I recently watched for the first time Hal Ashby’s 1979 satire, Being There, which I found amusingly prophetic. Satire is so hard to do, and Ashby’s film does it fairly well, though it never achieves the scathing brilliance of Sidney Lumet’s Network, a film made just three years prior. In Being There, Peter Sellers plays a TV-obsessed idiot savant gardener who through a series of mishaps and misunderstandings becomes the toast of Washington D. C. For the most part, Ashby plays the satire light and bubbly, until the eerie closing scenes that become rich with overt symbolism and end with Sellers literally walking on water not knowing yet that he has been handpicked by the Masonic cabal to become the nation’s next political wunderkind.
Whereas Network envisioned a society in which reality TV runs amok, corporate fascism rules supreme, and Saudi Arabian oil money holds a controlling interest in American media and politics–sound familiar?– Being There paints a picture of America in the midst of an economic meltdown where a bumbling idiot is gifted the Presidency by the ruling class–wow, that could never happen. One of the funniest bits in Being There is when the media falls in love with Sellers’ Chauncey Gardner and considers him a breath of fresh air because he doesn’t read any newspapers. In fact, he doesn’t even know how to read or write. The public sees him as brilliant because he boils down the economic crisis to a simpleton’s terms by using a gardening metaphor. There’s also a great bit where his former caretaker (an elderly African-American maid) sees him on TV and proclaims, “That boy is as dumb as a jack-ass. This proves all you have to be is White in America and you get what you want.” In 1979 that was spot on, but, wait, have things actually changed?
Well, as we now have one idiot who didn’t read newspapers leaving office after eight horrendous years that produced the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and another idiot who failed to get into Washington D. C. after being advertised as a breath of fresh air sweeping down from Alaska, we are about to inaugurate an eloquent African-American as our next President who has proven hard work can trump nepotism in a renewed America. It seems the era Being There warned of has already come to pass and it was even more horrifically funny than the film that prophesized it.
In the “done that” category, I finally read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. You know, The Road is one of those books everyone you know who reads has read and has been telling you, “YOU HAVE TO READ THIS”, but you didn’t read it until you heard it was being made into a movie. The Road is a grim tale of a father and son roaming a post-apocalyptic wasteland trying to survive. In this dark future, ash covers everything, charred bodies litter the landscape, most animals have become extinct, and marauding groups of cannibals pick off survivors one by one.
McCarthy crafts the novel in a stark, lean style meant to mirror the savage existence he describes. I found the fragmented sentences and unmarked dialogue hard to get used to, but the book moves at such a quick and horrific clip that it soon becomes easy to overlook the stylistic idiosyncrasies. Much of the storyline is repetitive: father and son search for food, father and son find food, father and sun run out of food, father and son search for more food, they stumble upon a cannibal here, a terrifying scene there, they find an idyllic shelter they only have to leave too soon out of fear–and many readers will find it frustrating that the apocalypse is never explained and the ending arrives all too conveniently. I also found the religious underpinnings to be overly simplistic.
Despite these flaws, The Road held me mysteriously captivated. It was the fist time since I was a child that I raced through a book in only two days. I don’t know if that speaks to the style in which the book is written or the power of its story. When I was a teenager, I was more inclined to enjoy these post-apocalyptic-sci-fi-horror-infused tales, and this would’ve been just the type of thing my immature mind would’ve loved. Now, I’m a bit more cynical and tied to the real world, and The Road seems like the relic of a juvenile past. I give credit to McCarthy, however, for delivering something that is completely unlike anything I’ve read in the past five years. It will be awhile before I fully digest his vision.
The film adaptation of The Road is set for an early 2009 release. It is directed by John Hillcoat, who was responsible for the grim Aussie Western The Proposition, and stars Viggo Mortensen.
Written by David H. Schleicher
I haven’t seen “Being There” (it’s on my list of “Films I Should’ve Seen By Now”), but I did read “The Road” and it was the third and final nail in the coffin of my interest in Cormac McCarthy. Yes, the book has some grim and startling passages, but for much MUCH too long, it is a colossal bore. And the no-name man’s son seriously became annoying. The book just registered nothing for me, much like “All the Pretty Horses” bored me to tears and “No Country For Old Men” frustrated me with its anticlimactic ending that so many people (apparently) smarter than me saw as a metaphor for something. No more Cormac books shall grace my bookshelf. I must admit, though, I’m interested to see the film version.
Chris, ditto the feelings on No Country for Old Men. I certainly “get” the appeal of Cormac McCarthy, and there’s no denying his talent, but he’s just not the type of writer I typically enjoy, even though I am still divided on The Road. It captured my interest for sure, but the more I think about it, the more I shrug. I’m very weary of the film version, though it has potential as I think Mortensen is a great actor and I thought the director’s previous film, The Proposition was near brilliant. –DHS
I think the you have overplayed the “post-apocalyptic-sci-fi-horror” dimension to The Road a bit. I was expecting something along these lines when I read it but in fact this struck me as being of little importance. For me it was about a father’s terror at being the sole person responsible for his son – and I don’t mean this just on a metaphorical level but on a tangible, emotional level. It really tapped into the fear that a parent feels in having to protect their child in a world gone mad (metaphorically or not).
The “bad guys” (as the protagonists call them in The Road) in McCarthy novels always seem more spectral than real, and like in “No Country For Old Men” a manifestation or embodiment of evil and greed. McCarthy’s novels always give me the sense of man living on the margins of civilisation – of some kind of apocalyptic tipping point – whether it be in the future (as you described) or in the ending of a generation.
James, you make some very interesting points. I think I had hoped it would focus more on the “nuts and bolts” of the post-apocalyptic society rather than the parent-child relationship being strained by some vague “whatever”. Coming from McCarthy, I should’ve known better. –DHS
Interesting comments about “The Road” and “Being There.” I found it amusing that you wrote about them on the same post, contrasting them, whether intentional or not. One could say that the stupidity satirized in the movie (from the novel by Jerzy Kosinski) brought humanity to the world of “The Road.”
I wondered also why McCarthy hadn’t spent at least some time explaining how his world had happened or what the society was like in that world until I realized halfway through that he had. There is no human society as such in that world, there are only individuals trying to survive, or gangs of the bad guys. So McCarthy’s “society” under such circumstances is the family — father and son. The father is not only concerned about protecting his son, but also protecting his son’s inherent goodness in a world where primitive, animal behavior rules. But at some point, the son must strike out on his own, just as sons have done for generations. The trip is like a rite of passage but one in which the son is not charged with doing something physical to become a man it is to remain “good.” Human. The message about being a good guy stuck, clearly, because the son asks the stranger at the end if he’s one of the good guys. He knows well what the bad guys do.
It’s also several years after the event that produced the world McCarthy describes — not many people have survived much less animals or plants, insects or birds. So, for me, McCarthy succeeded in putting me in that world with his use of repetition, and emphasizing just what life was like through the same repetition. It’s not a world I want to experience in reality….
CCYager, I found the two oddly linked as well in that they both warned of a worst case scenario, Being There through satire, and The Road through gritty doom and gloom. –DHS
I find “Being There” to be amazingly prophetic, but for a different reason. The parallels between Chauncey Gardner and Barack Obama are startling, as is the fawning of the media over someone with absolutely no experience and no business holding the office of POTUS. After one year of mismanagement bordering on incompetence, I have to conclude that we have elected a real life Chauncey Gardner to the highest office in the land.
Harry, while I can see how the “media darling” aspect of Barack’s rise to power is somewhat superficially similar, I couldn’t disagree with you more. I think Chauncey Gardner is more easily analogous to George Dubya Bush. But we can agree to disagree as it is obvious we are from different ends of the political spectrum. –DHS
Wrong. You just needed to wait a few more years. As we know now, in 2017, everything “Being There” prophesied came to pass. Only, so much worse than the film could ever have predicted.
What a difference a decade makes! Who knew it could and would get so much worse. Thanks for finding my corner of the blogosphere and commenting on a post I had long forgotten about.