Quidnovi: Being There    
 Being There9 comments
picture16 Sep 2003 @ 16:35, by Quidnovi

Is it possible that we are all just clever versions of Chance the gardener? That we are trained from an early age to respond automatically to given words and concepts? That we never really think out much of anything for ourselves, but are content to repeat what works for others in the same situation?


BEING THERE
By Roger Ebert

On the day that Kasparov was defeated by Deep Blue, I found myself thinking of the film ``Being There'' (1979). The chess champion said there was something about the computer he did not understand, and it frightened him. There were moments when the computer seemed to be . . . thinking. Of course, chess is not a game of thought but of mathematical strategy; Deep Blue has demonstrated it is possible to be very good at it without possessing consciousness.

The classic test of Artificial Intelligence has been: Can a computer be programmed to conduct a conversation that seems human to another human? ``Being There'' is a film about a man whose mind works like a rudimentary A.I. program.

His mind has been supplied with a fund of simplistic generalizations about the world, phrased in terms of the garden where he has worked all his adult life. But because he presents himself as a man of good breeding (he walks and talks like the wealthy older man whose house he lived in, and wears the man's tailored suits) his simplicity is mistaken for profundity, and soon he is advising presidents and befriending millionaires.

The man's name is Chance. We gather he has lived all of his life inside the townhouse and walled garden of a rich recluse (perhaps he is his son). He knows what he needs to know for his daily routine: Where his bedroom and bathroom are, and how to tend the plants of the garden. His meals are produced by Louise, the cook. The movie provides no diagnosis of his condition. He is able to respond to given cues, and can, within limits, adapt and learn.

Early in the film he introduces himself as ``Chance . . . the gardener,'' and is misunderstood as having said ``Chauncey Gardener.'' Just the sort of WASP name that matches his clothing and demeanor, and soon he is telling the President: ``Spring, summer, autumn, winter . . . then spring again.'' Indeed.

Chance is played by Peter Sellers, an actor who once told me he had ``absolutely no personality at all. I am a chameleon. When I am not playing a role, I am nobody.'' Of course, he thought himself ideal for this role, which comes from a novel by Jerzy Kosinski. Sellers plays Chance as a man at peace with himself. When the old man dies, the household is broken up and Chance is evicted, there is a famous scene where he is confronted by possible muggers, and simply points a channel changer at them, and clicks. He is surprised when they do not go away.

Sellers plays Chance at exactly the same note for the entire film. He is detached, calm, secure in his own knowledge, unaware of his limitations. Through a series of happy chances, he is taken into the home of a dying millionaire named Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas). The millionaire's wife Eve (Shirley MacLaine) establishes Chance in a guest suite, where he is happy to find a television (his most famous line is, ``I like to watch.'')

Soon the rich man grows to treasure his reassuring friend. The family doctor (Richard Dysart) is perceptive, and begins to have doubts about Chance's authenticity, but silences himself when his patient says Chauncey ``has made the thought of dying much easier.'' Chauncey is introduced by Ben to the president (Jack Warden), becomes an unofficial advisor, and soon is being interviewed on television, where his insights fit nicely into the limited space available for sound bites.

Satire is a threatened species in American film, and when it does occur, it's usually broad and slapstick, as in the Mel Brooks films. ``Being There,'' directed by Hal Ashby, is a rare and subtle bird that finds its tone and stays with it. It has the appeal of an ingenious intellectual game, in which the hero survives a series of challenges he doesn't understand, using words that are both universal and meaningless. But are Chance's sayings noticeably less useful than when the president tells us about a ``bridge to the 21st century?'' Sensible public speech in our time is limited by (1) the need to stay within he confines of the 10-second TV sound bite; (2) the desire to avoid being pinned down to specific claims or promises; and (3) the abbreviated attention span of the audience, which, like Chance, likes to watch but always has a channel-changer poised.

If Chance's little slogans reveal how superficial public utterance can be, his reception reveals still more. Because he is WASP, middle-aged, well-groomed, dressed in tailored suits, and speaks like an educated man, he is automatically presumed to be a person of substance. He is, in fact, socially naive (``You're always going to be a little boy,'' Louise tells him). But this leads to a directness than can be mistaken for confidence, as when he addresses the president by his first name, or enfolds his hand in both of his own. The movie argues that if you look right, sound right, speak in platitudes and have powerful friends, you can go far in our society. By the end of the film, Chance is being seriously proposed as a presidential candidate. Well, why not? I once watched Lamar Alexander for 45 minutes on C-SPAN, as he made small talk in a New Hampshire diner, and heard nothing that Chance could not have said.

In the much-discussed final sequence of ``Being There,'' Chance casually walks onto the surface of a lake. We can see that he is really walking on the water, because he leans over curiously and sticks his umbrella down into it.

When I taught the film, I had endless discussions with my students over this scene. Many insisted on explaining it: He is walking on a hidden sandbar, the water is only half an inch deep, there is a submerged pier, etc. ``Not valid!'' I thundered. ``The movie presents us with an image, and while you may discuss the meaning of the image it is not permitted to devise explanations for it. Since Ashby does not show a pier, there is no pier--a movie is exactly what it shows us, and nothing more,'' etc.

So what does it show us? It shows us Chance doing something that is primarily associated with only one other figure in human history. What are we to assume? That Chance is a Christ figure? That the wisdom of great leaders only has the appearance of meaning? That we find in politics and religion whatever we seek? That like the Road Runner (who also defies gravity) he will not sink until he understands his dilemma?

The movie's implications are alarming. Is it possible that we are all just clever versions of Chance the gardener? That we are trained from an early age to respond automatically to given words and concepts? That we never really think out much of anything for ourselves, but are content to repeat what works for others in the same situation?

The last words in the movie are, "Life is a state of mind." So no computer will ever be alive. But to the degree that we are limited by our programming, neither will we. The question is not whether a computer will ever think like a human, but whether we choose to free ourselves from thinking like computers.

Copyright © Chicago Sun-Times Inc.

One of the hallmarks of a parable of this type is that it can serve as host to a treasure trove of interpretations. …[You can] see Chance as yourself experiencing all the ways in which others try to force you to play a part in their movies. Others have hailed the political prophecy of Being There—individuals have been elevated to high political office for simply coming across well on television. Or here's a final one to process: the film is simply a very savvy meditation on being present—being at the right place at the right time.
---Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat (Spirituality and Health)

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Related topic: Being Real


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9 comments

17 Sep 2003 @ 07:01 by jazzolog : But There Also Is Lee The Gardener
He took a patch of harsh mountain land and turned it into a thriving farm. But when Korea was flooded with foreign imports he was ruined---and last week, during the world trade talks, Lee Kyung-hae plunged a knife into his heart. Who was he?

[link]  



17 Sep 2003 @ 12:36 by quidnovi : Off Topic Comment
Sorry Richard! I am normally a big fan of your posts and of your occasional comments (even unauthorized ones such as this one which keep popping up on my log even though the Comment Option is turned off (I don't mind), but this comment of yours does not address the topic at hand. Furthermore, its content does not inform the reader about the issue you have chosen to bring up, its importance or your point of view (see Rating Table---you are a teacher so I know you can relate ;-)

Don’t get me wrong, here, I understand that the WTO is a most serious and pressing issue:
"How can market forces and technological progress be directed to serve humanity, instead of enslaving humanity to markets and technologies? How will democracies function if their most important laws are subject to an unelected international bureaucracy? Why are the rights of investors granted precedence over the rights of workers and the preservation of the natural environment?"
---Joe Canason

Some think the WTO is a great thing (In Defense of Global Capitalism) other think the WTO is the wrong world institution run by the wrong people for the wrong reasons (What's wrong with the WTO?)

I am sure you mean well, but don’t you think, Richard, that the WTO or Lee Kyung-hae’ s death are respectively a serious topic and a tragic event that both are deserving maybe of a little better than a snide comment lazily dropped on a post unrelated to that issue?  



17 Sep 2003 @ 14:13 by jazzolog : Terribly Sorry
I meant no offense...nor did I know your comment thingie was turned off. Honest! I would not intrude.

I thought there was sort of a connection...but you are the boss, and please delete my above and this if you wish. We wild mountain monks without Logs sometimes have to look for a place to park our thoughts...and often the Chats whiz by so fast that the impact is lost. Oh well, that's my problem and not yours. I regret horribly leaving footprints where none is desired. Adieu.  



17 Sep 2003 @ 16:34 by quidnovi : No harm done, my friend
I do (and did) totally understand what it was the "wild mountain monk" was doing (and why), which is why I have never made a big deal about it.

1. The Comment thingie:
The comment thingie has been turned off because I am a little bit short on time right now and I do not feel it fair to invite people to post comments when I know that I am not going to be around (or that I just simply won't have the time) to answer.

2. Footprints:
You remind me of that absurd commercial about those monks who find a way around their vow of silence by resorting to Smartphone technology as a palliative to their (self-imposed) inability to speak. For goodness sake, Richard, if you want to be silent, be silent, but, hey, if you want to speak just speak. You know how popular JazzoLog was. If you want to talk about Lee Kyung-hae or the WTO, why don't you just re-open your NCN newslog and post an entry about it?  



18 Sep 2003 @ 00:00 by jazzolog : What, Me Quiet?
No, I never said I wanted to be silent...or to quit this joint. Perhaps you were busy and missed it at one of the other Logs. JazzoLOG got taken down when a 6th grade friend of my daughter's found it through Google, apparently, and posted a couple of delightful comments. I realized then that this child was just a few clicks away from investigating at least one other public Log in which I was described as a sexual pervert. When I expressed this concern to the Power-That-Is, he shrugged the libel stuff off and said it was my own fault for getting myself into the mess. (The guy would make a great judge at a rape trial.) I resigned my "assistant administrator" position here on the spot, and began to relocate jazzoLOG to a site with a little more law 'n order...if not compassion. You can visit it easily, Francis--- [link] and there's a cool new article too, called Snakes In My Ceiling. Who would want to miss that? Anyway, that leaves me back where I started at NCN...wandering through these labyrinthine halls looking for an honest man and/or woman.  


18 Sep 2003 @ 10:01 by quidnovi : Rashomon
...after some work with a colored pencil I succeeded in making my first drawing. My drawing number 1. It looked like this:

drawing no. 1

I showed my masterpiece to the grown-ups, and asked them whether the drawing frightened them.
They answered me: "Why should any one be frightened by a hat?"
My drawing was not a picture of a hat. It was a picture of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. Then, I drew the inside of the boa constrictor, so that the grown-ups could see it clearly. They always need to have things explained. My drawing number 2 looked like this:

drawing no. 2

The grown-ups' response, this time, was to advise me to lay aside my drawings of boa constrictors, whether from the inside or the outside, and devote myself instead to geography, history, arithmetic and grammar. That is why, at the age of six, I gave up what might have been a magnificent career as a painter. I had been disheartened by the failure of my drawing number 1 and my drawing number 2. Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.
So then I chose another profession, and learned to pilot airplanes. I have flown a little over all parts of the world; and it is true that geography has been very useful to me. At a glance I can distinguish China from Arizona. Such knowledge is useful, if one gets lost in the night.
I have had, in the course of my life, many encounters with many people who have been concerned with matters of consequence. I have lived a great deal among grown-ups. I have seen them intimately, close at hand. And that hasn't much improved my opinion of them.

Whenever I met one of them who seemed to me at all clear-sighted, I tried the experiment of showing him my drawing number 1, which I have always kept. I would try to find out, so, if this was a person of true understanding. But, whoever it was, he, or she, would always say: "That is a hat."
Then I would never talk to that person about boa constrictors, or primeval forests, or stars. I would bring myself down to his level. I would talk to him about bridge, and golf, and politics, and neckties. And the grown-up would be greatly pleased to have met such a sensible man.

---Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince  



18 Sep 2003 @ 13:14 by jazzolog : Vraiment
And similarly I shall not speak of all the snakes in my ceiling. Already 2 people have told me they'll not read any of my essays ever again. Somehow all senses of dread descended upon them...and they walk about fearing a snake will fall around their shoulders at any moment. I did not intend such a catastrophe...and shall be more careful what I write about in the future.

Nor will I discuss my experiences with milk snakes. Contrary to the well-known myth that milk snakes suck milk from the udders of cows, the little constrictors are so named because they actually can entwine the teats in such a way to thoroughly and gently milk a cow completely. I once trained an entire fleet of milk snakes for a dairy farmer...and thus now live in financial independence just like the professor-squires at Ohio University, who also do no work. But I shall not speak of it. Nor be tempted to write here anymore. We just can't spare the time.

I still have a few milk snakes of my own though, Francis. If you're in the neighborhood, stop by for a glass of fresh-squeezed.  



18 Sep 2003 @ 16:26 by quidnovi : JazzoLOG's address
is now (as most people already know):

http://www.upsaid.com/jazzolog

Interestingly, I also found it listed under

http://www.espoir.upsaid.com/jazzolog

Espoir is not only a beautiful word meaning hope, but it is also, I feel, one of the most pleasantly sounding word there is. It's sound even better in Italian ("la speranza"---pretty isn't it?)

I say high, you say low
You say why, and I say I don't know
Oh, no
You say goodbye and I say hello
Hello, hello
I don't know why you say goodbye
I say hello
Hello, hello
I don't know why you say goodbye
I say hello

Why, why, why, why, why, why
Do you say good bye
Goodbye, bye, bye, bye, bye

Oh, no
You say goodbye and I say hello
Hello, hello
I don't know why you say goodbye
I say hello
Hello, hello
I don't know why you say goodbye
I say hello
hello, hello
I don't know why you say goodbye I say hello
Hello

Hela, heba helloa
Hela, heba helloa

And, Richard, I always have time to spare for friends---I just don't always have time to spar with them (not pointlessly so, that is ;-)  



19 Sep 2003 @ 00:21 by jazzolog : Hoping For The Best
Yes, I certainly agree; however, getting out of a "pointless spar" with a friend I find one of the most difficult tasks of life---and especially so here in NCN. Inevitably the spar one finds pointless turns out to be a matter of life and death with one's friend. --sigh--

The actual benefactress for jazzoLOG is Sindy, with tech help from Imagine---and so we should add another way in is [link] clicking LightNews when you get there. You'll find Sindy's delightful Log there (different from here) and that Kay writes there now too. There are a couple others as well. Sindy does what she REALLY does quietly and carefully---rather different from the side of her she dances in the NCN Chats---and never has wanted any publicity or to attract NCNers away from what goes on here. So I'm a little hesitant to reveal the Sparkle site---but I'm hoping readers of this Log will be respectful if you visit. Sparring of any kind just doesn't happen there---and personally I find it impossible to argue with her about anything. Everytime I've tried I end up laughing. Bushman's a little like that too. :-)  



Other entries in
16 Mar 2003 @ 21:21: Fallen Jedi
23 Sep 2002 @ 20:31: Being Real
15 Sep 2002 @ 11:05: On the Wings of Hummingbirds
8 Sep 2002 @ 11:55: Dreamers and Doers
28 Jul 2002 @ 19:54: At Play in the (fractal) Fields of NCN
20 Jul 2002 @ 10:17: The Power of Talk



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