Film Double Bill: John Fortenbury

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The Independent Culture
Being There (Hal Ashby, 1979) Dr Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1963) SOCIAL PARODY is the link between these two films. Being There is my favourite movie, and this is not to say it's the greatest film ever, but the way in which it shows perception as a major element in relationships and culture strikes a chord with me.

Peter Sellers plays an idiot. However, after a string of misconceptions he is hailed as a wise man. The film is not as incomprehensible as the story appears in outline, and by the end of the film, when he is heading up a major corporation, it's somehow believable. A lot of the believability is because of astutely observed scenes, illustrating how easily we can be fooled. For instance, Sellers is holding court at a fancy party and people come up and question him, as you would a wise man, and he gives himself away - saying, "I don't read" - and they take this as meaning that one shouldn't read. Via these instances, he becomes the man others perceive him to be.

Ashby is my favourite director. Since I was a young man he has been a hero of mine; his whole body of work is stunning, Harold and Maude and Coming Home would be on my greatest film list.

Peter Sellers is another connection between these films - and I am a big Sellers fan - but they are also similarly themed. The film shows the end of the world, when a paranoid US general goes truly over the edge. Sellers plays three roles, including the US President. And despite the serious anti-war message, it is a humorous film. Sellers was one of the great, great comic actors. Centred around conflict, nuclear war specifically, the ridiculousness of miscommunication is laid bare.

Issue-led and issue driven, both directors treat their respective issues with energy. The films are filled with interesting, quirky characters, so making a mockery of them is all the more fascinating. War and false worship are in no sense admirable but both films have perspective: it could be you who is fooled.

Don't take anything at face value is the message. And don't prejudge for your audience: don't make direct fun of your characters, no matter how ridiculous, and ease the audience into the issues.