Bright Lights Film Journal

The Essence of Television: The Irresistibility of Chauncey Gardner

Chauncey Gardner (Peter Sellers) in Being There

“The beauty of Being There‘s satire lies in the strategy of depicting both television and its effects in a single man whose personality absorbs friend and foe, combines idiocy and wisdom.”

I. At the Ball Game

The crowd at the ball game
is moved uniformly
by a spirit of uselessness which delights them —
all the exciting detail
of the chase
and the escape, the error
the flash of genius —
all to no end save beauty
the eternal —
— William Carlos Williams

Arriving an hour early at the ballpark, one can watch the players warm up on the field and see the graceful display of their athleticism before being put to competitive use, which, for outfielders, can mean standing relatively stationary for several innings. Several players run wind sprints from first to second base while others play catch before the dugouts. Being a night game, the field is bathed in powerful lighting and, for me, the experience took on more meaning than it would being a day game, the sun almost second rate as a light source. The lights radiate the players more, intensifies my view of them as if an outside force sharpens my concentration. The grounds crew grooms the field, drawing the lines in the batters’ boxes and down the first and third base sides and installing the base bags which seem to gleam.

It isn’t long when I notice that most eyes in the stadium are not focused on the playing field but toward center field above the upper-deck seats but are uniformly watching a large screen. Fan-A-Vision. Essentially a large television. Being shown are last year’s team highlights followed by a retrospective of the last ten All-Star games. In 1986, it is a relatively new phenomenon. Most arenas for baseball, basketball, hockey, and football would have these screens installed by the end of the decade. Today, Fan-A-Vision (or whatever name it goes by) is commonplace for all major sports events and really only receives scrutiny when a replay has shown how the hometeam got screwed by an official’s or referee’s decision. When one watches a game on television, one can often catch the players watching themselves on the giant screens. Such a commonplace has Fan-A-Vision become, its breakdown or removal would cause anguish among fans used to them after twenty years.

That night at the ball game, when Fan-A-Vision is still a phenomenon, I am never more struck or have the point driven home by the power of the television image. The events on the screen before the game provide some amusement and allow the hour until game time to pass quickly. What interests me is how fans watch the screen between pitches, seeing the batter move around the plate, knock the dirt from his cleats, adjust his jock, spit tobacco juice, and then look back at the batter when the pitch is being delivered and the screen goes blank. No moment, the team executives are hoping, would go unfilled. No “dead time” would be allowed for the fan, especially the younger fans, to get bored. How well they know those younger fans, who are fixated on the screen and for whom play on the field seems secondary or an afterthought.

Images from the giant screen never stop. Between innings it is full of messages and even commercials. At a game a year later, in a strange collective experience, I see the first commercial for Full Metal Jacket (1987). Witnessing Kubrick’s Vietnam War movie with thirty thousand people, most of whom probably find the commercial an impertinence to their entertainment frame of mind. The giant television has won the crowd’s attention, and a tenet of the stadium experience demands one’s time should be shared between watching the game and watching the giant screen, which has the game, other diversions, messages and even movie previews.

What had always made baseball the superior sport was its nuances: the twitches and subtleties, precisely the information made inconsequential now to the generations raised watching the television screen. A generation reared on instant replay, that is, always knowing there will be second, third, fourth and fifth chances if not ways to view a play, will not be as attentive to that play the first time around. The stadium experience for all sports, but especially the immaculately slow baseball game, used to demand an attention to the action because this was the only time one would see the play. The inner tension for the fan was always that something could happen on the next pitch, hence the fear to run to the hot dog stand or lavatory while your team was at bat or had the ball. The drama of the game and savoring the game’s action was intimately tied, a marriage of true emotions that have now been effectively divorced by plopping the television screen into the stadiums themselves. Something of the aura (using “aura” as Walter Benjamin did in his famous essay) of the baseball game, especially, has been diminished to the point of insignificance. The tension within us that produced the aura has slipped away.

I recalled William Carlos Williams’ great poem above. What he describes was still there that evening, the crowd, but the giant screen in center field has disturbed the fan’s relationship to the details of the game happening on the field. The only details to be seen are those chosen by the big screen’s operator. In a sense, what’s happening away from the main actions — the pitch, the batted ball, the fielding of ground and fly balls — becomes less than useless. The “end” of the game is no longer the beauty of the game unfolding but the isolation on parts of the game. What is eternal about the game is being killed. The giant screen exists for those who are impatient with the real action of baseball, its slowness, its eternity (it seemed sometimes) to get over with. As the game loses its beauty, its feeling of the eternal, so to the crowd loses its beauty, even its power. When Williams writes: “It is the Inquisition, the / Revolution,” he is saying that the crowd lives within a historical contingency. The people’s freedom to act, to have significance, depends on an ability to imagine itself unbound by time. The baseball game, crippled not only by too much television but also economic battles between the team owners and players, has diminished significantly in the public imagination.

Why do the fans tolerate this invasion of television into an event which television has already dominated too much? Probably for the same reason that television drove similar people from the movie theaters. For the same reason that the crowd has allowed its sports to be run for the convenience of television and its sponsors — television time-outs in football and basketball, and more time between innings in baseball. Because what the people feel they have lost, if indeed they feel they have lost something, is not supremely valuable to them and that the trade-off creates more than its share of conveniences: namely, more games shown on television, which means more entertainment dished out for one’s dollar at the stadium. The inevitability if not irresistibility of the television image and values seems to be the real logic.

II. The Nature Show

For all the complexity of the mental hardware of animals like antelopes, there is a curious flatness to their minds. What animals seem to lack is the dimension of time. They appear to live entirely in the present, having no thought for the or regard for the futures.
— John McCrone, The Myth of Irrationality

Around the time I had stopped going to the ballpark, PBS showed an 8-part series called Television (1988) depicting the ostensible history of television. It takes us from the invention of two types of televisions in the 1920s to closed-circuit broadcasts in the 1930s to the incipient networks of the late 1940s to the mid-’50s Golden Age and beyond. The documentary trips nostalgic switches for veteran television-watchers and allows television veterans (of so-called good and bad shows, as well as the News) to guide us through the history. Absent from the documentary because of its nostalgic approach, with some acknowledgment of television as a vast wasteland, is how television impacted the American public’s basic perceptions of reality.

Maybe this absence is necessary to a television documentary about television, a blind spot or vanishing point that we can’t expect the documentary to see or acknowledge. Not a blind spot to television’s blemishes, like the quiz show scandals. A blind spot caused by the sweeping nature of Television‘s contents. For the documentary lacks any insight on its subject because it lacks a perspective.

Perspective allows the visual or verbal documentary maker to establish the ground where s/he stands. And this point is reached after painful decisions are made concerning what is and is not important for the argument and placing what is important in the proper places. Television has no argument and logically feels free to cover all the ground necessary to present an ostensible history, an appearance of orderly encyclopedic development and progress in television. Much like television itself tries to cover all perspectives and subsequently deprives itself of one. The lack of perspective to the naive or innocent mind resembles objectivity and fair-mindedness. A catalog of themes over Television‘s eight segments assures some containment of the mass of content, but the documentary deprives itself any inner coherence. A safe way to proceed because there’s much interesting television content to interest the viewers. In the absence of coherence and perspective, Television relies on an anonymous commentary to provide its authority.

Indeed, Television resembled the PBS and Discovery Channel staple: the Nature show. Why not? Television treats television as a piece of social nature. Host Edwin Newman functions capably as did William Conrad for The Wild, Wild World of Animals (1973-1976). This kind of presentation might elicit few questions like “whose view did the narrator represent” or “who really spoke through Edwin Newman’s mouth?”. These questions would be tantamount to wondering for whom do news anchors speak. What links Conrad and Newman is their textbook-like authority, a familiar objective authority few would be conscious about, the kind which the Nature show has perfected.

Television also apes the Nature show’s ethos by summoning analogous versions of the closed and inexorable systems by which animals must abide to survive — the very aspect of animal nature that charms and depresses us. Typical is the discussion of the symbiotic relationship between sports and television. The documentary mentioned the Olympic Games and how they couldn’t survive without television revenue. Sports must abide by this adapt-or-perish mentality; television has become the environment to which sports and spectators must adjust. The documentary misses a chance to elaborate on a future that is now: entertainment conglomerates controlling most of the sports franchises and makes moot the fact that television keeps sports alive; sports becomes the media of product promotion, exactly what television is.

An evolutionary determinism prevailed in the segment on Comedy. We’re told that the nation no longer could tolerate shows like The Addams Family, The Munsters, and Bewitched and had taken a spiritual leap forward with socially conscious shows like “All in the Family, M*A*S*H, and Sanford and Son. Whatever direction this leap took, the narrative exegesis is left to Larry Gelbert and Norman Lear whose interest in the latter group of shows taints their analyses. And how could they have known that cable would, besides keeping stations going on the basis of reruns of their favorite socially conscious shows, sustain new versions of the Munster and Addams families?

A nature study presumes a study of natural objects. Objects fixed in time, objects trapped in routines. Television uses routine narrative techniques to provide a satisfyingly neat, objective report on television’s impact on our lives, and the regular television viewer is expected to come away with a sense of understanding about this interesting piece of nature. Thus, these viewers forget that television is a Human show, a human invention, subject to fickle, contradicting, and mundane intentions. An honest study of this strange and captivating invention demands more than the safe, Nature-show methodology which Television‘s producers impose on themselves.

As I alluded to above, the most serious omission is television’s relationship to its viewers. The lack of perspective intensified this omission. Television’s conceit has been that it will eventually provide the people with a watchable product, one people want. It is but a small step from this conceit to television’s absorption of the television viewer into its history.

Editing to make connections. A vision to the order of life. Pursuing an argument. Re-weaving past images into a more complex design to deepen the historical fabric of television. None of these qualities can be detected in Edwin Newman’s stylistics.

Discrimination and aesthetics are antithetical to television viewing. By nature an advertising/promotional medium, television is unthinkable if people are encouraged to be selective. Despite the proliferation of channel choices, television watching is predicated on inertia and addiction, perhaps exploiting our unknown animal passivity.

Television, like the non-human animal, is neither inclined nor equipped (not equipped because not inclined) for introspection, the adapting a critical stance toward itself in a manner that a movie can have toward the movies. The satisfied estimation of itself could no sooner explain television’s problematic nature than could Ted Turner his philanthropy. In its most naive form, television would be surprised at the influence it wielded, as well as adroit enough to counter criticism of “influence” by saying “you can always turn it off.”

But can television be escaped? A reasonable deduction might follow: were people not to watch television, its influence would be mollified — unless the values from this not-so-neutral technology spilled beyond the world of television? Where, indeed, do the bounds of television extend? Is it in the interest of television itself to question its limits or even to impose on itself bounds?

We don’t wish to deny television its due. If there’s a problem with television, there’s a corresponding one-to-one relationship to a problem with society. Throughout history, powerful forces have dominated social life in many different forms in many different societies. What cannot be challenged, assessed, slowed down for a moment — anything so universally dominant — probably cannot be good save for the dominator. The Roman Empire, Christianity, the Islamic Empire, insurance companies, the medical system. All of these have overwhelmed the world and for long periods seemed to be everlasting — the latter two are still going strong. Television is but another of these systems that seems unstoppable. Concurrent with its steamrolling effect is an overloading of the mythic realm in society to the point of brainwashing. The age of computerization marks the latest dominator on the scene. If you don’t belong to it in some fashion (belief is not absolutely necessary), you are pushed to the fringe. To have a set of values, if you will, a perspective or a reasonably fixed view of life, appears obsolete and anti-progressive. The dominating logic of a medium or empire on the rise.

Worrisome is television’s absence of point of view and belief. To be all things to everyone creates a moral flood that washes away all grooves and nuances of belief save for television’s own, which believes in everything, hence nothing. The way is opened for the shameless and the reckless; television will appeal to the worst in us, the laziest, most passive part of our being: the need to be fulfilled without making an effort. Perfect receptors who desire no end to the receiving. Limitless solitary pleasures which pull us (psychically) away from others. Contented cows, like the kind Nietzsche (right) describes at the beginning of his Second Untimely Meditation: “Consider the herds that are feeding yonder: they know not the meaning of yesterday and today; they graze and ruminate, move or rest, from morning to night, from day to day, taken up with their little loves and hates the mercy of the moment, feeling neither melancholy or satiety” (5).

In relation to the large production, PBS’s American Cinema (1995), one might find many of my assertions to be premature, overwrought, and contradicted regarding television’s lack of viewpoint. In each of the ten episodes, the documentary spends much time assembling diverse and divergent opinions about movies. The major difference between Television and American Cinema, one that creates the impression that the latter has a true perspective, is the incorporation into American Cinema the latest critical fashions, especially feminist and Marxist, to give the documentary a bolder, serious face. In a sense, the series attempts to put cinema in a cultural perspective, but the end result is nothing more than a Nature Show again. The phenomenon observed, behavioral peculiarities noted (film noir, independent films, screwball comedy, etc), and we have mastered another part of the cultural background.

The larger problem with television’s approach to its own history, movie history, or American history as “nature shows” is its implicit presumption that the particular subject studied has a fixed nature, a deeply established pattern which cannot be or have been any different, with all the moral bribery this implies. A “This is this” approach, it self-confidently feels that all views have been covered with a textbook arrogance that succussfully hardens the subject into a corpse.

III. The Flat Entity

The silhouette, detached from the wall now, oscillated, jostled by other shapes, not visibly behaving as an individual, pushed and pulled in various directions, less by its own anxieties than by the sum of the anxieties of the thousands of people surrounding it. But this oscillation was only apparent; in reality, it was the shortest distance between toil and sleep, between affliction and boredom, between suffering and death. — Raymond Queneau

The Bark Tree

Television’s forward moving, all-embracing, all-consuming, emotionally reductive (in the sense of something being “lost” or missing), seemingly irresistible ethos is neatly personified by Chauncey Gardner (Chance the gardener) in the film Being There(1979). Despite having little contact with the world for fifty years and being slightly mentally retarded, Chauncey mesmerizes everyone — realtors, politicians, newspeople, talkshow hosts — by virtue of his personal shapelessness. Not full of sound and fury, Chance’s knowledge of the world is a tale related through the “idiot box.” However, the film’s director and writer, Hal Ashby and Jerzy Kosinski respectively, do not make him a social “product” of too much television watching (a la the scene in the Indian’s home in Natural Born Killers [1994] when the words “too much TV” appear across Mickey and Mallory’s heads) but the mirror image of the television. Chauncey is TV plus all the qualities television brings to the world. Chauncey Gardner knows nothing and knows no boundaries. He resembles Benjy Compson who could switch consciousness of people and time with the sound of a single world (like a golfer calling for his caddie); Chauncey’s unpredictably mutable consciousness resembles mental channel surfing. Being There‘s Benjamin (Melvyn Douglas) tells him at one point: “Ah, Chauncey, you have the gift of being natural.” The logical extension of his boundless self — if we consider the absence of consciousness and ego “natural” — flowers into a people divorced from their actions, free from social conscience, whence point of view/perspective is surrendered to synthetic sophistication and phony insight.

It is impossible to argue with Chauncey just as you can’t argue with television, because he sort of makes sense in the broadest fashion; secondly, if you suspect he doesn’t make sense, he still appears harmless if not a little funny, so why fight him. If you do confront or defy him, Chauncey will sap your will. When Ben’s doctor (Richard Dysart) reveals to Chauncey that he knows his real name, Chance, Chauncey remains oblivious to the doctor’s words and continues to speak of Ben, his benefactor, who is about to die. All the doctor can do is say: “I understand,” key words signifying Chauncey’s own understanding without really understanding. The precise kind of un-understanding and ersatz apprehension of the world that television perpetuates among most of its viewers. Television mesmerizes us into a feeling of understanding when very little is understood (knowledge without depth) — what we understand we have little real stake in and thus aren’t bothered by the shallowness of this state of mind. The beauty of Being There‘s satire lies in the strategy of depicting both television and its effects in a single man whose personality absorbs friend and foe, combines idiocy and wisdom. All who meet him compromise their identities to accommodate themselves to him (not always done consciously). Likewise, the American public accommodates itself to the television/ entertainment ethos; the process appears so innocuous that we have made the accommodation with few second thoughts.

The ultimate horror of Being There comes at Ben’s funeral. The President (Jack Warden) reads the eulogy and the political kingmakers handling Ben’s coffin are discussing the next choice for President. Chauncey becomes their appropriate candidate because he has no past to hurt him and his ideas appeal to the television electorate. Politics’ infection from television receives such a splendid critique: the implication of his candidacy is that television itself will run for president! In other words (this is thirty years ago!), politics like sports has become a product of the medium. Joe McGinniss’ book, The Selling of the President, heralded this development (the film derived from it, The Candidate [1972] expresses the absolute hollowness of politics).

The public yearns for something that sounds fresh. Chauncey’s unconscious trick is speaking in generalities and vague analogies, actually talking about the only thing he really knows: tending his garden (the garden man becomes Gardner; the man becomes the personification of television). His listeners supply the meaning and, if you will, the profundity. Who could have planned it this way? Yet, Chauncey also seems on the verge of revelation. To pick up the thread from Nietzsche, he writes how man looks at the herd and asks: “Why do you look at me and not speak to me of your happiness?” The beast wants to answer —”Because I always forget what I wished to say”; but he forgets this answer, too, and is silent; and the man is left to wonder (5).

(While trying not to step onto the tracks of the liberal political stands of early television critiques like A Face in the Crowd (1957), it’s hard to resist the political identity of Chauncey Gardner being Ronald Reagan. We would not want to scare away those conservatives who still worship at Reagan’s altar; it should be understood that we imagine Reagan being as innocent as Chauncey with the flair to “communicate” with his audience. It’s the irony and tragedy of the last fifty years of political history that Reagan should have been called “the Great Communicator” when he bespoke in the vaguest, most unclear language. On one half of the political spectrum, this nomenclature is said with tremendous irony and sneering, while conservatives revere Reagan’s gift. The times demanded Reagan’s appearance: a hollow politics filled with positive thinking bombast, sold to the public with the right one-liners and captions, reality locked up and made what Reagan’s White House wanted it to be. Not just Doublespeak but the Reagan mastery of the story the teller himself didn’t know was fact or fiction, or had blended the fact and fiction to create a better sounding reality for the United States. He couldn’t have done it without television and its ethos. The achievement of Bill Clinton, within this ethos, is that he has consciously become what Reagan naturally was, which has meant that a different game has been played in the 1990s, a more sophisticated game, best seen in the 1993 documentary, The War Room.)

Chauncey Gardner’s name is derived from Eve Rand’s (Shirley MacLaine) mishearing him saying “Chance the gardener.” The garden-wisdom that mesmerizes the public keynotes his naturalness, his absence of pretense and phoniness. However, the name “Chance” strikes more deeply into the universe clued by television. Whenever he watches television, he both apes what he watches (a practice hilariously followed in the real world when he is given the message for Rafael) and turns the channels away from what he watches. Everything catches his attention, but he cannot stay with anything for very long because of boredom or Benjy Compson-like jerkiness caused by unconscious responses to the images on the screen. The arbitrariness of what he watches might represent a model of a universe which itself is naturally arbitrary; Man, the natural animal Man, becomes that very universe of un-meaning and senselessness.Being There‘s ultimate satiric point might well be that what the world finds most profound, most insightful, becomes the gateway to an arbitrary society. No one will then be able to answer why study this or that or why observe this or that law. All has become chance. Our parents met by chance, as all parents met by chance, and what we are becomes the sum of a universe of chance happenings. All meaning dissolves within this universe of chance. And we come to believe all viewpoints are valid. Such logic devolves all life to chance. To an extent everything can be explained away — starting with the behavior of sociopaths and working a way to the normal. The society, the world, melts into the indistinct.

IV. The Television Mistress

Heidegger’s concept of a human being as “Dasein” could be translated literally as “there-being.” The relationship to Being There‘s title cannot be a coincidence. However, Chance’s “there-being” seems more dehumanized than an investment in his potential humanity or authentic being. This is why the attempt to examine Chance’s life as Dasein meets mostly frustration by envisioning Chance as the embodiment of existentialism and thus missing what could have been truer Heideggerian take on Being There‘s concern for the problem of technology. In the aptly titled RUA/TV?, an anthology of articles on Heidegger and the televisual, the authors consistently relate his terminology in Being and Time to the effects of television on people. They speak about television “de-sevring or dis-stancing the person from reality and television conquering remoteness and making farness vanish and tele-vision being there and there visualized.” In particular, Tony Fry writes that “Heidegger started to grasp that modern technology (in which television is but one agency of lifeworld meditation and timespace ‘compression’) dissolves the ground upon which there exists a place of belonging, one that exists as here as home — for us here and there have been displaced everywhere and anywhere” (RUA/TV?, 32).

Heidegger, in “The Question Concerning Technology,” finds danger in technology’s ability to reveal aspects of the world and that man might misinterpret this revealing for the truth. While Chance the gardener lives out the concept of “they-self” (a part of Dasein that is similar to other people’s Dasein), Heidegger more accurately anticipates Chauncey Gardner’s effect on a public that believes he is revealing the truth in his little sayings about gardening. Chauncey’s language becomes a paradigm for the technological and as such “enters the inmost recesses of human existence, transforming the way we know and think and will.” This technique of language seduces a public desiring to hear the truth and crudely but effectively illustrates one of Heidegger’s fears. In another essay he writes: “But where is the danger? What is the place for it? Inasmuch as the danger of Being itself, it is both nowhere and everywhere. It has no place as something other than itself. It is itself the placeless dwelling place of all presencing” ( 42-43).

The idiot, signifying nothing, Chance, has no frame of reference, only parts of a past and no future, a world dulled into singular dimensions, like the one described by John McCrone in The Myth of Irrationality (see above, epigraph to section II). Chance is all-present. Always in the present. Can’t leave the present to ponder the future, except for his animal needs. He’s both placeless (kicked out of his original dwelling) and all presence (has no sense of time). Chance as the embodiment of television is everywhere, as unrestricted in reference as is Benjy Compson in The Sound and the Fury, and nowhere (no frame of reference).

Television, the tele-visual, for Heidegger, represents the essence of technology: literally, the essence of an essence. That’s why the world of television excretes its own ethos and endures separately from television’s content (McLuhan’s contention inUnderstanding Media). Television becomes like life, a life stated in Being There‘s final words as “a state of mind.” Television as an ethos affects us whether we watch television or not. All you have to do is go to a baseball game to find out. Sure, you can grow skeptical of Chauncey’s abilities or worry about his influence on economics and politics, yet critical distance means nothing to a force like Chance. He defeats a critique because he’s impervious to it, just as Schwarzenegger’s Terminator is impervious to the feelings of his victims or anyone preventing him from destroying his targets. He’s programmed this way. Only an act of heroism can save us.

The tele-visual (Chauncey Gardner) brings us closer to the world and, simultaneously, keeps us distant. Metaphorically, we have fallen for him, and become his mistress with the apparent consent of society, as Ben has consented to Eve’s affair with Chauncey. Eve (like us) becomes a willing mistress attracted to this thing that gives her (us) everything except itself. One is reminded of Sterling Hayden’s line to Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove (1964) explaining his moral and sexual fatigue: “I don’t avoid women, Mandrake, but I do deny them my essence.” Television’s gravity and all-inclusiveness seems to be taking us somewhere, to places our spouses, our “real” lives, can’t take us, can’t do for us. As willing mistresses, we ignore our master’s indifference to our truest, basic needs. We wait for television to respond. We grow older, duller, more fallen. Meanwhile, we virtually become televisions. Chance/Chauncey has virtually pioneered a new version of the American Dream. Only, the Revolution will not be televised because Chance has preempted it with his own revolution. We live to become a personality (individual) remote yet close, detached but knowing empathy. What’s not acknowledged by television (Chance) does not exist. The beauty of it all is that we never recognize that we have ceased to exist.

Works Cited

Fry, Tony, editor. RUA/TV? Heidegger and the Televisual, Sydney: Power Publications, 1993.

Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. by William Lovitt, New York: Harpers, 1977.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Use and Abuse of History, trans. by Adrian Collins, Indianapolis: Library of the Liberal Arts, 1957.