During the two weeks I spent at the O'Neill as part of the National Critics Institute, we saw a lot of theater. We attended professional productions at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and The Goodspeed Opera House, as well as readings of plays and musicals in development at the O'Neill itself.
But if we learned anything in our conversations about the state of professional criticism, it was that theater reviewers would do well to diversify -- to apply our talents to other aspects of culture, including modern dance, food, and film.
Two of my colleagues had extensive experience with movie reviewing -- one even runs his own website called The Film Experience (http://thefilmexperience.net/). So I imagine they were less daunted when we talked about movies and movie reviewing for a whole afternoon with Mark Caro, an arts and entertainment critic for the Chicago Tribune. Our assignment would be to write a "think piece" inspired by a movie that we would all see that night.
Speculation ran rampant among the fellows. Would it be an old classic? Were they taking us into town to a multiplex? A couple of the guys were hoping it would be the Spiderman flick that just came out. But a la the reality show format, we were all kept in the dark until the last second, when we were crowded into a very warm rehearsal hall on campus, plied with popcorn, freshly popped at Blue Gene's Pub, and a DVD started playing on a wide screen TV. It was the 1979 Peter Sellers film "Being There," which only one of us had seen.
Caro introduced the movie, saying it had been part of a recent film series he curates, judging whether classic comedies are still funny. I think the consensus of the group was that it wasn't funny "ha ha" at the present policital moment, but it was thought provoking.
So below is my first movie review/think piece. Right now when everything feels political, it inspired a political response from me regarding the machinations behind the state of my state, Wisconsin. I highly suggest watching the film if you are looking for an absurd take on present day.
Charles and David Koch are two of the wealthiest people in America with a combined net worth of over $80 billion. They control the second largest private company in the country and in recent years have used their massive wealth to influence national elections and promote a political landscape that favors their own agenda: making as much money as possible without regard to the people they employ, the natural resources they ravage, or their responsibility they have to operate within a larger society. But at 77 and 81, these old white tycoons are going to die soon. And in their last breath, I hope someone like Chance is there to ease their passing.
In the 1979 film Being There, Peter Sellers plays Chance the gardener, a simple man who has led a very sheltered life. Growing up entirely inside a Washington DC row house, he doesn’t have any family and can’t remember a time when he wasn’t the gardener for a nameless old man who owns the property. Without normal human interaction he is socially and educationally stunted; he cannot read or write, he cannot tell time, he has never ridden in a car, and he cannot feed himself. His only real conduit to the outside world is television — a strange frame for understanding others, but one that fascinates him. Turning on TV sets compulsively as he goes from room to room in the largely shuttered but still elegant house, his attention span is short but his curiosity is unquenchable.
After the old man’s death, Chance is sent out into the wide world to fend for himself. Through a series of misunderstandings and mishaps, he is taken in by the Rand family, whose enormous wealth and business interests afford them an army of butlers and servants, a palatial mansion, and even the ear of the president of the United States.
A man who says little, Chance is assumed to know much. He parrots back simple answers to complex questions and acts as the perfect mirror to those around him, reflecting their desires and accepting whatever role others would project on him. His simplicity and honesty is so disarming to those around him — particularly in the political realm — that they mistake his childlike observations for the cloaked metaphors of genius.
When Chance meets Ben Rand, the feeble captain of industry is suffering through his last days. Though Rand has converted a wing of his estate into a state-of-the-art hospital with doctors and nurses giving him blood transfusions and shots, even pumping extra oxygen into the room to prolong his life, he cannot buy good health. He also cannot buy compassion.
As I watched the weak, elderly man wither away despite the best medical care that his fortune could procure, I thought of the Koch brothers. Men of their age must be contemplating the ends of their lives, the legacies they will leave, and a loss of control that they surely haven’t experienced in decades, if ever.
In the film, the Rand family has insulated itself from the outside world, interacting with the real people who inhabit it as little as possible. Even the president comes to Ben Rand’s home instead of asking him to venture outside his fortress. Conversely Chance is fascinated with the behavior of others, from the Russian dignitary who tries to discuss literature with him, to the applause he receives as a guest on the TV talk show, to the romantic advances of Ben’s much younger, gorgeous wife. Still relying on the tutor of television, he is an astute student of people as well. The most notable thing Chance learns in his brief sojourn to world of other humans is compassion.
Through the illness and decline of both of his benefactors Chance has learned about death —and how painful it is to be separated from those you depend on, and eventually care for. Confused by the first loss, Chance demonstrates a new understanding at Rand’s bedside in his final hours. He comforts the old man, tears quietly streaming down his face. Despite all his millions, this is the only thing that makes the old man’s passing easier.
I want the Koch Brothers to have that experience. To feel the transformative effects of compassion from an unlikely source – someone who is jobless and homeless. Who has not had the benefits of education or basic medical services. Who would surely earn less than minimum wage, without a union or any workplace safety protections if the Kochs’ libertarian agenda was realized. Who is not equipped to care for himself. Someone the Koch brothers have condemned and forsaken by the millions over the course of their lives.
As a lifelong gardener Chance’s only expertise is caring for plants, flowers, and trees. He knows the seasons and that living things grow better with his help and care. It is that fundamental lesson that Rand benefits from but never applies to others. I hope there is time yet for the Koch brothers to experience — and practice — real compassion. As we venture out into the real world of our lives, “being there” for one another is the only thing that can make a difference.