I have a vague recollection of reading or hearing some place that "Beginnings are dangerous things." I had thought it might have come from Dune but the pertinent quote there is "A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct." Which is, to some extent, more explicit in why I think beginnings are dangerous things, especially when it comes to story-telling. Imagine the daunting task of opening a novel or a movie—somehow, you must grab the reader's attention and maintain that interest until the actual momentum of the story itself keeps the reader hooked. In some ways, I imagine it might be easier to start a book because it would seem a writer has more tools with which to hook the reader—evocative description, bold action, an example of writing skill. Movies, on the other hand, either grab you visually from the get-go or test the viewers' patience.
All that said, however, I think endings are far more difficult for storytellers. The story has an inertia of its own, and the storyteller has to somehow bring that energy to a satisfying end without betraying the forces that got the story there in the first place. And the ending is the last memory of the story that the audience will have, so you don't want to send them away unhappy. Off the top of my head, I suspect there are probably more clichés for ending a story than for beginning them.
For years now, Mrs. Speculator has been trying to get me to see 1979's Being There, a sharp satire starring Peter Sellers and directed by Hal Ashby. To be candid, I had tried at least three times to watch Being There, but I fell asleep about 20 minutes in every time. My movie fan friends have long found this situation to be intolerable, as they think Being There brilliant and audacious, and my life would just not be complete if I did not make it through at least one viewing of it. This past weekend, due to the magic of Netflix, I finally did.
Peter Sellers plays Chance (or as he is later known in the film Chauncey Gardener), a middle-aged man who has spent his entire life in a single home and the adjoining walled-in garden. Everything he knows about the outside world comes from television, and while this stirs up the possibilities of over the top satire, the movie doesn't go there. Chance is a simple man, who has apparently been kept in this household to protect himself—it's never really clear if he is retarded or just utterly ignorant, or even how this set of circumstances arose. But when the homeowner (who may or may not be his father) dies, he is forced to make his way in the world on his own, and the world outside his garden is Washington DC.
The real comedy and its closely associated satire of Being There is that all the influential and smart people he meets mistake his calm ignorance for calm assuredness. Asked his opinion about current events, Chance always responds with his observations about maintaining a garden, which in turn are interpreted as philosophical anecdotes and keen insight. Asked about the country's flailing economy, Chance responds that seasons turn, the spring follows winter. And those people who listen—first an influential lobbyist, then the President of the United States, and ultimately the entire country—hear him saying that things will get better.
The movie is, in fact, brilliant in its use of Chance as a focal character through which we observe ourselves. We laugh at the gullibility of those who seek Chance's insight, and we snicker at Chance's utter reliance on television to make it through his life. And then a thoughtful audience will use those moments to evaluate their own actions and beliefs. The screenplay is wicked in its constant use of essentially two conversations at one time—the one Chance's questioners want to have and the one that Chance thinks he is participating in. The comedy is soft and quiet, rarely descending into anything more overt including just one physical bit from Sellers, the master of physical comedy.
The problem, the issue that pushes me to write this and solicit insight, is with the very last scene of the movie. (I should note that from here on out there will be spoilers, so stop reading if you don't want to know how Being There ends.) As a funeral takes place over a hill from where Chance stands beside a pond, he steps out and onto the water, walking across it and even reaching down to dip his umbrella into its depths. And as I watched it, it made me angry because it seemed to be a betrayal of what the rest of the movie, a quite good movie up to this point, was about. I've spent the last few days thinking about this and actually searching the Interwebs for some insight, but I can only come down to two readings of the final scene:
- It's just another indication of how pure and innocent Chance is.
- Chance is Christ.
These two readings are obviously closely related but they have different effects on how to accept the story being told. In the first case, we've already spent more than two hours seeing example after example of how innocent Chance is. Approached sexually by both men and women who are swayed by his charm and demeanor, he has no idea what they are asking for as they try to seduce him. And outside of the physical innocence, the movie has made it clear repeatedly that he just doesn't understand worldly issues beyond the garden and his complete reliance on the truthfulness and good wishes of those who know him. So, having him walk on water as a final example of that purity is gilding the lily: we just don't need anything that heavy-handed at this late stage and especially as the last scene we take away from the movie.
The other possibility is worse because there is absolutely no foreshadowing that this might be the case. Christ was not a simple man, potentially retarded. Historically, Christ has been depicted as intelligent and well-spoken, while Chance repeats often "I don't read" (which is interpreted by his audience as "I choose not to read" when he is really saying he doesn't know how). Unexpected twists at the end of a movie are often delightful, recasting the entire movie in a new light from the unusual position of its conclusion, but those twists need to be supported by the events that take place in the rest of the movie. It just doesn't happen here.
I'm also mindful of the difficulty that Being There presents to the director and screen writer; if the walking on water bit is not suitable as an ending to Chance's story, what then should replace it? And as I've tried to interpret what was intended by Chance's miracle, I've also considered other ways to bring the movie to a conclusion. Unfortunately, I can't think of anything better, especially when I try to continue the movement and direction the movie seemed to have. The result is that I am frustrated because Being There is such a delightful movie, and it comes to such an unsatisfying and jarring end.
And so I throw out this plea to my readers—if you have seen Being There, do you have a different interpretation of the final scene? Or can you think of a better way to close the movie?