In the twilight of the 20th century, here is a comedy to reassure us that there is hope--that the world we see around us represents progress, not decay. "Pleasantville," which is one of the year's best and most original films, sneaks up on us. It begins by kidding those old black-and-white sitcoms like "Father Knows Best," it continues by pretending to be a sitcom itself, and it ends as a social commentary of surprising power.
The movie opens in today's America, which we have been taught to think of as rude, decadent and dangerous. A teenager named David languishes in front of the tube, watching a rerun of a 1950s sitcom named "Pleasantville," in which everybody is always wholesome and happy. Meanwhile, his mother squabbles with her ex-husband and his sister Jennifer prepares for a hot date.
Having heard a whisper or two about the plot, we know that the brother and sister will be magically transported into that 1950s sitcom world. And we're expecting maybe something like "The Brady Bunch Movie," in reverse. We are correct: While David and Jennifer are fighting over the remote control, there's a knock at the door and a friendly TV repairman (Don Knotts) offers them a device "with more oomphs." They click it, and they're both in Pleasantville.
The movie has been written and directed by Gary Ross, who wrote "Big," the 1988 movie where Tom Hanks was a kid trapped in an adult body. Here the characters are trapped in a whole world. He evokes the black-and-white 1950s sitcom world of picket fences and bobby sox, where everybody is white and middle class, has a job, sleeps in twin beds, never uses the toilet and follows the same cheerful script.
Luckily, this is a world that David (Tobey Maguire) knows well; he's a TV trivia expert. It's a mystery to his sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), so he briefs her: Their names are now Bud and Mary Sue, and their parents are Betty and George Parker (Joan Allen and William H. Macy). "We're, like, stuck in Nerdville!" Jennifer complains.
They are. Geography lessons at the local high school are limited to subjects like "Main Street" and "Elm Street" because the world literally ends at the city limits. Space twists back upon itself in Pleasantville, and "the end of Main Street is just the beginning again." Life always goes according to plan, and during basketball practice every shot goes in. After one player experiences sex, he is capable of actually missing a shot; a dead silence falls as the ball rolls away. "Stand back, boys!" warns the coach. "Don't touch it!" "Pleasantville" has fun during these middle sequences, as "Bud and Mary Sue" hang out at the malt shop where Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels) works and park on Lover's Lane (just to hold hands). Then sparks from the emerging future begin to land here and there in the blandness. Mary Sue shares information about masturbation with her mother, who of course has never dreamed of such a pastime (as a perfect housewife, she has never done anything just for herself). As her mother relaxes in her bath, a tree outside their house breaks into flames--in full color! Ross and his cinematographer, John Lindley, work with special effects to show a black-and-white world in which some things and a few people begin switching to color. Is there a system? "Why aren't I in color?" Mary Sue asks Bud. "I dunno," he says. "Maybe it's not just the sex." It isn't. It's the change.
The kids at school are the first to start appearing in colors. They're curious and ready to change. They pepper Bud with questions. "What's outside of Pleasantville?" they ask. "There are places," he says, "where the roads don't go in a circle. They just keep going." Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" subtly appears on the soundtrack.
Bud shows Mr. Johnson a book of color art reproductions, and the soda jerk is thunderstruck by the beauty of Turner and Van Gogh. He starts painting. Soon he and Betty Parker have discovered they're kindred spirits. (After Betty turns up in color, she's afraid to show herself, and in a scene of surprising tenderness, her son helps her put on gray makeup.) George Parker, meanwhile, waits disconsolately at home for his routine to continue, and the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce (J.T. Walsh, in his last performance) notes ominously, "Something is happening in our town." Yes, something, in a town where nothing ever did. The film observes that sometimes pleasant people are pleasant simply because they have never, ever been challenged. That it's scary and dangerous to learn new ways. The movie is like the defeat of the body snatchers: The people in color are like former pod people now freed to move on into the future. We observe that nothing creates fascists like the threat of freedom.
"Pleasantville" is the kind of parable that encourages us to re-evaluate the good old days and take a fresh look at the new world we so easily dismiss as decadent. Yes, we have more problems. But also more solutions, more opportunities and more freedom. I grew up in the '50s. It was a lot more like the world of "Pleasantville" than you might imagine. Yes, my house had a picket fence, and dinner was always on the table at a quarter to six, but things were wrong that I didn't even know the words for. There is a scene in this movie where it rains for the first time. Of course it never rained in 1950s sitcoms. Pleasantville's people in color go outside and just stand in it.
The Garden of Pleasantville
by Olivia ColletteMay Contain Spoilers Print PageTweet
How do things work in a perfect world? The book of Genesis tells us this much: every living thing lives in harmony, food is plentiful, there is no such thing as pain, and nobody knows the difference between good and evil.
That's the loophole the serpent uses to convince Eve to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. "God said not to because I'll die," she protests. "You won't die," the serpent says. "You'll just be wiser, like God, and see things the way he does." So Eve eats the fruit because she can't conceive of anything that isn't perfect, and if God is wise, then wisdom is perfect too. As for Adam, the Bible never really attributes any motive to his deed. He just seems to take the fruit from Eve without question.
The DVD of "Pleasantville" is available on Netflix. You can stream the film for $2.99 on Vudu or Amazon Instant.
I always wondered why God put the Tree there in the first place. If you don't want your immaculate beings to have any knowledge of good and evil, why give them access to it? When God eventually punishes Adam and Eve, he's not just angry that they disobeyed. He also realizes they're smart enough to want to do it again. And nothing ruins a fine paradise like free will.
You know what David loves about Pleasantville? It's unlike everything that's wrong about the world we live in. The beginning of the movie even shows us some of the harsh truths David is confronted with: pretty girls that flock to jocks; the lack of job opportunities; the threat of STDs; global warming; and Dionne Warwick infomercials.
A super-fan of the 1950s show "Pleasantville," David doesn't give too much thought to the fact that such a heavenly place never really existed. Those sitcoms were as much an ideal then as they are now. But David doesn't want realism. He gets enough of that every day. He's a nerdy nobody in school, his divorced parents fight over who's going to watch the kids, and his twin sister Jennifer is a selfish, slutty brat.
On a night when David and Jennifer squabble over who gets to decide what's on TV, a mysterious (if omniscient) cableman teleports them to Pleasantville to teach them a lesson in nuclear family behavior. The problem is, he takes them to the idea, not the show.
In black-and-white Pleasantville, toilets don't exist. Nor any other ickiness. Nobody knows how they got there, and nobody cares to ask. Nobody knows much of anything, and nobody cares to ask about that either. The people of Pleasantville live in an idyllic little bubble that has no beginning or end, where the sun shines every day, where the basketball team never misses a shot, where firemen only ever rescue cats, and where children win science fairs without having to delve too much into the science. They haven't a clue what "bad" means because everything's so swell all the time.
Realizing that they're stuck in Pleasantville as the show's main characters, Bud and Mary Sue Parker, David urges Jennifer to play along. He doesn't seem to mind it so much at first, but rebellious Jennifer is mortified. At least until dreamy Skip Martin asks her out.
On that date, Jennifer does something even her Pleasantville parents, George and Betty Parker, haven't done: she has sex. She fulfills her Eve-like role by setting off a shift in perspective: sex is how people in this town start to see color. But that's not all it does; it also introduces the concept of imperfection when the basketball team, distracted by Skip's erotic tales, loses its first game. Oh, and sex causes a fire.
David begs Jennifer to stop messing with this fragile cosmos, but she isn't convinced it's meant to be so stringent. "These people don't want to be geeks," she tells him. "They want to be attractive. They have a lot of potential, they just don't know any better."
David's own geekiness proves useful when he ends up educating everyone else. He tells them how Huckleberry Finn ends, he shows them how to put out a fire, and he reassures them that rain isn't dangerous. As he does, the people of Pleasantville turn to color.
But people don't turn to color merely by way of sex and trivia. It goes deeper than that. It has to be something that touches you on a visceral level. Something that's the opposite of what you think you know about yourself. That's why David and Jennifer are among the last to make the transition, because for the most part, they're the ones teaching Pleasantville new tricks.
For David, it finally happens when he punches a still-black-and-white boy who's harassing his "colored" Pleasantville mother Betty. If you consider that he didn't have the nerve to speak to the girl he was crushing on at the beginning of the movie, this is an important first. For the previously boy-crazy Jennifer, it happens when she hits the books and genuinely enjoys it.
Before color, Pleasantville was a place of unquestioned rituals and customs except for one person: Bill Johnson, the soda shop owner. I don't know what Bill's doing in Pleasantville, but whoever put him there sure took a risk. Like the Tree, he's a crack in the universe. That he paints a different Christmas mural each year makes him a malleable force. It's the only thing that changes in Pleasantville, and he revels in it. When color is introduced to Pleasantville, Bill's even the first to ask what the point is of doing the same thing in the same way every day. It proves Jennifer's earlier observation about the town's potential. Pleasantville always had the palette and brushes, it just needed to inspire its painter.
Writer-director Gary Ross has dealt with the theme of displacement in earlier movies. It started with Big and carried on in Mr. Baseball and Dave. In each, the expatriation causes discomfort, and the characters inevitably tap into their own resources to adapt. What's great about Pleasantville is that this conversion isn't limited to its main characters. The whole town undergoes the same transformation. And it turns out that it's just as lovely in color as it was in grayscale.
The advent of color in Pleasantville means sacrificing its unsullied state, but the townspeople seem to think they're better for it. Things aren't black and white, they're complicated. That's the beauty of it. That's how we know we're doing it right.
Olivia Collette is a writer from Montreal, Canada. She'd still like to know what God was thinking when he put Adam and Eve within earshot of the Tree. She blogs at livvyjamsand you can follow her on Twitter at @Olivia_Collette
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