finest cottons and silks. As we watch Chance watch TV, we see that he is gifted at mimicking others’ speech and gestures, and he has learned how to behave extremely politely.  He can easily fit into the world of elites, even with his limited knowledge of the world around him.

One of the few people who know of Chance’s limitations is the old man’s former maid, Louise, an African American woman. Louise notes the importance of race in Chance’s acceptance among elites when she sees him on a late night television talk show. She is shocked to see that someone “with rice pudding between the ears” is now considered a political genius. “It’s for sure a white man’s world in America!” she exclaims. It’s unlikely that Chance would have been accepted by political elites had he not been white, male, and well dressed.

There are moments when we see Chance slip up. He studies how his wealthy friend greets the president—whom the friend has obviously known for a long time—and follows suit, calling him “Bobby” and holding onto his hands for too long. We see that he doesn’t understand how to talk on the phone when he gets a phone call from a reporter, and hangs up on the reporter when he becomes distracted by a television set. (The reporter interprets the hang-up as a sign of Chance’s importance and power.)

By the end of the film, a few people start to recognize that Chance really is just a gardener, but are reluctant to tell those in positions of power since they seem so impressed by him. There is even a whispered discussion by power brokers that Chance should run for president himself.

Through Chance’s interactions with his new acquaintances, we can see how much meaning we ascribe to others in our interactions. Because he appeared and mostly behaved like he was part of an elite group, Chance was presumed to be a member. His comments about gardening were interpreted as wisdom about business, economics, politics, and death because those were the topics his listeners focused on.

There’s a lot more to Being There; I encourage you to watch the entire film and share other sociological insights you find.

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